By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE – The old man of the group is out with a season-ending shoulder injury, and fifth-year senior Joe Torchia is sorely missed at UVa.
In Torchia’s absence, however, the Cavaliers’ other tight ends have acquitted themselves well. Sophomore Colter Phillips is now the starter, and he has 11 catches for 97 yards and 3 TDs this season.
Phillips’ backup, sophomore Paul Freedman, has 4 receptions for 24 yards and a TD, and the new man at the position, Jeremiah Mathis, has 2 catches for 10 yards.
Mathis, a redshirt freshman, began the season at defensive end. He switched to offense after Torchia (9 catches, 113 yards) got hurt.
“He’s been kind of learning on the run here,” Virginia coach Mike London said of Mathis, “and he’ll be pretty good.”
Factor in the scholarship tight ends who are redshirting this season — freshmen Jake McGee and Zach Swanson — and there’s not a position on the team with less experience.
“The challenge is, you gotta constantly teach them,” said Scott Wachenheim, UVa’s tight ends coach. “There’s never enough plays in practice to show them everything that’s going to happen in the game. There’s some things that happened against Miami [last weekend] that they hadn’t shown on tape all year, but because we were successful in running the ball, they put in a new blitz.
“If you had a guy like Joe Torchia, he would have recognized it and blocked it right away. With a guy like Colt, we have to show him on the sideline and draw it up. He may go out there and miss it again, so we have to show him again and draw it up. Or we might not call that play until the next week, until after we’ve showed them on film, because they haven’t seen it before.
“So that’s the hard part. The exciting part is they’re learning every day. It’s like a fresh painting that you’re painting, so every day you get to add a new stroke, and every day you get to see them improve.
“You’ve got a group that for the next few years should provide a strong nucleus of tight ends, and the nickname ‘Tight End U’ will hopefully come back to the University of Virginia.”
Under London’s predecessor, Al Groh, Virginia produced such players as Heath Miller, Tom Santi, Jonathan Stupar and John Phillips. London wants tight end to again be a marquee position at UVa, and he can see that day coming.
“The whole tight end situation is looking up for us,” London said.
Wachenheim, the Washington Redskins’ tight ends coach in 2009, said his charges had their best blocking game last weekend against then-No. 22 Miami. The Wahoos rushed for 185 yards and 2 touchdowns and didn’t allow a sack in a 24-19 upset of the Hurricanes.
Phillips in particular made excellent adjustments during the game, Wachenheim said.
“It just takes a little bit longer than when you’re coaching Chris Cooley,” Wachenheim said. “Shoot, he’s seen everything. He knows what all 22 [players] are doing on the field, and he can come back and tell you what they’re all doing, and he picks up it right every time.
“It’s the same thing with Joe. He’s like that as well, just because they’ve done it so often.”
Mathis was in for a critical play on Virginia’s opening series against Miami. On fourth-and-1 from UVa’s 40-yard line, quarterback Marc Verica, after a play-action fake, passed to Mathis.
The former DeMatha High star didn’t make the catch, but a Miami defender interfered with him. The penalty resulted in a first down for the ‘Hoos.
Mathis is “very talented,” Wachenheim said, though he’s “hit the wall a little bit. When you first move to tight end and you go out there, you’re just doing everything fast, because you don’t know anything, so you just go fast. Then you hit a point where you’ve learned quite a bit and you get conscientious and you’re worried about making a mistake and you slow down just a little bit.”
That said, Mathis continues to improve. “Every day he’s getting a little bit smarter and understands [more of] what we’re doing,” Wachenheim said, “and every day he gets a little bit better.”