Following his team’s initial spring gathering, second-year Virginia coach Tony Elliott couldn’t contain his excitement.
“Just grateful to be on the grass,” Elliott said with pride in his voice on Tuesday morning after the Cavaliers held an official practice for the first time since the devastating November shooting in Charlottesville that killed players D’Sean Perry, Lavel Davis Jr. and Devin Chandler.
It was the first of 14 sessions ahead of UVa’s April 15 spring game.
“That was the message I closed practice with,” he said, “and that’s the spirit I came out with and it was matched by the players, so I’m just grateful to have an opportunity to get to play football again. It’s been a long time.”
Tuesday marked four months and one day since the tragedy, and veteran safety Antonio Clary said the Hoos still find themselves coping with it even on a day that was about moving ahead.
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“Those guys would want us to move forward and honor them the right way,” Clary said, “and that’s what we’ll continue to do this spring ball. And there are going to be tough times. Like, definitely today was a tough time just because it was the first time we’d stepped on the practice field since the tragedy happened, but you continue to honor them the right way and take every rep the right way. And you don’t take anything for granted because they wouldn’t want us to take everything for granted.”
Said Elliott: “We definitely still have heavy hearts for everything we went through as a program. Still, we’re grieving and supporting the families of Lavel, Devin and D’Sean, but we’re really grateful to be on the grass and was excited to see these guys have a ton of enthusiasm.”
And how could there not be. Anywhere a player looked there was inspiration.
Running back Mike Hollins, who was wounded during the shooting, practiced on Tuesday and is full-go for the spring, and place kicker Will Bettridge, a high school and college teammate of Perry, switched his jersey number from the No. 17 he wore last season to Perry’s No. 41, too.
“I’ve been so impressed with [Hollins],” Elliott said. “All the way around — physically how his body has recovered, but more importantly, how spiritually and mentally he’s responded and prepared himself to get back out here and compete. So, really, really proud of how he’s progressed.”
Between the lines, according to Elliott, his players have a better understanding of his expectations for them compared to this time last year when he was primarily focused on establishing practice habits, getting them to adjust to the tempo he needed them to drill with and installing the basics of new offensive, defensive and special teams schemes.
The former Clemson offensive coordinator admitted he might’ve been a bit overzealous last spring and throughout his first season in his approach and demands, and has adjusted since to fit UVa.
“I was coming from an environment where for seven years things had been established, things had been rolling,” Elliott said, “so there were a lot of things I wouldn’t say they took for granted, but there were things that made sense to me that were second-nature, that were DNA and then I got here and I was having to teach everybody else what that DNA is.
“… I saw a group of young men that were hungry, that wanted it, that desired it,” Elliott continued. “But they weren’t at the same stage as where I was from a DNA standpoint and so sometimes I was almost trying to drag them through the knot hole and they weren’t ready to go through the knot hole, so that’s what I learned. I’ve got to step back.”
He said Tuesday’s practice had a different feeling, calling it, “a really, really good first day.”
Now with the knowledge they have about the way in which they need to operate and on the same page as their coach, the Cavaliers have a to-do list they can start on right away — and priority number one is for Elliott and his offensive coaches is to begin evaluating the quarterback competition between Monmouth transfer Tony Muskett and football-baseball two-sport standout Jay Woolfolk.
UVa needs a replacement for its all-time leading passer, Brennan Armstrong, following his decision to transfer to N.C. State earlier in the offseason.
He said Muskett has fit in well with the group since arriving in time for winter workouts.
“From the beginning he was dragging guys out to throw,” Elliott said. “Really, embracing that and I’m not going to take credit for it. He brought a lot of that in the door just because of his past experiences.”