By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Through 10 games, Virginia’s running backs have carried the football 226 times. Redshirt junior Jordan Ellis (183) has accounted for the large majority of those runs, followed by fifth-year senior Daniel Hamm (26), but Chris Sharp is making a case for an expanded role in the Cavaliers’ offense.
A 6-1, 195-pound redshirt sophomore, Sharp is coming off a game in which he carried twice for 16 yards and one touchdown. For the season, he’s carried 10 times for 36 yards and one TD, the 7-yarder he scored last weekend in the first quarter of Virginia’s 38-21 loss at Louisville.
“They earn what they get,” running backs coach Mark Atuaia said after practice Wednesday. “Chris is doing a great job on special teams, and that allows him to be considered for what we do on offense. He knows his skill set and he knows what I’m expecting from him.”
Sharp, a graduate of the Hun School in Princeton, New Jersey, has played several positions at UVA. He joined the program in 2015 as a running back, as did Olamide Zaccheaus, but both were shifted to wide receiver during training camp that summer to bolster the Wahoos’ depth at that position.
Bronco Mendenhall took over as UVA’s head coach and defensive coordinator after the 2015 season, and he moved Sharp to safety. After the 2016 season, during which he played primarily on special teams, Sharp returned to running back, his primary position in high school.
“I think it was harder going to defense for him,” Atuaia said. “Because he played offense for the most part growing up, it wasn’t that hard [switching back].”
The Cavaliers’ other running backs include true freshmen Jamari Peacock, PK Kier and Lamont Atkins, all of whom have played this season. Kier, who wears jersey No. 26, has carried six times for 32 yards. No. 25, Atkins, has carried once, for a single yard.
Peacock, who wears No. 27, has played the most of the first-year running backs, but he has yet to carry the ball. The 5-11, 230-pound Peacock lines up as a “big back” in Virginia’s offense — Kier and Atkins are “speed backs” — and his blocking has earned him playing time.
Virginia (6-4 overall, 3-3 ACC) has two regular-season games left, against second-ranked Miami (9-0, 6-0) on Saturday and Virginia Tech (7-3, 3-3) on Friday, Nov. 24. Then will come the Cavaliers’ first bowl appearance since 2011.
Asked if Peacock, who rushed for 33 touchdowns as a senior at Yulee High School in Florida, might run the ball this season, Atuaia smiled.
“We’ll see. We’ll see,” he said. “The harder part of being a big back is doing what he’s doing now, and so part of his development is doing the hard thing first.”
In high school, Peacock rarely had to block. “He carried the ball and ran over a lot of people,” Atuaia said.
“He’s progressed [at UVA], and he’ll be a lot better for what he’s doing right now. A lot of that is trust in me and understanding that if he wants a role as he goes forward [he must be a good blocker],” Atuaia said. “So he’s doing a good job right now and progressing as a big back.”
Peacock, Kier and Atkins, as well as Sharp, have important roles on special teams.
“That’s the way you earn your way into a role on offense,” Atuaia said, “so I’m happy with what they’re doing.”
FAMILY AFFAIR: At noon Saturday, in a Coastal Division game ABC will televise, the Cavaliers meet the Hurricanes at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Virginia linebacker Micah Kiser‘s parents, Michael and Donna, attend all of his games, so they’ll be there. So too, if his schedule permits, will their other son, Jordan Kiser, a junior at Miami.
“He’s a UVA fan,” Micah said. “He goes to Miami, but he’s cheering for us, because I’m his brother.
“Last time we played at Miami” — in 2015 — “he had the [No.] 53 jersey on and everything. He was even in the [Hurricanes’] student section with it on.”
Micah Kiser, an All-American for the `Hoos last year, graduated from Gilman School in Baltimore. His brother attended Gilman in middle school before enrolling in the Baltimore School for the Arts. At Miami, Jordan Kiser is majoring in musical theater.
MUTUAL RESPECT: Like Mendenhall at UVA, head coach Mark Richt is in his second year at Miami. Each had a long, successful tenure at another school before taking his current job — Mendenhall at BYU and Richt at Georgia — and they’ve known each other for years.
“I’ve admired his work while he was at BYU,” Richt said Wednesday when asked about Mendenhall on the ACC coaches’ teleconference. “I knew he was going to be a great hire for Virginia, because I knew he was going to [be], first of all, a solid person, a person of character, a person that was going to be good for young people.
“And then also, I knew he was a great fundamental coach. I knew he was going to be teaching. Nothing was going to be done by smoke and mirrors. It was going to be done by hard work and strong fundamentals and good scheme and all that kind of thing. No shortcuts-to-victory-type guy.”
BREAKOUT YEAR: UVA wide receiver Andre Levrone came into his final college season with career totals of 25 catches for 390 yards and two touchdowns. This year he’s caught 27 passes for 566 yards and six TDs.
“It’s felt pretty good,” said Levrone, a fifth-year senior who redshirted in 2013 and missed all but one game in 2015 with an injury.
“There’s still plays I leave out on the field. When the season’s over, I’ll be able to look back and reflect and say, `OK, I feel like I was able to put together a pretty good season,’ hopefully, as we finish out these last two and the bowl game. But right now, I’m just focusing on every single week, every opponent that we have, and being as valuable to my team and to my offense as possible.”
That he’s been able to practice and play each week has helped him tremendously, said Levrone, a physical specimen at 6-3, 225 pounds.
“Coach Mendenhall talked to me and a lot of guys at the beginning of this season about productivity, durability and consistency — those all go hand in hand,” Levrone said. “So just being durable and being healthy this season has definitely been huge for me. I’ve been able to play to my potential instead of people just talking about my potential.”
BIG STAGE: Not since 2005, when they upset No. 4 Florida State 26-21 at Scott Stadium, have the Cavaliers defeated a team ranked in the top five by The Associated Press. Since then, they’ve lost to No. 2 Florida State (in 2014) and No. 5 Louisville (in 2016). They’ll try again Saturday.
“This is what football is all about,” All-America safety Quin Blanding said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “You get to go against the best, and that’s what we’re about to go against. And we’re going to put our best foot forward.”
Levrone echoed those comments. “This is what you live for,” he said. “You show up every week, but if you can’t get up for these, then why do you even play? It’s extremely exciting. It’s a great opportunity for our team and for our program to go show what we truly are, to bounce back from last week.”
With a 40-36 comeback win over Georgia Tech in Charlottesville on Nov. 4, Virginia became bowl-eligible. A week later, however, breakdowns doomed the Cavaliers in their loss to Louisville at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
Asked Monday about facing Miami, which routed then-No. 3 Notre Dame 41-8 last Saturday night, Mendenhall said, “It’s an awesome opportunity for our program to play another ACC opponent that’s having success. And I felt like we performed beneath our potential this past week.
“That’s the next step for this program: to learn to play as close to your potential as you can week in, week out and just stay up there. Right now we’re a little bit up and we’re a little bit down. Not as wild as we were, but more so than what I would like.”
TRENDING UPWARD: The Cavaliers won’t finish first in the ACC’s Coastal Division this year — Miami has locked that up — but they look nothing like the team that finished 2-10 last season.
“We’re not perfect,” Mendenhall said, “and we still have a lot of room to grow. But the program has made significant strides. We are getting better. I don’t think we played to our potential [against Louisville], but I like where we are. And I feel lucky to be with these guys and to witness their growth and progress.”
Kiser and Blanding decided to put their NFL careers on hold and return to UVA this year in large part because they believed in Mendenhall and wanted to help him turn the program around.
“This is just the base of it,” Blanding said. “This is not all the way built, the full building. This is just the base of it. And we built this platform. And I can’t wait to keep seeing it rise.”
WEAR AND TEAR: A graduate transfer from Oklahoma State, where he appeared in only three games in two seasons, Brandon Pertile has started every game at right offensive tackle for UVA this year.
That’s taken a physical toll on him, Pertile told reporters Monday.
“At 22 [years old] and 325 [pounds], I can’t say I could go run a marathon right now, but I definitely feel all right,” Pertile said, smiling.
“I wouldn’t say I’m as perfectly healthy as I was when I started the season, but nobody in the country is right now. A lot of guys are banged up. Me, I’m definitely banged up. But it’s more about having that mentality and having that mindset. You came here to play the season. Nobody wants to back out halfway through the season, so everybody’s pushing through stuff, not only on our team but across the country.”