By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For a decade, Ron Mattes took a sabbatical of sorts from football. He never left the sport entirely — Mattes volunteered as a coach on his son’s teams — but spent most of his time working in apparel sales and helping his wife, Susan, raise their three children in Concord, N.C.
Mattes had spent four years on the staff at James Madison University in the ’90s, the final season as offensive-line coach. He never doubted he would coach at the college level again.
“I always knew,” Mattes said. “I told my wife this is something that I really wanted to get back into.”
And now he’s back at his alma mater, the University of Virginia, where as a senior in 1984 he was an all-ACC defensive tackle for George Welsh. You’ll find Mattes on the other side of the line these days. After leaving UVa, he played offensive tackle in the NFL for the Seahawks, the Bears and the Colts.
“I spent all those years [in high school and college] playing defense, and I always had a defensive mentality in the NFL,” Mattes said. “I thought I had a pretty good motor, and it got me a long way. But I had to learn to be less aggressive on offense, because if you get too aggressive, [defenders will] get by you quick.”
Mattes, 46, hopes to impart such lessons to his students. He’s the new offensive-line coach at his alma mater, though technically he’s one of UVa’s four graduate assistants, along with Gordie Sammis, Brennan Schmidt and Josh Zidenberg.
His new boss, Mike London, says he’s more interested in who’s coaching than what that coach is called.
“Ron has played the position and has an experience unique to college coaches,” London said. “He’s a guy who has coached college football and has a son who currently plays the position in college.”
R.J. Mattes will be a redshirt sophomore at N.C. State this season, and at 6-6, 303 pounds, he’s bigger than his father was at the same age. Ron Mattes has played an active role in his son’s football career. That would change, Mattes knew, if he returned to UVa.
“I asked [R.J.], ‘What do you think of me going back and coaching?'” Mattes recalled. “He said, ‘Dad, I think it’s great.” I said, ‘Well, you know, I won’t be able to see a lot of your games anymore.’ He said, ‘Mom will be here. No big deal.'”
As UVa’s defensive coordinator, London was among the coaches who tried to lure the younger Mattes to Charlottesville. Ron Mattes came away impressed from his dealings with London, who spent two seasons as the University of Richmond’s head coach before replacing Al Groh at Virginia in December.
“I was excited when he got the job here, because he has a lot of passion as a head coach,” Mattes said. “He’s a fiery head coach, definitely a players’ coach, and I knew he’d do good things at UVa.”
That’s the kind of coach Mattes wanted to work with, so when UVa hired London, “I just sent my résumé up here, thinking, ‘Maybe there’s a chance to get back into college football.'”
To return as a graduate assistant, Mattes admitted, is “a little different. Yes, it is. I looked at it as an opportunity to get back into college football coaching. And if I had to take a G.A. position to get back, because I’ve been away for 10 years, and get back into the football mode and the way of thinking and get brought up to speed with the new zone-blitz packages and what not, so be it.”
Mattes faces a learning curve, because some “of the schemes have changed over the years, as far as what the defense is doing,” he said. “As far as the kids, they haven’t changed. It’s been 10 years, but really it’s the same deal. Blocking’s blocking.”
Resources are close at hand for Mattes. The Cavaliers’ tight ends coach, Scott Wachenheim, has extensive experience with offensive linemen. Moreover, Sammis, who will work alongside Mattes, is a former UVa offensive lineman.
Mattes’ wife and their younger daughter plan join him in Charlottesville after the school year ends. (Their older daughter attends UNC Charlotte.) Mattes has been living with Sammis. Much of their time, though, is spent at the McCue Center, helping the offensive staff build the playbook.
London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor have said they’ll run a pro-style offense that emphasizes the running game, as the Wahoos did under Welsh. Virginia’s ability to consistently run the ball was a major reason the program was so successful during Welsh’s tenure.
“You got to the point with Coach Welsh that you knew what to expect,” Mattes said. “You were always going to have solid, well-coached football teams. The first few years Coach Groh was here, they were winning, too. It was just the last few years, and I don’t know what happened. I just look forward to getting UVa football back to where it should be, hopefully to the top of the ACC again.”
After the Cavaliers finished 5-7 in 2008, Groh hired Gregg Brandon as offensive coordinator. Brandon installed the spread offense he’d used at Bowling Green, but Virginia struggled in the system, and Groh scrapped it early last season.
It wasn’t an ideal situation for the offensive linemen, and their struggles contributed to the UVa’s woes. Among ACC teams, the ‘Hoos ranked last in scoring offense and total offense in 2009. They also allowed 41 sacks, by far the most of any team in the league.
“When you switch from what you have done here in the past and go to the spread offense, and then in the middle of the year throw that away, that hurts a whole six, eight months of preparation,” Mattes said.
He went through a similar switch one year with the Seahawks, whose coach then, Chuck Knox, was known for his commitment to the running game.
“We were a physical football team and ran the ball a lot, the ‘Ground Chuck’ offense,” Mattes said. “But he hires a new offensive coordinator, and all of the sudden the in-vogue thing was the spread offense.
“And we come out one year and the whole offseason, the whole preseason, we practiced the spread. But we go to the first game of the year and get throttled by the Chicago Bears. And then the next game, [Knox] threw [the spread] out and went back to ‘Ground Chuck.’
“It’s tough switching philosophies. So we’re going to get back to teaching football. We’re going to get back to teaching assignments, knowing who to get and how to get them, and let those guys start firing off the ball and having fun.”
Three starters return on the line: tackle Landon Bradley and guards B.J. Cabbell and Austin Pasztor. Other offensive linemen in the program include Anthony Mihota, Lamar Milstead, Matt Mihalik, Oday Aboushi, Luke Bowanko, Hunter Steward, Aaron Van Kuiken, Sean Cascarano, Isaac Cain and Mike Price.
“We have some big, tall, long-armed, good-looking kids up there,” Mattes said. “From the younger guys to the fifth-year seniors, there’s a lot of NFL-type bodies up front, and I can’t wait to get on the field and watch them go to work.
“We’re watching them a little bit here in winter conditioning, and they’re flying around. Everybody has a new lease on life. Everybody’s excited right now, and it’s great to see the kids. They’re in a want-to-please mode right now. They all have a clean slate, and there’s no pre-judging, and we’ll let the cream rise to the top. And that’s the philosophy we’re all taking.”
Under Welsh and then Groh, UVa was known for producing NFL-caliber offensive linemen, among them Jim Dombrowski, Bob Olderman, Ray Roberts, Mark Dixon, John St. Clair, Elton Brown, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Branden Albert and Eugene Monroe.
Does Mattes expect that tradition to continue?
“Without a doubt,” he said. “And like I said before, we have a lot of prototype pro-football offensive body types here on our roster right now. It’s just a matter of coaching them up and getting them the technique, and they’ll be there.
“There’s some big, strong kids on this team. It’s a good problem for us to have right now.”