By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – Back in the spring, after a mental error by a running back, Virginia assistant coach Mark Atuaia’s voice rose above the din in the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility.
“Come on, Lamont,” Atuaia called out. “You’re not a first-year anymore.”
Lamont Atkins was one of three running backs who played as true freshmen for UVA last fall, along with PK Kier and Jamari Peacock. All three, not surprisingly, made rookie mistakes at times, but that experience is paying dividends for them this year.
“Their collective buy-in to what we’re doing is just light years ahead of where they were last year, so I’m appreciative of that,” Atuaia, the Cavaliers’ running backs coach, said after practice Friday afternoon. “They’re getting better, and their roles are starting to expand, but they’ll earn everything they get.”
In 2017, when the Wahoos finished 6-7, they used six running backs: Atkins, Kier, Peacock, Chris Sharp, Daniel Hamm and Jordan Ellis. Of the six, only Hamm and Ellis had played running back in a college game before last year. Sharp, a redshirt junior this year, played safety in 2016.
“Lamont, Jamari, P.K. and Sharp, I consider them one group,” Atuaia said, “because they essentially all came into the [running back] room at the same time.”
Hamm was a fifth-year senior last season, but the other five are back, with Ellis again cast in a leading role. A 5-10, 225-pound graduate student, Ellis is revered by his teammates and coaches for his unflagging work ethic.
“I can’t wait to watch him have a banner year,” said Atuaia, who followed head coach Bronco Mendenhall from BYU to Virginia after the 2015 season.
During Mendenhall’s tenure at UVA, his players have had to earn their jersey numbers each year. A panel of players determines the order in which numbers are selected. Each year the first pick has gone to Ellis, who’ll wear jersey No. 1 again this fall.
Virginia opens the season next Saturday (Sept. 1) against Richmond at Scott Stadium.
“It takes no talent to work hard or do the things the right way,” Ellis said on a recent VirginiaSports.com podcast. “The talent is going to take care of itself on the field … but the things that you do off the field mean just as much, [such as] being a good teammate, picking the younger guys up when they need that, and just doing things the right way. That’s what I pride myself on, in anything I do, and just having the respect of my teammates. That means the world to me.”
In 2017, Ellis led the Cavaliers with 836 yards rushing and ran for six touchdowns, but he averaged a modest 3.9 yards per carry.
“I feel like I definitely left some yards out there,” he said.
Among the 14 teams in the ACC, Virginia ranked last in rushing offense, averaging only 93.5 yards per game. By comparison, UNC, which ranked No. 13, averaged 144.2 yards rushing per game.
The offensive line’s inability to open holes, especially late in the season, contributed to UVA’s woes in the running game, but the backs played a role, too.
“We’re all in it together,” Atuaia said. “It’s not just the linemen. But for us, I think we’ve addressed those issues.”
It’s important, Atuaia said, for the Cavaliers to keep Ellis fresh, and their depth in the backfield should make that possible. In 2017, Ellis had 215 carries, Hamm had 26, Sharp had 11, Kier had six, and Atkins had one. Peacock was used exclusively as a blocker.
Expect more balance this season.
“Having those other guys step up and carry the lead is going to keep J.E. fresh and help out his production,” Atuaia said. “They’re a year into it now, and I think they’ll do a good job in doing that.”
In 2017, Atkins, Kier and Peacock wore Nos. 25, 26 and 27, respectively. There’s less confusion this year. Atkins is still in jersey No. 25, but Kier now wears No. 6 and Peacock No. 10. Sharp remains No. 31.
Atkins is listed at 5-10, 215 pounds, Kier at 6-0, 230, Peacock at 5-11, 230, and Sharp at 6-1, 195. Kier emerged from spring ball as the Cavaliers’ No. 2 option, and he’s similar to the soft-spoken Ellis not only in running style but in demeanor.
“He doesn’t really say much,” Ellis said. “He’s [not] really rah rah and all that. He just goes about his business. He runs the ball extremely hard. He’s very physical not only running the ball, but blocking, and I really feel like after I’m gone, he’s going to take that role of being that just physical runner and being able to move the chains and just be that dominant presence in the backfield.”
The running backs are a close-knit group whose coach, Atuaia, played that position at BYU in the 1990s.
“I love playing for him,” Ellis said. “He not only cares about how good of a football player you are, he cares more about how good of a person you are and about what your future goals are. He’s going to do everything to help you reach them. He’s going to take care of you like his own child.”