By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – As the team buses idled nearby, Virginia wide receiver De’Vante Cross crossed the south end zone at Vanderbilt Stadium and pondered, once again, what might have been.
It was Sept. 15 in Nashville, Tenn. About three hours earlier, Cross, after splitting out wide left, had run a post route from the Ohio 38-yard line. He beat his defender, but Bryce Perkins’ pass went through his hands and dropped to the turf in the south end zone.
“We practiced that play all week, and it was a catch that I made all week,” Cross said Monday at the McCue Center. “That just hurt. You get an opportunity and you don’t capitalize on it.”
In the parking lot outside the team hotel earlier that day, Cross had thrown the ball around with teammates and caught, he estimated, about 200 passes.
“Catching the football is an art,” he said. “You’ve got to really work on it.”
In this case, his work wasn’t rewarded, but drops are an unfortunate reality in football, Perkins reminded Cross.
“I came over to the sideline and told him to just forget about it,” Perkins said. “I’m almost 100-percent positive that he comes up with that catch most of the time, so I’m not worried about it. He dropped the ball. OK. On to the next one. Just keep building from there and moving forward.”
Cross said: “At first I was really down about it, but opportunities come and go, and you can’t dwell on the past. Because if I was dwelling on that still, I wouldn’t have made the Louisville catch.”
A week after the Cavaliers defeated Ohio 45-31 in Nashville, they opened ACC play against Louisville at Scott Stadium. On UVA’s first series, Cross hauled in a third-and-4 pass from Perkins for a 20-yard gain. The reception was Cross’ first of the season.
“It was huge for me, for multiple reasons,” said Cross, a 6-2, 205-pound redshirt sophomore who wears jersey No. 15.
“Fall camp [last month] was a really big struggle for me. I was really up and down with my confidence in my play. I had a bunch of nagging injuries here and there. Some days I lost confidence. Some days my confidence would be high. Lately, I’ve been playing with a lot of effort, a lot of pride and passion, and that one catch is really a confidence-booster, for the fact that it can only go up from there.”
Cross’ college career has unfolded differently than anyone would have expected. He came to UVA from Parkland High School in Allentown, Pa., where he starred at quarterback and cornerback. Virginia recruited him as a quarterback, and he practiced at that position while redshirting in 2016.
In the spring of 2017, however, Cross began working at wide receiver. That September, he started practicing at cornerback, too, after Tim Harris suffered a season-ending injury. Cross also remained an option at quarterback.
As a redshirt freshman, he caught one pass, for eight yards, and at quarterback rushed five times for 27 yards. On defense, Cross made three tackles. He finished the season with a nagging foot injury that required surgery in early January.
When he was finally cleared to play again, Cross was able to focus solely on playing wideout. But he’d missed spring practice and fallen behind at a position where his learning curve was steep.
Before coming to UVA, Cross said, “I never played receiver a day in my life, other than just being in the backyard with friends. Playing receiver, there’s so much detail in it, it’s ridiculous. I never knew that it was that difficult. To the naked eye it’s like, ‘OK, you just go run and catch the ball,’ but there’s so much more than that to it, and I have so much learning still to do. I have a lot of flaws in my game that I have to work on.”
Cross’ position coach at UVA, Marques Hagans, is a former NFL wide receiver.
“There are more intricacies to playing the position that people think,” Hagans said. “There’s just so many nuances with the position if you really want to be good at your craft, and I think you realize that once you get into it.”
It’s important for Cross to remember, Hagans said, that training camp essentially was his spring practice.
“He’s just getting his legs back underneath him,” Hagans said. “He missed the spring, so he’s 14, 15 practices behind everybody else. He’s finally playing one position the whole time. I’m not making any excuses for him, but those things take time.”
The Wahoos play their ACC road opener Saturday in Raleigh, N.C. At 12:20 p.m., UVA (3-1, 1-0) meets NC State (3-0 overall) at Carter-Finley Stadium. The Wolfpack has yet to play an ACC game.
Among Virginia’s wideouts, senior Olamide Zaccheaus (24 catches, 392 yards, four touchdowns) and junior Hasise Dubois (16 catches, 180 yards, two TDs) have established themselves as Perkins’ top two options.
If junior Joe Reed (eight catches, 114 yards, one TD), freshman Tavares Kelly (two catches, 26 yards) and Cross can become consistently productive, too, then the Cavaliers’ passing game “becomes more formidable,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “We need that happen as fast as we can work.”
Cross lives with Perkins and offensive lineman R.J. Proctor. Perkins, who began his college career at Arizona State, enrolled at UVA in January after spending last fall at Arizona Western College.
“He’s a really cool guy,” Cross said. “He’s a fun dude to be around.”
Cross, a history major, hopes to spend a fifth year at UVA (in 2020-21) and earn a master’s in higher education from the Curry School of Education.
“I want to teach,” Cross said. “It’s a combination of things that inspire me to want to be a teacher. One thing is, I know along the way a lot of people helped me, and I needed these people in my life, whether it was teachers, family friends, brothers or uncles.
“Also, I realized throughout my high school career that I loved to help people, and I really feel like I have a passion for helping others.”
Among the history professors who have influenced Cross at UVA are George Gilliam, in a course called Viewing the South, and Claudrena Harold. Cross is taking Harold’s class From Motown to Hip-Hop this semester.
“She’s very engaging,” Cross said. “She keeps you interested in class. She’s in the moment with us. I always look forward to her class.”
Harold, in an email, said it’s “always a pleasure to have De’Vante in my courses. He’s a really sharp student who cares greatly about the subject. He has a presence, and I always appreciate his input and insight … He’s a gem.”
As a Parkland High senior, Cross rushed for 1,385 yards and 19 touchdowns. At UVA, he’s only flashed his considerable athleticism, but when the opportunity comes, he said, “I want to take advantage of it. I feel like that’s what got me here, being able to run with the ball.”
In the meantime, Cross said, “I’ve really learned how to play for more than myself, to play for my teammates, too, and be excited for my teammates, just as I can be excited for myself.
“Even if I’m not getting the ball, I can still be a good teammate. I can still make a difference. I can still make my blocks. I can put in the extra effort.”
The coaching staff has noticed.
“De’Vante’s done a really good job in trying to establish himself and be physical in the run game,” Hagans said. “He hasn’t had a lot of targets the first couple games, but if you watch him, he’s blocking his butt off every run play he’s in. He doesn’t have an ego. He’s become more positive, more outgoing, and whatever his frustration may be, he’s taking it out on the field.”