April 29, 2018

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — The University of Virginia football team came into 2018 with a clear No. 1 at running back: Jordan Ellis, who, coincidentally, wore jersey No. 1 last season.

Ellis’ position on the depth chart hasn’t changed, but one of the bigger storylines this spring has been the emergence of PK Kier.

“Seeing what he’s done this spring is good,” running backs coach Mark Atuaia said Saturday.

One of three true freshman running backs to play for the Cavaliers last season, along with his close friends Lamont Atkins and Jamari Peacock, Kier carried only six times (for 32 yards). His workload has increased significantly this spring, and head coach Bronco Mendenhall pointed Saturday to Kier as Ellis’ understudy.

“As a physical running back, as someone that’s moving the chains and kind of an heir apparent or cut in a similar mold to Jordan, that’s what I see,” Mendenhall said at Scott Stadium after the Wahoos’ 15th and final practice of the spring.

The 5-11, 225-pound Kier, a graduate of Millbrook High School in Winchester, was raised in a family with ties to UVA. His uncle Mark Cooke played football at Virginia, and Kier’s cousins include former UVA basketball star Cory Alexander.

At Millbrook, Kier rushed for 3,582 career yards and as a senior averaged 8.5 yards per carry. He wasn’t a touted recruit, but “I didn’t have any doubts about myself,” Kier said Saturday.

“I felt that I could play at this level, and I felt that I could produce at this level.”

Atkins and Peacock enrolled at UVA in January 2017. Kier didn’t arrive until last summer, when he joined a crowded backfield led by Ellis, who was a junior, and Daniel Hamm, a senior.

During a season in which the Wahoos finished 6-7, wide receivers Olamide Zaccheaus and Joe Reed combined for 48 carries. Virginia’s running backs had 259 carries among them, with 83 percent of them going to Ellis. Kier hopes to run the ball more this season, but that, he said, is up to Atuaia.

“I’m just going to keep working hard and see what the outcome is,” Kier said.

Kier has always been “a really good downhill runner,” Atuaia said. “What PK has done well this spring is learn to leverage his strength. He obviously has other things to work on, but one of the things that he was recruited for was to do that: to run the ball with authority, going north and south.”

That describes Ellis’ running style, too. “Basically I just told PK, `You stand by Jordan and you do everything that Jordan does and learn in that realm,’ ” Atuaia said, smiling.

In 2016 and again last year, Ellis’ teammates and coaches voted him as the team’s hardest-working player, a distinction that gave him first pick of jersey numbers.

From Ellis, Kier said, he’s “learned how to work hard and give it everything every play and leave everything out there. When you see J.E. run, he runs like a workhorse. By watching that, by being in the gym with him every day, by just following what he does, I know he’s going to lead me the right way.”

With the arrival of dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins, the Cavaliers’ offense has been revamped this spring. Throughout the 15 spring practices, Mendenhall said, the offense’s most dynamic player was Zaccheaus, a rising senior who had a school-record 85 receptions last season.

Perkins and Reed sparkled too, and tight end Evan Butts “is always open, always catches the ball,” Mendenhall said.

Balancing out the offense was “the combination of Jordan Ellis and PK running the ball inside,” Mendenhall said.

Apprised of Mendenhall’s comments, Kier said, “I’m really appreciative of that, and I’m just going to keep working hard, keep getting better every day.”

Offensive coordinator Robert Anae smiled Saturday when asked if he envisioned a more prominent role for Kier this season.

“Absolutely,” Anae said. “He’s an outstanding student-athlete as well as a really good football player, and we are just scratching the surface of what his upside is.”

Kier, whose father played baseball at Shenandoah University, said his goal coming into the spring “was just to produce and go hard every day and give it my all and leave everything out there on the field. I think I was able to accomplish that.”

The experience he gained as a true freshman was invaluable, Kier said. He learned, even he wasn’t sure of his assignment, to “just give it my all that play and not take anything off,” he said. “Every day is a chance for you to get better, and I believe that I can keep getting better and keep perfecting my craft.”

Peacock, who rushed for 33 touchdowns as a senior at Yulee High School in Florida, played extensively last season but was used solely as a blocking back.

Atkins, a graduate of Lake Braddock High in Northern Virginia, averaged 12 yards per carry and rushed for 31 touchdowns as a senior in 2016. As a UVA true freshman, he had one carry and one reception but played primarily on special teams.

As true freshmen, Atkins wore jersey No. 25, Kier wore No. 26, and Peacock wore No. 27.

“We’re all three really close,” Kier said. “They call us the three peas in a pod. We’re just always together, always doing stuff.”

The coaching staff knows what Zaccheaus and Ellis can do, and neither player was featured Saturday in the full-contact portions of the practice. Standouts of the 11-on-11 sessions included Atkins.

“He’s been working to break out and compete, and today I think was his best day in terms of production, which is great,” Mendenhall said. “He’s a very good special teams player. He can run and tackle. So we like that part. We know he can do that, and today was a nice bonus as to seeing him having some success or more success than what he’s been having offensively.”