April 26, 2018

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Rob Snyder doesn’t need many words to describe his University of Virginia football career to date.

“It’s been all uphill,” he said.

Snyder stated that matter-of-factly, not out of self-pity. A 2016 graduate of Collins Hill High School outside of Atlanta, the 6-2, 235-pound Snyder has yet to make his UVA debut. But with his performance this spring he’s bidding to crack the two-deep at inside linebacker in the Cavaliers’ 3-4 defense.

“Rob’s big and he’s physical,” said Shane Hunter, Snyder’s position coach. “He likes to hit. He doesn’t shy away from contact, which is one of the really good qualities of an inside linebacker.”

As a true freshman in 2016, Snyder did not play in any games, but he earned a jersey number, 52, and “showed some good things,” Hunter said.

“He came in and he learned, and then he had a really good spring [in 2017]. He showed he was physical, he was flying around, he was making plays, and so we were looking forward to what he was going to do last year.”

The first significant injury of Snyder’s athletic career halted his progress. Last June, he tore a pectoral muscle while bench-pressing in the McCue Center weight room. His 2017 season was over before it began. He never even made it to training camp.

“It set him back,” Hunter said, “but he’s been awesome about it. He worked hard. He was frustrated, but he pushed through it. To me, he’s come back and he’s right where he was before, and a little bit ahead.”

Snyder said: “It feels good to be back out there finally.”

Injuries are part of football, but having to sit out back-to-back seasons can be especially hard on a player. UVA offensive lineman Jake Fieler knows.

After redshirting in 2014, Fieler came out of training camp the next summer as a starting guard. About a week before the Wahoos’ 2015 opener, however, he suffered a season-ending foot injury.

“Getting that news that you’re out for a whole season, it just takes all the energy out of you,” Fieler said after practice Tuesday. “Surgery is already rough enough, and if you’re down on yourself, that’s going to take more from you. It was rough coming back, but I think I had a pretty positive mindset about it. I had plenty of time left. I was glad that it was early instead of late in my career.”

Snyder adopted the same attitude.

“Some guys, they fall into a state of depression, where you just keep going downhill,” he said. “You gotta stay around your teammates. I tried to go to all the meetings and just stay involved. If you get lost in your injury, you can really fall apart and feel separated from the team.”

Snyder, who had surgery in late June, rehabbed with the Cavaliers’ other injured players, including Alec Shifflett.

“We really pushed each other and teased each other the whole time,” Snyder said, “so that helped a lot.”

On a defense that returns most of its two-deep from 2017, when the Cavaliers finished 6-7, inside linebacker is a position of particular interest. That’s because Micah Kiser, a two-time All-American, was one of the players Virginia lost.

Getting most of the work at the inside spots this spring have been Snyder, Jordan Mack, Malcolm Cook, C.J. Stalker, Zane Zandier and Dominic Sheppard.

Mack is a returning starter inside, and Cook started six games on the outside last season. Still, Hunter said, the two-deep at inside linebacker “changes every day. It really does. We’re always looking for the best guys. We have a lot of competition on the inside. The combinations are endless. It’s a question of who’s pushing themselves the hardest and who’s producing.”

The Cavaliers’ 15th and final practice of the spring is Saturday at Scott Stadium. The practice, which is free and open to the public, starts at 2 p.m., and it’s part of the first-ever Wahoowa Weekend at UVA.

Other events on Grounds include the Virginia-Clemson baseball series at Disharoon Park, the Virginia Grand Prix track & field meet at Lannigan Field, and the ACC men’s lacrosse tournament at Klöckner Stadium.

After rehabbing throughout the fall, Snyder was allowed to participate in some non-contact drills during practices in Washington, D.C., ahead of the Military Bowl in late December.

“But we weren’t tackling or anything, so it wasn’t really football,” he said.

In January, though, he was cleared for contact. Slowly but steadily, he’s regained the strength and weight he lost while sidelined.

“It’s been a long road,” Snyder said, but he’s comes to appreciate football more. Even the grind of practice doesn’t bother him.

“When you sit a year, you miss it a lot,” said Snyder, who watched most of UVA’s home games from the stands at Scott Stadium last season. “Going out there and getting to play with everyone again just feels so much better.”

Snyder, whose hometown is Lawrenceville, Georgia, is one of several players from the Atlanta area in head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s program, along with Mack, running back Jordan Ellis, safety Joey Blount and center Tyler Fannin.

Ellis, who’ll be a fifth-year senior in the fall, starred at Peachtree Ridge High School, Collins Hill’s biggest rival in football.

“He literally lives right down the road from me [in Georgia],” Snyder said. “Three minutes away.”

Snyder played against Ellis once in high school, in 2013.

“That was a crazy game,” Snyder recalled. “We won, and I played all right. J.E. was a senior, and I was just a skinny sophomore playing outside linebacker at, like, 190 [pounds].”

Snyder chose UVA over NC State, Iowa State, Old Dominion, Army and Navy, among other schools. He committed to the Cavaliers in August 2015, on the eve of his senior year of high school.

Little more than three months later, Mike London resigned as Virginia’s head coach. Mendenhall took over in December 2015.

“That was a pretty crazy time,” said Snyder, but he and most of the other players in UVA’s recruiting class for 2016 ended up honoring their commitments.

Mendenhall and two of the Cavaliers’ assistants visited Snyder and his family in Lawrenceville. “It went great,” Snyder said, “and I haven’t looked back since.”

His father’s brother, Dan, played football at the U.S. Naval Academy, and he and Snyder engaged in good-natured trash talk ahead of the Military Bowl. “But he’s really proud of me,” Snyder said.

After the game, which Navy won 49-7? “There wasn’t much talking,” Snyder said, smiling. “I sent him a text: `Respect.’ ”

Snyder, who lives with offensive lineman Ben Trent, is a foreign affairs major at UVA. When he finishes his final exams next month, he’ll head home to Georgia to see family and friends.

His former high school teammates include Emmanuel Belmar, Tomon Fox and Brett Shepherd, who now play at Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Maryland, respectively.

“We all train together,” Snyder said.

He’s more cautious in the weight room than he was before his injury. When he bench-presses, he doesn’t bring the bar all the way down to his chest, Snyder said, and he pays close attention to the signals his body sends him.

“I’d never pulled or torn anything before, so I didn’t really know my body’s limits,” Snyder said. “I just thought it was my pec getting kind of tight, but I could still hit [the lift]. But now if I ever feel my pec getting tight, I rack [the weights] right away.”

The Cavaliers are too thin at several positions to play a traditional spring game. But with fans in the stands Saturday, it won’t be a typical practice, especially during full-contact 11-on-11 drills.

The coaches “look at it and we say, `Is it a stressful situation?’ ” Hunter said. “Which it is. Having a live situation in the stadium, there’s a little bit more stress.

“It becomes real. Can you tackle? What can you do in space? At the end of the day, there’s a clear result: Either you got the guy down or you didn’t. So that increases the pressure, as well as maybe having Mom and Dad there. It puts a little more pressure on, which is a really good thing.”