A grueling nine-week summer conditioning period came to an end Friday morning for the Virginia football team when redshirt senior defensive lineman Mandy Alonso pulled a sledgehammer over his head and slammed it down to “break the rock.”
Teammates showered Alonso in Gatorade at the center of the McCue practice field, enjoying a moment of celebration after an offseason focused on hard work and improvement.
Alonso, who opted to return for a final season of eligibility, was chosen as the player to break the rock thanks to a productive offseason.
“Mandy is unbelievable,” junior linebacker Nick Jackson said. “If you could watch him every workout, you’d be in awe.”
Alonso is among the contingent of players UVa coaches want to take a step forward. The team returns key upperclassmen at nearly every position, but the Cavaliers went just 5-5 last season and ended the year with a disheartening 33-15 loss at Virginia Tech.
Alonso, like many of his peers, has been a solid option for UVa in his career. He’s looking to go from solid to dynamic. Everyone inside the program expects a leap forward from the defensive end with 27 career starts to his name.
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“That dude has come back with a purpose,” Virginia strength coach Shawn Griswold said.
The honor of breaking the rock was appreciated by Alonso, who came back for an additional year after last season left a sour taste in his mouth. He finished with 26 tackles, including four tackles for loss and a pair of sacks, but the team failed to contend for a conference title and struggled out of the gates.
Jackson and Griswold both stressed Alonso’s increased commitment this offseason. He looks impressive in agility drills, and his strength has increased.
“It means a lot,” Alonso said. “Breaking the rock for the workouts, you’re the hardest worker, you lift heavy, you run fast, you just embody the UVa culture.”
Alonso wasn’t the only UVa player with a strong summer conditioning period. Alonso came away impressed with a handful of his peers, including offensive lineman Olu Oluwatimi.
Jackson mentioned linebacker Noah Taylor and safety Joey Blount, a pair of upperclassmen projected to start on the defensive side of the ball. Griswold went into a longer list of names and mentioned a pair of wide receivers in Ra’Shaun Henry and Dontayvion Wicks.
Henry and Wicks joined safety De’Vante Cross as the three UVa players to post a vertical jump of at least 40 inches in recent days. Griswold says it’s the first time he’s had a team with three players with that level of vertical explosiveness.
UVa’s strength coach expressed gratitude for the nine-week workout period. Virginia completed 32 workouts during the span, working out for four weeks, taking nine days off and working out for an additional four weeks.
The Cavaliers placed an emphasis on functional movements this offseason, while also continuing a recent program-wide movement toward improved nutrition.
“We kind of wholesale changed some things last winter just looking at our overall program and my time here and trying to reduce injuries,” Griswold said. “Knock on wood, like a Joey Blount and those guys who have had some soft-tissue injuries, haven’t had anything since January.”
Griswold shared that he feels “really good” about the recent conditioning work, but quickly cautioned that every program and coaching staff in the country feels the same way. UVa believes the last two months of work will lead to elite on-field performance.
The Cavaliers will soon have a chance to show that. Fall camp begins next week, and the season opener is just over a month away on Sept. 4.
“We’ve got one week until we put the pads on,” Jackson said. “It’s an exciting time.”