NEWPORT NEWS — Running through practice drills last spring at Virginia, the challenge of having to learn a new position in unfamiliar territory made Daquan Romero's head swim.
Not having a single clue what anybody was talking about also didn't help. It was a ready-made recipe for a freshman to flounder, and Romero did just that for a little while.
"I didn't know anything about coverages or terminology or any of that," said Romero, a Phoebus High graduate. "That's not something I really needed to know anything about in high school."
At Phoebus, Romero's job was as straightforward as it gets — seek and destroy from the defensive end position. He did it extremely well, racking up a combined 49 sacks in his final two seasons.
When he got to U.Va. in January 2011 as an early enrollee, the quick, athletic frame of a 207-pound kid would no longer cut it as a defensive end, so he was moved to linebacker. His education as a linebacker lasted all year, but it's starting to sink in now.
Romero, who participated Friday night in a spring practice with his U.Va. teammates at Christopher Newport University, is vying this spring for a starting job at outside linebacker and taking first team reps in practices.
"Even other coaches on the staff made the comment that he looks like a college linebacker now," U.Va. linebackers coach Vincent Brown said. "It takes a little time. … He looks the part, and he's starting to show that he can be a player for us."
Transforming his body was a big part of Romero's transition to becoming a linebacker. He said he beefed up to 230 pounds last season, but the weight "didn't feel like the normal me." It contributed to his loss of confidence.
"When you're used to being the man in high school, and you come in here, it's not the same," Romero said. "Everybody around here is on the same level and came from a great high school. They were the man at their school, so you've got to be prepared to turn it up a notch. It's not easy to come out here and play as a freshman. It's not easy at all."
Romero worked with Evan Marcus, U.Va.'s director of football training and player development, to better distribute the extra weight. Now, Romero is far more comfortable this spring playing between 230 and 235 pounds, and his poise has returned.
"He's pleasantly surprised us," U.Va. coach Mike London said. "He's worked hard in the classroom. He's gotten his body into shape and he's probably one of the hardest workers that we've got here. Certainly, coach Evan Marcus will attest to that. His learning curve should also be that he knows the calls, he knows the run fits and, so now, it's just time for him to turn it loose. He's gone through the process here. We're kind of light at the linebacker position right now, so all he's going to get is reps."
While not having a firm grip on what he was doing last season certainly contributed to tentativeness, a nagging hamstring injury only increased his aggravation. Brown knew what Romero was enduring.
"You can just see when a guy is frustrated by his performance, or lack thereof," Brown said. "He just never really got into the full flow of things. I told him throughout the course of the offseason that he did a very good job and that it's very difficult for a freshman to come into that position and make an impact. That's even if he'd played linebacker in high school. He's started to understand that. It's allowing his natural ability to show up."
Romero's comfort level has also risen as his grasp of what he's been charged with learning at the linebacker spot has increased.
In addition to spending extra time in the film room with returning starting linebackers Steve Greer (team leader last season with 103 tackles; out for spring with knee injury) and LaRoy Reynolds (second on team last season with 88 tackles), Romero has done what Brown calls "teaching your eyes."
"If I see that guard pulling, or that tackle pulling this way or that way, I know exactly what the play is doing," said Romero, who had 13 tackles last season in 10 games. "When the back takes his steps, I know exactly if it's a zone read or a belly (play). It's just little stuff that means the most right now."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun