By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Not long after University of Virginia cornerback Tim Harris suffered a season-ending wrist injury early this month, he heard from two teammates. Each wanted to pay tribute to him by switching to Harris’ jersey number.
That assignment officially went to wide receiver Doni Dowling, who like Harris graduated from Varina High School in the Richmond area. Dowling, previously No. 7, now wears the No. 5 jersey on game days.
In practice, however, No. 5 belongs to one of Harris’ fellow defensive backs, Chris Moore.
To see himself represented on the field, Harris said Wednesday, is “a good feeling. It’s just a brotherhood.”
Dowling, a senior, came into 2017 as one of the Cavaliers’ top returning players. Moore’s profile in the program was lower. A graduate of Broad Run High School in Ashburn, he totaled 14 tackles in his 11 appearances as a true freshman last fall and entered his second season as a backup safety.
Moore played extensively in the Sept. 2 season opener against William & Mary in passing situations — UVA employed five defensive backs in a nickel package — and his role increased when Harris was injured.
“We always say: When somebody goes down, somebody’s got to step up,” Harris said.
With Harris out, junior Juan Thornhill moved from safety to cornerback and redshirt freshman Brenton Nelson replaced Thornhill at safety. Moore, who wears No. 39 during games, became a starter in the nickel defense, along with sophomore cornerback Bryce Hall and senior safety Quin Blanding.
“Tim’s injury is what set this cycle off of us having to improvise,” said head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who is also the Wahoos’ defensive coordinator. “We were just out of depth.”
During its third game, a 38-18 win over Connecticut at Scott Stadium, UVA lost another defensive starter to an injury: outside linebacker Malcolm Cook. Suddenly the 6-2, 208-pound Moore found himself having to handle some of Cook’s responsibilities on the field, too.
“We don’t really have a name for the position he’s playing,” Mendenhall said of Moore.
“For what he’s currently doing, he’s a complete football player. You have to cover, you have to tackle, you have to blitz, you have to play zone, you have to play man. There’s really nothing that he doesn’t do. And so he’s really a part D-lineman, a part outside `backer, a part inside `backer, a part safety and a part corner.”
Moore is “one of the smartest dudes in the secondary,” Harris said. “He knows everybody’s position, and not just in the secondary. You can tell he just loves the game of football.”
During the summer before his senior year at Broad Run, Moore committed to UVA, whose head coach then was Mike London. Jackson Matteo, a Broad Run graduate then playing on the Cavaliers’ offensive line, knew Moore and recommended him to the coaching staff. Moore liked what he saw in Charlottesville.
“This being close to home, because I’m only two hours away, I was able to visit here a lot more than I was a lot of other schools,” Moore recalled. “I loved the campus, and I went to a couple games and I liked it.”
Moore, who was born in New York City, moved with his family from Greensboro, N.C., to Ashburn, near the Washington Redskins’ practice facility, when he was in elementary school.
Matteo was four grades ahead of Moore in school, so they were not teammates at Broad Run. But Matteo had been blown away watching Moore, then in middle school, play at a football camp in Ashburn.
Moore “was just flat-out better” than his peers, recalled Matteo, who closely followed Moore’s career at Broad Run. Moore and Matteo finally played together in 2016, as UVA teammates.
“Chris has been a joy to watch mature,” said Matteo, now a graduate assistant on Mendenhall’s staff. “When he came in last year, from a fifth-year’s perspective, he was very much a young, bright-eyed kid who was just trying to be in the right place at the right time.
“The best thing that could have happened to him was to get the playing time that he did, because I think he has taken those experiences and they have helped him mold his game present day. By no terms has he `made it’ or solidified himself as a great defender here, but he is trending in the right direction on a consistent basis and does all of the right things on and off of the field.”
At the end of the 2015 season, London resigned as Virginia’s coach. About a week later, UVA hired Mendenhall, most of whose assistant coaches from BYU followed him to Charlottesville. But Moore didn’t hear from the new coaching staff immediately, and during this period of uncertainty other schools cranked up their pursuit of him.
Moore, who played mostly cornerback on defense at Broad Run, almost flipped to Boston College. But he eventually spoke to UVA’s new coaches and decided to stick with his commitment.
“It was kind of nerve-wracking coming in [last summer], because I didn’t know what to expect,” Moore said, “but I also saw it as a chance, because I knew that with it being a whole new coaching staff, everyone was at the same level. So they didn’t have any favorites.”
Of the players in the recruiting class that UVA announced on signing day in February 2016, eight never made it to Charlottesville or have since left the program.
It was not an ideal situation, Mendenhall said, because most of the recruits had committed to play for London, and “I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me … It hasn’t worked out perfectly. But the ones that have remained I really like and I’m glad they’re here.”
That group includes Moore, Dillon Reinkensmeyer, Juwan Moye, De’Vante Cross, Jordan Mack, Joe Reed, Hasise Dubois, Bryce Hall, Christian Baumgardner, Cole Blackman, Ben Knutson, Christian Brooks, Osiris Crutchfield, Robert Snyder and Nick Grant.
Moore, who started has two games this season, has made 15 tackles and broken up a pass.
“Whatever you ask him to do, there’s not a lot of drama,” Mendenhall said, “and he just gets the job done, and he’s productive.”
Moore and Matteo aren’t the only Broad Run graduates in the program. Chuck Davis, who was a grade ahead of Moore in high school, is a reserve wideout for the `Hoos.
In 2016, when he weighed about 200 pounds, Moore was one of nine true freshmen to play for Virginia.
“At first it was a little nerve-wracking, but as I started to play more, as the season progressed, it was fun,” Moore said. “And then I think coming into this year, it helped. I don’t want to say the game has slowed down to where it is for Quin, but it’s slowed down a little bit more, because I have that experience.”
The Cavaliers, who finished 2-10 last fall, improved to 3-1 this season with a 42-23 win at Boise State last Friday night. Not since 2007 has Virginia’s record been this good after four games.
UVA’s defense included multiple new starters in 2016, and breakdowns were common. “Everyone’s a lot more assignment-sound this year,” Moore said.
Virginia, off this weekend, opens ACC play on Oct. 7. At 12:20 p.m., UVA hosts Duke (4-0 overall, 1-0 conference) at Scott Stadium.
“I wish we were playing this week, just because I like the Saturdays,” Moore said, “but I think it’s a good week for us to get our bodies right and for everybody to get the mindset that we’re going into conference play now. If we really want to do something, here’s the time to do it. We can make a run in the ACC.”
Moore, who has yet to choose a major, lives with Grant, a redshirt freshman cornerback from Spotsylvania.
Since finishing 9-4 in 2007, the `Hoos have posted a winning record only once, in 2011. The Cavaliers’ underclassmen, like their veterans, are determined to help return the program to prominence in the ACC and nationally.
“That’s what we preach in the locker room: There’s a new standard,” Moore said. “When he first got here, Coach Mendenhall said [his system] is going to work. It’s just a matter of who it’s going to work with. So I think our biggest thing as a team right now is: Why can’t it be us? Let’s be the stepping stone to start this thing.”