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Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE – If the season started tomorrow, the starting left tackle on Virginia’s offensive line almost certainly would be Ryan Nelson, a 6-4, 310-pound redshirt freshman who was born and raised in Southern California.
His rise to the first team in training camp is partly the result of injuries to guards R.J. Proctor and Jake Fieler, both projected starters, but it also reflects the strides Nelson has made since enrolling at UVA last summer.
“He’s grown and matured,” offensive line coach Garett Tujague said Friday morning at Lambeth Field after the 13th practice of the Cavaliers’ training camp.
Nelson has improved his footwork and “feels more confident and stronger,” Tujague said. “He’s been doing a really good job. Each day in practice he’s getting better and better, stronger and stronger.”
Seventeen true freshmen played for UVA last season. Nelson, who’s from Buena Park, Calif., about 20 miles southeast of Los Angeles, nearly became the 18th.
“He was close last year,” Tujague said. “Real close. He just needed to have a year in our strength program, to get stronger, and then more familiarity with the offense. That’s the difference between now and last year.”
With the Wahoos short-handed on the offensive line, healthy players such as Nelson are getting extra work in 11-on-11 drills, and that’s invaluable, Tujague said.
“It’s tough to simulate that in a walkthrough or whatever,” Tujague said, “but when you’re getting those 11-on-11 reps, playing live football, it makes a huge difference, so that you’re able to have the experience that you need to have it work on Saturdays.”
Nelson, who wears jersey No. 54, came in hoping to contribute as a true freshman, he said, but “I wasn’t there mentally yet. I was trying to get there, and there were times where we thought we’d had a breakthrough and I thought I’d be there. But then we talked about it and decided redshirting and sitting out a year and getting mentally better and perfecting my craft for another year would be a better thing to do.”
Tutorials with offensive tackle Jack English, a fifth-year senior in 2017, helped Nelson improve his technique last fall. That in turn boosted his confidence, and he continued to grow in the offseason this year.
“Everything’s starting to come together right now,” Nelson said.
When the Cavaliers opened training camp early this month, Nelson was expected to battle sophomore Chris Glaser for the starting job at left tackle. But Glaser also gets reps at center, where redshirt freshman Tyler Fann is injured, and he’s played extensively at left guard since Proctor and Fieler have been out.
“No one ever wants their guys to be hurt, and I’m hoping they’ll be back soon,” Nelson said.
In the meantime, “Chris is actually a great person to have beside me,” Nelson said. “We communicate on a lot of things. We were both [taking first-team reps at] left tackle. We worked on everything. Anything we had a question on, we talked to each other about. We talked through it.”
Tujague was among the assistants who followed head coach Bronco Mendenhall from BYU to UVA after the 2015 season.
“I was actually recruited by this staff when they were at BYU,” Nelson said. “I’ve known Tujague since my sophomore year [of high school], going on four years now. So I’ve had a really good connection with him and Coach Mendenhall.”
Once UVA offered him a scholarship, Nelson said, “I came out here and saw [the school], and I loved every single part of it.”
Tujague said: “I wanted to coach that kid. Amazing family. Tough, hard-nosed, hard worker. Smart kid. He’s a perfect fit for Virginia.”
A devout Christian, Nelson said he prayed about whether to cross the country for college. His prayers were answered, he said, “and the rest is history.”
His friends at UVA include Beth Lillie, a standout on the women’s golf team who attended a rival high school in Southern California. They met on social media after Lillie saw that Nelson had committed to Virginia, too.
“It’s awesome to have someone out here that’s from back home,” Nelson said.
Buena Park is about 2,500 miles from Charlottesville. Nelson is part of a tight-knit family, and that’s created the biggest challenge for him on the East Coast.
“Just seeing everything over Snapchat is helping me,” Nelson said. ‘I FaceTime all the time and say hi to my nephews, and my nephews are a big part of my world. But my parents absolutely love Coach Tujague, and they love it out here, so they’re very happy that I’m out here too.”