ALBANY, N.Y. — A full understanding of Maryland defensive end Joe Vellano does not stem from his quickness and savvy, though it is a defining trait for his success.
It is not rooted in a modest personality unlikely to draw much attention, though it is remarkable a defensive lineman has become the on-field face of the Terrapins without boasting a boisterous image.
It does come from family, just not entirely because his father, Paul, was an All-America defensive lineman at Maryland. Just take a peek at Vellano Bros., Inc., and its corporate offices just down the road from an airport.
There are no pretenses in the functional building, nor is there with a business now in its fourth generation of Vellanos. Originally a construction company, Vellano Bros. provides sewer supplies to municipalities in the Northeast and beyond. He is down to earth (“undergrounded,” in the words of his uncle Joseph) in part because of the booming family business.
“It’s something you need, but you never even think about,” fellow defensive lineman A.J. Francis said. “If you told me tomorrow that your sewer lines were going to go bad, that’s the worst thing that can possibly happen. But if you never mention it to me, I’d never even think about that.
“That’s kind of the guy Joe is. He’s blue collar. That’s how his family is, and that’s the reason he is the way he is.”
Sure enough, Vellano doesn’t entirely look the part of a defensive tackle, which he played the past two years. He is not tiny at 6-foot-2 and 285 pounds, but he does not immediately stand out, at least until he endlessly scampers from whistle to whistle.
But he did have one demand, encapsulated in an old image of eight Terp defenders converging on a ball carrier that sat on the desk of ex-Maryland assistant George Foussekis.
“One of the things I tried to ingrain in these children from Pop Warner, and it was ingrained in me, is don’t stop,” Paul Vellano said in a wood-paneled conference room at his family’s business. “Pursue. Pursue. Coach Foussekis used to say, ‘Happiness is pursuit.’ That’s one of the things that he’s done. That’s why you see him all over the freaking place.”
Last fall, Joe Vellano popped up nearly everywhere. He turned a fortuitous bounce on a fumble into a touchdown in the season opener. He made an eye-popping 20 tackles in a loss at Georgia Tech. He led all ACC defensive linemen in tackles with 94.
“He’s not your prototype defensive lineman in any physical way,” Terps defensive line coach Greg Gattuso said. “He’s big enough, but he’s not a big, tall guy. He’s strong enough, but he’s not the strongest guy. He’s quick, but he’s not the quickest, not the fastest. But what he is, when you put it all together, is a hell of a football player.”
Good enough to earn second-team All-America plaudits, which placed his in some select (and, in one case, familiar) company in College Park.
References to all of Maryland’s All-America football players adorn the Byrd Stadium facade. To the left of midfield sits “VELLANO DG 1973.” The latest addition, located over the end zone closest to the team house, is “VELLANO DL 2011.”
“Just going in the locker room before we lift or going out to practice, you go out that way and look up and just kind of laugh,” said Vellano, who will play end in Maryland’s 3-4 scheme when it opens the season Saturday against William & Mary. “I think it’s more or less funny, two guys from upstate New York.”
He played on the same defensive line at Maryland as Randy White. He had a 20-tackle day of his own against Duke in the Oyster Bowl in 1973. And more than anything, he’s a natural storyteller who could easily relate his experiences to his children when asked.
“That’s the biggest thing,” Joe Vellano said. “Parents get crazy and children get burned out themselves. My dad was always the first one there and wanted to help us more than anything, but he always took a step back.”
But he did have one suggestion to fuel his son’s uncanny play. For about five years, Vellano took judo classes. In high school, he and teammates at Christian Brothers Academy would roll out wrestling mats and compete in the martial art.
“Judo is pushing them back and when they pull, you pull them down,” Vellano said. “It’s a lot of sweeps and stuff like that. In football, if you’re pushing them, you’re really pushing back and you just dump them. It’s just having a good feel for that.”
Beyond judo, he had an older brother to prod him along.
“He grew up in a football family,” Paul said. “”He grew up as the younger brother. He was always catching up. He used to play with my friends and we were two years older. He’s extremely into details, and I think that can separate you at times.”
Joe Vellano might seem unassuming, but he’s a diligent student. He scours film on his iPad, often keeping several games on hand to view back in his dorm.
For every snap he takes, Vellano estimates he examines it a minimum of five times. Watching his first step on each play prompts at least one viewing on its own.
“It’s really hard,” Vellano said. “They think on paper, yeah, you show up on Saturday. Everybody starts off saying ‘I’m going to watch film a half-hour a day or 45 minutes every day.’ Then you miss one the next week. The biggest thing is I watched it every day.”
Ultimately, Vellano developed a sharp mind for the game. He considers an ability to recognize blocking schemes quickly to be one of his great strengths. Every offensive play has a scheme; know everything an opponent might try, and it’s possible to identify it. The sooner that happens, the easier it is to defeat it.
If he can’t precisely figure out a play, he can quickly narrow down the options based on what he sees.
“The children are given all this information and he digests it,” Vellano’s father said. “He loves it. He just eats it up. He just wants as much knowledge as he can. He loves the coaching. He loves the details of the game, not just showing up for the game and [asking] ‘Where do I go?’”
The Albany area hardly is a football hotbed. Paul Vellano knew the chances of big programs noticing his son were strongly correlated to participating in camps, so the Vellanos hit the road before Joe’s senior year, including to Maryland’s full-contact camp.
There was a bit of symmetry at work. During Paul Vellano’s senior year, the Terps broke in an alum and former graduate assistant as a first-year defensive line coach.
His name? Ralph Friedgen.
More than 30 years later, Friedgen was Maryland’s head coach. After one of the camp workouts, he drove his golf cart over to talk with his old player and praised Joe after he manhandled an offensive lineman twice and neutralized him on a third play.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I thought he did pretty good,’” Paul Vellano said. “He goes ‘No, he did real good out there.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He goes, ‘That kid is a top blue-chip guy. He’s got 20 scholarships right now.’”
Friedgen invited the Vellanos into his office the next morning. Paul figured Maryland was interested but would offer little more than words of encouragement. Instead, Friedgen offered a scholarship.
Neither father nor son saw that development coming.
“I was like ‘Oh, really?’” Vellano said. “I wasn’t expecting that. I thought he was going to say ‘Thanks for coming down, we’ll be in touch.’ He offered me a scholarship and it was like, ‘Wow.’”
A scholarship didn’t mean playing time. It didn’t even mean staying healthy.
Vellano injured a shoulder as a senior, underwent surgery and ultimately grayshirted. When he got to Maryland in the spring of 2008, he had another shoulder injury. Then he hurt his other shoulder and had to play spring ball in 2009 in a harness. Finally healthy that August, he played well for two weeks and broke his right foot.
It was an ignominious start for the undersized lineman. But during spring practice in 2010, Vellano drew constant raves. He made 10 stops against Navy in his first career start. He earned second-team all-conference honors that fall, then was a first-team all-ACC pick a year ago.
And this season? If nothing else, Vellano is a known commodity, a man who has made the most of his skills and smarts to become arguably the most recognizable player on Maryland’s roster.
There is no anonymity for Vellano. Not any more, even if he remains unaffected by the attention and was hardly a likely candidate to receive it just a couple years ago.
“Joe only had one tackle our whole redshirt freshman year, and he only played six snaps total,” Francis said. “He barely ever played. Then something clicked that offseason and the rest is history. But after the first two years we were here, I just thought Joe was going to be another nobody that came to Maryland. I’ll be damned if he wasn’t a somebody. He’s definitely a somebody.”