Virginia cornerback Jaylon Baker was not one of the 13 true freshmen who appeared in a game last season.
As a senior at Baylor School in Tennessee, Baker played on both sides of the ball, averaging more than 24 yards per reception and finishing the year with four interceptions. Last fall, he was relegated to Virginia’s scout team, but getting on the field wasn’t on the forefront of his mind.
At Virginia, players have to meet certain benchmarks before they earn the right to select their jersey numbers. For the first couple weeks of fall camp, they can only be identified by a piece of masking tape that has their last name scrawled on it in permanent marker and is slapped on the front of their helmets.
Every year, there are players who don’t earn their numbers before the season begins. Some are still numberless when it ends. That’s the boat Baker found himself in a year ago, and it consumed his thoughts.
“I would lie in bed at night thinking about it,” he said. “This year, I just came in with a different mindset to get bigger, faster and stronger. That’s my entire mentality.”
That mentality earned Baker a spot on Virginia’s first depth chart of the season as junior cornerback Nick Grant’s backup. But seeing his name on the two deep paled in comparison to the night he got to stand in front of his teammates in the locker room and pick the number he spent the better part of two years working for.
In high school, Baker wore No. 7. This fall, he was in the second group of Virginia players chosen to pick their numbers. He went with 39 because he said it was the closest number that fit his position. Traditionally, cornerbacks’ numbers don’t exceed the 20’s. He didn’t care, though, as long as he got one.
“It’s a blessing for me. It’s a big day for everybody because when you earn your number, it sticks with you and it’s a good feeling,” Baker said. “Being locked into that number and looking forward to that opportunity is a blessing.”
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall introduced what he sees as the bedrock of his “earned not given” mantra when he arrived in Charlottesville in 2016. Requiring players to earn numbers wasn’t something he did at BYU, but heading into his fourth season at Virginia, it has made more of an impact on the program than even he could have imagined.
“I think it has been more effective in the context of building a program and restoring a program as fast as possible,” Mendenhall said “So, I think that’s been a direct contributor to our accelerated growth.”
Mendenhall doesn’t choose the order. He leaves that up to the veterans on the roster. So far this season, 85 Cavaliers have earned their numbers.
“The task unit leaders, they’re the ones who are with their teammates every day in the locker room. They’re with them in class. They’re with them in their apartments. They see a lot more than I see,” Mendenhall said. “Our players have embraced it, and it matters to them to be endorsed by their peers to be on our team.”
It certainly mattered to Baker.
“The standard here is total effort, so if you give total effort, everybody is watching you, and for them to select me to represent the standard, it’s an honor,” Baker said.
To be considered for number selection, players have to meet certain physical benchmarks – weight room numbers, conditioning times, etc. – but it’s also about dedication to the program, overall effort in practice and having the right disposition in the locker room.
Throughout the offseason, leaders on the team meet to talk through the process whenever they can get their schedules to mesh. Senior cornerback Bryce Hall said the No. 1 pick is often a topic of discussion during team dinner.
“We take that very seriously because we know how special it is when you get a number,” Hall said. “It’s something we cherish in this program because it’s a privilege that you have worked for and earned by grinding each and every day.”
Mendenhall said the final meeting to choose who picks first has, at times, gone on for two or three hours.
“It’s definitely a battle and there are a lot of debates going back and forth, but when we reach a consensus, everyone leaves happy,” senior linebacker Jordan Mack said. “I’m honored to be a part of that process and see guys’ hard work pay off.”
After wearing No. 37 the past three seasons, Mack switched this fall to No. 4, which was formerly worn by wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, who graduated earlier this year as Virginia’s all-time leader in receptions.
“New season, new opportunity, new number,” said Mack, who also wore No. 4 at Wesleyan High School in Georgia.
The past two years in a row, former running back Jordan Ellis had the honor of choosing first, and he wore No. 1. This fall, the team leaders went in another direction. They chose senior linebacker Reed Kellam, a career special-teams player from Richmond, whose dedication to the program has inspired many of his teammates.
“Reed is just a worker,” Virginia running back Lamont Atkins said. “Ever since I’ve been here, and I’m going on my third year now, he stays to a strict schedule and he does everything and anything to better himself. He’s a really fundamental guy, and he’s been working for as long as I have known him.”
Kellam chose No. 45 – the same number he wore last season. He was caught off guard by the moment, but it’s one he’ll never forget.
“It was a really big honor, especially coming from my teammates – the guys I’ve been with every day,” Kellam said. “I think having to earn numbers has really changed the program on and off the field. Guys have really bought in and they’re constantly doing the right thing.”
The No. 1 jersey is reserved on most teams for the most respected player on the roster, but the Cavaliers don’t put any restrictions on who can wear what jersey. It is fitting this year, though, that Grant will wear No. 1.
Grant spent that past three years watching as his dedication in practice panned out to nothing more than snaps on special teams and mop-up duty. His jersey numbers tell the story of his career arc. As a freshman in 2016, he wore 69. The next season, he moved to 20, which is where he stayed last fall. This year, he’s starting opposite Hall, and his number reflects how his teammates and coaches feel about him.
“His whole journey and his whole path led him to pick that No. 1 jersey,” Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins said. “And for him to finally at the end receive it, it means more to him because he went through trials and tribulations to get to that point.”
Perkins heard about having to earn his number before he arrived on Grounds last year, but he wasn’t aware of the full extent of what it took to do so. It didn’t take him long to become a fan of the process.
“I’m glad we do it like that because it makes it more gratifying when you do receive that number,” said Perkins, who will once again wear No. 3.
Over the years, word about the process has spread and first-years now land in Charlottesville focused first on earning their number and then playing time. For freshmen Seneca Milledge and Major Williams, who wore Nos. 9 and 10, respectively, last season at Dunbar High School in Florida, the journey has just begun. This fall, Milledge, a running back, will wear No. 96, while Williams, a cornerback, will sport No. 90.
“Part of our program is earned not given. They know what to expect coming in, and they know nothing is going to be given,” Mack said. “To earn a number, gear, anything with a Virginia sabre on it, you’re going to have to earn it through your hard work.”