It was Max Valles’ first time at the John Paul Jones Arena podium, aka a prime opportunity to clear the air on a pressing issue.
The Virginia linebacker made sure media members knew his last name is pronounced as “Val-es” and not “Vales.” It rhymes with “malice,” not “sales.”
“It’s a big thing,” he said with a smile.
This was Monday, two days removed from the freshman’s breakout performance of five tackles and 2.5 sacks against Pittsburgh. It was also just nine days removed from Valles’ first-ever college game, a seven-snap showing against VMI.
So, excuse the media if any name pronunciation had gone bad to this point. Reporters hardly knew him.
Another Max Valles correction — he’s 242 pounds, not the 210 he’s listed as on the roster.
“The last time I weighed 210 pounds was when I was a junior in high school,” he said.
So there’s your accurate, basic background information on UVa’s newest defensive star.
Now to the football...
Valles arrived at Virginia this summer as a tight end. On the first day of training camp, he switched to defensive end. By the first week of September, he was a linebacker. Two weeks later, he had a starting spot on the strong-side.
Finally with position stability, Valles has experienced success.
“It’s pretty good being at one position because I was moving around,” he said. “I was going from playbook to playbook, so it was a lot put on me — just the workload. But I’m glad I’m at one position now.”
On the first play of his college career, Valles, coming clean on an edge-rush, nearly sacked VMI quarterback Eric Kordenbrock, forcing a bad throw and an incompletion.
Valles would go on to get just six more reps against the Keydets and didn't record any other statistic.
Against Pitt, his shutout lasted until the fifth play of the second Panther series.
On a first-and-10 at the Pitt 27, Valles blitzed past the left tackle, briefly got tripped up by the blocking back only to get up and lunge at the ankles of Panther quarterback Tom Savage for a sack.
It was foreshadowing for a banner afternoon.
“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,” said UVa head coach Mike London. “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.”
At noon, Saturday, Valles is scheduled to start when the Cavaliers (2-2) take on Ball State (4-1) at Scott Stadium.
By then, he might be king of Grounds.
“I see people around campus and they run up to me, ‘Max, great game. It’s crazy that you’re a true freshman,’” Valles said. “In my head, it’s like ‘Is this really happening?’ It honestly hasn’t sunk in.”
Valles is a Sicklerville, N.J., native, but spent a prep season at Fork Union Military Academy. He was a defensive end in games for FUMA coach John Shuman, but also spent practice time as a tight end.
His last real linebacker action came during his final two seasons at St. Joseph High School.
In order to properly prep for the season opener against BYU, the Virginia coaching staff had Valles handle the role of Kyle Van Noy, the Cougars’ All-American linebacker, on the scout team.
“It was pretty fun playing Van Noy that week,” Valles said. “It gave me a great opportunity to go against the [first team], so I got to go against guys like Luke [Bowanko], Morgan [Moses], Jay Whitmire all week.
“It was pretty fun. It got me to know exactly what a D-I offensive lineman would be like on a day-to-day basis.”
It also got the Wahoos to see the potential of Valles, who stands 6-foot-5, thriving in such a spot.
Valles is the son of a former Olympic sprinter. His off-the-edge ability blended to defense coordinator Jon Tenuta’s aggressive scheme? An ideal marriage.
“It matches my skill set well,” Valles said, “because I’m a pretty athletic guy that likes to run around and use my speed and strength as much as possible.”
From two-star recruit to three positions to 2.5 sacks in two games, Valles has made a lightning-quick rise on Virginia’s defense.
Remember, that’s “Val-es.”
“We always knew Max was good,” said UVa safety Brandon Phelps. “In practice, he always showed a lot of effort and promise. He was just like a sponge out there, just taking in the coaching with Coach Tenuta, Coach London.
“He’s just turned out to be a great player.”
Vozenilek earns national honor
The Augusta Sports Council and Ray Guy Award announced UVa punter Alec Vozenilek as its Ray Guy Award Player of the Week. Vozenilek had nine punts for a total of 419 yards with four marked inside the 20-yard line at Pittsburgh over the weekend. Vozenilek averaged 46.6 yards per punt with a net average of 44.2 yards per punt. Vozenilek's longest punt was 77 yards, which is tied for both the fourth longest in the nation this year and in UVa history.