Nov. 26, 2013
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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- At some point Saturday, probably around 5 p.m., 1,800 seconds will have ticked off the scoreboard clock at Scott Stadium, and UVa strong safety Anthony Harris' punishment will be over.
Until then, the 6-1, 190-pound junior will wait impatiently as the annual battle for the Commonwealth Cup proceeds without him.
Senior Rijo Walker and junior Brandon Phelps, who between them have three pass breakups and no interceptions this season, are expected to start at safety Saturday for the Cavaliers, with redshirt freshman Kelvin Rainey the next option at that position.
That's not ideal for Virginia, head coach Mike London acknowledged Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. Harris is an All-ACC candidate who leads the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision with eight interceptions. "But that's the reality of how we have to play the first half of the game," London said, "and we'll practice those scenarios and those coverages and those things to try to minimize anything that may cause us issues. But that's where we are, and we just have to deal with the fact that we'll be without him for the first half."
Harris was ejected from UVa's most recent game, a 45-26 loss to ACC rival Miami at Sun Life Stadium, after being penalized for targeting. Under a controversial rule that went into effect this season, he must sit out the first half of Virginia's next game, which just happens to be against arch-rival Virginia Tech.
In the regular-season finale for both teams, the Cavaliers (2-9 overall, 0-7 ACC) host the Hokies (7-4, 4-3) at 3:30 p.m. Harris can warm up with his teammates before the game, but he can't be on the sideline in the first half.
"It's tough," said Harris, a graduate of L.C. Bird High in Chesterfield County. "Obviously Tech's a big rival for us. Being an in-state kid, you know a lot about Virginia Tech football and the guys going into their program. You have friendships, and I've played against a lot of their guys, so it means a lot to take part in a game like this. For me to have to sit out, it's something that's kind of bothered me a little bit, but I'm going to stay positive, prepare like I'm going to be in there the first half of the game, and do what I can to help guys that are in there, and then when I come in do what I can."
He was penalized and then, after officials reviewed video of the play, ejected for his tackle of Miami quarterback Stephen Morris, who was sliding at the end of a run. Harris' shoulder hit Morris' helmet, and a targeting penalty was called.
Harris, who's third on the team in tackles with 75, was escorted to the Wahoos' locker room, where he waited for the game to end.
"It was tough leaving the field," Harris said. "For a second I didn't realize I'd have to leave the field. I was thinking maybe I [could] stand there from the sideline and coach guys up. So that was probably the toughest part."
Of the play that led to his ejection, Harris said it "was just one of those situations where it all happened so fast. You never know what a guy's going to do. I'm thinking he's going to try to lay out for it to get the first down, and as I go in for the tackle, I tried to square him up and hit him legally, and he attempted to slide, and I was penalized."
His mother's reaction?
"She's heavily into sports," Harris said. "I think she knows a lot about what's going on out there, and she watches all the games, even when they're away. I got a phone call from her later that day, and she just said that God has a plan and for me to just stay focused and look for the positive side, and that's what I'm trying to do."
On his weekly teleconference Sunday night, London was asked about the call. He understands that it's important to protect defenseless players, London said. "I also understand an official has to make a split-second decision on something like that ... It's unfortunate. Anthony is a great young man, a great player, very conscientious about what he does."
Harris, one of five UVa players available for interviews Monday at JPJ, was philosophical about the officials' ruling Monday.
"It's just one of those plays where you can't really control what's going on," he said. "The game's played at a high speed, so sometimes things are going to be close. But I don't view myself as a player who targets players or anything like that. I wasn't offended by the call. I know that rules are in place for safety. That being said, if you have to make a call, sometimes it may be close, but we have to make sure players are safe out there on the field."
A two-year starter, Harris is not known as a head-hunter, and he said he won't consciously change the way he plays.
"You try to take safety into consideration when you're going in for tackles and you're making plays like that," he said. "I think moving forward, maybe when I get in a situation [like that again], it might flash back in my mind a little bit. But speaking now, I'm going to go out there and continue to play and continue to abide by the rules."
Virginia's record for interceptions in a season is held by Keith McMeans, who had nine picks in 1987. Ronde Barber had eight in 1994. Harris is the first player in school history to have an interception in five straight games.
"His football IQ is very high," London said. "He sees the whole field, and as a safety, being able to be a good safety, you have to be able to see the whole field, not just [have] tunnel vision on some things. He can tackle, he can defend, he can play the ball in the air, and he can get people lined up."
Harris had one interception and three pass breakups as a sophomore. He's broken up six passes this season, flourishing in the scheme installed by Virginia's new defensive coordinator, Jon Tenuta. Harris' knowledge of the game has continued to grow, and his meticulous preparation is paying dividends.
"I try to go through the week, prepare as early as I can, and go through practice and get a feel for what the offense is trying to do," Harris said, "and then later in the week, mainly on Fridays, I go back again and I circle particular routes and concepts and look at film, just before the game, so I can kind of get a grasp for what [opponents are] doing."
Harris' absence figures to be felt in the first half Saturday, but the Cavaliers' secondary regained a key member last week. After missing three games with an injury, sophomore cornerback Maurice Canady played extensively against Miami.
"It was a great feeling getting him back out there," Harris said. "That was one of the first things I said to him when we ran out of the tunnel. I told him, `Welcome back.' We've missed him ... and I think him being out there on the field has allowed us to do a lot more stuff defensively. He's a great cover guy, he's a great tackler. So him coming back was a great asset to the team."
Harris leads a defense that, at full strength, starts only two seniors: end Jake Snyder and tackle Brent Urban. Only four seniors play regularly on offense: tackle Morgan Moses, center Luke Bowanko, fullback Billy Skrobacz and wide receiver Tim Smith.
For a UVa team looking to end an eight-game losing streak and build momentum for 2014, it's hard to overstate the importance of the Virginia Tech game. The `Hoos haven't beaten the Hokies since 2003.
"It's an opportunity for us to end the season on a positive note, despite all the things that we went through this season," Harris said. "Guys are working hard, we're going to continue to work hard, and hopefully with this added adversity [of Harris' ejection], guys can overcome it, and we can just look back over this season and see how much adversity we've had and take it as a positive note going into next season."