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April 1, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — When in doubt, maul. That sums up Ross Burbank’s philosophy as an offensive lineman, according to his teammate Luke Bowanko.

Burbank, a 6-4, 285-pound redshirt sophomore, was an elite wrestler at Cox High School in Virginia Beach, winning the state Group AAA heavyweight title in 2010 and placing third in 2011. He arrived at the University of Virginia that summer and was slotted at center.

Early last fall, however, Burbank was shifted to right guard, and he’s been starting there this spring. Fans can check out Burbank — and the rest of the team — at the Cavaliers’ Orange-Blue spring scrimmage Saturday at 1 p.m. at Scott Stadium.

“He’s a tough, physical, wrestle-you, knock-you-down kind of guy,” said Bowanko, a returning starter at center. “It’s been a good transition for him, because at points when he doesn’t know what to do, he just runs you over.”

Bowanko smiled. “It might not be the right guy, but he’s beating people up.”

Burbank said: “It’s definitely a good chance for me. With me getting a lot of the first-team reps, they expect me to come out here and produce and progress as spring ball goes on. We’ll see where the chips fall in [training] camp and going into the season.”

Fifth-year senior Sean Cascarano, who started all 12 games at right guard for the Wahoos in 2012, is now working at right tackle. The starter there last season, senior Morgan Moses, has taken over for the departed Oday Aboushi at left tackle.

The goal, offensive line coach Scott Wachenheim said, is to get the team’s five best linemen on the field at the same time. The starting left guard this spring has been junior Cody Wallace, but that’s because classmate Conner Davis is recovering from offseason surgery. Davis started the final 11 games at left guard last season.

New members of Mike London’s staff this year include Tom O’Brien. Before he left to become head coach at Boston College, O’Brien was an assistant under George Welsh at UVa and was renowned for his work with the offensive line. Now Virginia’s associate head coach for offense, O’Brien oversees the tight ends. He also trades ideas with Wachenheim about the line.

“Coach O’Brien and I have visited,” Wachenheim said, “and you want your best offensive lineman at left tackle. Your next-best offensive lineman should be the center, and the next-best offensive lineman should be the right guard.

“We’re just trying to fit and match. Some guys are better suited to play certain positions because of their body type and style. We try to build the offensive line that way.”

Burbank, who redshirted in 2011, went into spring practice last year as a candidate for the starting job at center. By the end of the spring, though, Wachenheim had decided that Bowanko, a starting guard in 2011, was the best option at center.

“Really, if the coaches don’t feel you’re ready to take the job,” Burbank said after a recent practice, “then you’re probably not ready to take the job.”

At Cox, Burbank primarily played offensive tackle, though he saw some time at guard late in his senior season.

“Coming here and transitioning to center, it was definitely a learning curve, just the plays and how to step,” he said. “So that was tough. It’s just like with everyone else. You have to re-learn so many things when you come in as a freshman.”

At center, a young player carries an especially heavy load. “A lot of the other guys kind of count on you, especially if they don’t know their assignments,” Burbank said. “You gotta pick up everything, snap counts, assignments, making sure all the guys know the calls.”

Guards “don’t have to make as many calls,” Burbank said.” There’s a few calls and assignments you have to do, but center is relatively a lot tougher as far as assignments and that type of things go.”

After Virginia’s Sept. 29 loss to Louisiana Tech, Burbank began working at right guard. “All the older guys helped me out with assignments when I was still getting those down,” he recalled.

Wachenheim said: “We felt we needed to upgrade our guard positions, and we were comfortable with how Luke was playing at center, and we knew if there was a crisis, Ross could move back in and play center. So we wanted to create more competition at guard and have an opportunity for a guy that was playing pretty well at center to fight for a starting position at guard. So that’s why we made the move.”

In the Cavaliers’ final seven games last season, Burbank played regularly at right guard, and “it’s astounding how much that’s helping him out here now,” Bowanko said. “It’s like a different player.”

Wachenheim said: “I thought he got a heck of a lot out of [last season]. He played, I think, over 200 snaps at offensive line and close to a hundred on special teams. Any you can get in a game and play, it’s beneficial. I think that experience will bode well for him as he goes forward and gives him confidence as he moves forward as well.”

During offseason workouts, Burbank said, he continued to work on his snapping skills, so he’s comfortable at both guard and center. Bowanko is a senior, so Burbank could move back to center in 2014.

“We just gotta see how the cards play,” Wachenheim said, “and see how quickly the five kids we signed can learn the system and see their capabilities of helping out and how they fit in.”

Virginia’s incoming freshmen include offensive linemen George Adeosun, Jack McDonald, Sadiq Olanrewaju, Eric Smith and Eric Tetlow.

This spring, with Davis unavailable to practice, four of UVa’s second-team linemen on offense are freshmen who redshirted last season: left tackle Michael Mooney, left guard Ryan Doull, center Jackson Matteo and right guard Sean Karl. (Redshirt sophomore Jay Whitmire is battling Cascarano for the starting job at right tackle.)

“It’s always an adventure when you have four freshmen,” Wachenheim said, laughing.

Matteo is an intriguing prospect. He turned down a scholarship offer from Temple, to which he had committed as a senior at Broad Run High School in Northern Virginia, to walk on at UVa.

“He’s got something to him,” Wachenheim said.

For the first-year linemen, this is a rare opportunity, Bowanko said. “When I was in my first spring,” he recalled, “I was third string, just buried on the depth chart, and these guys are getting 50, 60 reps a day. Getting this experience of spring ball helps, no matter what position you’re playing, even if next year it’s a different position. It’s the speed of the game that you get experience with, and it helps along the road.”

The offensive line, one of the Cavaliers’ strengths in 2011, was less effective last season, and it’s a motivated group this spring.

“We’ve got to get better,” Wachenheim said. “Whether it’s just an inch one day or a mile the next day, every day we’ve got to get better at one thing. But I like the way the kids are working and I like the energy.”

The `Hoos have a new offensive coordinator in Steve Fairchild, new defensive coordinator in Jon Tenuta and new special teams coordinator in Larry Lewis.

“Coach Tenuta’s defense is giving us a lot of opportunities to get better,” Wachenheim said. “They blitz and they slant and they move, so if you’re not on top of your game, you get exposed.”

Burbank’s wrestling career ended when he was in high school, but he tries to keep up with the program at UVa, including heavyweights Derek Papagianopoulos and Ethan Hayes.

“I always see them over at JPJ, and we joke around,” Burbank said, “just hit a little fake shot on each other.”

EQUIPMENT SALE: Authentic game-worn UVa football jerseys and helmets will be on sale before the spring game Saturday at Scott Stadium.

Jerseys from the 2006, ’07, ’08 and `09 seasons will be available for $75 apiece, and a variety of bowl jerseys will be available in limited numbers for $150 each. Game-worn navy helmets and white throwback helmets (from Virginia’s 2008 game against Richmond) will be available for $150 each. All jerseys and helmets are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Cash and credit cards will be accepted, but no checks.

Also, an autographed Matt Schaub jersey will be auctioned off Saturday. The jersey/helmet sale will take place behind the scoreboard at the open end of Scott Stadium, starting when the gates open at 11 a.m.

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