The Virginia football program was in desperate need of something positive to start the new year after a forgettable 2022 season that ended in tragedy with the shooting deaths of 3 team members.

This week at the Senior Bowl, 2 players representing the Cavaliers delivered with their performances at the Senior Bowl.

Wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks was the star of the important pregame practices in Mobile, Ala., which were attended by representatives of all 32 NFL teams. Defensive back Anthony Johnson then stole the show in the actual game by picking off a pass from Louisville’s Malik Cunningham and returning it 37 yards for a touchdown to help the National team to a 27-10 win against the American team.

They were 2 of several now-former ACC players looking to enhance their draft stock in the nation’s premier postseason college football all-star game. Another group was doing the same thing in Las Vegas at the equally prestigious East-West Shrine Bowl.

The West won that game 12-3, with Syracuse kicker Andre Szmyt providing the only points for the East on a 30-yard field goal.  

It was an important week for everyone involved, whether they were looking to move up on the draft board, keep from moving down or simply playing their way into a draft position.

Here’s a look at the 5 ACC players that helped themselves the most in Mobile and Vegas:

Anthony Johnson, CB, Virginia

Johnson was one of the few bright spots for the Cavaliers last season, teaming with former teammate (and recent Florida State transfer) Fentrell Cypress to form the premier cover corner tandem in the ACC.

A transfer from Louisville, he didn’t allow a touchdown catch last season while intercepting 3 passes and breaking up 14 on his way to earning first-team all-conference honors. He capped a strong week in Mobile by picking off his former Cardinals teammate Cunningham and returning it for a touchdown for his team’s final score early in the 4th quarter.

And he did it wearing jersey No. 1 in honor of his late teammate Devin Chandler.

Here’s what Ryan Wilson of CBS Sports said about him:

“He’s big, moves well for his size, and consistently battles for the ball at the catch point. There will be questions about his speed in the coming weeks, and perhaps that may affect where he’s ultimately drafted, but his playmaking ability was on full display Saturday when he pick-sixed a throw from Malik Cunningham.”

Dontayvion Wicks, WR, UVA

Wicks didn’t catch a pass in the actual Senior Bowl game. But he put in more than enough work during the week at practice to greatly enhance his stature with the NFL scouts. He was selected as the American team’s Wide Receiver Practice Player of the Week in a vote taken among the defensive backs he continually burned all week long.

The former Cavaliers star, who wore No. 1 during the week in honor of his late Virginia teammate Laval Davis Jr. – stood out because of his route-running and his ability to make tough catches. His performance was important, because after leading the ACC with an average of 21.1 yards per catch in 2021, his production dropped off considerably during a 2022 season in which the entire offense struggled under new coach Tony Elliott.

Here’s what Charlie Campbell of had to say about Wicks:

The routes Wicks runs are special because of his start and stop ability. However, more than just that, Wicks has elite releases and expertly stacks defensive backs winning down the field. His wins were peppered against all the top defensive backs at the event. If he runs well at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine, he could be a real riser due to the weak receiving class of the 2023 NFL Draft.”

AT Perry, WR, Wake Forest

As was the case with Wicks, Perry did all his impressing during practice. Although he didn’t have a catch, he was targeted a team-leading 5 times in Saturday’s game. 

Some of that shutout can be attributed to the coverage he attracted from the opposition defense. The lackluster play of East’s quarterback trio may also have contributed. Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell, Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan and Fordham’s Tim DeMorat combined to complete only 13-of-30 passes for 112 yards.

Perry was already on the NFL’s radar because of his size and the impressive numbers he put up at Wake as Sam Hartman’s favorite receiver. His solid week of practice in Mobile against some of the top defensive backs in his class, only solidified his draft stock, as Pro Football Focus’ lead draft analyst Michael Renner points out:

Perry showed off his entire skillset during the one-on-ones out in Las Vegas. His ability as a bigger receiver to separate down the field is something that everyone is looking for in the NFL, and it makes him a weapon at all three levels of the football field. He finished as the highest-graded receiver in attendance and pushed himself firmly into the late-Day 2 conversation.”

Isaiah Moore, LB, NC State

Moore was overshadowed for much of his career with the Wolfpack by more flashy linebacking partners Payton Wilson and Drake Thomas. But Moore has been a steady presence and a consistent performer in the middle of State’s defense for the past 4 seasons. 

He ranked 4th on the team (with Thomas and Wilson being 2 of those ahead of him) with 82 tackles while recording career-high totals of 3 sacks and 8 pass breakups. Moore’s intangibles are even more impressive than his statistics. He’s a 3-time captain and in 2020 following the death of George Floyd, he started a nonprofit organization on campus called Pack United.

Moore had a tackle and a pass deflection in the game. But as SI Fan Nation’s Ric Serritella reports, he was impressive in practice during his week in Vegas:

“Ask any scout in attendance who the star of the week was and most will tell you it was Moore, who stood above the competition the entire week. He continued to flash during the game, showcasing his ability to defend slot receivers and identify pre-snap coverages. His leadership and communication traits are top-notch! Look for Moore to be chosen in the middle rounds.”

Habakkuk Baldonado, DE, Pittsburgh

Like Moore, Baldonado spent most of the season overshadowed by higher profile teammates, including ACC Defensive Player of the Year Calijah Kancey and leading tackler SirVocea Dennis. He also missed the final 2½ games with an injury.

But this week at the Shrine Bowl, he got a chance to shine on his own. And he took full advantage of it. After a strong week of practice, Baldonado, playing for the winning West team, provided 1 of the highlights of a game dominated by defense. Not only did he take down Utah running back Tavion Thomas almost as soon as he took a handoff, he punctuated the play with an exuberant celebration.

Adding to his potential draft value is the fact that as a native of Italy who only began playing American football at the age of 16, he has only begun to scratch the surface of his ability – as Eric Froton of NBC Sports notes:

“Baldonado channeled a soccer background from the pitch to the gridiron seamlessly, consistently pestering the East team’s QBs with his speed and flexibility off the edge. He’s well proportioned at 6-3.6/257 and rushes with a plan in mind, which is to be expected from a person who speaks three languages fluently. I’m confident “Haba” will find his way onto an NFL roster once he polishes up his moveset.”