CHARLOTTESVILLE — Count junior cornerback Nick Grant among the Virginia players who didn’t know what to expect when, in 2015, head coach Bronco Mendenhall caught the college football world off guard with his decision to leave BYU and take over a struggling ACC program across the country.
Judging by the decade Mendenhall spent as BYU’s head coach, the one thing the Cavaliers did expect was to win right away. After a 2-10 record in his first season at UVA, doubt began to permeate the locker room. Some players transferred. Rumors swirled around others.
Grant remembers speculation about his future in his hometown paper, but he never wavered thanks, in part, to a saying with which his high school coach, JC Hall, ended every practice: no excuses, be coachable and play with a passion.
Hall picked up the motto in the late 1980s as a defensive back at James Madison University.
“You can’t make excuses for yourself or life is going to be very hard on you,” Hall said. “Sometimes being coachable simply means shutting your mouth, opening your ears and trusting your coach, and in everything you do, you have to have passion or it’s going to fizzle.”
Those words stuck with Grant from the first day of workouts the summer before his freshman year at Courtland High School in Fredericksburg. They echo especially loud in his head this summer as he competes to start opposite one of the top-rated cornerbacks in the country.
“We still place a big emphasis on knowing your job before you get on the field, allowing yourself to hear coaching and playing with a passion,” Grant said. “That rubbed off on me back then, and it’s the culture I’ve tried to bring here.”
After leading the nation last season in pass breakups (22), tying for the lead in passes defended (24) and passing on the NFL draft, Bryce Hall is a safe bet to draw many of the secondary’s toughest assignments this fall. With Tim Harris now a member of the San Francisco 49ers, Grant, Darrius Bratton and Germane Crowell are the most likely candidates to get snaps on the other side of the field.
Complications from concussions kept Crowell out of action for much of last season, and he was limited this spring. Bratton started the first few games last fall before Harris took over. Grant appeared in 12 games, mostly on special teams, but during the spring game in April, the two of them rarely left the field.
“I’m just proving a point,” Grant said. “Not letting any distractions or doubt enter my mind, just making plays and making the team better.”
Grant doesn’t begrudge any of his former teammates who decided to leave after the 2016 season. He understands it had to happen to make last fall’s run to a Belk Bowl victory possible.
“[Mendenhall] always said, ‘It’s not when but with whom we are going to be successful,’” Grant said. “A lot of people left, but that’s just part of the growing pains of an old culture changing to a new culture.”
Grant originally was recruited by former head coach Mike London’s staff. He said London was toying with the idea of playing him on offense and defense, but he joined the team as a wide receiver. That immediately changed when Mendenhall took over, much to Grant’s delight.
“I think I’ve always preferred defense,” Grant said. “Having been here going on four years, I know the scheme and playbook, and between last year and this year, I’ve worked hard to improve my ability to make plays with the ball in the air. That’s going to help me get on the field.”
Much of Grant’s focus since he arrived at UVA has been on growing physically. As a freshman, he weighed in at 170 pounds. Now, he’s tipping the scales at around 200 pounds, and he’s comfortable playing outside the hash marks or in the slot.
“We learn everyone’s position so we’re interchangeable,” Grant said. “We all push each other, but we’re not a selfish group. We want everybody to succeed, and we’re not going to let each other slip.”
In 17 years at Courtland, Hall turned the Cougars into perennial postseason contenders. He’s had them in the playoffs in nine of the past 10 seasons, but he said in 2015 — Grant’s senior season — he coached the most talented team of his career.
With Grant and Allen on the outside, and Vic Green, George Cheatham and Blair Lawson all eclipsing 1,000 rushing yards, the Cougars finished 11-3 and fell to Lake Taylor in the Class 4 state semifinals. Hall said the most impressive thing about Grant that year was how he carried himself on the field.
“Each and every Friday night, Nick Grant thought he was the best football player on the field. Whether he was or he wasn’t, he thought he was,” Hall said. “Still to this day he probably has that kind of confidence on the field.”
Grant had the confidence to stay at Virginia despite an uncertain future, and he has the confidence to help the Cavaliers fulfill their defensive potential this fall.
“We know we have the talent to be one of the best defenses in the ACC and the country,” Grant said. “That 2-10 season was a launching point, ground zero. We’re only going up from here.”