Coming off a nine-win season, another strong recruiting class and with Matt Schaub-for-Heisman Trophy campaign materials flying around, Charlottesville is a good place for a football player to be these days.
It feels so much better for those that spent last season at military academies.
For Potomac’s Keenan Carter and Hylton’s Ahmad Brooks, campus life is a breeze now compared to what it was this time last fall. Instead of an emphasis on discipline, like Carter had at Fork Union and Brooks had at Hargrave, both of the Cavalier freshmen can focus on schoolwork, campus life and mastering the defensive playbook.
”I cherish everything that I’ve got,” said Carter at Virginia’s annual media and fan appreciation day. ”Once you go to Fork Union, you realize there are a lot of things out there. You realize that it’s life, and life is too short, so you’re grateful for what you have.”
Carter, who says he will start this semester with a 3.0 GPA after taking sociology and drama at Virginia this summer, does not forget what he went through to get to Charlottesville. Players like he and Brooks arrive on campus more focused and more mature than many true freshmen.
Just ask Darryl Blackstock, an outside linebacker who earned more than a dozen awards last season as one of the nation’s top freshmen defenders. He spent the 2001 season at Fork Union, and has been Brooks’ roommate since the Hylton graduate arrived on campus this past spring.
”I think I needed that,” said Blackstock, a 6-foot-4, 230-pounder, of his Fork Union experience. ”I needed that time to get focused, to know what I want to do. To grow up, and figure out what I want to be, not just a football player.”
Blackstock, just a sophomore himself, thinks that one of the reasons he was roomed with Brooks is because he went through the same military academy experience and can mentor Brooks. Now that Brooks is on campus, many are expecting him to make an impact similar to the one Blackstock made.
”He’s learning, growing up,” Blackstock said. ”He takes his mistakes and tries to learn from them. You can tell he wants to be great.”
For the moment, however, Brooks is practicing behind inside linebacker Bryan White, backing someone up for the first time since he was a freshman at Hylton.
”I do want to play every down,” Brooks said. ”Right now I’m on second string behind Bryan White. My mental aspect is not there, but my physical aspect is.”
Brooks, who had phenomenal size and speed coming out of high school, is a year bigger and stronger, checking in at 6-4, 249.
Brooks says he spends much of his time asking questions of teammates and coaches, wanting to know about different scenarios in case they ”pop up against Duke or Florida State.” One of the middle linebackers is essentially the quarterback of the 3-4 defense, making the defensive on-field adjustments. Brooks is learning not only his position, but defensive line and defensive back.
”It’s very demanding,” Brooks said.
The USA Today defensive player of the year as a senior at Hylton, Brooks won’t be held off the field long. Though Rich Bedesem and White are the starters at inside linebacker, Brooks and fellow 2002 recruit Kai Parham will play significant minutes, according to coach Al Groh.
”If they don’t, then the coach is crazy,” Groh said.
”Me, Kai and Darryl Blackstock, we all bring a different quality to the table,” Brooks said. ”Kai has the strength and power to just knock guys over. I’m the speed guy, and Darryl right now is both. We’re just working hard to push each other every day.”
”Seeing those three young linebackers out there standing together, they’re more imposing, just from a physical standpoint, than a lot of NFL teams,” said Groh, who coached the New York Jets in 2000. ”Now, they’re not ready to play like that yet.”
With senior Raymond Mann at the other outside linebacker spot, the position could become a real strength on the Virginia squad.
”It’s just crazy sometimes, I’ll look across and see the other three guys lined up next to me, and I’ll be like ‘whoa,’ ” Blackstock said. ”I see me, Ahmad, Kai and Ray out there, all of us run a 4.5 and bench 350, 360 or more.”
Like Brooks, Carter is currently working as an understudy among a talented group. But as defensive line coach Mike London demonstrated, reeling off four nicknames the team already has for Carter, the 6-3, 325-pound nosetackle is fitting in fine.
”Keenan’s got the exceptional ability to be good for a long time,” said London, a former University of Richmond standout and current Virginia recruiting coordinator. ”He’s just got to learn the things you have to do to be a good college football player. It’s a learning curve, and there are some curveballs. It ain’t all fastballs.”
Carter says he’s working mostly with the second string, but could get playing time this season. He says his mentors are junior defensive end Chris Canty and junior nosetackle Andrew Hoffman.
”They look out for me,” Carter said. ”I’m like their little brother.”
Just as Blackstock helped Brooks make the adjustment to university life from military academy life, Carter is doing the same for another Prince William County football recruit. James Terry, coached at Woodbridge by Keith King, who coached Carter at Potomac, committed to Virginia but is now attending Fork Union. Carter offers Terry advice about getting through the toughest times.
”I told him keep his head up,” Carter said. ”Go in there strong.”
London, whose own son Brandon went from Fork Union last year to UMass-Amherst, knows how the detour can be a positive for young player.
”There were times when [my son] would call or e-mail and say ‘come get me,’ ” London recalled. ”There was no TV after 7 [p.m.] and things like that. When the only things left to do are study and get stronger, accountability [is what] you learn. Not everybody can do it, but it benefits the guys that can.”
Carter and Brooks have acknowledged their mistakes and buried them in the past. Judging by their wide smiles and eager-for-the-future attitudes on Thursday, they have clearly benefited as well.
”We always talk about it, Darryl, Ahmad and I,” Carter said. ”These other guys don’t know what we’ve been through to get here.”
Keith McMillan covers football for the Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger. Reach him via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at (703) 878-8086.