CHARLOTTESVILLE, SEPT. 20 -- The cocksure swagger, the diamond earring and the bold demeanor always have been in place. But on a mostly placid Virginia Cavaliers' team that takes its cue from low-key Coach George Welsh, cornerback Tony Covington stands out as one of the last of a dwindling group of Cavaliers seemingly dedicated to outrageousness.

Only two years ago the Cavaliers were a most outlandish hodgepodge of personalities, with long-haired, tobacco-chewing Jeff Lageman; outspoken David Griggs and flamboyant Ray Savage. All three have departed, leaving Covington and sophomore Chris Slade as token boat-rockers on Welsh's reticent ship.

Coaches dubbed Covington "Cov" as a freshman, a sound so harmonious to him that he ordered vanity license plates and dubbed himself "The Cov," a moniker everyone, including his mother, now uses.

"If someone calls me Tony, I may not even answer," he said.

Two weeks ago, before Virginia's first victory over Clemson, Covington had a Tiger paw shaved into the back of his head because, "I had Clemson on my mind. I wore a Clemson hat all summer when I was working out, and {drank from} . . . a Clemson cup."

Covington carries 29 scars on his chest and arms, remnants of a fraternity branding he says "didn't hurt at all." But perhaps most telling is his second-guessing of Welsh, which once made him most likely to be tossed out of practice. Tensions have eased between the two, but Covington -- who received his undergraduate degree in May in rhetoric and communications studies -- maintains a passion for dissecting Welsh's public remarks.

"I don't agree with some of the things he says and I'll say anything to him," said Covington, one of eight fifth-year Virginia seniors competing as graduate students. "If he's wrong, I like to tell him that he's wrong . . . . There are things I say that he doesn't like, but he accepts them because he knows that's how I am."

Covington took particular issue with Welsh's comments after Virginia's 31-21 loss to Illinois in the Citrus Bowl New Year's Day.

"He made a comment like 'they were just too good for us today,' and that got under my skin and was very demoralizing for me and a lot of my teammates," Covington said. "We felt that he was playing conservatively and we didn't get there being conservative. I just felt it was so unfair for him to say that."

Welsh's refrain during the preseason was that he would feel optimistic about his team only if it had a dominating defense. "I was like, Coach Welsh, everyone knows you're offense-minded," Covington said. "It's no secret."

"You kind of admire him because he says the things we're feeling," defensive tackle Joe Hall said. " . . . Sometimes he can be a little outlandish."

Covington has been a major cog in the Cavaliers' rise from 3-8 in 1986. His statistics are not overwhelming: a total of five interceptions and an average of 46 tackles over the past three seasons, but he was named second-team all-ACC last year and Saturday at Duke he will make his 39th start in 40 games.

Some teammates were shocked Covington was not elected a captain, but most agree "The Cov" is as much the motivator as tri-captains Hall, Shawn Moore and Ron Carey. "He'll tell you whatever's on his mind," cornerback Jason Wallace said.

Even in absentia, Covington keeps pushing his teammates. After Virginia started 2-2 in 1988, Covington, missing a team meeting because of a class, gave then-captain Lageman an inspirational letter to read to the team. Virginia lost its next two games, but has won 18 of 21 since.

The surge has given rise to high expectations here of an undefeated season and contention for the national title. Welsh has squelched that talk among his players, even Covington, whose highest professed goal is the Cavaliers' first outright ACC championship. They tied Duke for first place last season.

"I've never felt out of place," Covington said. "If I have to change myself so much, to where I have to conform to somebody else -- that's just not right. I believe in Coach Welsh's discipline but I'm still going to be myself."