By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Freshmen, true or redshirt, rarely start on the offensive line for the University of Virginia football team. Saturday at Scott Stadium, Dillon Reinkensmeyer will become one of the exceptions.
A 2016 graduate of Valor Christian High in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, Reinkensmeyer redshirted at UVA last fall. With senior Jack English serving a one-game suspension, Reinkensmeyer will start at left tackle against William & Mary in the season opener for both teams. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m.
“I’m not going to lie, I’ll definitely be a little bit nervous,” Reinkensmeyer said after practice Thursday, “but before a game I always try to be as calm as I can. I don’t like to get too hyped up. I just try to rein things in and really focus on my craft.
“It’s definitely a great opportunity, and I’m trying to take full advantage of it.”
Reinkensmeyer practiced at center for much last fall and this spring, but offensive line coach Garett Tujague has used him at other spots, too.
“I think Coach Tujague wants to try to play me at all positions and make me a really well-rounded player,” Reinkensmeyer said.
When he arrived in Charlottesville last summer, he weighed 270 pounds. The 6-6 Reinkensmeyer is now at 305.
“A lot of eating, a lot of lifting, and a lot of protein shakes,” he said, smiling.
One of his grandmothers was born in Hampton, but Reinkensmeyer has no family ties to UVA. He could have chosen a school closer to home but didn’t hesitate to come east.
“For me, college was a 40-year decision, not a four-year, and I felt like Virginia had the best tools to make me the best person that I could be,” Reinkensmeyer said. “The academics are top-notch, the athletics are great, and I definitely feel that we can start winning a ton of games here.”
Not since redshirt freshman Will Barker in 2006 has a freshman offensive lineman started a season opener for UVA.
On a VirginiaSports.com podcast, Tujague was asked Thursday about Reinkensmeyer.
“Dillon is an absolute student of the game,” Tujague said. “I think he’s logged the most hours — not minutes, but hours, maybe even weeks — on the virtual reality equipment that we have over in the McCue [Center]. He uses that every day.”
Even when English returns, “Dillon’s going to play a lot for me, whether it be at tackle or center,” Tujague said. “I think he’s going to be a pleasant surprise for everybody on Saturday.”
WORK IN PROGRESS: In more than a decade as a head coach, Bronco Mendenhall has learned that a team’s opening game inevitably includes some surprises.
“No matter how much preparation, there could be personnel surprises [where] someone might perform at a higher level or lower level than expected,” Mendenhall said.
“There could be depth surprises where some positions you think you’re going to be deep, [after] an injury or two all of a sudden you’re not so deep. There possibly might be chemistry and confidence issues that you see that don’t manifest until you actually play a game, or [in] different settings within a game.
“I think that’s why with Game 1 there’s so much anticipation and so much value, simply because the feedback you get actually adds probably the most clear reference point that you’re starting from for that year.”
During a training camp that began in late July, the Wahoos did more live 11-on-11 work than Mendenhall ever had as a coach. Even so, he said, there are “question marks. We’ve just tried to eliminate as many as possible while accelerating the growth of our program.”
The `Hoos finished 2-10 last fall. As he heads into his second season at UVA, Mendenhall said, “I’m both optimistic and realistic. I am really excited about what can be accomplished here in our football program, and what I believe will be accomplished. But I’m also realistic about the amount of work and the time frame that that might take.
“We are steadily improving step by step, sometimes inch by inch, second by second, working on consistency and maturity and identity in all phases of our players’ lives to generate what will hopefully lead to a stable, high-performing football program over time … So there’s a lot of progress happening behind the scenes within our culture, within our identity and the direction of the program. At some point that will manifest on the field of play.”
HOOS TOGETHER: In the wake of the controversial Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that ended last month with the tragic loss of lives, the football team hopes to be a unifying force for the community.
“When it comes to play, you try your best to keep stuff like that out of your mind, at least from my standpoint,” said wide receiver Andre Levrone, a fifth-year senior. “I don’t try to think about outside sources and things that are taking place in other situations. When we take the field. It’s all about executing our game plan.
“With that being said, there’s definitely opportunity to just galvanize this community. Scott Stadium, that’s a huge arena where 60,000 people can come together regardless of race, religion, anything, any differences that we have, and just cheer for a victory for our community.”
Sophomore linebacker Jordan Mack agreed.
“It’s a great chance, a great opportunity to be a center point of Charlottesville,” Mack said. “We’re not going to [try to] do too much. We’re just going to go out there and play football, but I feel like it’s a great opportunity for us to rally the community together with our performance.”
INSTANT IMPACT: At this time last year, Jordan Mack was a true freshman who’d been converted from safety to linebacker and was preparing for his college debut. It came in the opener against Richmond, which stunned UVA 37-20 at Scott Stadium.
The experience was “eye-opening,” Mack recalled this week, “the speed of the game and just the crowd. Everything was new and different, but the lesson I learned from last year was just simply it’s football, so you’ve just got to go out there and play the game. It’s another game and another chance to get a win on the board.”
When Mack arrived in Charlottesville, he weighed only 205 pounds. He played at about 215 last season and is now up to 225. He moved from outside linebacker, where he started nine games in 2016, to inside linebacker in the offseason. He’s starting there alongside graduate student Micah Kiser in UVA’s base defense, a 3-4.
“Veteran is too strong a word [for Mack],” said Mendenhall, also the Cavaliers’ defensive coordinator, “but second-year starter would be better. That stops short of being a veteran, but it’s different than being a rookie. It’s a compliment to him that we asked him to change positions, because we think simply the more he can do, the more he can do.”
Mack will probably play outside linebacker at times this season, too, Mendenhall said, because of Virginia’s lack of depth at that position. Mack didn’t practice there during training camp, “but his training is so deep and his knowledge of the defense is becoming so strong, we think he can do that,” Mendenhall said. “He can really play any of the four linebacker spots, which gives us more of a true two-deep there.”
The Cavaliers would prefer Stone not be pressed into service this fall, and Benkert will try to avoid unnecessary contact. Still, he said, if he needs to try to run for a critical first down, he won’t hesitate to do so.
“It’ll just be really situational,” Benkert said, a matter of “what point in the game, down and distance, if it’s a critical down, if we can punt and still be OK. I think it will just take a lot of situational awareness and really understanding where we are in each game. But wins are crucial and I’m going to do everything I can to help us win games.”
Benkert, a graduate student who started 10 games last season, is “one of the best football players on our team,” Mendenhall said.
“We expect through his maturity, and his knowledge of the game, to manage that appropriately. So we don’t want him taking extra shots. If it’s [the] difference of a first down and getting an extra yard, then get the first down, that’s good enough. If it’s a first down and there’s a chance to get five more, get out of bounds. We’re talking about not only being successful in each game, but we’re talking about being successful hopefully for an entire season.”
At positions where the Cavaliers have little depth, that “has to be reflected in how they play,” Mendenhall said. “That does not mean soft or passive, it just means smart.”
TURNING THE PAGE: The 2016 season disappointed everyone connected with the program, but the Cavaliers are determined not to dwell on the past.
“My main focus is just telling guys to look around, look at how much different we are,” said Benkert, one of Virginia’s captains. “Look at how completely different of a team we are from top to bottom … and understand that last year happened, but that’s not us. It’s not us anymore.”
There was much excitement last year about the “new coaching staff, new this, new that, new schemes,” Benkert said, “and we went [into the season] with a lot of confidence, because we worked hard, and that’s all that our confidence was based off of.
“Now that we’ve been through it, we got hit in our mouths a few times last year, and really knowing what we’re made of and seeing what we’re able to push through, I wouldn’t say it’s a false confidence like it was last year. I think there’s a good edge to us, and I think we really believe that we can do this.”