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By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– He graduated from the University of Virginia in May and, because he redshirted in 2015, had the option of playing his final season of college football elsewhere.
In another program, perhaps one that competes at the FCS level, running back Chris Sharp might well be putting up big numbers, but he never seriously considered leaving UVA. When head coach Bronco Mendenhall invited him back for a fifth year, Sharp didn’t hesitate.
“For one, I love this school, and I love the program,” Sharp said this week at the McCue Center. “I love what Coach Mendenhall is doing, and I don’t think that I can get out of any other program what I get here.
“Every morning, every team meeting, you’re learning something new, and I don’t think it happens at this caliber at other places. This is really where I wanted to be. And aside from football, the education, that’s the main thing. It’s really what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be, so it was a no-brainer for me.”
This is Mendenhall’s fourth season at UVA, and one of his policies is that players who have redshirted are not automatically invited back as fifth-year seniors. There’s little debate with prominent players––tight end Tanner Cowley and defensive linemen Richard Burney and Eli Hanback this season, for example––but players who have smaller roles are not guaranteed invitations.
“It’s an honor and a privilege,” Sharp said, “and I was ecstatic of course to be invited back.”
The determining factor, Mendenhall said Monday when asked about two of his fifth-year seniors, Sharp and walk-on linebacker Reed Kellam, is “commitment level. There are players and people that are exemplary in what they are willing to do to help their team and the influence they have on their team through acts of––for lack of a better term––water carrying. They just will do anything for the team.
“They know it; the team knows it. It’s sincere and authentic and absolutely captivates the hearts and minds of the team and their program. It’s the essence of team sport. There are a number of examples––you just named two of them––that the team wouldn’t be as good without the presence of those two players … When young people are that committed regardless of production, it captures the soul and the culture of a program.
“I think it speaks volumes to a future employer and what they might be able to add besides what their competency is, how they make everyone else better. I think that’s a tangible thing.”
Sharp came to UVA in 2015 from the Hun School in Princeton, N.J., where UVA offensive tackle Bobby Haskins played as a postgraduate in 2017. Originally slotted at tailback, Sharp moved to wide receiver and then to safety before returning to running back after the 2016 season, Mendenhall’s first at Virginia.
That’s when assistant coach Mark Atuaia, who followed Mendenhall from BYU to UVA, began working with Sharp. Atuaia calls Sharp “the elder statesman” of a group that this season also includes juniors PK Kier, Lamont Atkins and Jamari Peacock, sophomore Wayne Taulapapa, and true freshmen Mike Hollins and Seneca Milledge.
“In my room, he’s brought a lot of maturity to the group, and then also he’s just very infectious with his attitude,” said Atuaia, a former BYU running back. “He’s very positive, and it emanates through the room, so when it was asked [in a coaches’ meeting] if anybody was going to advocate for somebody for a fifth year, somebody who’s actually earned that fifth year, I stood on the table for him with Bronco.
“I went in front of the body of the coaches, and Sharp is still with us, and he continues to make plays for us, in whatever capacity we ask.”
As a redshirt sophomore in 2017, Sharp carried 11 times for 40 yards and one touchdown. In 2018, he carried only twice, for 8 yards, but caught five passes for 34 yards and two TDs.
He scored the Wahoos’ first touchdown this season, on a 2-yard pass from quarterback Bryce Perkins against Pittsburgh on Aug. 31, and he had two receptions for 13 yards last weekend in a one-sided win over William & Mary.
No. 25 Virginia (2-0, 1-0) hosts Florida State (1-1), which has yet to play an ACC game, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium.
“The whole football experience here been amazing,” Sharp said. “It’s always been about more than football for me. Just being able to grind with a group of guys and see results at the end of the day, it’s just been a beautiful thing to witness.”
Sharp grew up in Burlington, N.J., about 25 miles northeast of Philadelphia. He has two siblings, both older: a brother who graduated from Johns Hopkins University, where he played football, and a sister who graduated from Cornell University.
His siblings attended Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J. Sharp ended up at another prestigious private school, Hun, where he was a boarding student.
“That was one of the best decisions I ever made,” he said.
Sharp’s parents are Pitt graduates, and their children learned at an early age that education was paramount in their household.
“I remember growing up, it would be summertime, no classes, no school, and my mom would have us in there doing journal entries while everybody’s playing outside,” Sharp said, laughing. “School’s always been important.”
At UVA, he earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology. He’s now pursuing a master’s degree in higher education in the Curry School of Education and Human Development.
“I want to eventually become an athletic director,” said Sharp, an avid chess player. “I’m not sure at which level right now, whether it be high school or D-3, D-2, D-I, but I definitely want to get into athletic administration.”
Asked what appeals to him about that career path, Sharp said, “Any time you can combine sport and education in any way and you’re able to influence young people, I love that, teaching and helping people grow.”
UVA has had two athletic directors during Sharp’s time in Charlottesville, Craig Littlepage and Carla Williams, and “I’ve definitely paid attention to the things that they do and the moves that they make, and it’s inspiring,” he said.
As for where he’d like to live, Sharp said, “I’m open to being anywhere, but I love Virginia. Ever since I got down here my first year, I fell in love with Charlottesville, especially, but Virginia as a state is beautiful. We’ll see.”
At the Hun School, where his career highlights included two 99-yard touchdown runs, Sharp starred at linebacker and running back. He chose UVA, whose head coach then was Mike London, over such schools as Rutgers and Iowa.
During his first training camp at Virginia, a series of injuries prompted the coaching staff to switch Sharp and classmate Olamide Zaccheaus from running back to wideout. Zaccheaus, now a rookie with the NFL’s Falcons, went on to have a record-setting career at receiver. For Sharp, the transition wasn’t as seamless.
“When I was a younger player, I think I had a bit of a confidence issue and wasn’t comfortable playing [wideout],” said Sharp, who lives with senior receiver Hasise Dubois. “It was a new environment and everything like that. Now I’m much more comfortable and confident in what I can do in my role [at running back].”
For Sharp and his fellow running backs, there are only so many touches to go around in an offense that features a dual-threat quarterback. Even so, harmony reigns in their position room.
“You want these young men to have an invaluable experience that they can take with them,” Atuaia said, “because they’re not going to take anything from Virginia as far as buildings go. They’ll obviously take their degree and the relationships that they garner. That’s the type of environment I foster in the room, and as long as I coach that’s how it’s going to be.”
Sharp said: “It’s healthy competition, and it makes us better every day. There’s nobody tearing anybody else down or anything like that. It’s great competition. It makes us better.
“We’re very close, always looking out for one another. When one of us succeeds, we all succeed, and that’s the way we operate in the running back room. It’s great.”
From UVA’s 2015 recruiting class, only six players remain in the program: Sharp, Hanback, Burney, Cowley, Kellam and wideout Ben Hogg. They’ve helped the Cavaliers return to relevancy. Virginia, which finished 2-10 in Mendenhall’s first season, improved to 6-7 in 2017 and to 8-5 last year.
A win over FSU would give Virginia its first 3-0 start since 2005.
“Being an older guy now, and reaping what we’ve sown, it’s amazing,” Sharp said.