Junior cornerback Nick Grant starts for one of the best defenses in the ACC. He has 27 tackles this season and an interception that he returned 85 yards for a touchdown against William & Mary. Virginia’s passing defense is especially stellar, ranked No. 2 in the ACC — behind only undefeated No. 4 Clemson. Grant is an integral part of the Cavaliers’ highly-touted secondary. But Grant wasn’t always playing every down for Virginia’s defense. Before every home game at Scott Stadium, he looks up to the stands where he used to sit during games his first year, when he hadn’t yet earned a jersey number. Earning a jersey number is an honor in Virginia football — a crucial part of Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s “earned, not given” philosophy. In 2016, Grant’s first year, a lot of his friends in his class were playing. That includes senior wide receivers Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois and senior cornerback Bryce Hall. Grant, however, could only watch from the stands. “My very first year coming here, I was nowhere to be found on the depth chart,” Grant said. “I was probably like the eighth or ninth corner. They were not gonna put me in the game.” He eventually earned a number towards the end of his first year but still wasn’t seeing much playing time. At that point, his mindset was to get on the field any way possible. By his third year, he started to get snaps at different positions but still saw the majority of his time at special teams. Then this year, Grant was named starting cornerback alongside Hall, his All-American teammate. “All the hard work in the offseason in the weightroom all came together this year to get the opportunity to play,” Grant said. Mendenhall, too, cited Grant’s work ethic as the reason for him winning the starting position. “Nick is a relentless worker,” Mendenhall said at the preseason press conference. “He's the most conditioned player I would say on our team. He's the most consistent worker currently on our team.” For football players, the number selection ceremony at the beginning of the year rewards the hard work they have put in throughout the season and the offseason. For Grant, the number selection this year was particularly meaningful, as his dedication throughout his time at Virginia had won him a top-10 pick. He went with No. 1. “I’ve always been a hungry individual,” Grant said. “I was No. 1 in high school. I saw [Jordan Ellis] get No. 1. [He was] the hardest-working player on the team the last couple of years, and I was like, ‘I want that to be me.’” Grant has taken advantage of his opportunity to start. A hard worker, Grant also knows how to have fun. Even as he is focused on covering his assignments, Grant — known by his childhood nickname “Nino” — brings a light-hearted attitude to the secondary unit. “I’m pretty playful,” Grant said. “I hear the other sideline talking trash. I’ll smile at him, wave at him.” Junior safety Joey Blount — named ACC Defensive Back of the Week for recording 10 tackles and 1 interception against Duke — said that Grant’s playful mindset on the field is contagious. “Even in the most serious times, he’s trying to crack jokes,” Blount said. “It’s fun playing with Nino.” Bryce Hall — a midseason second team All-American — was another critical part of the secondary, until his injury against Miami. The left ankle injury has the senior cornerback out for the rest of the season. To honor their teammate in warm-ups for the Duke game, Grant and the defensive backs wore shirts with Hall’s number and the slogan “Believe,” which Hall had adopted. The defensive back unit responded resoundingly to the loss of Hall against Duke. “We’re a cohesive unit,” Grant said after the game. “We’re all really close friends off the field … If anything, Bryce going down brought us closer together.” Virginia held Blue Devils’ senior quarterback Quentin Harris to just 88 yards passing and had two interceptions. It was Harris’ lowest passing total of the season. Grant is a crucial part of the unity of the defensive back group. His high energy and relentless motor on the field is infectious, and it extends off the field. “He’s very energetic,” Blount said. “Nick and I have a joke where he doesn’t have anything but one speed. He runs fast, he walks fast, he drives fast, he eats fast — that’s all Nick knows how to do.” This high motor has led Grant to success in many different pursuits, apart from football. According to Blount, Grant is an incredible gamer and was even a rapper for a time. Beyond being a lightning-quick cornerback, Grant’s light-hearted personality and ability to relate to all players in the program make him a glue guy for Virginia football. Grant says he’s open to talking to anyone on the team. “I just try to be an anchor … I’ve been through every phase anybody has been through,” Grant said. “Whether it’s backup, nowhere near the depth chart, in the stands, no number, starter, I’ve been there.” Grant’s rise from numberless to starting cornerback shows what buying into the “earned not given” philosophy can do. His journey is proof that with a high motor and work ethic, anyone on the team has a chance to start on game days. “I feel like that story can help motivate other people,” Grant said. “I see people on our team right now going through the same thing I went through. Whether that’s gonna end up like this or not is just their choice.” Grant and the Cavaliers are back in action Saturday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. They travel to face Louisville at the Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, Ky. — another crucial ACC matchup. The game will be aired on the ACC Network.