GREENSBORO, N.C. — Though Virginia running back Kevin Parks prefers to keep his admiration of U.Va. strong safety Anthony Harris a secret rather than getting all mushy-gushy sentimental, the truth is Parks sees Harris as something of a hero on the field.
It's hard to blame Parks, who along with Harris represented U.Va. on Sunday at the Atlantic Coast Conference's Kickoff media event. A nose for the ball like the one Harris displayed last year doesn't come along often, even if it did come in the midst of one of U.Va.'s most forgettable seasons.
The man referred to as "Ant" by his teammates has earned universal respect in Cavalier circles. A nation-leading eight-interception season last year has a tendency to elicit that kind of response.
"Believe it or not, I probably haven't even told Ant this, but I look up to Ant," said Parks, a senior who finished last season second in the ACC with 1,031 rushing yards — U.Va.'s first 1,000-plus yard rushing season by a player since 2004. "I really do.
"I was looking at his stats and interceptions (last season) and saying, 'Wow, he's really doing this.' It's motivation. That makes you want to win. When you have guys like me and Ant having kind of like breakout years, you want to win."
Along with Parks, Harris was one of the few bright spots in a dreadful 2-10 season.
Harris, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound senior from Chesterfield, picked up first-team All-ACC honors from both the media and coaches, and second team Walter Camp All-America distinction. He'll enter this season as a candidate for most of the major defensive awards — Bednarik, Nagurski and Thorpe.
Coming off a season like the one Harris had last year, while playing for a program that has endured losing seasons five of the last six years, what would compel him to return for his senior season?
He could've left Charlottesville at the conclusion of his junior year and likely wouldn't have had to wait long to get selected by an NFL team in the draft. In addition, his old defensive backs coach, Anthony Poindexter, left U.Va. in the offseason to become the co-defensive coordinator at Connecticut.
Harris did indeed think about moving on to the NFL, but he opted to return to U.Va. He had unfinished business.
"That was a new experience for me, having an opportunity (to go to the NFL)," Harris said. "It's something that you have to think about for a while and be very conscious of, but I'm a strong believer in faith and getting my education, and loyalty is a big thing to me.
"Even though the season didn't go as well as we wanted it to, I kind of felt like if I had left a little early, I'd be running away from something a little bit. I stuck around."
Being within arm's length of his college degree also steered Harris back to U.Va. He's on track to finish requirements for his sociology degree by the end of the fall, a degree he's only taken 3 1/2 years to earn.
Harris was prepared for what he was going to hear this offseason and for at least the early part of the fall season. His coach is feeling the heat.
No coach in the ACC has more pressure to win now than U.Va.'s Mike London, who was 18-31 in his first four seasons at U.Va., and will enter the season with his team on a nine-game losing streak and 10-game ACC skid.
"It's something that comes up a lot," Harris said. "Whether it's in the media or different things like that, it's something that crosses your mind. … (London's job status) may mean a lot in the scheme of things, but we don't think about it too much. I feel like the guys don't feel pressure to win, but more so (they're) anxious to win."
Harris remembers what it was like playing as a freshman in 2011 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, which U.Va. lost 43-24 to Auburn. He's watched the recent success of the majority of the teams in U.Va.'s athletic program. He wants to be a part of that success before he hands the defense off to promising incoming freshmen like defensive tackle Andrew Brown and safety Quin Blanding.
"We feel like we're ready for it to be our turn," said Harris, who added he hasn't had any problems raising his voice in drills this offseason to express his opinion a bit more fervently than he did in past seasons.
"This year, you've got to be a little more forceful sometimes. There are certain situations where you can talk nice to guys. At certain times, it's going to get heated, but it's in the best interests of the team. At the end of the day, guys know that that's all that we're about — trying to make each other better."
Wood can be reached by phone at 757-247-4642.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun