CHARLOTTESVILLE — In 2016, its first season under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, the University of Virginia football team finished at or near the bottom of the ACC in several categories, including passing offense (10th), total offense (12th) and rushing offense (14th).
Those struggles were due in no small part to the performance of the offensive line, the assistant coach who oversees that group acknowledged.
“We have to make sure the quarterback feels protected and safe, and I don’t think we did a very good job of that,” offensive line coach Garett Tujague said this week in his McCue Center office. “We didn’t move people off the ball running the football. It was not a very productive year up front.”
The Wahoos finished 2-10 in 2016, and “I think any time a season ends the way that it did last year, with our record, you’ve got to look at yourself and your unit,” offensive guard Jack McDonald said. “There’s always going to be something every group could do better. We have guys that can make plays on the offensive side of the ball, so it kind of starts with us up front.
“We have to take it personally. We have to look at ourselves and be hard on ourselves. I’m not happy with the way it went. I think we could have played better as a unit. I think I definitely could have played better personally, and I’m just looking forward to correcting those issues and moving on from there.”
UVA opens its second spring practice under Mendenhall on Tuesday morning, and Tujague is eager to get started, even though he’ll have less than a full complement of players.
Eight of the offensive linemen with whom Tujague will work this summer have yet to enroll at UVA: incoming freshmen Tyler Fannin, Chris Glaser, Ryan Nelson, Ryan Swoboda, Gerrik Vollmer and graduate transfers Colin McGovern (Notre Dame), John Montelus (Notre Dame) and Brandon Pertile (Oklahoma State).
Currently there are 11 offensive linemen in the program: scholarship players Ben Knutson, Jake Fieler, Jack English, Steven Moss, Jack McDonald, Ryan Bischoff, R.J. Proctor, Dillon Reinkensmeyer and Osiris Crutchfield, plus walk-ons Ben Trent and Trenton Jenkins.
Collectively, Tujague said, this group distinguished itself in director of football performance Frank Wintrich’s winter strength and conditioning program, adding muscle and good weight.
“The offseason has been amazing,” Tujague said.
Three 2016 starters must be replaced: center Jackson Matteo, left guard Michael Mooney and right tackle Eric Smith. The returning starters are McDonald, who played right guard last season, and left tackle Jack English, and they’ll be the only seniors among the offensive linemen this fall.
“There’s only a few guys who have really played or started a lot of games on this O-line, so it’s a young bunch,” McDonald said, “but everyone’s working their butts off and really doing a good job.
“And there definitely is more of a comfort level. Coach Tujague knows how we work and our strengths and weaknesses. I think that’s going to give us a little bit of a head start, as opposed to last year, going into spring ball, and we can really focus on playing football now, not as much on developing culture and changing it.”
Tujague said: “It’s been a very educational process for me as far as learning what guys can and cannot do. That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve taken out of last year’s season: [knowing] what exactly I can ask the O-line to do, and what I should not ask them to do at this point in the program.”
Tujague spent three seasons with Mendenhall at BYU before coming to UVA, where there has been little continuity on the O-line in recent years. Dave Borbely coached that group in 2015. Scott Wachenheim, now the head coach at VMI, was Virginia’s offensive line coach in 2011, ’12, ’13 and ’14.
The linemen he inherited at UVA did not have “a lot of bad habits,” Tujague recalled, “but you can say they weren’t my habits. And so I was trying to get them to do what I was asking them to do, while they were still fighting the thousands of reps they had in doing what someone else had asked them to do. I know we’re way farther along with the guys that we have coming back than I was with Jackson and Eric at this point last year.”
Tujague’s priorities this spring include settling on a successor to Matteo at center. The leading candidate is Fieler, a rising junior who also has trained at guard and tackle.
Backing up Fieler is Reinkensmeyer, who redshirted as a freshman last fall. McDonald is also available at center if needed.
Fieler, who starred in the postgraduate program at Fork Union Military Academy, redshirted in 2014 and then missed the 2015 season with an injury. He appeared in all 12 games last season, with two starts.
“Playing next to Fieler, we’ll be able to help each other,” McDonald said, “and he has a great grip on everything that’s going on and the whole offense, and he works really hard. I’m excited to play next to him, wherever it be.”
Asked about Fieler, Tujague said, “I love Jake’s emotion. I love his diligence in studying the game. He’s very, very strong and very athletic. I absolutely love Jackson Matteo, but I think Jake’s a better athlete and a much stronger player. You can’t replace [Matteo’s] experience, but Jake has snapped in games. I think with time — spring ball and a fall camp — we will have upgraded that position. It’s hard for me to even say that, because I love Jackson, but I think his body was failing him [late last season], and I think Jake will emerge as a leader. Jake’s not afraid to confront people.”
Matteo was the offensive line’s leader in 2016. Now it’s up to such upperclassmen as Fieler, English and McDonald to mentor the younger linemen.
“I definitely want to be a guy who steps up and can really help bring guys along and make this a better team,” said McDonald, who’ll graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in foreign affairs.
“But I don’t think it’s going to be just one guy. It’s going to take the younger guys looking at themselves and them stepping up, too, just everyone across the board doing more and trying to bring guys along. I think that’s important. I think it’s good to have one leader, but I think it’s better if you have a bunch of guys who can push each other and compete every day. Competition makes you better, and I think that’s definitely important.”
UVA’s guards this spring will include McDonald, Moss and Knutson, Tujague said. Moss will be a junior in the fall and Knutson a redshirt freshman. The first-team tackles are likely to be English and Proctor, a rising sophomore.
The challenge for English, a two-year starter, is clear.
“Jack needs to step up and he needs to secure the edge,” Tujague said. “In the simplest terms, he needs to be the left tackle at the University of Virginia and all that that encompasses and entails. And so I need him to step up and do that. He’s always been able to hide, if you will, because there’s been other people that have been leading [on the line].
“He knows what his strengths are and he knows what his flaws are, and we’re working on both. He has a very set plan on what he needs to accomplish on the field, and so it’ll be interesting to see how he does that this spring.”
Once the semester ends, the graduate transfers will join the program. Tujague knows the offensive line coaches at Notre Dame and Oklahoma State, and the experience McGovern, Montelus and Pertile gained in those programs should help their transitions at UVA.
“I know that they know the game of football,” Tujague said. “I know that they’ve been coached hard, so I’m not worried about that part of it. It’s just how fast can they adapt to our system.”
McGovern and Pertile will be used primarily at tackle, Tujague said, and Montelus at guard.
“There’s a reason they were needed,” Tujague said, “whether it be through attrition or lack of talent. Whatever words you want to throw in there, they were needed. But they are not going to be given anything. They still have to go through and earn everything that those guys in that locker room have already earned.”
Tujague said he communicates regularly with the incoming transfers, “helping them get on board and get up to date with what we’re doing, because I need them to come in and compete. Just like that commercial [that says], ‘When banks compete, you win,’ well, when my players are competing, I win as a position coach. Now they play with a greater sense of urgency, because they want to be the guy. That’s why you get into this.”