Coley Thriving in New Role

VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM Henry Coley
VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM
Henry Coley
VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM

Aug. 22, 2012

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Henry Coley didn't hesitate when asked about the injury that all but spoiled his redshirt freshman season at the University of Virginia.

"Indiana," Coley said Tuesday outside the McCue Center. "September 10th."

During training camp last August, the 6-2, 240-pound linebacker was slowed by a sore left hamstring, but it wasn't enough to sideline him. In the Cavaliers' second game, though, Coley, in a full sprint on a kickoff, pulled up lame, his left hamstring severely injured.

He missed the next six games. Coley returned for UVa's Nov. 5 visit to Maryland and played some on special teams that afternoon, "but by the end of the game [the coaches] had taken me off," he recalled, "because they said that they didn't like the way I was running."

He missed two more games before returning for the Nov. 26 regular-season finale against Virginia Tech. Coley finished the regular season with 11 tackles, including one sack -- modest totals for a player who coming out of spring practice in 2011 was expected to play a significant role that fall.

The injury lessened his impact on the team. Had middle linebacker Steve Greer not injured his knee during preparations for the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Coley would have ended the season as little more than an afterthought. But with Greer out, Coley started and played most of the game New Year's Eve against Auburn in Atlanta.

Coley was credited with four tackles, including one for loss, in Virginia's 43-24 loss. In postgame interviews at the Georgia Dome he gave his performance poor reviews. Some eight months later, Coley's opinion of his play against Auburn has not improved.

"I'm my worst critic," Coley said, "so of course I'll always be harder on myself than I am other people. Even after watching film, I was still hard on myself. If I could have, like, three plays back, just missed tackles that could have gotten us off the field, that could have probably swung the game.

"We had special-teams mistakes, and this, that and the third, but I never want to be the reason for a loss."

Linebackers coach Vincent Brown wasn't as critical of Coley's play.

"I understood the situation he was being placed in," Brown said, "thrown into the fire in a huge event like that. Even though we had significant time to prepare, the practices just couldn't replicate what he saw in the game, and then [Auburn] threw some things at us that we hadn't practiced. It was a great learning experience for him, for the next time."

With Greer still out, Coley lined up at Mike (middle) linebacker with the first-team defense again during spring ball. UVa's coaches knew Greer would be back this summer, though, and so before training camp they shifted Coley outside to the Sam (strong-side) linebacker spot, where he's been starting.

"It feels awesome," Coley said. "I'm very, very excited about this season."

The coaches began considering such a move for Coley last fall. They knew that one of the Sam linebackers, Aaron Taliaferro, would be gone after the 2011 season and that another, Ausar Walcott, might move to defensive end in 2012, which is what has happened.

"We knew we'd have to shuffle some people around, and we thought Henry had the quickness and athleticism to do it," Brown said Tuesday night.

"He's just doing a real good job. He's a smart kid, and that's the thing that really helps him kind of through this whole transition, because without missing a beat" Coley can play Sam or Mike, Brown said.

Learning to play the run from an outside position "has been a little of an adjustment for him," Brown said, "but overall he's done a real nice job."

Coley starred at Bayside High in Virginia Beach. Since he enrolled at UVa in 2010, two more Bayside graduates have joined Mike London's program -- cornerback Tra Nicholson and defensive back Anthony Cooper -- and more are likely to follow suit.

"Let's hope so," Coley said.

Cornerbacks coach Chip West recruits Virginia Beach for UVa. Having more than one graduate of a high school on the the Cavaliers' roster, West said, makes it easier to land other players from that school.

"I think it's huge," he said. "They can truthfully say how they're being treated, how they're being coached, how they're being mentored. I think it's a great thing. They all talk [to each other], and they all talk about how they're being treated."

As a Bayside senior, Coley was a first-team All-Tidewater selection. At UVa, he probably wouldn't have supplanted Greer as the No. 1 middle linebacker last fall, but Coley almost certainly would have been in the rotation on defense had he been able to stay healthy.

"I think he would have played for us, because we knew we would have needed that game experience going into this season," Brown said. "So, with the situation as it was, he didn't [get healthy] until late, and now we just gotta keep making up ground as we go forward."

Brown, a former NFL linebacker, said Coley has "great initial quickness. Good speed. The quickness is more important than flat-out long speed at that position, so that's a real plus for him. He's tough, and so those are the things that will make him a good player here."

Coley's hamstring continued to bother him through spring ball, he said, and not until this summer did he feel 100 percent. In his offseason training, he said, "I was very, very careful with my legs, a little bit more this year than last year. I tried to take a little bit of strain off my legs so I wouldn't have the same thing. I still heavy-lifted, still did everything, I was just a little more cautious."

That Coley will start in the Sept. 1 opener against the University of Richmond is not a given. Sophomore Daquan "Da-Da" Romero is behind Coley on the depth chart at Sam linebacker, and the competition is "close," Brown said, "because Da-Da has been performing well."

Romero, who played in 10 games as a true freshman last season, mostly on special teams, is "moving much better than he did even during the spring. His awareness of what we're doing schematically is much improved," Brown said on a recent teleconference with reporters.

"There are very few spots on the defense that are locks for anyone ... We just want to get the best player out there, and it's always kind of nice to know that if something happened to the guy who does ultimately end up starting, the next guy is just as capable."

Coley said: "At the end of the day, all of us are going to play, but the coaches are just trying to get the best guys on the field, to give us the best opportunity to get us a win, and I'm just trying to fill that role."

He's also trying to show he can play better than he did against Auburn.

"It's still in the back of my mind," Coley said. "It still haunts me. Like I said, I'm my worst critic, and you never forget your scars."

NO HURRY: Michael Rocco started every game at quarterback for UVa last year, and the junior from Lynchburg has had an excellent training camp. Still, head coach Mike London said Wednesday, don't expect an announcement this week on who will start at quarterback against Richmond.

"We're going to put out a depth chart Monday," London told reporters on a teleconference.

London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor want to continue to evaluate the top candidates: Rocco, sophomore David Watford and sophomore Phillip Sims, who transferred to UVa from Alabama after the 2011-12 school year. True freshman Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns are likely to redshirt this fall, London said.

"We're not in a hurry to make any decision right now based on where they are right now," London said. "We're going to take our time and do this thing right, and I want to have a chance to talk to all the quarterbacks after we've seen the accumulated amount of reps and situations that they've been in."

ON THE MOVE: True freshman Anthony Cooper, who began training camp at wide receiver, is now working with the defensive backs. He's not the only player to recently change positions.

Rob Burns, a 6-7, 235-pound redshirt freshman from Northern Virginia, has moved from defensive end to tight end, and Trent Corney, a 6-3, 245-pound true freshman from Canada, is at defensive end. Where another true freshman, Divante Walker, will line up is unclear. Walker is back from an illness, London said, and will be tried at wideout and defensive back.

When training camp opened, Corney was slotted at fullback, but he soon moved to linebacker, and he could still end up at that position. For now, though, the coaching staff wants to see how Corney, who's freakishly strong and athletic, fares as a rush end. 

At the end of practice Tuesday night, the players were split into three groups for a series of conditioning runs. Corney ran first with the linemen, but he finished so far in front that he was switched to the next group, which included fullbacks and quarterbacks and linebackers.

Corney ran away from that group, too, and so he was told to join the skill-position players for the final set of striders. He wasn't the fastest in that group, but he wasn't the slowest, either, and his feat was not lost on his teammates.

"He's got some players looking at him cross-eyed," London said.