Sept. 19, 2017

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — University of Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert took a shotgun snap and handed the football to running back Daniel Hamm, who burst around right end for a 6-yard gain Saturday at Scott Stadium.

Dillon Reinkensmeyer exhaled.

“The first snap’s definitely the hardest,” Reinkensmeyer said Monday. “The first drive, it was about getting the nerves calmed down, like, `All right, we’re here.’ ”

On Sept. 2, against William & Mary, Reinkensmeyer became the first UVA freshman, redshirt or true, to start on the offensive line in a season opener since Will Barker in 2006.

With Jack English serving a one-game suspension for violating team rules, Reinkensmeyer played left tackle against W&M. English returned to the starting lineup at tackle against Indiana on Oct. 9, but Reinkensmeyer came off the bench in the second half to play center.

The Cavaliers’ coaching staff liked what they saw from the 6-4, 305-pound redshirt freshman, and when the offense took the field for its first series Saturday against Connecticut, Reinkensmeyer was at center. Redshirt junior Jake Fieler, who’d started the first two games at center, was at right guard for the Wahoos.

The longest drive in program history — 9 minutes, 46 seconds — followed. It ended with 3-yard touchdown run by Hamm, and the `Hoos were on their way to a resounding 38-18 win over the Huskies.

“I think I had one high snap [against UConn],” Reinkensmeyer said, “but Kurt made an athletic play and got it.”

Behind a line consisting of English, Reinkensmeyer, Fieler, left guard John Montelus and right tackle Brandon Pertile, Virginia totaled 626 yards, including 171 on the ground. The difference from the previous game, when UVA gained 314 yards in a 34-17 loss to Indiana?

“I think Dillon is the key,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said Monday. “He just is a lot like [safety] Brenton Nelson, where he doesn’t say a word but he just keeps playing well. So he’s understated, but just through this whole course of time — from spring, through fall, through summer — there he is. When you watch him play, he’s just productive and he’s fast and he’s physical, and he keeps grading really well. He’s emerged through his performance, which is the best way for us as coaches, because it takes any of the subjectivity out of it.”

Freshmen rarely start at center in college football, but the decision to go with Reinkensmeyer against UConn was not a difficult one, UVA offensive line coach Garett Tujague said Monday.

“It had nothing to do with what Jake was doing or not doing,” Tujague said. “It was about putting the best five [linemen] out there. It’s unusual [to start a freshman center], but Dillon’s communication skills have given him the nod.”

Of Virginia’s offensive linemen, none studies more videotape or prepares more thoroughly than Reinkensmeyer, Tujague said. “So he is able to anticipate the move of the defense way before anybody else I’ve got right now.”

Fieler also played well at center, Montelus said Monday, “but Dillon, he’s extremely smart. He knows his stuff. He studies film really well and he’s busting his butt every day … I think he works on his craft every day. Week by week, you can tell that he’s put in the work and he’s getting better.”

Reinkensmeyer, who was born in Chicago, grew up in the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch, Colorado. He played in the powerful football program at Valor Christian, which won three state titles during Reinkensmeyer’s high school career.

His Valor Christian teammates for two years included Christian McCaffrey, now a rookie with the NFL’s Panthers. Reinkensmeyer played for three years with Christian’s brother Dylan McCaffrey, now a freshman quarterback at Michigan.

“Made my life a lot easier,” Reinkensmeyer said of Christian McCaffrey, who went on to star at Stanford.

Reinkensmeyer committed to UVA in June 2015, when Mike London was still the head coach. When London resigned after the 2015 season, Reinkensmeyer found himself in limbo.

“There was definitely some uncertainty,” Reinkensmeyer recalled. “There was that gray area where I didn’t know who was going to be the coach.”

Once Mendenhall was hired in December 2015, however, “I was like, `Awesome,’ ” Reinkensmeyer said. “I knew he won a ton at BYU and was a super-good guy.”

Most of Mendenhall’s staff at BYU followed him from Provo, Utah, to Charlottesville, including Tujague. Not long after starting at Virginia, Tujague contacted Reinkensmeyer and Ben Knutson, another offensive lineman who had committed to the `Hoos for 2016.

“I watched their film,” Tujague recalled, “and I let them know that they we still wanted them if they still wanted to come to UVA.”

Tujague later flew to Colorado to meet with Reinkensmeyer, who never wavered in his commitment.

He enrolled at the University in the summer of 2016. He weighed about 270 pounds then. At Valor Christian, he’d played tackle, but Tujague projected him as a center, and so Reinkensmeyer began working there last season.

While redshirting last fall, he impressed the coaching staff with his play in practice. Still, the move to center, where he began almost every play with a shotgun snap, had its challenges.

“It was a pretty tough skill to learn,” Reinkensmeyer said. “Before, I was focused on, `Gotta get off the ball, gotta go do this.’ Now it’s like snapping, that’s the first part of my job. I do the rest of my job after that.”

Highlands Ranch is about 835 miles southeast of Boise, Idaho, site of the Cavaliers’ next game. At 8 p.m. Eastern on Friday, Virginia (2-1) meets Boise State (2-1) on the famed blue turf at 36,387-seat Albertsons Stadium.

“I think it’s the closest game we’re ever going to have to my house, barring a bowl game,” said Reinkensmeyer, whose cheering section in Boise will include his grandparents, his father and some friends.

This will be the second straight appearance on ESPN2 for Virginia, whose game with Indiana was carried by ESPNU. Such national exposure is nothing new for Reinkensmeyer. When he was a sophomore, Valor Christian’s home game against Central East of Fresno, California, was shown live on ESPN2. (Valor Christian romped 31-7.)

“It’s pretty cool to see ESPN setting up on the back lawn of your high school with the big TV cameras,” Reinkensmeyer said.

The experience helped prepare him for the spotlight in which college games are often played.

“Just knowing, `All right, I’m on TV, but nothing changed. I’m on the same field, playing with the same guys, playing the same sport,’ ” Reinkensmeyer said.

He plans to major in global development studies at UVA. The University’s academic reputation was a major reason why Reinkensmeyer came east to Charlottesville.

“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 last month.

He had other options closer to Denver, but “I definitely enjoy being so far away, getting to learn a new area, and meeting totally different people,” Reinkensmeyer said.

He learned last Monday morning that he would start at center against UConn. A week later, he’s still on the first team, with a chance to anchor Virginia’s O-line for years to come.

“It’s definitely an opportunity, definitely a big blessing,” Reinkensmeyer said. “I’ve just got to keep working, make sure I try to hold and maintain the spot and do everything I can.”

Another strong performance by the Cavaliers’ offensive line would improve their chances of winning in a stadium where the Broncos have won eight straight games.

“I don’t think it had anything to do with scheme or this or that,” Tujague said. “It had everything to do with mindset. We have a great opponent coming up in Boise, and so we’re going to have to triple our mindset.”

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