By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — About a week before the start of spring practice this month, Virginia’s most versatile offensive lineman, Jake Fieler, learned he was being slotted at center.

That didn’t faze Fieler, who’s played that position periodically throughout his football career: at Parkersburg South High in West Virginia; on the postgraduate team at Fork Union Military Academy; and at UVA last year.

“It’s not new to me,” Fieler said after practice Thursday morning.

The 6-5, 305-pound Fieler, who’ll be a redshirt junior in the fall, primarily played guard and tackle last season, but he also backed up Jackson Matteo at center. When Fieler has questions this spring, offensive line coach Garett Tujague isn’t the only source of answers. Matteo is still part of the program as a student-coach.

“That’s the best kind of resource you could have,” Fieler said.

After a semester at FUMA, where he played for head coach John Shuman, Fieler enrolled at UVA in January 2014. He redshirted that fall but came out of training camp in 2015 as a starting guard.

About a week before the opener against UCLA, however, Fieler broke his foot, and he ended up missing the entire season.

“That was probably the biggest test I’ve had in my life,” Fieler recalled. “That was tough on me. That sets you back a whole year strength-wise, too, so I didn’t feel like I was back to my actual form until towards the end of last season.”

In 2016, Fieler played in all 12 games, with two starts at guard. He played one series at center when Matteo had to come out of a game with an injury.

His knowledge of the various assignments on the offensive line helps him in his new role, Fieler said. “I’m able to [instruct] other guys, and they know that I’ve been in their shoes and know what they’re supposed to do.”

Matteo was a two-year starter at center for the Wahoos, and Fieler will have a chance to match that.

“That’s what I want to do,” he said, “just really solidify myself there.”

REINFORCEMENTS COMING: When the Cavaliers open training camp in August, their numbers on offensive line will be substantially greater. The incoming freshman class includes five offensive linemen, and three graduate transfers will join the program after this semester ends: Colin McGovern and John Montelus from Notre Dame and Brandon Pertile from Oklahoma State.

McGovern and Pertile will be used mostly at tackle, offensive line coach Garett Tujague said, and Montelus at guard. All three are expected to be in the O-line rotation this fall. That won’t leave Tujague much time to teach them his system, but he’s used to such challenges.

“I live in that world,” Tujague said. “Remember, 20 of my 26 years of coaching have been at the junior-college level. So it was a whole new roster there every year, and that’s just what you get accustomed to.”

ON THE MEND: As is the case every season, a number of players will miss spring practice — or have limited roles — while recovering from injuries. The group includes offensive linemen Ryan Bischoff and R.J. Proctor, running back Chris Sharp, wide receivers Doni Dowling and Warren Craft, defensive ends Christian Brooks and Andrew Brown, and defensive backs Darious Latimore, Kirk Garner and Tim Harris.

Harris, a cornerback, was limited to two games last season because a shoulder injury that required surgery. He’ll be a fifth-year senior in the fall.

During practice, Harris wears a red jersey that identifies him as a non-contact player. But he plays in the secondary during passing drills and expects to participate fully in training camp.

“I’m so ready to get back with these boys,” Harris said after the opening spring practice Tuesday morning. “I feel like I haven’t played football in so long. It was great to come out on the first day and have fun with my guys.”

Harris said he’s “making a lot of sacrifices right now to get back, and doing whatever I can do to stay healthy. I’m rehabbing, cold-tubbing, taking care of my body. All of that comes into play.”

With such players back as Harris, Quin Blanding, Juan Thornhill and Bryce Hall, the secondary should be a strength for the `Hoos this fall.

“We’ve got a lot of experience coming back, a lot of guys that are hungry, a lot of guys that want to work,” Harris said.

A true freshman who’s likely to be in mix is Germane Crowell, a 6-3, 185-pound cornerback who enrolled at UVA in January. His surname is a familiar one to Virginia fans.

Crowell’s father, Germane Sr., starred at wideout for the `Hoos and finished his college career with 2,142 receiving yards. His uncle Angelo played linebacker for Virginia and ranks third in career tackles there.

“He’s really caught everybody’s eye,” Harris said of Crowell. “He works, and he always wants to get better, and he always wants extra work, so that’s good.”

CROSS TRAINING: The graduation of Donte Wilkins left a hole in the Cavaliers’ 3-4 defense, and there’s no clear front-runner to replace him at nose tackle. Among those getting reps there this spring are rising sophomores Juwan Moye and James Trucilla.

Jack Powers may be an option there, too. Powers mainly played defensive end last season, but he’s working this spring at every position up front.

“Most of the D-linemen are,” Powers said. “Spring ball is a great opportunity, because everyone works at left end, right end, nose.”

The 6-5 Powers, who began his college career at Arizona State, will compete as a graduate student this fall, as he did last season, his first at UVA.

He knew nothing about the Cavaliers’ system when he arrived last summer, “and just having that year under my belt is great,” Powers said.

After having offseason surgery to repair ligament damage in his left wrist, Powers is healthier than he was last fall. He’s bigger, too. Powers, who weighed around 280 pounds at the start of last season, is close to 310 this season.

“I think the main thing was just getting stronger, and we all did that this winter,” Powers said. “But the [extra] weight just helps you stay in there, be more aggressive and get more push and not get pushed around as much.”

POINT OF EMPHASIS: Powers is not the only Cavalier who has noticeably bulked up since the end of the last season. Heading into spring practice last year, the team ran and ran and ran some more. Weightlifting was a bigger part of director of football performance Frank Wintrich’s winter program this year.

“Sequentially for our program, there are phases and steps,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said, “and I knew for the team to even be able to practice the way that I hoped we would be able to practice, physical conditioning was first and foremost, and that was also inherent in building our culture [in 2016]. So they had to be really fit and lean to be able to do that.

“Now that the cultural part is closer to establishment, that allows us now to add the size, add the strength, and add more football to that core conditioning, to allow us now to move hopefully in a more productive direction.”

The Cavaliers finished 2-10 in 2016, their first season under Mendenhall. In many of those games, he said Tuesday, “I didn’t feel we were big enough, I didn’t feel that we were strong enough, and that showed up [not only] in sustaining blocks, but also in getting off blocks and making tackles.”

It’s critical, Mendenhall said, for the Cavaliers to “develop our current players to the very best of their potential, and [adding] size and strength, especially for our front seven guys, was important.”

NEW ROLE: Juan Thornhill, who started 11 games at cornerback as a sophomore last season, is now at safety, where he lines up next to All-American Quin Blanding.

Thornhill stays in constant communication with Blanding on the field. He checks with Blanding before the snap “so I don’t make a mistake during the play,” Thornhill said. “Then I’ll go meet with him after the play and ask what I can do better and what can help me get better.”

A graduate of Altavista High, Thornhill played safety as a UVA true freshman in 2015. That’s helped his transition in the secondary.

“It’s natural,” he said. “I’ve played this position before, so it’s nothing new.”

Thornhill is up to 200 pounds, about 15 more than he carried on his 6-1 frame last season. He’d like to add some more weight before training camp starts in August.

“This isn’t big enough,” Thornhill said.

Asked about the secondary’s progress, Thornhill said that in 2016 “it seemed like everybody was just trying to get used to [Mendenhall’s system], trying to learn the defense and everything. But it seems like guys are more comfortable with what they’re doing now, and there’s more understanding of our defense. We’re starting to play a lot faster, we’re playing more together and we know more than one position, so we’re very interchangeable.”

Mendenhall, who’s also the Cavaliers’ defensive coordinator, said Thornhill was moved to safety in part because “we were impressed with Juan’s tackling ability. Ideally, we’d like as many big corners that can tackle in our secondary as possible, and they could then play all four positions. That’s the direction we’re going. And Juan is a big corner that can tackle. And so with the addition of a first-year like G-Crowell, who we’ve been really impressed with, we’re looking to put the best four players on the field athletically and [in terms of] size and tackling at the same time, and then let Quin kind of be the field general.”

EXPANDED ROLE? As a true freshman in 2015, wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus did a little bit of everything for the Cavaliers. He returned 28 kickoffs for 541 yards, caught 21 passes for 216 yards and one touchdown, and caught 33 passes for 262 yards and a TD.

In 2016, he improved his numbers as a receiver, catching 51 passes for 584 yards and a team-high seven TDs, but Zaccheaus rushed only three times (for 24 yards) and did not return any kickoffs.

In its first year at UVA, Mendenhall said, the new coaching staff did not necessarily use “our very best players as frequently or in the right positions enough — [the] whole team, not only Olamide. And so the intent, now that we know our team better, is to use our best players in roles where they can thrive, and with the number of touches and how those touches come, that hopefully allows us to be more productive. And so really [Zaccheaus’] conditioning will be really the only thing that will limit his usage.”

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