Oct. 4, 2017

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The football hit him in the hands, and Steven Wright was poised to do something few defensive linemen ever will in a game: intercept a pass. Alas, the ball slipped from his grasp and fell to the blue turf at Albertsons Stadium in Boise, Idaho, spoiling Wright’s would-be moment of glory.

Do his fellow University of Virginia defenders like to remind Wright about that drop?

“Absolutely,” defensive line coach Vic So’oto said with a smile after practice Tuesday.

Wright, a 6-3, 285-pound redshirt sophomore, can live with the ribbing. He’d like to have that play back, but Virginia went on to defeat Boise State 42-23 on Sept. 22, and Wright turned in a stellar performance at defensive end.

“He’s really found his swagger,” senior safety Quin Blanding said after a game in which Wright, in his first start of the season, had one of UVA’s four sacks.

Much has changed for Wright since Bronco Mendenhall took over as the Wahoos’ head coach (and defensive coordinator) after the 2015 season. Wright weighed about 245 pounds then and was struggling socially and in the classroom.

“There was just a lot of immaturity and inconsistency,” Mendenhall said. “And so we knew right away there were some development things that had to happen with Steven, not only physically [with] his weight and size and strength — that was a full-time development job — but probably even on a bigger scale, the development of just being a balanced person in terms of academic conduct, social conduct, being a good teammate.

“To his credit, he’s grown by leaps and bounds in all of those things.”

Wright said: “I had to mature. Basically, at first, the whole process was new to me. I just had to take on my role and understand what [the coaches] expected from me. I knew that at that point my academics weren’t perfect, but at the same time I knew I could do better if I tried harder.”

His progress has “been gradual,” said Wright, who’s majoring in African-American and African Studies.

“I was inconsistent, so I would be up and then I would be down. And I just had to hit that breakthrough where I’m always consistent. Coach Mendenhall preaches that, and I’m just now understanding that concept.”

Asked what he’s seen from Wright over the past 21 months, So’oto said, “A lot of growth. He’s believed in himself, believed in our system and our program, and he’s going all in, and the results [reflect that]. He’s played a lot. He’s done a lot of good things. There’s a lot of things we’ve got to work on, but he’s improved a lot.”

The process hasn’t been seamless. At the end of an August practice at Lambeth Field, senior wide receiver Doni Dowling ripped into Wright, calling him out in front of the team for what Dowling considered a poor attitude.

The criticism was justified, Wright acknowledged this week. A few minutes after Dowling’s outburst, Wright met with his teammate, and they settled the matter.

“Doni basically was like, `You know you’re my brother. We don’t need to have any issues or let anything outside of football get in the way of us competing with one another,’ ” Wright recalled.

A graduate of Ware County High School, Wright is one of nine players from Georgia on the Cavaliers’ roster. When Wright was 7, he moved with his family from Queens, New York, where he was born, to Waycross, a city of approximately 15,000 residents located about 80 miles northwest of Jacksonville, Florida.

His stepfather had relatives in Georgia, Wright said, “and they recommended it to him. They were like, `It’s a quiet area. It’s a good area to raise your children.’ ”

Most of his relatives still live in New York City, Wright said. He grew up in a vastly different environment. When he’s home, he loves to go mud bogging in his pickup truck.

“It’s country. It’s real country,” Wright said. “It’s not like Atlanta and all that.”

He weighed 225 pounds as a high school senior and attracted little serious interest from Football Bowl Subdivision programs. As signing day approached in 2015, in fact, Wright was still uncommitted. But a late push from Virginia, whose head coach then was Mike London, impressed Wright, and he committed to the Cavaliers late that January.

Wright redshirted in 2015, when he weighed about 230 pounds. He wasn’t nearly big enough to play end in the 3-4 defense Mendenhall installed at UVA, and so Wright became a project for director of football performance Frank Wintrich and director of sports nutrition Randy Bird.

After bulking up for his redshirt freshman season, Wright “went home for Christmas and lost 20 or 30 pounds,” Wintrich said. “And so it was a long road from January to now, working him back in.

“What’s been neat about Steven is the buy-in. Over the May break, he elected not to go home and stayed here and trained and ate and took care of himself and held onto the weight that he’d gained in the winter time. Steven still has a ways to go yet. He needs to get stronger, but I think as long as he stays on the road he’s on now, his best football and his best physical development are ahead of him.”

At the end of his first season with the Cavaliers, who finished 2-10 in 2016, Mendenhall let his players know they needed to get bigger and stronger. Wright is among those who reported to training camp in August more capable of handling the physical demands of the sport.

“On the D-line, it’s all about being big,” said So’oto, a former NFL player.

Wright has more room to grow, Wintrich said. “Imagine what he’s going to look like with another 10, 15 pounds on that frame. He’s got some speed, he’s got some athletic ability. He can run. I think there’s a lot of potential there with Steven.”

So’oto agreed. “Sky’s the limit,” he said.

As a redshirt freshman, Wright appeared in all 12 games, with one start. He finished the season with nine tackles, including two for loss, one of them a sack.

His role is expanding in UVA’s much-improved defense. In Boise, Wright played extensively and helped UVA stymie the Broncos, who didn’t score in the second half until late in the fourth quarter.

The `Hoos haven’t played since that nationally televised road victory, but they’ve been preparing hard for their next game. The bye week, Wright said, “felt like [training] camp.”

That was by design. Virginia (3-1), off to its best start since 2007, opens ACC play Saturday against Duke (4-1, 0-1). At 12:20 p.m., the Cavaliers meet the Blue Devils at Scott Stadium.

“We haven’t wanted to relax,” Wright said. “This is just the build-up. We’re ready to jump back on the field and put out that product again.”

During the bye week, there “was no off day,” Mendenhall said. “There was no easy day. There was no getting-ready or getting-warmed-back-up day. It was right back to work, and work and work and work.

“So the players have embraced that. They really want success. That’s evident. They worked very hard.”

That work is paying dividends for Wright and his teammates, who are determined to set a new standard for UVA football this fall. For Wright, not only is he bigger than a year ago, he’s in jersey No. 90 after wearing No. 20 last season.

“It was just a new start,” he said.

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