ACC Media Days: UVA coach Tony Elliott and Cavaliers continue to 'do life' following tragedy

CHARLOTTE — Five years into his Virginia career, and with just three carries to his name, running back Perris Jones was a little miffed when he received first-team practice reps last fall.
Nobody believed in the 5-foot-7, 180-pound walk-on.
Nobody until Tony Elliott.
"I begin taking first-team reps, and I was kind of shocked, and (Elliott) kind of noticed me have a little bit of a drawback," Jones recalled. "He said, in front of everybody, 'Perris, I don't care if you were a walk-on, if you want the position, take it. If you're the best back, I'm starting you.
"Don't hold back."
This makes sense from Elliott, a former walk-on at Clemson, who coached at Clemson for another former walk-on, Dabo Swinney. Together, they saw walk-ons such as Hunter Renfrow become stars on Saturday.
Elliott, in his first season as a head coach, came to Virginia with eyes wide open, looking for players who were going to push his program forward. If he could create a culture and a family, as at Clemson, that could bring long-term success.
A year later, Jones found himself at the ACC Kickoff in Charlotte, representing a coach who believed in him, but much more than that. On his gray suit jacket was a pin with the words "UVA Strong," a white stripe beneath it with three symbols, honoring three teammates killed in a shooting in mid-November.
Jones' roommate, Mike Hollins, was a victim of the shooting but survived. Woodland High School's Lavel Davis was not as fortunate.
There are orders of magnitude difference between what happens on a football field and what Virginia experienced during the 2022 season. But when Jones thought about playing a sixth season of college football, unsure if he truly gave everything in 81 carries for 365 yards last year, there was little doubt.
"I have a debt to pay to those guys," Jones said of his fallen teammates, "and I plan to pay it."
Elliott, the former Clemson offensive coordinator from James Island High School, can't say anything in his life prepared him for what transpired last November. Not even his own experience with tragedy, losing his mother in a car accident at 9 years old, bouncing between homes as his father served jail time, could give him the right words.
But Jones saw the man Elliott was in the midst of an unfathomable first season, how he addressed the team, how he made himself available for one-on-one conversations. How much he cared.
"He really listened to figure out how we felt, what we needed," Jones said. "He prides himself on the players, he cares about us outside of the bounds of football, which not very many people do. They say they do, but they don't actually embody it. He does. He lives it every day."
And that doesn't change from one season to the next.
"That was a big message within the program is 'We're not moving on.' We're never going to forget this. We're not going to put this to the side and act like it didn't happen," Elliott said. "Unfortunately for us, it's our new normal."
There will be painful days ahead, Elliott said. Emotionally and on the field.
But that, in Elliott's view, is the power of football. It's a sport where players of all shapes and sizes and personalities, from walk-ons to five-star prospects, have to come together and care for each other.
"Something like that, nobody should have to go through. But, of course, we did," said defensive end Chico Bennett, who chose to return for a fifth season. "It was an opportunity to build off that, and take it, as Coach Elliott likes to say, and turn tragedy into triumph."
Elliott doesn't blame anyone who left after Virginia's 3-7 season, given the circumstances.
Quarterback Brennan Armstrong transferred to N.C. State, linking up with former UVA offensive coordinator Robert Anae. Linebacker Nick Jackson, the program's leading tackler in three straight seasons, left for Iowa.
But Elliott has an appreciation for those who stayed.
"There's a real world, and stuff happens, right? What gets you through tough times is ultimately what you believe in personally and the people you surround yourself with," Elliott said. "We didn't ask for this. We wouldn't wish this on anybody, right, as part of our journey, as part of our story. But you know what? There is going to be more chapters to this story."
Those chapters in the players' lives, Elliott hopes, will not include similar tragedies. But the sad truth is no one knows.
"The lessons we want them to learn is football mirrors life, on a lot of levels, but football is not life," Elliott said. "But we can use football to help us do life and do life to the best of our abilities."
That comes back to Jones' decision to return, to pour everything into a program and a coach who believed in him. To work alongside his "superhero," Hollins, who returned to practice four months after surviving the shooting.
They didn't want to leave Charlottesville on the terms they were given.
They seek a better ending.
"Losing those guys how we did, those guys were such talented individuals, they had such bright futures ahead of them," Jones said. "I just knew I couldn't hang my hat on last year's performance ... I knew there was more I needed to do, more I needed to accomplish.
"To not only make myself proud, but those guys, as well."

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