Max Valles’ first sack at Virginia was suitable for framing. Check him out above, courtesy of USA Today photographer Howard Smith, perfectly horizontal, a good 12 inches off the turf, corralling the legs of Pittsburgh’s Tom Savage on Saturday.
Pretty cool pic, ey? That’s artistic flair and athleticism befitting an upperclassmen, not a true freshman making his first college start. Moreover, Valles is transitioning to a position, outside linebacker, he’s never played.
“When Max first got here, you (could) see that raw ability,” coach Mike London said. “He was a tight end; then he was a defensive end. As we went on, being able to stand up (at linebacker), the first-step burst, he's got one of the quickest I've seen in a while.
“His ability to dip and lean: There were a couple shots there, if you can recall, when he came around the edge, dipped, had the quarterback by his jersey, still pulled him down. There was one when he ran right by the tackle. There was a play that they came to kick him out, and he was flexible enough to kick the block — down on all fours — and pop up and tackle the quarterback.
“There were some pretty athletic things he did. As we go on, his development will give him more opportunities to play.”
Valles’ first extended opportunity came in the 14-3 loss at Pitt, when he replaced sophomore Demeitre Brim as the starter at strong-side linebacker. Five tackles and 2.5 sacks later, Valles figures to be a lineup fixture.
Virginia’s depth chart and media guide list Valles at 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, but one glance dismisses the latter number. Valles said he weighs about 242 — the looks every bit of it — and hasn’t weighed 210 since his junior season at St. Joseph High in Hammonton, N.J.
“I don’t think I’m done growing,” Valles said. “I’m still a young guy [he turned 19 in August].”
Once a travel baseball pitcher with a 90 mph fastball, Valles was a defensive end, receiver, punter and kicker in high school. As a senior, he teamed with Kaiwan Lewis, South Carolina’s starting middle linebacker and leading tackler this season, to lead St. Joseph to an undefeated, state private-school championship. The Wildcats outscored opponents 474-19 and were the Philadelphia Inquirer’s top-ranked team in South Jersey.
Valles committed to Virginia in June 2011, prior to his senior season, and then prepped for a year at Fork Union Military Academy near Charlottesville, where he played defensive end in games and also practiced at tight end.
“I was willing to give up my offensive role so other kids (hoping for scholarship offers) could play,” Valles said.
Virginia coaches moved Valles from tight end to defensive end early in training camp, and during preparation for the season-opener against Brigham Young, Valles played on the scout team, in the role of Cougars All-America linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
“It was pretty fun … playing Van Noy that week,” Valles said. “It gave me a great opportunity to go against the ones. I got to go against guys like Luke (Bowanko), Morgan (Moses) and Jay Whitmire all week. … It (taught) me to know exactly what a D-I offensive lineman would be like on a day-to-day basis.”
And how did Valles fare as Van Noy?
“I got a few sacks that week,” he said with a smile. “I got past them a few times.”
Valles debuted at outside linebacker against VMI, playing seven snaps that included a quarterback hurry. His length and speed mesh well with new defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s pressure-oriented approach.
“I really just wanted to play wherever they needed me,” Valles said. “As a true freshman you just want to come in and play. … When I was moving around, I was going from playbook to playbook. … I’m glad I’m at one position now.”
Led by Valles and cornerback Maurice Canady — told you Tenuta likes to blitz — Virginia sacked Savage seven times and limited Pitt to 199 yards. Excluding the 59-10 loss to No. 2 Oregon — the Ducks hang 50 on darn near everyone — the Cavaliers (2-2, 0-1 ACC) have been excellent defensively.
Saturday’s challenge is Ball State (4-1), led by quarterback Keith Wenning. Ranked sixth nationally in passing yards at 330 yards per game, he’s a pocket passer like Savage.
“I still like (quarterbacks) who run around,” Valles said. “It’s more of a challenge. You get to … run them down.”
There’s far more to Valles’ position than pass rushing. Strong-side linebackers must shed blocks of tight ends and tackles to stop the run, and shadow tight ends or backs in pass coverage.
Can he become the complete linebacker? Junior free safety Brandon Phelps believes so.
“We always knew Max was good,” he said. “In practice, he always showed a lot of effort and promise. He was just like a sponge out there, just taking in the coaching.”
Valles is still attempting to process the progress he’s made and the praise he’s received.
“Honestly, it still hasn’t sunk in for me yet,” he said. “I’ll see people around campus and they run up and say, ‘Max, great game. It’s crazy that you’re a true freshman.’ In my head, it’s like, is this really happening?”
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