When Nick Grant returns home to Spotsylvania County, the University of Virginia starting cornerback links up with a current and former rival.
Grant was a standout at Courtland High School and now roams the secondary for the Cavaliers. Virginia Tech defensive end TyJuan Garbutt is a Riverbend graduate.
But with both having spent more time than normal in the Fredericksburg area because of the COVID-19 pandemic they’ve been united by a common purpose—staying in shape and in tune for an uncertain college football season.
“We don’t usually see each other, and when we do see each other we’re not friends,” Garbutt said. “So this brings us closer together.”
Grant has remained in Charlottesville for the most part. But when he is home, he, Garbutt and others have worked out together at Riverbend. Also, former Chancellor stars Jason Brown and E.J. Jenkins lead a group of college and high school players that train two or three times per week at Loriella Park.
Brown and Jenkins are aiming to stay sharp after record-breaking sophomore seasons at St. Francis (Pa.) University. Brown set the school single-season record for passing yards (3,084) and touchdown passes (28). Jenkins hauled in a school record 13 scoring receptions. They’re looking forward to another productive campaign, and making sure their conditioning doesn’t slip.
“Being on campus there’s a lot of mandatory stuff like mandatory lifts four days a week,” Jenkins said. “Being at home definitely is challenging to not sit on your butt and do nothing. But you don’t want to lose all the stuff you’ve worked so hard for.”
The NCAA Division I Council voted last week to allow voluntary on-campus activities to resume starting June 1. Still, the reopening of campuses remains a case-by-case decision for individual schools.
Grant saw the news on Twitter Wednesday, but said the Virginia coaching staff didn’t immediately reach out to players. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall told reporters last week he didn’t expect his players to report immediately.
“I don’t know what June 1 looks like for us,” Grant said. “But it gives us a little bit of hope to get back sooner rather than later.”
Brown and Jenkins said they don’t concern themselves with the immediate future of college football. There have been discussions regarding if the games will be played if school isn’t in session. There is also the possibility of playing in empty stadiums or in front of a limited amount of fans.
“I’m not concerned about it,” Brown said. “I can’t control it so I’m not stressing over it. We just have to see what happens. I know what the D-I council passed and I think they’re leaving it up to the conferences if they want to play.”
Brown’s plan is to remain in shape for whenever St. Francis informs players they can return to campus to train. When he and Jenkins aren’t performing drills at Loriella, they’re at home running and doing body weight exercises sent to them by the St. Francis coaching staff. Brown said he’d be ready now if fall camp were to start.
Garbutt said he’s not in the same shape he would be in if he were in Blacksburg training after weeks of spring practice. He said the Hokies have to perform 300-yard shuttles in 55 seconds to pass a conditioning test when they first arrive on campus. With players at home since mid-March, that may be a challenge.
“That’s one of those killers especially if you haven’t been in the best shape,” Garbutt said. “You’ve got to do five or six reps of them. So not only do you have 55 seconds to go 300 yards you have to do it five times. That one can get you.”
NO SPRING IN STEP
Brendan Heatherman decided to graduate from Mountain View High School early so he could get a spring practice under his belt at the University of Connecticut.
Heatherman enrolled in UConn in January. The Huskies started spring practice on Feb. 4 and was able to get in 15 sessions over a month-long period culminating March 6 a week before the pandemic shut down sports across the world.
The spring sessions were critical for Heatherman, a tight end who hasn’t played since his junior season in 2018. He suffered a torn ACL the spring before his senior campaign.
Heatherman wasn’t able to perform team drills early in camp, but was able to get in limited contact sessions by the end of spring practice. He’s a full-go for the upcoming season—if it takes place.
“I’m definitely concerned,” Heatherman said. “I definitely want a season since I haven’t had one in two years.”
While Heatherman was able to test himself in the spring, others weren’t as fortunate. The Cavaliers and Hokies as well as St. Francis all lost their annual spring session and players said that’s a big deal.
Brown said 2019 spring practice was instrumental in his breakout season because “I was going against one of the best defenses in the nation every day.”
Garbutt said the Hokies are holding virtual positional meetings and coaches regularly send body weight workouts to perform at home such as plank exercises with a weight on the player’s back.
Still, he said spring practice would’ve been critical for Virginia Tech because the Hokies are replacing long-time defensive coordinator Bud Foster with Justin Hamilton this season.
Garbutt said spring is usually when coaches experiment with different strategies, culminating in a spring game.
“It’s really meant to polish your team,” Garbutt said. “Those are the practices that if there’s something a coach has thought of he can see if it’ll work against another Division I offense or defense. I feel from a developmental standpoint not having spring practice is hurting [nearly] every team in the country.”
Garbutt said spring is a pivotal time for unproven Virginia Tech players like fellow Riverbend grad Ben Skinner, a walk-on redshirt freshman linebacker. Skinner is hoping to break through on special teams and also make an impression on the defensive coaches.
“He could’ve used spring to show coaches what he can do and get on some depth charts,” Garbutt said. “Now he has to wait until camp when we already have a bunch of starters or a bunch of returning players that played last year … So it’s really hard for a freshman that wasn’t able to go through spring and learn from his mistakes.”
BIG PLANS AHEAD
Grant said he hopes a lack of spring practice doesn’t slow down the momentum of his career. He made just six tackles as a reserve in 2017–18 but started every game as a junior and finished with 51 tackles, two interceptions and 10 passes defended. He returned an interception against William & Mary 85 yards for a touchdown.
“I would say it’s impactful especially knowing the goals that I have for after this season,” Grant said of the extended time away from campus. “It’s just a matter of still being in the same shape to produce the way I want so I can reach all my goals.”
While Grant is aiming for the NFL, Garbutt is hoping to build on his 2018 season. He started 11 games as a redshirt sophomore and recorded 31 tackles (3½ for loss) and a sack.
Brown and Jenkins hope to continue breaking records at St. Francis. Brown’s top 2019 receiver, Ra’Shaun Henry, has transferred and will be Grant’s teammate at Virginia. Henry racked up 90 catches for 1,118 yards and nine touchdowns last season.
Brown said spring practice would’ve allowed him to build a rapport with other receivers, but he and Jenkins said the offense will be fine.
“He and I started clicking about halfway through the year,” Brown said of Henry. “He was important, but we have other people that play receiver that are good, as well.”
Also in Pennsylvania, North Stafford graduate Devyn Ford will enter his sophomore camp third on Penn State’s depth chart at running back. Louisa alum Brandon Smith will enter his sophomore season as a starter at linebacker for the Nittany Lions. They’ve been at home staying in shape for their big opportunities, as well.
Garbutt said although the pandemic has resulted in limited access to training facilities, the camaraderie it’s forged among area athletes has been inspiring.
“It’s very disappointing for somebody like Nick going into his senior year and we don’t even know what’s going on yet,” Garbutt said. “Obviously we miss football. But at the same time these past two months have been fun for all of the guys that never get to be home at the same time.”