CHARLOTTESVILLE – By the time he'd finished his first spring practice under new Virginia defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, linebacker Daquan Romero knew he was going to like him. It was a change to a mode of play Romero got used to in his days at Phoebus High.
In the aftermath of Saturday's spring football game, it's obvious U.Va. still has a lot to get ironed out in terms of pass coverage, pass protection and run-blocking, but the impatience of a defensive coordinator that preaches a constantly attacking philosophy is also clearly rubbing off on his linebackers.
"I love the way (Tenuta) coaches," Romero said. "I love the way he talks to us. I love the way he gets us going. Sometimes, that's what you need to get you going. That's what you need to get to the level of player that's acceptable.
"That's the kind of background I came from, coming from Phoebus. (Former Phoebus) coach (Bill) Dee was one of those type of coaches that would put his foot in your butt, too. Tenuta is the same way. For some guys, they're not really used to it and some had to get adjusted to it. Those (players) that know the level we need to get to understand and accept the fact that he's coaching the way he is."
With linebackers responsible for making defensive calls in Tenuta's defense, and with Romero, Henry Coley and Demeitre Brim likely coming out of the spring as top candidates to take over a unit formerly led by productive linebackers Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds, confidence in the new leader is a good place to start.
A little of the aggressive style Tenuta espouses could be seen in the scrimmage. U.Va.'s defense posted 14 sacks, three safeties and held the running game to 40 yards on 57 carries (including yards lost via sacks). Then again, a "sack" in the scrimmage was registered anytime a U.Va. defensive player even laid so much as a finger on a quarterback.
David Watford, a Hampton High graduate, opened the scrimmage working with the first team offense against the first team defense. He capped a 75-yard opening drive with a 17-yard touchdown run on a quarterback draw. For the day, Watford was 5 of 10 passing for 55 yards.
Quarterback Greyson Lambert got the most work throwing the ball, as he completed 21 of 36 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterback Phillip Sims completed 8 of 18 passes for 89 yards. Watford, Lambert and Sims all had chances to lead the first and second team offenses against first and second team defenses.
While linebackers only accounted for four of U.Va.'s sacks, and 7 1/2 of 22 tackles for loss, there may be more opportunities for linebackers to make plays in the backfield than in the past. There's still work to be done to discover which linebackers are best-suited for such a role.
"I've heard Jon talk about Romero as a guy who really has some skills," U.Va. coach Mike London said.
"Henry Coley is doing a nice job with Kwontie Moore sitting behind him. He's a guy that's pushing (Coley). You see Brim, a big, physical guy to play a style of defense where you can stand over top of a tight end and disrupt his release. Those parts of where we are and who we are with using our personnel are still being developed."
Romero, a 6-foot-1, 230-pound junior who had 44 tackles last season primarily as a backup, is transitioning from playing strong-side linebacker last season in former defensive coordinator Jim Reid's scheme to the weak-side this season. In Reid's defense, safeties were often responsible for making defensive calls.
Coley, a 6-2, 235-pound junior, is the most experienced of the first team trio, but he still has just nine starts in his college career. He's competing with 6-2, 250-pound sophomore Moore at middle linebacker.
"God's given him everything physically," said Coley of Moore. "I'm just trying to be a step ahead mentally with knowing everything. That comes with experience and just being calm in situations."
Brim, a 6-3, 225-pound sophomore from Dundee, Fla., is the least experienced of the prospective starters at linebacker. He played in all 12 games last season, but mostly on special teams.
"Brim might be one of the fastest linebackers that we have…there ain't a lot of slow Florida boys," Romero said.
Romero said he learned a lot from Reynolds. Romero admits he almost came to blows with Reynolds a few times in the locker room because Reynolds was so honest and competition was so fierce. Romero said Reynolds could tell him things Romero "wouldn't allow other people to say."
Now, Romero is looking to channel all he's learned from Reynolds into picking up a new set of responsibilities on the field. With play-calling duties falling on the shoulders of the linebackers, the job just got a lot tougher.
"It's a lot of added pressure, and a lot of things that we need to know," said Romero, who had 49 combined sacks playing defensive end in his junior and senior seasons at Phoebus, but who has yet to have a sack in his college career.
"Reality is hitting everybody right now. It's definitely hitting me. I talk to my mom almost every day about it. There's almost two years left, and I'm gone. It's like a responsibility to myself that I have to make it known what type of player I am and who I am to the public."