By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As a boy, he went back and forth with football, playing the sport for a while and then giving it up, and then repeating the process. Finally, after playing on the junior-varsity football team at Blake High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, Charles Snowden decided his athletic passion lay elsewhere.
“I was like, `I’m done with football. I’m going to focus on basketball,’ ” Snowden recalled this week.
After transferring to the prestigious St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., Snowden concentrated on hoops as a sophomore. As a junior, however, he watched the varsity football team’s opener in 2015 and realized how much he missed the sport.
He “caught football fever,” as Snowden later told The Washington Post, and so he joined the team at St. Albans. He didn’t make his varsity debut for the Bulldogs until the fourth game of that season, but he stuck with the sport and became a force at wide receiver and linebacker as a senior in 2016.
The University of Virginia, like St. Albans, benefited from his change of heart. Snowden, who stands 6-7, had opportunities to play Division I basketball at mid-major schools, but when UVA offered him a football scholarship, he committed early in his senior year.
Less than two years later, he’s one of most promising players in a program in its third year under head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
“Basketball will always hold a special place in my heart, but the more I get into this football stuff, the more I love it every day,” Snowden said Tuesday. “I just love the competition and the camaraderie.”
The Cavaliers love his potential. At 222 pounds — he weighed 202 when he arrived at the University last summer — he’s still slight for his position, but Snowden is working with the first-team defense this spring.
“If you’d told me a year ago I’d be in spring ball starting at strong-side linebacker — my dad and I were just on the phone talking about this — we would not have believed this in a million years,” Snowden said.
Virginia’s starting outside linebackers for most of last season were Chris Peace on the weak side (Will) and Malcolm Cook on the strong side (Sam). In part because of Snowden’s development, Cook was shifted to inside linebacker in UVA’s 3-4 defense this spring.
“He’s getting better and better,” outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga said after Snowden impressed in practice Tuesday.
“I thought Saturday was his best day until today. He’s getting more and more physical. He’s still about 30 pounds away from where we want him and where he could be, but he’s doing some really good stuff and he can do a lot of stuff. He’s very versatile. He can play Sam `backer, he can play Will `backer, so we’re really excited about him.”
Snowden said: “Every day in practice I just try to go out there and earn the respect of the older guys and prove to the coaches that I can hold down that spot.”
The Cavaliers’ outside linebackers this spring include Peace and rising sophomore Matt Gahm at Will, and Snowden, rising sophomore Elliott Brown and true freshman Noah Taylor, a January enrollee, at Sam.
With little depth last season, especially on special teams, Virginia played 17 true freshmen. Snowden was one of them. He appeared in 10 games, made 13 tackles, recorded 1.5 sacks, forced a fumble and blocked a punt.
His most memorable play came on Oct. 7 against Duke at Scott Stadium. Trailing 28-21, the Blue Devils got the ball back with 3:14 remaining. They drove from their 20-yard line to Virginia’s 30. Peace started cramping up with 1:45 left, and Poppinga replaced him with Snowden, who had yet to play from scrimmage that day.
“My head was spinning,” Snowden recalled. “The moment felt so big to me, because I could feel the momentum shifting Duke’s way. It was surreal going in there. I knew everybody was exhausted, and I came in with fresh legs, and I said, `I have to do something to show that I deserve to be on this team.’ That was my mindset all year, wanting to prove not only to the team but also to myself that I do belong out here.”
The moment was not too big for Snowden. On third-and-6, he sacked quarterback Daniel Jones for a 10-yard loss. Snowden remained in the game on fourth down. Jones threw an incompletion and the Wahoos secured a hard-fought victory.
For an inexperienced player who came to UVA with doubts about his ability to succeed at the FBS level, the sack provided a much-needed confidence boost.
“I remember fall camp last [summer],” said Snowden, who wore jersey No. 38 in 2017. “I was kind of operating off fear early on. I was like, `I shouldn’t be out here. I’m not a football player. I’m not big enough, I’m not strong enough, I’m not fast enough.’ ”
He proved otherwise during a season in which he impressed his teammates and coaches not only with his football ability, but with his intelligence, insight and thoughtfulness. Snowden has yet to decide on a major at UVA, he said, but it’s likely to be related to politics.
“We call him the President,” Poppinga said, smiling. “He’s a future President of the United States.”
Snowden would not be the first St. Albans graduate to pursue a career in politics. The school’s alumni include former Vice President Al Gore and former U.S. Senators Evan Bayh and John Warner.
His parents were considering sending Snowden to a prep school in New England when a family friend urged them to consider St. Albans. His three years at the D.C. school, where he lived on campus as a junior and senior, helped prepare Snowden for the rigors of life as a Division I student-athlete.
With a heavy academic workload, Snowden learned to balance sports and school, he said. “You learn how important it is to have a close relationship with your teacher, and to study a couple days in advance of a test, rather than the night before. So it just instilled those good habits in me.”
St. Albans’ basketball coach, O.J. Johnson, played football at UVA for two years before transferring to Georgetown. Johnson coached Snowden for three seasons at St. Albans, whose alumni include such former Virginia football players as Lester Lyles, Larry Holmes, Donnie Scott, Patrick Washington, Roy Brown, Brad Collins, Yusef Jackson and Billy Keys.
Also, Donovan Rolle, who played with Snowden at St. Albans, is a walk-on defensive back at UVA.
In both football and basketball, “Charles was kind of a late bloomer, just learning what he could do with his size and his athletic ability,” Johnson said. “When he got to St. Albans, he was a decent athlete, but he wasn’t the type of athlete he is now. Just a lot of hard work in the offseason really gave him the confidence that he could do different things.”
The transition from public school to St. Albans isn’t always an easy for students, Johnson said, but Snowden thrived in his new environment. Johnson remembers a clothing drive Snowden organized to help the homeless in D.C.
“He’s a very smart, very intelligent, very cerebral guy,” Johnson said. “Such a great character guy.”
That intelligence serves Snowden well on the football field, too.
“He’s very smart, a very good communicator,” Poppinga said, “and he picks up things really, really fast. I would say the same thing for Elliott and a lot of my guys: You can tell them one thing and immediately they’re able to pick up on it and then execute it out here on the field.”
As a high school senior, he weighed 190 pounds “on a good day,” Snowden said. If he’s to reach his potential in football, he needs more muscle and more weight, but bulking up isn’t always easy for someone with his frame and metabolism.
“Both my parents were pretty tall and thin at this age, too,” said Snowden, who rooms with Brown. “It’s tough. The biggest thing about weight gain is it’s an all-the-time job. Once you feel your stomach growling, you know you’ve got to get a big meal in. You can’t really take days off.”
The ‘Hoos, who finished 2-10 in their first season under Mendenhall, posted a 6-6 regular-season record in 2017. Then came the crash. In their first postseason appearance since 2011, the Cavaliers closed the year with a 49-7 loss to Navy at the Millitary Bowl in Annapolis, Maryland.
“Reality hit us,” Snowden said. “We were feeling good, it was our first bowl game in a long time, and that really reminded us how far we still have to go.
“There’s been a long of progress, but we still have a long way to go. I think that really carried over into offseason workouts, how we attacked that and how people have attacked spring ball. It was a blessing in disguise. It was embarrassing, but it definitely showed us how much more work we need to do.”