Sept. 13, 2012
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- They made a point of not pushing their son toward their alma mater, especially after such schools as Alabama, LSU, Ohio State and Penn State offered him football scholarships. But when Brandon Phelps committed to the University of Virginia in June 2010, Gary and Kathy Phelps no longer had to maintain the appearance of neutrality.
"They were definitely excited," Brandon Phelps, now the Cavaliers' starting strong safety, recalled this week. "Very excited."
His parents are 1984 graduates of UVa, where Gary played football for Dick Bestwick and, later, George Welsh.
Welsh's successor was Al Groh, whom Virginia fired after the 2009 season. Groh's replacement was Mike London, and during the transition from one staff to the next Virginia fell behind other schools in recruiting the Class of 2011, which included Brandon Phelps, then a junior at Damascus High in Maryland.
So Gary Phelps called the football office at UVa and talked to assistant coach Anthony Poindexter. The elder Phelps' message to the new staff: "I want to my son to come there, but I'm not going to tell him he has to go to Virginia. You guys have to recruit him so he wants to go there."
London and Co. did their part, and at the end of a June 25, 2010, visit to UVa, Brandon Phelps knew where he wanted to attend college. When he got out of the family car to give the news to London in a parking lot outside Scott Stadium, his parents celebrated.
"Kathy and I were both in the car saying, `Yes!' " Gary Phelps recalled with a a laugh. "That's what we wanted the whole time. It was wonderful."
His mom and dad, Brandon Phelps said, never pressured him during the recruiting process. "They basically said, `Whatever feels right to you, you go ahead and make that decision.' But they were never like, `You need to focus on Virginia,' or anything like that. They just told me to weigh out all my options, and go with whatever I felt was the best bet for me."
At Damascus, which has won seven state championships in football, Brandon Phelps was a four-year member of the varsity. He played wide receiver and safety as a freshman in 2007, helping the Swarmin' Hornets to the Class AAA state title, then moved to cornerback on defense in '08.
That's the position UVa recruited him to play, and Phelps worked there throughout spring practice this year. But the coaching staff wanted to get the team's top four defensive backs on the field at the same time, and with Drequan Hoskey playing well at corner alongside returning starter Demetrious Nicholson, Phelps was shifted to safety in the middle of the summer.
Hoskey, a redshirt sophomore, "might have been our most improved player through the spring, which allowed us to move Brandon to safety," defensive coordinator Jim Reid said this week.
"I think if you take a look at film, what Brandon Phelps gives us is a lot of the athleticism at the safety position that Rodney McLeod had."
Anthony Poindexter, once Phelps' lead recruiter, is now his position coach. "It was a little surprising at first when I heard about the move," Phelps said, "just because I thought I was going to be playing corner. But it was the coaches' decision. I'm here to help the team. I came here to play, and moving to safety gave me the best opportunity to do that."
Indeed, in his second year of college football -- the 6-0, 175-pound Phelps was one of 12 true freshmen to play for the Wahoos in 2011 -- he's a starter.
"You can't argue with that," Phelps said.
A hamstring injury slowed him during training camp, but Phelps played against Richmond on Sept. 1 and Penn State last Saturday. Next up for Virginia (2-0) is its ACC opener, Saturday at 3:30 p.m. against Georgia Tech (1-0, 1-1) and its trademark triple-option attack in Atlanta.
"It's a crazy offense we have to prepare against," Phelps said. "They do run the ball a lot and try and get you to fall asleep [in the secondary], but Coach has told us we've got to stayed focused every single snap, because as soon as you let your guard down, they're going to throw the ball and catch you off guard."
Phelps, who was used primarily on special teams last season, is one of four sophomore starters in UVa's secondary, along with Hoskey, Nicholson and free safety Anthony Harris.
His new position is "definitely a lot different [from cornerback]," Phelps said. "At first I struggled, but after a while, studying and getting used to everything, it made it a lot easier. Corner is more man-to-man on the outside, on an island, but at safety you gotta read through the line of scrimmage, you gotta see the backfield action, and you gotta look to the receivers. So there's a lot more I gotta see."
The Cavaliers' starting safeties in 2011 were seniors, McLeod and Corey Mosley. Like Phelps, McLeod began his college career at cornerback. He's now with the St. Louis Rams, where his teammates include two other former UVa players: defensive linemen Chris Long and Matt Conrath.
"Rod's a great player," Phelps said. "I've got some real big shoes to fill. He's one of the greats to come through here. So I'm just gonna try and watch film, watch and see what he does, and I'm gonna try and do the same thing.
"There's a lot to think about, but I'm getting it. I feel like I'm getting better each week, learning more, seeing more."
Through two games, Phelps has been credited with seven tackles.
"Brandon has corner ability and talent, and he has the toughness to be able to play safety, and he's really done a nice job for us," Reid said. "He's a highly intelligent guy. He's a hard-working player. He's a great student. He's got all the qualities that you look for in a football player/student-athlete. He's just terrific in every way.
"We love Brandon Phelps. Love him."
As a boy in Montgomery County, Md., Phelps said, he was not surrounded by UVa memorabilia at home. "My dad still had his jersey," Brandon said, "and he told me a little bit, some stories, about that, and I always had a little Virginia football growing up that I'd always play with, but nothing too out of the ordinary."
Gary Phelps, who was an all-state wideout at Cave Spring High in Roanoke, lettered twice at UVa. After graduating, however, he grew apart from his alma mater's football program, partly because of his work obligations.
Now Gary Phelps and his wife, the former Kathy Turner, have good reason to return to Charlottesville, and he's been able to reconnect with UVa football and former teammates.
"I can't explain how wonderful it's been coming down for these games," said Gary Phelps. "I'm a little more free with my time now. I actually own my own [insurance] business, and I can leave and have some flexibility, and it's great."
More important, though, "I know this is a good thing for Brandon," his father said. "He'll get to play some football, and he'll be educated. That's one of the things I like about Coach London and his staff: It's not just about football.
"I feel very comfortable passing the baton to Coach London and his staff as it relates to the further development of my child. Because I know what it takes to be successful."
Brandon Phelps is living this school year with Nicholson, wide receiver Darius Jennings and defensive tackle Vincent Croce. All were heralded recruits in the Class of 2011 who expect, before they're through in college, to help UVa rejoin the ACC's elite football programs.
"I really believe that," Phelps said.
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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