April 11, 2014
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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- The list of UVa football players recovering from injuries this spring is a long one, and it includes Daquan Romero, the team's second-leading tackler last year.
Romero's shoulder injury has thrust his understudy at weakside linebacker, Zach Bradshaw, into a prominent role on a defense that will meet the offense in the Cavaliers' spring game Saturday at Scott Stadium.
Gates open at 11 a.m. The Orange-Blue scrimmage starts at 1 p.m.
"Zach, now he's getting all the reps because Romo's hurt," defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta said. "He's done a great job for us. He's gotten better and better every day in practice."
A rising sophomore from Damascus, Md., Bradshaw welcomes the opportunity. Still, he wishes it were not the result of Romero's misfortune.
"I feel for him," Bradshaw said.
Bradshaw knows what it's like to be relegated to a spectator's role in practice. Five days before the Cavaliers' season-opener last year, he broke his left hand in practice, and seven games passed before he was cleared for contact.
He started the first college game in which he played -- Oct. 26 against Georgia Tech -- and then appeared in each of Virginia's final four games. It was not the season the coaching staff envisioned for Bradshaw, who impressed from the first day of training camp last summer, but he's reaping the benefits this spring.
"I think that playing last year definitely helped from a confidence perspective," Bradshaw said. "I didn't necessarily play that much, but the game experience, and just getting used to the speed of the game, has definitely helped me just get used to making the reads and all that on the fly."
One of 12 true freshmen to play for the Wahoos in 2013, Bradshaw finished the season with 10 tackles, including two for loss, and broke up a pass. After missing more than half of the regular season, he had the option of redshirting, and he didn't rush into a decision.
"I thought about it for a while," Bradshaw recalled this week. "Coach London brought me in his office and just said, `Look, if you want to play, we'll have a spot for you to get on the field. But if you don't, that's fine, we understand, and we'll let you redshirt.' But I was just itching to play coming off that injury, just sitting and watching practice for the first seven games."
At Damascus High School, Bradshaw was known for his playmaking ability as well as his toughness. In addition to playing linebacker, he starred at wide receiver and returned punts and kickoffs.
When he arrived at UVa last summer, the 6-foot-3 Bradshaw weighed 205 pounds, "which is not the biggest linebacker in the world," he said, laughing. "But I'm up to between 220 and 225 right now."
He played on the varsity all four years at Damascus. In 2009 and '10, his teammates included Brandon Phelps, and they were reunited last season at UVa, where Phelps started at safety. Initially, though, Bradshaw planned to spend his college years elsewhere.
In June 2012, he committed to Penn State. Then, about six weeks later, he changed his mind and decided he would be better off at UVa.
"I kind of got pressured into committing [to Penn State], because I got offered late, and [the coaches] said, `We got one spot left at linebacker, and you got an offer, and we got an offer out to some other dude,' " Bradshaw recalled. "They said, `We'd prefer to get you, but whichever one commits first we're going to take.'
"I'd just taken a visit [to Penn State] and obviously the campus is beautiful and the football is great there. I think I just kind of got caught up in all that and was feeling the pressure of, `Well, if I don't make my move, I could lose this opportunity.' So I just went for it."
Later that summer, however, the NCAA announced severe sanctions for Penn State, which had been rocked by a sexual-abuse scandal. That played a role in Bradshaw's change of heart.
"I knew I was going to decommit the day that the sanctions came out, but I didn't want to decommit until I had decided where I was going to [go], so I could just get it over with [at one time]," Bradshaw said.
His other finalists were Virginia, Northwestern and South Carolina. "I just wrote down what are the pros, what are the cons of each, and it was blatantly obvious that this was the right choice," Bradshaw said.
The Cavaliers are delighted to have him. Romero is a rising senior, as is Henry Coley, UVa's starting middle linebacker (and its leading tackler last season). Bradshaw is one of three promising linebackers in the recruiting class that enrolled at Virginia last summer, along with Max Valles and Micah Kiser.
Valles started four games at strongside linebacker last season and had 5.5 tackles for loss, including four sacks, and he's been working with the first team. Kiser, who redshirted in 2013, has played well at middle linebacker this spring.
"He's a very football-knowledgeable kid," Tenuta said of Kiser. "He's worked himself in the weight room to get bigger, faster, stronger, understands concepts. Now it's just [about getting] as many reps as he can get, with that understanding, and just keep working to get himself into the fray, to get in the two-deep."
Kiser played at Gilman School in Baltimore, whose football program ranks among the best in Maryland. So does the one at Damascus High. The 2013 season -- Virginia finished 2-10 -- wasn't easy for either of them.
"It was the first losing season I've had in football in my life," Bradshaw said. "It was weird, because I wasn't used to losing."
He doesn't intend to make a habit of it, so he pushes himself in practice. The better he plays, Bradshaw knows, the better for the team.
"It's a huge opportunity, all these extra reps," he said. "I'm getting used to my reads, and I'm definitely picking up on the calls faster and the different plays and all my assignments, and [Romero has] been a huge help. He's hurt, but he's on the sideline, and if I have a question I can go over and ask him."
Bradshaw grew up in Maryland, but his parents are from Michigan. His father, in fact, graduated from Michigan State, which put Bradshaw in an awkward situation during the recent NCAA men's basketball tournament. In the Sweet Sixteen, the `Hoos played the Spartans at Madison Square Garden.
"I'd been a Michigan State fan since I was born, basically," Bradshaw said. "I got baby pictures in Michigan State gear.
"I wasn't really rooting for anyone, I guess, just because it was so hard to root. Obviously I can't root against Virginia, but at the same time it was hard to root against Michigan State, especially after growing up a basketball fan."
The Spartans held on for a 61-59 victory that gave Bradshaw little joy. "I would have loved to have seen us win," he said.
For the UVa football team, the Orange-Blue game concludes spring practice. The Cavaliers open the season Aug. 30 against UCLA at Scott Stadium.
"I'm excited that we get to scrimmage," Bradshaw said, "but it's just one step closer to the UCLA game. That's what I'm most excited for."
SIDELINED: In addition to Romero, players expected to sit out the spring game because of injury or illness include tailback Kevin Parks, offensive linemen Jay Whitmire, Sadiq Olanrewaju, Sean Karl and John Pond, defensive end Trent Corney, defensive tackle Andrew Brown, linebacker Darius Lee and cornerback Tim Harris.
Brown enrolled at UVa in January, along with another freshman, offensive lineman Jake Fieler.
At Oscar Smith Smith High in Chesapeake, the 6-4, 300-pound Brown became one of the nation's most coveted recruits. He suffered a toe injury early this spring and has missed most of the Cavaliers' practices, but look for Brown to have an impact this fall.
"He's a very intelligent young man," Tenuta said. "The No. 1 thing is, he likes football, so that's a plus. He was fun at practice, because every day you could see the young man work, knowing that `Hey, I'm playing college football now against bigger, stronger, faster guys than I played in [high school].' ... I just like his whole demeanor."
EQUIPMENT SALE: Game-worn UVa football jerseys and helmets will be on sale at Scott Stadium before the spring game. Also available will be cheer uniforms and pom poms.
The equipment can be purchased behind the scoreboard at the open end of Scott Stadium, beginning at 11 a.m.
Helmets are $150 each, game jerseys $50 and Orange Crush practice jerseys $20 each. Cheer uniforms are $35 and pom poms $10.
In addition, two signed NFL helmets -- one by Chris Canty and the other by Heath Miller -- will be raffled off. Tickets for the raffle are $5 for one or $10 for three.
Also, a limited number of Virginia baseball batting helmets will be on sale at $50 each.
Everyone who purchases something in the spring sale will be entered into a raffle to win a signed mini-helmet signed by Chris Long.
Cash and credit cards will be accepted, but no checks.