By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the depth chart released before the start of spring practice this month, UVa’s first-team offensive linemen included Oday Aboushi at left tackle, Sean Cascarano at left guard and Luke Bowanko at right guard.
Each is out this spring, recovering from an offseason operation or, in Bowanko’s case, operations. Redshirt freshman Tim Cwalina, a promising guard, has mononucleosis and hasn’t practiced this spring, and a medical issue has delayed the participation of sophomore tackle Kelby Johnson, who will get extra work in Aboushi’s absence.
So why is offensive line coach Scott Wachenheim so upbeat?
“We wanted this,” Wachenheim said after practice Monday morning. “We couldn’t wait. We wanted Kelby to miss the first five practices. We wanted Tim to get mono.”
Wachenheim paused to let his tongue-in-cheek comments sink in, then continued in a more serious vein.
“You know what? It’s never an ideal situation,” he said. “Last year was great” — UVa started the same five offensive linemen in all 13 games — “but everybody’s got to be ready to play. So I just think this shows the young guys that everybody’s counting on them.”
Burbank, a 6-4, 305-pound Virginia Beach resident, is competing with fifth-year Matt Mihalik for the starting job at center, where Anthony Mihota must be replaced. Bowanko, the Cavaliers’ starting right guard last season, will be another possibility at center once he returns.
“For us right now, we’re taking spring practice like it’s the Daytona 500 or the Indianapolis 500,” Wachenheim said. “Everybody’s fighting for pole position. We’re looking to get our best five [linemen] on the field.
“So today I wouldn’t know, and I won’t know probably until two weeks into two-a-days [during training camp], how the five are going to sort out. Luke is always an option at center and right guard.”
Wachenheim said he would have no reservations about starting a freshman at center.
“None,” Wachenheim said. “Everyone says it’s a big responsibility, because the center is supposed to be the one that makes the calls, but all five linemen are supposed to know the calls. If the kid was a really good center, then Luke Bowanko could make the calls at right guard, and then whoever the starting left guard was, Cascarano maybe, could make the calls from left guard.
“The center doesn’t have to be the one that makes the calls. All five linemen should know the calls, and all five should be able to make ’em. And they all have to know what they mean, because it changes.”
Burbank, whose beard has earned him the nickname “Jebediah” from strength-and-conditioning coach Evan Marcus, displayed his athleticism in various ways at Cox High School. As a heavyweight wrestler, he won the Group AAA title in 2010 and helped the Falcons capture the state team championship. As a 12th-grader, he placed third at the Group AAA tournament.
He misses wrestling, Burbank said, “but I love football. I’ve never second-guessed the choice at all.”
The skills that made him a dominant wrestler help him on the football field too.
“There’s a lot of balance, a lot of being violent with your hands, and when you wrestle, it’s just one-on-one, and a lot of blocking is one-on-one,” Burbank said. “So you gotta be confident, you gotta know what you have to do and just try to execute it.”
In football, Burbank said, he played tackle, guard and “a little fullback” at Cox.
A 290-pound fullback?
“I ended up with seven touchdowns,” Burbank said, smiling.
His longest run from scrimmage, Burbank said, was 9 yards. His longest TD run? Six yards.
Don’t expect to see Burbank with the ball in his hands at UVa. But he figures prominently in Wachenheim’s long-term plans for the line.
“No. 1, he’s been a tremendous worker,” Wachenheim said. “When he was redshirting, he always worked extra in the weight room, and he’s gotten himself really, really strong.
“The second thing I like about Ross is, I jumped him pretty good the other day and pulled him out of a drill, and he didn’t give me the ‘brook trout look.’ He looked me eye-to-eye, he was ready to go, he knew he messed up. And so once they give you that look, you know you can coach them, you know they can handle when they get beat, and they’ll be able to recover and get better.
“He’s a tremendous competitor. He’s a tough kid. He’s strong. He wants to do it right, but he’s not afraid to make a mistake. So I think he just needs time. He needs more reps, and when the light clicks on for him, it’ll be great.”
When he committed to UVa, Burbank said, he had not looked closely at the depth chart at center. Anyway, he said, he wasn’t sure where he would be slotted on the line.
“Then once I got here and realized Anthony was leaving, I just tried to learn everything I could [about playing center] and put myself in a good position,” Burbank said.
Not every player has the opportunity to earn significant playing time this early in his career. Burbank knows he’s fortunate.
“I love it here,” he said. “I feel like I’m in a really good place. Love the school, love all the coaches and the team. I’m going to try to work hard and execute my assignments.”
EXTRA POINTS: The Cavaliers will hold an open practice Friday from 7 to 9 p.m. at Christopher Newport University’s POMOCO Stadium in Newport News.
The first 1,500 fans in attendance will receive a free UVa Football/STIHL T-shirt. (STIHL is sponsoring the practice.)
The stadium’s gates will open at 6 p.m. Activities for youths will be held on the grass field outside the stadium’s main gate. Also, donations of canned food, to benefit the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank, will be accepted at the stadium Friday night.