Jan. 17, 2013

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — When football season ended for UVa in late November, offensive line coach Scott Wachenheim would have put the odds of Morgan Moses returning for his senior season at 50/50.

A few weeks later, Wachenheim recalled Wednesday, “I thought our chances were much lower than that.” But the Cavaliers’ coaching staff didn’t lose hope.

In his conversations with Moses over the years, Wachenheim said, “Morgan always expressed to me a huge desire to graduate from the University of Virginia. And so we really just went about re-recruiting Morgan, and we showed him all the things that a Virginia degree will do.

“We showed him how we were going to help him ensure that he gets one. I just think he had some concerns that needed to be addressed, and he just wanted to be sure that everything was in place for him to be successful.”

A three-year starter at offensive tackle, the 6-6, 325-pound Moses heard from teammates, too. His fellow linemen, along with tailback Kevin Parks and quarterback David Watford, were among those who reached out to Moses to “tell him how bad we wanted him on the team and to be a part of what we are doing,” Wachenheim said.

In the end, of course, Moses decided to put his NFL dreams on hold for a year. After the news began to circulate Jan. 4, Moses confirmed his decision with a late-night tweet.

“It was a long shot,” Wachenheim said, “but I think it’s in the best interests of the player and also in the best interests of our team.”

Moses’ decision means Wachenheim must replace only one of his 2012 starters — Oday Aboushi, who’s expected to be selected in the upcoming NFL draft. Moses, who has played mostly on the right side, will replace Aboushi at left tackle.

“Really he’s more natural on the left side,” Wachenheim said. “He’s a better left tackle than a right tackle, so we’re excited to have him there.”

The Wahoos’ other returning linemen include rising senior Sean Cascarano, who started all 12 games at right guard; rising senior Luke Bowanko, who started every game at center; rising junior Conner Davis, who started 11 games at left guard; rising junior Cody Wallace, who started one game at left guard; rising sophomore Jay Whitmire, who started one game at right tackle; rising sophomore Ross Burbank, who can play both guard and center; and rising sophomore Kelby Johnson, who played in four games as a true freshman in 2011 before redshirting in ’12.

“So we got a lot of guys that have played in games that should be competent,” Wachenheim said, “and we’ll try and figure out this spring, through practice, who the best five are and put them where they need to be to be successful and for us to be successful.”

The 6-7, 300-pound Johnson is one of the team’s most physically imposing players, but he has struggled to gain traction at UVa.

“He is going to be a question mark this spring,” Wachenheim said. “He could be very, very high, or he could be not as high. Time’s going to tell for Kelby. The jury’s still out. But he’s talented, and I hope that he is playing at a very high level by next season.”

Bowanko, a starting guard for Virginia in 2011, almost certainly will remain at center this year, Wachenheim said.

“Luke, obviously, played at a very high level last year, and I think Morgan played at a high level,” Wachenheim said. “I think every other offensive line position is up for grabs.”

Four freshmen who redshirted in 2012, Wachenheim said, could crack the two-deep this year: tackle Michael Mooney, guards Sean Karl and Ryan Doull, and center Jackson Matteo, a walk-on from Broad Run High in Northern Virginia.

“They’re all big enough, they’re all strong enough, they all got a little attitude to them,” Wachenheim said. “We just gotta see how they go. They had a whole year to learn the system, so they know what to do now. I think the competition will be at a high level, and hey, when you go 4-8, everybody’s job is up for grabs.”

Moses, who’s from the Richmond area, was a Parade All-American at Meadowbrook High School. He spent the 2009-10 academic year at Fork Union Military Academy, where he played for the postgraduate team, before enrolling at UVa in June 2010.

He started seven games as a true freshman, including one at guard, and all 13 games at right tackle in 2011. As a junior in 2012, Moses was an honorable-mention selection on the inaugural coaches’ All-ACC team.

The Cavaliers’ offensive line struggled in 2012, and many fans singled out Moses for criticism. It was not deserved, Wachenheim said.

“He only gave up three sacks all year, and one of them was against Maryland, a couple plays after he had a concussion that nobody knew about,” Wachenheim said. “Then we got him evaluated and took him out of the game. But after that game, he didn’t give up another one [all season].

“What happens with linemen is, they’re blocking their guy, they’re blocking their guy, they’re blocking their guy, and you don’t notice them. And then all of the sudden a guy beats them, and you notice the one play out of 70 they miss, and the next thing, everybody’s writing about, `Well, Morgan didn’t have a good game.’ Well, what do you mean? Sixty-nine out of 70 plays he blocked his guy. You just saw the one play he didn’t.”

Wachenheim, a former offensive lineman at the U.S. Air Force Academy, is part of a staff that recently added, among other assistants, Tom O’Brien. Most recently, of course, O’Brien was head coach at NC State, but he worked primarily with offensive linemen during his 15 seasons (1982-96) as a UVa assistant.

“It’s great having Coach O’Brien on the staff, an established head coach and established offensive line coach to talk about things with,” Wachenheim said. “We talked about how you build the line, and both of us we were 100 percent in agreement that, No. 1, you’ve got to have a great left tackle, and then you’ve got to have a really good center.”

In Moses and Bowanko, Wachenheim believes, UVa has those players. Who plays alongside them is still to be determined.

“I’m an Air Force guy, and in the Air Force they taught us that flexibility is the key to air power,” Wachenheim said. “We’d like to figure out who the five starters are and who the five backups are and keep them all in those spots, and let them learn how to communicate and work together, but we’ve got to be flexible, with the ability to move a Burbank to center, if that’s in the best interest of the team, or to a guard. Even Cody Wallace has played center.”

A year ago, the `Hoos went through spring practice without Aboushi, Bowanko and Cascarano, each of whom was rehabbing from an operation — or, in Bowanko’s case, two operations.

As spring practice approaches this year, Wachenheim’s group is considerably healthier. “We’re looking forward to it,” he said. “We’re excited about turning the team around again.”

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