By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — During the trip home from Pittsburgh, while some of his teammates napped or listened to music, University of Virginia offensive lineman Jake Fieler focused on his iPad.
He was too wound up to sleep. By the time the team plane landed at Charlottesville Albemarle Airport on Saturday night, Fieler had watched videotape of UVA’s 31-14 loss to Pitt twice. He did not give every aspect of his performance two thumbs up.
“I think I’m probably one of my hardest critics,” Fieler said, “so [on a poor play] I beat myself up a little bit over it, just because I don’t want it to happen it again.”
UVA’s offense struggled repeatedly in short-yardage situations at Heinz Field. Fieler said he and the Cavaliers’ guards should shoulder most of the responsibility for those breakdowns.
“It’s the whole llne,” Fieler said, “but to me it’s those three guys inside that need to get the push when you’re going for third-and-1 and fourth-and-1. That was just frustrating to me, because at guard I felt like I always got that push, and this past game at center I felt like I did all right on some plays, and some plays I didn’t get the push that I’d like to.”
Still, Fieler said, now that he’s reviewed the game, “I want to move on from it. I want to get on to the next thing.”
At 3 p.m. Saturday, UVA (5-3 overall, 2-2 ACC), takes on Coastal Division foe Georgia Tech (4-3, 3-2) at Scott Stadium. The Wahoos play at Louisville on Nov. 11 and at Miami on Nov. 18. They close the regular season at home against Virginia Tech on Nov. 24.
“This our biggest month,” Fieler said.
For the Cavaliers to return to their winning ways — they’ve dropped two in a row since winning at North Carolina on Oct. 14 — they need to play with more fire and passion than they showed against Boston College and Pitt. That was a central theme of head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s message to his players when the team met Monday morning.
“I think we’re in the right place a lot of the times,” Fieler said, “but it’s about that extra little effort to make the play or catch the ball or break that tackle or pancake the guy. Just being there’s not enough usually to push you over the hump.”
A 6-5, 320-pound redshirt junior, Fieler started the Cavaliers’ first two games this season at center. In the third quarter of the second game, however, Fieler moved to right guard and redshirt freshman Dillon Reinkensmeyer took over at center. They remained in those spots until early in the first quarter Saturday, when redshirt senior Jack English, the starter at left offensive tackle, suffered a kneecap injury.
Fieler shifted back to center and Reinkensmeyer to left tackle. With English unavailable this weekend, Fieler is expected to start at center against the Yellow Jackets.
“As far as snapping or anything like that, I hadn’t really played [center] in practice for the last three weeks,” Fieler said Monday. “But it wasn’t any kind of shock to me or anything. I was ready to go.”
With Fieler at center, UVA quarterback Kurt Benkert said, “I don’t think anything changes.”
Fieler’s versatility is part of what makes him so valuable. In addition to center and right guard, he’s played left guard and right tackle for the Cavaliers.
“Left tackle is the only spot I haven’t played in a game,” Fieler said. “I’ve done it in practice.”
The coaching staff’s stated goal is to have the top five offensive linemen on the field at the same time. Asked Monday about Fieler, Mendenhall said it “seems like no matter what configuration we put out there, he has to be part of it there. When you count the best five, it’s, `Fieler [and] who else?’
“It hasn’t been like that each week in terms of him being the first name. But really as the season has gone on, he’s [become] the first name.”
Team chemistry, injuries, “mindset, all those things can kind of morph and change throughout the year,” Mendenhall said. “[Fieler is] consistent, tough, productive, and has been the whole season.”
As a whole, though, the offensive line has been inconsistent this season.
“I think at times we’ve been almost right where I’d like to us to be, and at times it’s just like, `What am I looking at?’ ” Fieler said. “From drive to drive it’ll change sometimes.”
The `Hoos have put together numerous impressive drives this season, and “that’s kind of the expectation I have when we have the ball,” Fieler said. “We’re going to control the game, we’re going to move the ball, it doesn’t matter if it takes us 10 minutes to score. We’re going to score.”
Fieler, who’s from West Virginia, graduated from Parkersburg South High in 2013, then enrolled at Fork Union Military Academy, hoping to raise his stock as a college prospect. After a semester at FUMA, where he played for head coach John Shuman’s postgraduate team, Fieler enrolled at UVA in January 2014.
“I owe a lot to that place,” Fieler said of Fork Union. “I would recommend it to anybody.”
He weighed about 285 pounds when he arrived in Charlottesville. He redshirted that fall but came out of training camp in 2015 as a starting guard. About a week before the Cavaliers’ season opener, however, Fieler broke his left foot. He ended up missing the entire season.
“That was super frustrating for me, because I’d already dealt with that same injury in the other foot in high school,” Fieler said.
In 2016, the Cavaliers’ first season under Mendenhall, Fieler played in all 12 games, with two starts both at left guard. For most of the year, though, he felt the effects of having been away from competition for two seasons.
“It just takes time,” Fieler said.
The football program has undergone significant changes since Fieler joined it in 2014. He’s had three offensive line coaches: Scott Wachenheim in 2014, Dave Borbely in 2015 and, since Mendenhall took over, Garett Tujague.
Moreover, the Cavaliers have had three head strength and conditioning coaches during that span: Evan Marcus, Ryan Tedford and, since December 2015, Frank Wintrich.
Continuity is important, Fieler said, especially with “the strength staff. It sounds weird, because you’d think the position coach would be the big thing.” But familiarity with the strength coaches can lead to a more productive relationship.
“If you’re not feeling well one day, they know it’s not because you’re being lazy,” Fieler said. “They know that you’re a hard worker.”
Fieler’s parents are alumni of Ohio University, where his mother played volleyball and his father played football and rugby. Fieler’s brother, Chase, starred in basketball on the Florida Gulf Coast team that reached the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen in 2013 and now plays professionally in Belgium.
In Charlottesville, Fieler shares an apartment with offensive guard Steven Moss, his best friend. Moss joined the program as a well-regarded recruit but rarely plays. Even so, he’s remained upbeat and supportive of his teammates.
“That’s one thing I think Steve deserves all the praise for, because that’s such a tough thing, to go through that,” Fieler said, “But he’s always positive. He’s always telling other people when they’re doing good jobs. It’s easy to not do that and to just mope. Hopefully it turns around for him in this next year.”
Fieler, a foreign affairs major in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics, has embraced the philosophy of Mendenhall and his assistant coaches, most of whom worked with Mendenhall at BYU.
“For me, it’s just that they came in with a goal, a mission, and have everything in place,” Fieler said. “There’s no question marks. It’s something easy to buy into. It’s not easy to do, but you believe in it, and that matters.”