Virginia linebacker Micah Kiser met Tom Burns earlier in the season and that’s when the significance of the Campbell Trophy started to sink in for the Cavalier standout. When he joined Burns as the second winner of the award from UVA early in December, he fully understood how big of an honor it was.
After visiting with the other 12 finalists for the award prior to the National Football Foundation Annual Awards Dinner in New York, Kiser found himself among plenty of deserving candidates. The cast included players with hopeful careers as engineers, doctors, and more.
”It was really special,” Kiser said of winning the award. ”To be a student-athlete, you’ve got to do both. To excel athletically and academically, that’s what this program expects out of its players. For me to do it, it means a lot and I’m just happy to represent the program as best as I can.”
Kiser certainly has done that. He graduated with a degree in Foreign Affairs with a 3.42 GPA and carried a 4.0 GPA this fall as a graduate student in pursuit of a master’s degree in higher education. He also piled up tackles for the third consecutive year, finishing with 134 tackles to lead the ACC. That was good enough for No. 3 nationally before the start of bowl season.
The standout from Maryland is on pace to become the second player in ACC history to lead the league in tackles for three consecutive years. Boston College’s Luke Kuechly accomplished that feat in 2009-2011. Kiser sits No. 4 all-time at UVA with 400 career stops and his 385 tackles since the start of the 2015 season are the most of anyone in the nation during that time.
”I try to do my best to represent the school, the University, and the athletic program as best I can,” Kiser said. ”Here, they preach uncompromised excellence and I’m just a by-product of that. I just try to do my best with it.”
Throw in his role as one of the key leaders and voices on this year’s team that helped Virginia return to a bowl game for the first time since 2011 and Kiser’s impact on his team’s fortunes – and more importantly, perhaps, the overall rebuilding effort for the program – has been massive.
”I think it is the example because it’s not only academic achievement, the Campbell Trophy is recognizing performance and leadership also,” Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall said. ”If you had to select an award that I’d hope any UVA player would get, I would hope it would be that one because it takes into account the academic part, the leadership part, but also the performance part. … He’s the one that’s really driving our culture and that trophy symbolizes not only football but we call it ‘and’ that we’re hoping to get from everybody”
As part of winning the Campbell Trophy, Kiser spent the morning after the NFF Awards Dinner at a roundtable function with some of the biggest names in football. That included the owner of the New England Patriots, the NFL Commissioner, and many others. Kiser also spent some time during the Campbell Trophy festivities speaking with Peyton Manning, whose wife graduated from UVA, and Brian Urlacher, who played for Mendenhall when he was the defensive coordinator at New Mexico.
”That roundtable thing was crazy,” Kiser said. ”I walk in there and it was like ‘oh Robert Kraft’s in here’ and ’oh Archie Manning’s in here’ and ‘oh Roger Goodell’s in here’ so like ‘Wow.’ It was really early in the morning so I was like let me say something good and not look like an idiot up here. I had to talk in front of some impressive people so it’s been fun and I got to network a lot so it’s been good.”
Kiser, by the way, accepted the Campbell Trophy with a cast on his right hand. That came from recent thumb surgery once the season ended. While the surgery was recent, however, the injury was not. He finished the season by playing the final four games with a torn ligament in that thumb.
He did not expect it to hinder his practice time or playing time in the Military Bowl that is set for Thursday, Dec. 28 at 1:30 p.m. The Hoos face Navy in the game.
”I tore a ligament in my thumb – I did it against Pitt on the punt return for touchdown,” Kiser said. ”I dove and missed and tore it then. I just got it fixed.”
It didn’t hurt his production. He piled up 55 tackles in those four games, leading the team outright in three of them. Against Georgia Tech the week after the injury, the win that made the Hoos bowl eligible, he made 18 tackles against the option attack. In the finale against Virginia Tech, he beat that number with 19 tackles.
The strong finish to the season helped Kiser pile up plenty of recognition in addition to the Campbell Trophy. He was named first-team All-ACC for the third straight season and was a finalist for the Lott IMPACT Trophy and the Senior CLASS Award too. He was a semifinalist for the Butkus Award as well. The Touchdown Club of Richmond named Kiser its Linebacker of the Year for the state. Kiser won the Dudley Award too as the state’s top Division I player.
In addition to those honors, Kiser earned a first-team All-American spot with The Sporting News. Kiser landed as a second-team All-American by the Associated Press, the Football Writers Association of America, USA Today, College Football News, SB Nation, and the Walter Camp Football Foundation.
”My room is getting a little cluttered,” Kiser said with a chuckle. ”It’s cool to get all the awards and trophies and things like that, but that’s not why I play. I just play because I like being around the guys, I like being one of the guys, I like playing football, and I love the game. So it’s great to get acknowledged for all the hard work, but at the same time, it doesn’t really define me as a person or player or anything like that.”
For the past two seasons, the only player to log official punt returns for the Virginia football team has been running back Daniel Hamm. One thing UVA fans haven’t seen too much of during that time is Hamm waving for a fair catch. The Fort Chiswell High School product didn’t like to do that.
“I don’t like to fair catch,” Hamm said. “The only time I fair catch it is if it’s a really high kick and I know they’re going to be sitting there waiting on me. Fair-catching is not something I look to do very often because every yard gained for our team is worth it.”
Over two seasons, Hamm has registered 43 punt returns for 316 yards, an average of 7.35 yards per return. In 2016, he logged 22 returns for 216 yards, an average of 9.82 yards per return that ranked 22nd nationally among players with at least 10 returns on the year. In 2017, he tallied 21 returns for 100 yards, an average of 4.76 yards per return that ranked 47th nationally among players with at least nine returns.
More importantly, perhaps, was the fact that he fielded punts at a high rate. Few punts hit the ground during the past two seasons and regardless of fair catches and return yards, Hamm’s ability to find and secure the ball saved a lot of hidden yardage from rolling away.
The Cavaliers won the average starting field position battle in 7 of 12 games this past season. UVA won five times in those seven games, a huge part of getting back to a bowl this season.
”It is a big deal,” Hamm said. ”That’s part of the fearlessness. They want every ball caught because if you let it bounce, that’s a chance for it to roll an extra 10, 15, 20 yards. If I just catch it out of the air, that’s already saving our team a first down. Field position is huge in games and it’s a big predictor of wins.”
As part of the Military Bowl next week, players from both Navy and Virginia will receive bowl gifts that include a Star Wars Battlefront PlayStation 4. The players also get an American Express gift card and Under Armour Military Bowl gear and apparel.
UVA star safety Quin Blanding, noted as a movie buff back during the ACC Football Kickoff event, had not seen the most recent Star Wars movie when players talked with reporters last Saturday. The Last Jedi is closing in on $600 million grossed world wide to date.
“I have not seen Star Wars yet,” Blanding said last weekend. “Believe it or not, I’m not a fan of Star Wars, but I’ve actually watched the movies and actually enjoyed them. I haven’t seen this one yet.”