By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Long after most of his teammates had showered and walked across the street to dine in John Paul Jones Arena, Luke Bowanko stayed on the practice field Wednesday night, sweating through drills with fellow offensive linemen Cody Wallace and Matt Mihalik.
Bowanko earned a starting job in the spring. The 6-6, 295-pound redshirt sophomore has no intention of relinquishing it.
“Luke impressed me in spring practice, because he’s a tough kid, he can be coached hard, and he improved every practice,” UVa offensive line coach Scott Wachenheim said. “And he continued that work in the offseason, and now he’s one of the stronger players on our football team. He’s got a great attitude, he makes full-speed mistakes, and he gets better every day.”
Bowanko was considered a promising prospect last season, but his role was limited: 68 plays in five games as a backup to starting right guard B.J. Cabbell.
Cabbell was a senior, though, and injuries suffered last season have kept offensive tackle Landon Bradley, a two-year starter, on the sideline this year (and may ultimately end his college career). With Morgan Moses, who played some guard last year, now working full time at tackle, Bowanko has taken over Cabbell’s spot on the first-team line.
“When Landon went down, an opportunity presented itself, and I tried to make the best of it,” said Bowanko, a graduate of Centreville High in Northern Virginia.
“I’m great friends with Landon. We have a great relationship, but it’s a business out there, and I came out here every day to compete, and I’m playing to make the best of my opportunity. I feel like I had a great spring and came out here and performed well enough to earn a starting job.”
Had Bradley been healthy enough to resume his career, Bowanko might not be in this position as UVa prepares for its Sept. 3 opener against William and Mary. Still, Wachenheim has said all along that he would start his five best linemen, and big No. 70 has developed to the point that he might have earned one of those spots even if Bradley were an option.
“Whether the opportunity came about or not,” Wachenheim said, “Luke had taken advantage of his chance to earn a starting position.”
Wachenheim is the third offensive line coach for whom Bowanko has played at UVa. The first was Dave Borbely, who departed after Al Groh was dismissed as Virginia’s head coach in late November 2009.
Borbely’s replacement was Ron Mattes, who was technically a graduate assistant at UVa last year. Mattes is now a full-fledged assistant at Elon, and Wachenheim, who coached Virginia’s tight ends in 2010, is overseeing the line this season.
Bowanko has also trained at center and remains an option for Wachenheim at that position. But Wallace’s emergence as a capable understudy to senior center Anthony Mihota makes it likely that Bowanko will stick at guard.
“Without a doubt, it’s the best opportunity for me to get on the field,” he said, then laughed. “Obviously, like most of the offensive linemen, I was recruited to play left tackle, go to the [NFL] and make millions of dollars. But when I got here, Coach Borbely moved me to right guard, and I’ve been there ever since.”
Bowanko is a long-suffering Redskins fan who describes himself as a “D.C. boy.” He was born in Annapolis, Md., and then lived in Bowie, Md., before settling with his family in Northern Virginia.
At Centreville High, he was a standout offensive tackle who committed to UVa knowing Groh’s tenure there might be nearing its end.
“It’s always in the back of your mind, but when I committed here, I committed to the University and committed to the class that I was [coming in] with and the guys that were already here,” said Bowanko, a foreign-affairs major whose career interests include the FBI, the CIA and the Department of Defense.
“However the situation came out, I felt comfortable coming here. Obviously I committed to Coach Groh, but I committed to the University foremost.”
The hiring of former UVa assistant Mike London, the University of Richmond’s head coach in 2008 and ’09, as Groh’s successor made the situation easier for Bowanko and his classmates.
“We heard a lot of great things about Coach London,” Bowanko said. “I have some friends that played at Richmond, and they all said great things about him. You leave a guy that you committed to play football for, but when it’s a new guy coming in, it’s a lot easier to make that commitment to him when you hear such great things about him, and then he comes in and makes such a great impression right off the bat.”
Evan Marcus made a similar impression on Bowanko in January. After four seasons as a head strength-and-conditioning coach in the NFL — first with the Falcons, then with the Dolphins — Marcus returned to UVa, where he had worked for Groh in 2003, ’04, ’05 and ’06.
When he began his second stint at Virginia, Marcus said, “I think what I wanted to do was just come in and establish a philosophy early and be consistent with that philosophy.”
Marcus’ program emphasizes accountability, toughness, strength and power. Bowanko bought in immediately.
“Luke’s a hard worker,” Marcus said. “He’s made good gains [in his maxes], but I think more than anything, it’s the explosiveness that translates out on the field. If you don’t train to be powerful and you’re just strong, sometimes it’s not always noticeable on the field. But when you all of a sudden get that power component, you will shock guys.
“Power has that force behind it. Strength is just pure brute strength. You can have a guy that’s very strong, but if he’s not powerful, he’s not going to shock you when he comes off the ball. He’s not going to give you that extra pop. And guys that develop power over time feel the difference when they come off the ball and hit you.”
That the offensive linemen have embraced his philosophy should bode well for the Cavaliers, Marcus said.
“You hope your O-linemen, especially, are gym rats, and it’s my belief that the O-line sets the tempo for the whole team,” said Marcus, who played offensive tackle at Ithaca College.
“If your O-line is made up of a bunch of guys that are tough and hard-nosed, I think your team becomes that way. But if your O-line is soft, your team’s going to have a softness to it that you can’t overcome. I’ve had some teams before that had a great O-line, and they were good. The team had a toughness to them. And I’ve had teams that did not have that.
“Luke’s got some toughness. Luke will fight you. He enjoys fighting and mixing it up a little bit.”
Bowanko said: “In the weight room this summer, we work out together, the offensive linemen. Depending on class schedule, I try to work out with Oday [Aboushi] and Mihota and Austin [Pasztor]. We get after it in there. We try to beat each other. It’s a competition off the field. When we get out here, it’s the same way. You gotta bring that physical presence, especially this year. Whoever starts at quarterback is going to be a first-year starter, so we know that we have to set the tone, no matter who’s starting back there. It has to be our physical play that sets the tone for games, for practices. The defense needs to know we’re there.
“We’re still maturing into that role, but that’s our goal: set the tone for practice, games and even the weight room.”