ACC football: Former West Rowan star Parks ready for his first bowl game tonight
By Mike London
MOUNT ULLA — Auburn is just 7-5 and enters tonight’s Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome without suspended star Michael Dyer, but if there’s one thing Virginia back K.P. Parks learned during his time at West Rowan, it’s to respect every opponent.
Parks talks up Auburn like the Tigers still have Cam Newton barking signals and like a young Bo Jackson might materialize in the backfield tonight at 7:30 p.m. to take his handoffs.
“The way we’re looking at it is that until that BCS championship game is played, Auburn is still the national champion,” Parks said. “I give them all the respect they’re due. We have our work cut out.”
Parks may speak with the maturity of a senior, but he’s just a redshirt freshman. His future is obviously bright, but his present isn’t all that bad, either.
Virginia’s record book underwent adjustments this season. One notable change came in the “Touchdowns scored by a freshman” category. The new record-holder there is Parks, who found the end zone nine times — eight times via rushing and once on a pass reception.
Nine touchdowns may not sound like a huge deal for a guy who scored a mind-boggling 59 TDs his senior year at West, but Parks has an appreciation for the level he’s competing at now. Everyone who starts in the ACC was about the best thing his hometown has ever seen.
“The record means a lot to me, not so much for myself, but because it’s something that the people back home can be proud of,” Parks said. “I always carry West Rowan, the school and the community, with me wherever I go.”
Parks’ season entering tonight’s bowl battle — 661 rushing yards, 4.7 yards per carry — is solid on the surface, and more solid if you dig a little deeper.
He shared carries with two teammates, including standout junior Perry Jones (883 rushing yards), and he also dealt with a severe ankle injury that forced him to miss one game, hobbled him in a few more and limited him in the rest. He’s healthier right now than he was at any point in the season.
“Third quarter of the first game, the ankle rolled up on me,” Parks said. “I’m not going to make excuses, but it limited me a whole lot. It’s a long college season, and it’s hard to heal an ankle sprain.”
It was in that first game that Parks won the trust of his teammates. He admits he struggled mightily in the spring game near the end of his redshirt year, but he rolled for 114 yards opening day against William & Mary.
“I think I spent the whole summer thinking about that bad spring game,” Parks said. “But it made me keep pushing myself and gave me an edge in the offseason. Then having some success in that first game kind of set the tone for the whole year.”
Parks said the highlight of Virginia’s regular season came at Florida State in mid-November. With the Cavaliers trailing 13-7 with 1:16 remaining, Parks bolted up the middle for the 10-yard TD that tied the game against a Seminole defense that was expecting a pass. The decisive PAT followed.
Until that play, Virginia had experienced no success running the football and it had never won in Tallahassee. Parks changed all that in a couple of seconds.
“Florida State is obviously one of those schools I grew up watching a lot on TV,” Parks said. “They had great athletes when I was a kid, and they still have great athletes now. Their run defense was very fast and physical, as good as any we faced, so that touchdown was the best moment of the season. It meant a lot to me and it meant a lot to our program.”
Parks is a big-picture, team-oriented guy, and he’s definitely more at ease talking about Virginia’s strides than about himself.
“Individually, I accomplished some goals and I proved a few things, but it’s the team record I’m most proud of,” he said. “Four wins last season and we improved to 8-4 this year. That says a lot about who we are, and we expect even bigger things in the future.”
Parks has never performed in a venue like the ear-splitting Georgia Dome. He said the Cavs made special preparations to handle the noise volume this week.
Both teams arrived in Atlanta a little angry — maybe a lot angry.
Virginia was pounded by Virginia Tech in a regular-season finale when a victory would’ve propelled the upstart Cavaliers into the ACC championship game. Meanwhile, Auburn got chewed up and spit out by rival Alabama in its most recent outing.
“Virginia Tech played very well and we didn’t play well at all that last game,” Parks said. “But this is SEC versus ACC on a national stage. This is a great chance for us to show people how far Virginia has come.”