Virginia tailback Wali Lundy has learned not to take full health for granted. By the second week of last season, Lundy had already been dealing with a hamstring injury for several weeks. He hurt his foot later in the season.
But one game into this season, Lundy says he feels great, and that could be bad news for Cavaliers' opponents.
"I feel real good," the 5-foot-10, 214-pound junior said. "I feel the best I've felt since I've been here."
That was evident in Virginia's season-opening, 44-14 win at Temple, when Lundy gained 104 of the team's 286 rushing yards -- the Cavaliers' highest total in nearly six years -- and ran for three touchdowns. There could be more of that Saturday against a North Carolina defense that last year was among the worst in the country and recently lost its best defensive lineman, Chase Page, for the season.
As a team, the Cavaliers have every intention of making this the season their running game becomes dominant. Nearly every member of the operation has one or two years of game experience, including Lundy, senior tailback Alvin Pearman and a veteran offensive line UNC Coach John Bunting praised this week as the best he has seen in his three-plus seasons with the Tar Heels.
"I think our team has evolved into a team that has its best capability yet at running the ball," Virginia Coach Al Groh said. "So we're going to do that. . . . We need to make it a reality rather than just something that we were talking about."
That could mean more recognition for Lundy, a third-year starter who earned some preseason buzz after making the all-ACC second team last season with 929 rushing yards. If there are more carries and more yards to go around, perhaps Lundy can boost his aggregate total despite sharing carries with Pearman and speedy sophomore Michael Johnson, the other talented backs the Cavaliers are determined to get on the field.
"It's great for us that we have so many backs that we can rely on," center Zac Yarbrough said, "but I'm sure if he was running the ball by himself, if he was the only guy, he'd definitely be up there with everybody else" nationally in rushing totals.
Coaches who have to scheme against Lundy already know how dangerous he can be.
"I've seen enough," Bunting said. "I kind of wish he was a senior and graduating so I wouldn't have to see him anymore. . . . He can do anything. The guy is the total package. He certainly isn't underrated in my eyes."
Lundy leads all active ACC running backs with eight 100-yard games, but he is still looking for his first 1,000-yard season. To get it this season, he spent the spring and summer under the tutelage of second-year strength and conditioning coach Evan Marcus. Like the linemen who will pave his way, Lundy emerged stronger and more powerful.
He also improved his flexibility and, he hopes, his durability, aiming to avoid injuries like the hamstring pull that nagged him early last season. So far, it has paid off.
"Usually at halftime I'm kind of tired and I've got to get an I.V.," Lundy said, "but I really felt a lot stronger after halftime [in the season opener]. I felt like I was coming in the game fresh."
None of his three touchdown runs against Temple was longer than six yards, but each showed why he gets the call when the Cavaliers have the ball in short-yardage situations.
On the first, Lundy was supposed to be led around left end by right guard Elton Brown, but Brown got held up coming down the line of scrimmage, leaving Lundy alone against Temple linebacker Rian "Goo" Wallace and safety Sadeke Konte. The two Owls were in great position to stop Lundy for a loss, but he outran them to the corner of the end zone.
Lundy showed power on his second score, plowing up the middle even after 315-pound defensive tackle Randy Johnson slid down the line and hit him at the 1-yard line. The third touchdown was more of the same, except perhaps more impressive. Lundy met opposition as he ran right and tried to turn the corner, but he ran out of Durrel Davis's tackle attempt, lowered his shoulder to knock down Jamil Porter, and reached the end zone with a block from wide receiver Michael McGrew.
Two seasons of that, and Lundy might start to earn attention outside the ACC.
"He's got his best time in front of him yet to establish exactly what his rating is," Groh said. "I've always felt that most players become really good players around their third year, regardless of how much they played beforehand. He's in his third year."