Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – As the University of Virginia football team nears the end of training camp, 61 players have selected their jersey numbers for the coming season.
Numbers still available include 53, one that UVA fans have grown accustomed to seeing in the middle of the action on the field. If there’s some reluctance among Virginia players about claiming the number worn so memorably by inside linebacker Micah Kiser, that’s understandable.
Kiser, a two-time All-American, ranks fifth in career tackles at UVA. He’s now a rookie with the Los Angeles Rams, and his departure after the 2017 season left a significant hole in the Cavaliers’ defense.
Even so, Shane Hunter, who coaches Virginia’s inside linebackers, is upbeat as the Sept. 1 opener against Richmond approaches.
“I love this group,” Hunter said Monday morning after the 15th practice of training camp. “Definitely we have talent. Everyone has their own thing that they’re really good at, and then they’re improving in every other aspect. But the thing I love about this group is there’s no ‘me’ players in there. We’re about the team. They understand, ‘Whatever I can do to help the team, that’s what’s going to make the biggest difference for our team.’
“And so they’re willing to do that. They’re constantly helping each other out. They cheer each other on. They celebrate together.”
The leader of the group is Jordan Mack, a 6-2, 230-pound junior from the Atlanta area who was third on the team with 114 tackles last season.
Two years ago, Mack enrolled at UVA as a 205-pound safety. He moved to outside linebacker late in training camp that summer and ended up starting nine games as a true freshman. He shifted inside to the Buck spot last year and started all 13 games.
This year, Mack has taken over for Kiser at the Mike position.
“Great athlete, great player,” Hunter said of Mack, who wears jersey No. 37. “Last year he had a ton of tackles. Now I think it’s about learning to step up in there and smack people and have that physical mindset. And I think he’s definitely developing that. He’s come a long ways.”
Others in the mix for playing time include sixth-year senior Malcolm Cook, sophomores Zane Zandier and Robert Snyder, junior Dominic Sheppard and senior C.J. Stalker.
Cook, who’s struggled to stay healthy during his UVA career, started six games at outside linebacker last season. He moved inside to the Buck position this spring.
“He’s come so far,” Hunter said. “Before, it was just completely foreign to him. But now he’s understanding, he’s seeing pullers, he’s getting the right keys, he sees his reads, and he knows what to do.
“He’s phenomenal athletically. But just like with Jordan, once you become an inside guy, it’s about learning to play downhill rather than waiting for it.”
Like Mack and Cook, Zandier played safety in high school. He was slotted at outside linebacker when he joined the Cavaliers’ program in 2017 and then moved inside late in training camp last summer.
As a true freshman last season, when he appeared in 11 games, the 6-3 Zandier was listed at 215 pounds. He’s now around 235.
“I think the biggest thing is, he’s gotten stronger,” Hunter said. “He’s always been very athletic, but then he got bigger. And now he’s gained the strength to match it, so he’s just carrying that weight easier. He’s doing really good things. He’s matured in terms of understanding the defense and playing inside linebacker, and that’s been huge for him. And he’s made great strides in fall camp.”
The 6-3, 235-pound Sheppard also had an outstanding offseason, and he’s in the rotation at inside linebacker. So is the 6-2, 235-pound Snyder, who redshirted in 2016 and then missed last season while recovering from a torn pectoral muscle.
Snyder returned to practice Monday after being sidelined for part of training camp with a hamstring injury.
“It was great to have him back there,” Hunter said. “Obviously, we’re not going to rush him. I want to make sure he’s healthy, not just today but when the season starts. He provides even more depth on the inside.”
In 2017, when the Cavaliers advanced to the bowl for the first time since 2011, Kiser and Mack were at a level clearly above that of the team’s other inside linebackers. Hunter might have the luxury of more players this season.
“I’m of the belief that if we have more guys that can get in there and do really well, then, shoot, let’s keep everybody fresh,” Hunter said.
“Now, there are guys that obviously you want on the field as much as possible. Micah’s one of those guys you don’t want to take off. But at the same time, yeah, I would love to have a good rotation that way. Come fourth quarter, our guys are nice and fresh, they’re ready to go, and not only that, it builds consistency and depth. Guys have played, they know exactly to expect, and I think it helps them, especially the young guys, in the offseason. They say, ‘I’ve seen the level of football I need to be playing, and I know the level it’s going to take of working to get to that point.’ “
EXTRA POINTS: Snyder wasn’t the only player who returned to practice Monday after missing time with an injury. Also back were offensive lineman Jake Fieler and defensive lineman Cassius Peat.
Among the 20 players who selected jersey numbers Saturday night was redshirt freshman Heskin Smith, a promising cornerback from Brunswick, Georgia. Smith, who previously went by Shawn, chose No. 23.