CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — And you thought “doubtful” actually meant playing was uncertain? Please. Then you don’t know Joe Vellano very well.
The illustrious all-American, the walking embodiment of the Maryland pride and spirit, had been hobbled by an ankle sprain suffered during a Georgia Tech cut block on Nov. 3. Ever since, Vellano was limited in practice, a shadow of his former self, unable to display the moves and flash the speed that made him a two-time all-ACC defensive lineman.
Ever since the season opener, Coach Randy Edsall had listed Vellano as “probable” on the Terps injury report with a foot ailment. It became a running joke among scribes. “Vellano, probable” was the College Park equivalent to Bill Belichick’s “Tom Brady, probable” for the New England Patriots. Vellano would be listed on the injury report, and Vellano would play on Saturday. Case closed.
But this seemed more serious. Edsall hinted at the severity of Vellano’s injury after the Byrd Stadium finale against Florida State, and even Vellano himself was almost despondent at the untimely ailment that threatened his college exit.
At 6 foot 2 and 285 pounds, Vellano is fairly undersized by conventional NFL standards, but his undeniable track record of success could give him a shot at the next level.
Still, departing Maryland under his own terms, and not sidelined like so many of his teammates, seemed top priority. Vellano took part in early pregame agility drills with the defense, skipping and butt-kicking and high-kneesing slower than most, out on the Kenan Stadium grass nonetheless. Start the game, Vellano figured, and go from there.
“Oh, I was definitely going to be out there, at least for the first couple of plays, see if I could go,” Vellano said. “It’s tough. I really wanted to be out there, fighting as best as I could.”
“I wasn’t surprised he’d play,” senior defensive lineman A.J. Francis said. “Just because of the guy he is. Even if he had to get his leg amputated, he’d be out there. That’s just how Joe is.”
Vellano finished with just one solo tackle, but started and played nearly the entire afternoon, rotating at times with Quinton Jefferson. He couldn’t fly to the ball well, and his pass rush lacked its normal spark. On a bad ankle, Vellano couldn’t break down offensive linemen. He was moving on weird angles.
“You play against these guys, this is big-time football,” Vellano said. “You have to be at almost 100 percent, and you have to be able to run. That’s one thing you can’t really hide. Your step’s slow on everything, just making plays and stuff have been really hard for me.”
And even though the Terps lost 45-38, Maryland’s sixth straight to end Vellano’s career, the senior finished the season ranked fourth in the ACC with 1.54 tackles for loss per game and tied for eighth with .5 sacks per game. Francis was surprised at how much Vellano played, far more than he ever figured. Edsall extrapolated the resilience into a greater message.
“You guys know Joe,” Edsall said. “I didn’t think he’d play as much as he did. But that tells you what kind of kid he is, what it means to him. You wish you had 100 Joe Vellanos. It’s important to him, being a captain, that he wanted to be out there. Didn’t surprise me. He wasn’t the same old Joe, but he was going to find a way to contribute, some way somehow.”
Along a rejuvenated front seven under defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, Vellano was the healthy rock, a stable force even as his senior teammates dropped like flies. Kenneth Tate was slowed all year with a preseason knee injury. Demetrius Hartsfield tore his ACL against Georgia Tech, while Darin Drakeford was out for the finale with a concussion.
Yet through all the hardships, here was Vellano, sitting in a North Carolina lacrosse meeting room with microphones and cameras in his face, as banged up as ever, still pleased he could finish it out on the field.
“I had nothing to save for. I can recover and rest up now,” Vellano said. “I love playing with these guys. Great run we had.”