By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – He’s never seen Mandy Alonso play lacrosse, but Joey Blount has heard stories about his roommate’s exploits with a defenseman’s stick.
For all of Alonso’s promise in lacrosse, though, “I think he’s better on the football field,” Blount said, laughing.
No. 91 has also distinguished himself academically. Alonso’s goal is to gain admission to UVA’s prestigious McIntire School of Commerce next year.
“Mandy sets the bar high for himself on the field and in the classroom,” said Chase Gibson, one of the football program’s academic advisors. “Understanding the difficulty of balancing his football schedule with a rigorous academic schedule that includes Comm prerequisites, Mandy manages his time in a way that compromises neither athletics nor academics.”
At 6-2, 290 pounds, Alonso would stand out physically at the Comm School, but he’s a prototypical lineman in the Cavaliers’ 3-4 defense. A high-ankle sprain sidelined him for much of training camp last month, but he returned to practice last week and, in the season opener Saturday night, sacked Richmond quarterback Kevin Johnson for a 9-yard loss in UVA’s 42-13 win at Scott Stadium.
“It was great,” Alonso said Monday. “The adrenaline was crazy.”
Vic So’oto, who coaches the Wahoos’ defensive linemen, broke his headset in his excitement over Alonso’s sack. “When I came to the sideline, he was going crazy,” Alonso recalled, smiling.
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall showed more restraint, but he’s delighted to have Alonso back.
“He’s dynamic,” Mendenhall said Monday, “meaning that he has a great first step and he has some explosion and he has the ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage in the backfield.
“Besides just occupying space, there’s a difference between that type of D-lineman and a playmaking and active D-lineman. And Mandy is active.”
One of 17 true freshmen to play for the ‘Hoos last season – Blount, a safety, was another – Alonso moved into the starting lineup in early November.
“The switch flipped,” Kelly Poppinga, UVA’s co-defensive coordinator, said after practice Tuesday. “With every first-year guy, at some point in their career, that switch will flip, and his was about midseason last year, and he came in and did some really good things.
“He’s twitchy, he’s fast, he’s physical, he’s tough. All those things we need in our defensive line, he has.”
Alonso, whose parents are from Cuba, was born and raised in Miami, where he attended Gulliver Prep. His teammates there, early in his high school career, included Dominic Sheppard, now a redshirt junior linebacker at UVA. The Raiders’ head coach? Former Virginia linebacker Earl Sims.
“Mandy was relentless,” Sims said in a phone interview Monday. “He’s always been tough and always one of the top workers on the team. I have no questions about what he’s going to be able to do at Virginia. It’s exciting to have him up there playing.”
Sims makes a point of not trying to steer his players to UVA, he said, but he doesn’t hesitate to let “them know my experience there, what kind of school it is, and where the program is headed.”
In December 2015, UVA hired Mendenhall to succeed Mike London as head coach. Blount, who’s from the Atlanta area, committed to the Cavaliers in April 2016. Alonso committed about 10 weeks later after attending a camp at UVA. Ruffin McNeill, then Virginia’s defensive line coach, was able to evaluate Alonso at the one-day camp, and a scholarship offer followed that night.
Sims was not surprised.
“When he went up [to UVA], I knew what was going to happen,” Sims said.
Syracuse, Louisville, Georgia Tech and Southern Mississippi were among the other schools that extended offers to Alonso. As signing day approached in early 2017, he said, a coach from the University of Miami asked Alonso if he might flip his commitment to the Hurricanes.
“I said, ‘No, not a chance,’ ” Alonso recalled. “I was committed to Coach Mendenhall and his staff, and I didn’t want to change that.”
Blount and Alonso were first-year roommates at Virginia, and they immediately formed a close bond. So did their parents. When UVA played at Miami last season, the Blounts stayed with the Alonsos.
“We’re all super tight,” said Alonso, who hosted Blount during spring break this year.
“My mom and dad love his parents, and his parents love my parents,” Blount said.
Blount’s father, Tony, was an All-ACC safety at UVA. Alonso, who like Blount is an only child, does not have other athletes in his family, but his parents travel to virtually all of his games, home and away.
Next up for the Cavaliers is the first of their five regular-season road games. At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Virginia (1-0) meets Indiana (1-0) at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Ind.
In the season opener against Richmond, UVA used five defensive linemen extensively: Alonso, juniors Richard Burney and Eli Hanback, and true freshmen Jordan Redmond and Aaron Faumui.
Like Alonso, Burney missed much of training camp for medical reasons. Their absence accelerated the development of Redmond and Faumui.
“I feel like all the reps that they took in fall camp really, really helped them out,” Alonso said. “Because I didn’t get to get that last year. That’s why it took me so long throughout the year to get on the track that I wanted to get on. I didn’t get to get as many reps, because there were already [veterans on the D-line].
“This year, they got to get all the reps. There was no one else to substitute them out, so they had to keep getting those reps, whether they did well or not. They ended up doing really well and they got to play.”
Since he began working in January with Shawn Griswold, UVA’s new director of football performance and development, Alonso has grown significantly stronger. His ankle isn’t completely healed, but he’s getting to close to 100 percent. And that’s good news for the Cavaliers.
“His potential is as high as he wants it to be,” Blount said. “I’m just glad to be out there playing on the field with him, because I can see the player he’s growing into.
“He’s going to be one hell of a player for this defense, and I’m just glad he’s one of my best friends on the team.”