By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – In the aftermath of Virginia’s win over South Carolina in the Belk Bowl, De’Vante Cross realized he’d come to a crossroads in his college football career. After redshirting in 2016, Cross had played sporadically in a variety of roles the next two seasons, on both sides of the ball.
“I feel like I’d reached a point where it was like, ‘Do I give up and say I’m going to bounce around position to position and just be a role player, or am I going to set my mind to doing the best I can at a position?’ ” Cross recalled.
He chose the latter route and went to work.
“He made the conscious choice to say, ‘This is what I need to do to get better,’ ” recalled Shawn Griswold, UVA’s director of football development and performance. “I think he probably saw the Bryce Halls and the Juan Thornhills and the Tim Harrises have success doing the things we ask them [in strength and conditioning] and how it’s translated to the field.”
Cross said: “I never came here to just play here and there. I want to play. I want to start. And one of the things that I looked at when I walked into this offseason was, What can I do to be the best player I can be? Some of that was in the weight room. I can be in better shape. I can be stronger. I can be faster.
“It was just a change of mindset. For me, it’s like do or die. I’ve been here for three years now, I’ve played for two, and I’m in the secondary now, and there’s an open spot to fill [with Thornhill’s departure].”
Cross shared his goals with Griswold, who provided crucial support and motivation.
“Some days I didn’t want to do it,” Cross said, “but Coach Griz pushed me every day. He just kept reminding me, ‘This is what you said you want to do, so do it.’ “
The workout gear UVA players wear corresponds to the levels they’ve achieved in Griswold’s strength and conditioning program. The lowest level is white, from which players can earn promotions, based on how they fare in testing similar to that used at the NFL scouting combine, to gray, to orange, to blue and, finally, to black.
Only two players – Cross and outside linebacker Noah Taylor – skipped a color this spring. Each moved from gray to blue.
“De’Vante’s had a great offseason,” co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga said, “so I’m proud of him. Very similar type of numbers as Juan [in testing], so he’s explosive. Now it’s about getting him to that production where Juan was. If we can get that, then that could be something special.”
Cross, who has a 40.5-inch vertical jump, is “a hell of an athlete, but people don’t know that, because they haven’t seen him play,” Griswold said. “In everything we do, he’s super-twitchy, bouncy, fast.
“The thing that’s pretty cool about him, too, is not only is he fast when he runs [in testing], but his game speed is fast. And that’s what made Juan different too. There’s a lot of dudes in this world that can run really fast, but when you see them on the field it’s like, Where is that [speed]?”
The 6-2 Cross played at 215 pounds last season. He’s around 210 this spring.
“Even though it’s only five pounds, that makes a big difference in conditioning,” Cross said. “It just felt heavy. At 210, I just feel much better. I feel like I’m moving better, and this is where I want to stay at.”
Fans can check out Cross and his teammates Saturday at Scott Stadium, where the Cavaliers’ spring game will begin at 1 p.m. Gates open at 11:30 a.m., and the event is free.
Cross came to UVA from Parkland High School in Allentown, Pa., where he starred at quarterback, rushing for 1,385 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior, and at cornerback.
Virginia recruited him as a quarterback, and he practiced at that position while redshirting in 2016.The following spring, he began working at wide receiver. In September 2017, Cross started practicing at cornerback, too, after Harris suffered a season-ending injury, and also remained an option at quarterback.
As a redshirt freshman in ’17, he caught one pass and 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 January 2018, forcing him to miss spring practice last year.
When he was finally cleared to play again, Cross worked solely at wide receiver. Five games into the season, however, he was moved to safety, in part because the Wahoos were thin in the secondary, but also because he’d been a non-factor on offense.
“Honestly, I wasn’t producing at receiver,” said Cross, who had one catch for 20 yards last season. “I wasn’t making any plays. I wasn’t really doing anything.”
The move gave him a chance to become more than a utility player. “I just fit in with the defense better, and I feel like my skills are a better fit for safety than they were at receiver,” Cross said.
“Safety reminds me of quarterback, honestly. At quarterback, you make the calls. You gotta be smart. You gotta be intelligent, and safety’s the same thing. It’s just on the opposite side. You make the calls. You see the offense. You gotta know offenses, and you gotta be able to put the rest of the guys in the right position.”
The Cavaliers’ top three safeties last season were Joey Blount, Brenton Nelson and Thornhill, who’s likely to be chosen Friday night in the second or third round of the NFL draft. Cross started one game, against Liberty, and had eight tackles and an interception in Virginia’s 45-24 victory at Scott Stadium.
UVA’s defensive coordinator, Nick Howell, also coaches the secondary, and “he made sure I came to meet with him, and he really made sure that I knew everything I needed to know to be able to perform that game,” Cross said.
Blount and Nelson suffered injuries during the regular season that limited their availability during UVA’s preparation for the Belk Bowl. Once the season ended, each had surgery, and neither has been a full participant in practice this spring. And so Cross has gotten as many repetitions in practice, first in December and now this spring, as anyone on the defense.
“It’s been great,” Cross said of the extra work. “I need it. Every rep for me matters, every rep counts, because I haven’t spent as much time as anyone else on the defense. I’m already behind the curve just because of time spent, so it’s just a race for me to get as many reps as I can and watch as much film as I can, so when fall rolls around, I can put myself in best position to compete for the job.”
With Blount and Nelson sidelined, a “void needed to be filled,” Poppinga said, “and so De’Vante came in, and he’s done a really good job. He’s done a great job of picking up all of our checks, all of our adjustments, getting our team lined up in the back end, and he’s executed and performed pretty well.
“He’s gotten a ton of reps in practice, and now it’s just about getting him more reps in the game.”
Cross is versatile enough, Poppinga said, to play multiple positions in the secondary.
“In certain situations, I think he’ll play corner for us,” Poppinga said. “It just kind of depends who we’re playing and what kind of personnel we want to have on the field. But I think he’s a very similar player to Juan, where he could go back and forth between safety and corner.”
Cross, who lives with quarterback Bryce Perkins, is on schedule to graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in history. Then he hopes to pursue a master’s in UVA’s Curry School of Education and Human Development.
He sees himself becoming a teacher or a guidance counselor, mostly likely in a high school.
“I feel like that’s a pivotal point in a developing person’s life,” Cross said. “High school is where you start to really figure out who you are and what you want to do, and I just feel like helping guide people along through that process is something I want to do.”