Valles photo

Max Valles, 18, of Winslow,works out, Friday Dec. 28, 2012, at St. Joseph HIgh School in Hammonton.

Michael Ein

Fork Union Military Academy was not part of Max Valles’ plan.

The former St. Joseph High School football star expected to be playing for the University of Virginia this season rather than attending prep school.

But after some initial struggles, Valles is excited about the path he chose. He plans to play for Virginia next season, and by the time he gets there he could be ready for immediate playing time.

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“It was pretty difficult because coming out of high school, I was always, like, that guy — that guy who was going to be big,” said Valles, the 2011 Press Male Co-Athlete of the Fall. “Then I had to go do a prep year. So it was really tough on me mentally. But I got through it.”

Valles, who turned 18 in August, had to prep for a year because he qualified too late academically for the NCAA. But he said he has gotten straight A’s at Fork Union, which is about a 30-minute drive from Virginia’s campus in Charlottesville, Va. He’s home on break but will return to school Thursday.

Valles also has grown one inch and put on 15 pounds of muscle, now checking in at 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds.

He played tight end and defensive end for Fork Union, which he said includes about 17 players who have committed to NCAA Division I programs such as Miami, North Carolina State, Texas A&M and Temple. The school has 31 alumni on college teams that are playing in bowl games this season, including Egg Harbor Township High School graduate Tejay Johnson at Rutgers.

Fork Union went 6-3 this season against a schedule of other postgraduate schools, junior colleges and NCAA freshman squads. The team’s statistics were unavailable, but Valles said the season went well.

His parents, Paul and Pamela, drove down from their Winslow Township home for every game, and Paul said he was surprised at how well Max developed.

“I was just amazed at how quick he was,” Paul Valles said. “He was lining up in the D-end position and before the ball was in the quarterback’s hands he was there. To see him do that against high school kids was one thing. Then to see him, I realized at that point, the kid’s definitely — no ifs, ands or buts — ready to play at the next level.”

Paul Valles credited St. Joseph coach Paul Sacco with preparing his son well.

“They had a whole bunch of D-I prospects out there,” Paul Valles said. “Excellent athletes. Studs. The one thing that I did notice most of all was that there were kids out there that were coached and (others) that were well-coached. My son was well-coached.”

The younger Valles was so impressive that several of Virginia’s rivals in the Atlantic Coast Conference sent coaches to recruit him, hoping he would change his commitment. He had to dispel some unrest among Virginia fans by posting on Twitter earlier this month that he was still committed to the Cavaliers.

Valles has made a few trips to Charlottesville to hang out with his future teammates. The military lifestyle has been an easy adjustment because his dad made him attend the police academy for a week last year, but Valles still needed to get away from Fork Union occasionally.

“The toughest part is there’s really nothing to do,” he said. “It’s really boring there.”

Valles said his friend Kaiwan Lewis, a St. Joseph alumnus and the other Co-Male Athlete of the Fall last year, helped him get through some of the difficult times. They spoke about once a week.

“He was very encouraging because a lot of times I wanted to just go home and say, ‘The heck with it,’ ” Valles said of Lewis, who played for the University of South Carolina this season. “But he was one of the main people who encouraged me to stay and get through it.”

Valles will head to Charlottesville in late June for the summer semester. He said he has been told by the Virginia coaching staff that he will be one of the top two tight ends on the depth chart next season.

When he finally takes the field, he can get back to being “that guy.”

“It’s going to be a good moment so everybody can finally see me play from home,” Valles said.

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