Virginia football: Taquan Mizzell is healthy, adding to crowd in the backfield


Virginia's Kevin Parks (25) rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season. This year he will be part of a deep backfield that includes former five-star recruit Taquan Mizzell. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)

When Virginia sophomore tailback Taquan Mizzell arrived on campus as the first five-star recruit signed by Coach Mike London, he could make people miss on the football field.

He could pull off spin moves and jukes that left defenders in the dust. He could be the big-play threat, his coaches thought, that the Cavaliers hadn’t possessed in years.

He just didn’t know how to properly stretch.

“People didn’t understand how I moved the way I did being that tight,” Mizzell said earlier this month.

Mizzell is unsure whether the lack of flexibility was behind the high ankle sprain that made his freshman campaign seem “like a redshirt year to me.”

But it did convince him to seek help from an unlikely source: Virginia’s track and field program.

Over last winter and into the spring, Mizzell would work with the sprinting and technique coaches on his running mechanics. It forced him to stretch every day, and “it helped mentally” once he began seeing results after the first injury-plagued season of his career.

Mizzell did not feel the same after turning an ankle on his first carry against Oregon last September; he played 10 games and finished with 185 rushing yards and 29 receptions for 164 yards. But the 5-foot-10, 190-pound jitterbug is healthy — and he’s wowing coaches with his explosive moves and breakaway speed, a development that has both jump-started and further complicated Virginia’s crowded backfield heading into the 2014 season.

Last year, tailback Kevin Parks emerged as one of Virginia’s few bright spots during a 2-10 season. He transformed into a physical workhorse after splitting carries with Perry Jones the two previous years. Parks, now a senior, became Virginia’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Alvin Pearman in 2004 and is the ACC’s leading returning rusher (1,031 yards in 2013) this year.

Along with senior Khalek Shepherd (Gwynn Park) and redshirt sophomore Daniel Hamm, both of whom have rushed for 100 yards at least once in their college careers, running back might be Virginia’s deepest position.

But finding ways to showcase all of the talent is a work in progress, especially behind a patchwork offensive line that is unsettled with just more than a week left until the Cavaliers’ season opener against No. 7 UCLA.

The plan is to use Mizzell and Shepherd out in space and sometimes in the slot at wide receiver. Parks remains a favorite of offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, who proclaimed earlier this month “our offense kind of feeds off him.”

The 5-8, 200-pound Salisbury, N.C., native will be a stark contrast to Mizzell because “he’s going to grind it out on you,” running backs coach Larry Lewis said. “That’s how he gained 1,000 yards. They weren’t all pretty yards.”

Parks said he spent the offseason working on his speed, hoping to increase his breakaway capabilities. But his driving force always has been the feeling he has been slighted, particularly since none of the power-conference schools from his home state would offer a scholarship after he set North Carolina’s career rushing record in high school.

“People always doubted me, and that’s something I’m used to. I always use it as motivation,” Parks said. “I’ve probably said this plenty of times, but it really does come into play.”

He nonetheless remains a passionate advocate on behalf of Mizzell, who came to Charlottesville with far more hype — and the assumption from some fans he would quickly overtake Parks on the depth chart.

“He is as good as advertised. The kid’s amazing. You name it, he has it all,” Parks said of Mizzell, who could return kickoffs and punts this year. “I’m ready for him to show what he can do this year.”

Mizzell also seems better equipped to handle the expectations, partly because of his foray into track and field. He was a natural sprinter who ran the 60-yard dash at a couple indoor track meets, although Mizzell quickly learned “track and football speed is different. Them guys is fast.”

This, though, provided more perspective on what had, to that point, been a frustrating freshman year.

“It comes across my mind, all the hype and all that stuff, but I don’t let it get to me. It used to,” Mizzell said. “I know as long as I produce, as long as I’m doing what I’m supposed to do, everything is going to fall into place.”

Mark Giannotto covers high school sports for The Washington Post.

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