By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Of the UVa football team’s top five offensive linemen in 2013, two (Morgan Moses and Luke Bowanko) are now in the NFL, and another (Jay Whitmire) has a back injury that is likely to prevent him from playing this season.
Given such heavy losses, the offensive line understandably was considered Virginia’s biggest question mark heading into the team’s fifth season under head coach Mike London. Through seven games, however, the concerns about the line have proved unfounded.
Only one ACC team, Duke (four), has allowed fewer sacks than UVa (five), which is tied for fifth nationally in that category. Moreover, the Cavaliers have averaged 202.3 yards rushing in their past four games. And they’ve done all that in unconventional fashion, playing nine offensive linemen most games.
“Football is a game of injuries,” London said Monday at John Paul Jones Arena, “but it’s also a game of `next man up,’ and collectively as a group they have responded. They have performed, and they’ve been a pleasant surprise in that they’ve played [well against] a lot of good teams.”
The tackles are sophomores Eric Smith, Michael Mooney and Sadiq Olanrewaju. The guards are seniors Conner Davis and Cody Wallace, sophomore Ryan Doull and redshirt freshman Jack McDonald, and the centers are junior Ross Burbank and sophomore Jackson Matteo. But with Matteo recovering from foot surgery, McDonald also has played center, with Burbank shifting to guard.
“It’s not a huge deal,” Burbank said Monday. “It’s something we do in practice.”
From the first day of training camp in August, with Whitmire out and Olanrewaju’s status uncertain because of a knee injury, offensive line coach Scott Wachenheim trained his charges at multiple positions. Wallace, for example, can play guard, center and tackle, and Davis can slide out to tackle if necessary.
“We had to rotate a lot of guys,” Burbank said, “because we weren’t really sure where everybody was going to end up, where everyone was going to play. So we definitely cross-trained a lot.”
In its penultimate home game of the season, UVa (4-3 overall, 2-1 ACC) meets Coastal Division rival North Carolina (3-4, 1-2) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium. The Wahoos are coming off a 20-13 loss to Duke in Durham, N.C. Doull, who started UVa’s first six games at left guard, didn’t play against the Blue Devils for medical reasons, but he’s expected to be available this weekend.
Asked Monday about Burbank, a graduate of Cox High in Virginia Beach, London said he’s “a guy that has embraced the fact that we don’t have a bunch of superstars up front. We have guys that are hard workers and who don’t care who receives the credit. They just want guys like Kevin Parks or [Khalek] Shepherd or [Taquan Mizzell] to get the credit. They want to protect the quarterbacks and not give up sacks. That’s the group as a whole.”
Burbank said the offensive linemen don’t worry about how Wachenheim uses them.
“Whoever’s in the game, we have confidence is going to get the job done,” Burbank said. “So it’s really just if you’re in, get the job done. If you’re not in, just pay attention and focus on the guy who is in. So that’s really what we’ve been doing.”
After redshirting in 2011, Burbank was a backup guard in ’12. He started the Cavaliers’ first four games last season at center, then lost the job to Bowanko.
For his performance in UVa’s 24-19 win over Pittsburgh on Oct. 4, Burbank was named the ACC’s co-offensive lineman of the year. But he didn’t consider that a milestone.
“I definitely have not arrived,” he said. “The idea is you never really arrive, you just keep working. So that’s the plan.”
The line considers itself a blue-collar group, and that won’t change, Burbank said. “I don’t think we had any guys [named] preseason All-ACC or anything like that. We’re not really worried about the accolades, whether we get them or not.”
Of the line’s success at protecting the quarterbacks, Burbank said it’s “important for us just to keep our guys healthy. That’s the main objective. The backs have been doing a great job helping us out blocking as well. They don’t really get any credit for blocking, but a lot of them have done a really good job stepping up and taking a shot in the teeth and keeping guys off our quarterbacks.”
UVa’s freshman class includes two offensive linemen — Jake Fieler and Steven Moss — both of whom are redshirting this season. Another promising lineman, Eric Tetlow, played in five games as a true freshman in 2013. Tetlow is also redshirting this season, to “try to give him an opportunity to live in that weight room for a little bit and change his body,” London said.
DUAL THREAT: Virginia has lost four straight to UNC, whose quarterback, junior Marquise Williams, ranks second among ACC players in total offense (317.7 yards per game), behind Florida State’s Jameis Winston (320.8).
Williams leads the Tar Heels in both rushing and passing.
“He’s as good as anybody right now that we’ve seen, and he’s very productive with his offense for what he does and what they ask them to do and the ability to just take off and make a play,” London said. “We’ve seen that game after game.”
Williams isn’t Carolina’s only playmaker. The Tar Heels have the league’s worst defense – they have allowed 522.3 yards and 43.3 points per game – but they rank first in scoring offense (38.7 ppg) and second in total offense (453.1).
“They have talent all around the board,” UVa linebacker Daquan Romero said Monday.
UNC totaled 579 yards Saturday night in its 48-43 win over Georgia Tech in Chapel Hill. The Yellow Jackets gained 611 yards.
“As a football fan, you like to watch those high-scoring games, especially being an offensive player,” Virginia tailback Khalek Shepherd said Monday.
Shepherd said the Cavaliers won’t pay much attention to UNC’s defensive stats.
“We just look at the opponent, the personnel, and then we just focus on us,” he said. “We can’t control what the other team does. All we can control is what we do on offense.”
London said the Heels have struggled on defense in part because of their rugged schedule. UNC’s losses were to East Carolina, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame.
“Those are good football teams,” London said. “Our job is to take collectively what we’ve seen — personnel, schemes — and then match up or try to do things that affect what they do on offense and defense and special teams.”
For UVa, which finished 2-10 last season, “every game is a new opportunity to change the fortunes of your program,” London said, “and I’m quite sure [the Heels] feel the same way. We want to get back on the winning side, and we have to find those things, those techniques, those schemes, that are going to help us and then try to exploit what we’ve seen on tape.”
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: Among ACC teams, UVa ranks seventh in red-zone offense, having scored on 25 of 29 trips. Virginia has come away with 15 touchdowns and 10 field goals in the red zone. That’s a solid ratio, but the `Hoos want to be more efficient inside the 20.
“Three is always good, but six is better,” said Shepherd, who leads the team with three touchdown receptions.
Burbank said: “We’re moving the ball well, gaining a lot of yards. We just need to find that next level of our offense so we can really punch the ball in. Whether it’s running or screen passes, whatever it is, we just need to find that one gear that works for us and helps us get the ball in the end zone.”
When the Cavaliers are forced to settle for field-goal attempts, their kicker inspires tremendous confidence. Junior Ian Frye is 10 for 10 in the red zone and 14 for 16 overall this season. His misses were from 46 and 52 yards.
RISE AND SHINE: Virginia’s Nov. 1 game against Georgia Tech in Atlanta will start at 3:30 p.m. and be televised by ESPNU. First, however, the Cavaliers will play at 12:30 p.m. for the second straight Saturday, and that’s fine with Shepherd.
“I’m an early guy,” he said. “You wake up and it’s time to go. I don’t mind a night game sometimes, but it’s just the wait is crazy. You get real anxious watching the [other college] games on Saturday.”
GLORY DAYS: UVa will celebrate Homecomings this weekend, and during the game Saturday, members of the 1989 football team will be recognized at Scott Stadium. Those Cavaliers, coached by Hall of Famer George Welsh, won the school’s first ACC title in that sport and remain the only team in program history to win 10 games in a season.
Virginia’s stars that year included quarterback Shawn Moore, wide receiver Herman Moore, tailback Marcus Wilson, offensive tackle Ray Roberts and defensive end Chris Slade.
Shawn Moore’s son, Michael, is now a starting defensive lineman for UVa. The younger Moore knows many of his father’s former teammates well.
“I met those guys when I was little,” Mike Moore, a junior, said Monday. “I’ve been hanging around those guys [for years]. To everybody else, they’re big superstars, but to me, since I was little, they’ve always been just friends of my dad. So just knowing those guys and having those guys also as my friends, is really helpful to me.”
SLOW GOING: Sophomore quarterback Greyson Lambert, who started Virginia’s first four games, hasn’t played since spraining his right ankle Sept. 20 in the second half against BYU.
Lambert was available Saturday against Duke, but the coaching staff chose to play his classmate Matt Johns the entire game.
“Each player’s body responds differently to [injuries],” London said Sunday night. “And I know it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating for [Lambert]. It’s frustrating to have a player of his ability that wants to give his heart and soul to the team. You just have to go with the process here, the healing process.”
Johns, who’s more mobile than Lambert, passed for a career-high 325 yards against Duke. He ran only twice, however, for 4 yards.
“You look back at it, and obviously there were some opportunities perhaps that he could have pulled the ball down and run,” London said Sunday night.
“He has been a guy that’s extended [plays] because of his legs … You just have to find the right balance and the right time and the experience as you go along here, as to when you do that. That’s still something that’s a work in progress for Matt.”