By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE– In a nationally televised football game at Scott Stadium, Pittsburgh pierced Virginia’s pass protection repeatedly. The Panthers sacked quarterback Bryce Perkins five times, for 46 yards in losses, and harassed him on several other plays. The Cavaliers’ top running back, Jordan Ellis, managed only 46 yards on 10 carries.
Many factors contributed to UVA’s 23-13 loss to Pitt last Friday night. The uneven play of the Wahoos’ offensive line was one of them.
“It keeps me up at night, and that’s what motivates you,” Garett Tujague said. “You want to be a group that when you walk out on the field, you’re feared, and people are watching tape and wanting to know what we’re doing at that position. That’s the ultimate goal.”
Tujague is in his third season as Virginia’s offensive line coach. He held that position at BYU for three seasons, after which he followed head coach Bronco Mendenhall to UVA in December 2015.
So did offensive coordinator Robert Anae, who believes Tujague faced the biggest challenge of any assistant coach at Virginia after Mendenhall took over a struggling program.
“It was a culture thing. That group takes an exquisite amount of effort to develop culture with,” said Anae, a former offensive line coach at Ricks College, Boise State, UNLV, Texas Tech and Arizona. “There are no shortcuts.”
Tujague agreed. “Very, very rarely do you get a kid who can come in as a true freshman and be ready to play in the ACC as an offensive lineman.”
For decades, starting in earnest during George Welsh’s tenure as head coach, UVA offensive lineman regularly earned All-ACC honors. They included such standouts as Jim Dombrowski, Bob Olderman, Roy Brown, Ray Roberts, Mark Dixon, Chris Harrison, Noel LaMontagne, John St. Clair, Elton Brown, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Branden Albert, Eugene Monroe, Austin Pasztor, Oday Aboushi and Morgan Moses.
Five of those linemen – Dombrowski in 1986, Roberts in 1992, Ferguson in 2006, Albert in 2008, and Monroe in 2009 – became first-round NFL draft picks. Ferguson, Albert and Monroe played for Al Groh, whose final season as the Cavaliers’ head coach was 2009. Groh’s successor, Mike London, had several elite O-linemen, but by the end of his tenure at UVA, there was little depth or talent up front.
Not since 2014, when Moses and Luke Bowanko were picked in the third and sixth rounds, respectively, has an offensive lineman from UVA been taken in the NFL draft.
“The biggest turnaround in programs on the offensive side are at the quarterback spot and the offensive line,” Anae said. “The quarterback you can fix with one guy signing, and it’s done. It’s only one spot. We feel we fixed that spot” — with the addition of Perkins, who enrolled at UVA in January – “but the line is way different. You can’t just get five guys to come in as free agents and, boom! No, you’ve got to develop them, and it’s a work in progress.”
In 2016, when the Cavaliers finished 2-10, they struggled in every phase of the game. UVA improved to 6-7 in 2016, and the offensive line was among the units that played better than in 2016. Still, the O-line was far from dominant, as Virginia’s offensive statistics illustrated.
Among the 14 ACC teams, the Cavaliers ranked last in rushing offense, total offense and scoring offense in 2017.
The numbers look better this season. Heading into its home finale Saturday against Liberty (4-4), Virginia (6-3) ranks eighth in the ACC in rushing offense, 11thin total offense, and 11thin scoring offense.
“We’re still a significant ways off,” Mendenhall said Monday when asked about the O-line, “but we have improved from a year ago, in not only culture [but] performance. That’s moved the meter. I don’t know where to put it in terms of letter, grade or percentage, but it is moving. Not as fast as I would like it. We’re not as deep as I would like. The mindset and execution as well as the strength and size is still a work in progress. But we are improving.”
Continuity on the coaching staff has helped. During London’s six seasons running the Cavaliers’ program, he had three offensive line coaches. For many of Virginia’s current O-linemen, Tujague is the only position coach they’ve had in college. They understand the terminology he uses and the techniques he teaches.
Tujague, a former offensive guard at BYU, singled out the leadership and work ethic of center Dillon Reinkensmeyer, right guard Jake Fieler and right tackle Marcus Applefield, a graduate transfer from Rutgers.
“Having those three guys push that culture and be role models for the younger kids has been very beneficial,” Tujague said.
The depth chart for the offensive line includes only two seniors, Fieler and Applefield, who could be late-round picks in the next NFL draft, Tujague said. They’ll leave behind a solid core on the line.
“I’m real excited with what the future holds,” Tujague said. “I’m not looking ahead. but I think we’re starting to get exactly what we’re designed for at the O-line position.You start getting a little depth, and you don’t have to play a guy because he’s the only [option] you have.”
The only junior on the O-line depth chart is R.J. Proctor, who’s started the past three games at left guard. Virginia’s starting left tackle, Ryan Nelson, is a redshirt freshman, and Reinkensmeyer is a redshirt sophomore. Another sophomore, guard Chris Glaser, has started six games this season.
Reinkensmeyer’s backup is redshirt freshman Gerrik Vollmer, and Fieler’s is redshirt sophomore Ben Knutson. The second-team tackles are two of the program’s most promising linemen: Bobby Haskins, a 6-7, 280-pound true freshman, and Ryan Swoboda, a 6-10, 290-pound redshirt freshman.
“Those guys are the future at the tackle position,” Tujague said.
Among the true freshmen yet to play this season are two offensive linemen – 6-6, 325-pound Martin Weisz and 6-6, 295-pound Derek Devine – who earned their jersey numbers this fall and thus were options for Tujague.
“They have the size, and both of them are strong,” Tujague said. “They’ve actually got decent weight room numbers for incoming freshmen. But again, the question is: Are they mentally ready? Working with the [scout team] is going to help them and their mindsets tremendously.”
Also on the scout team is Victor Oluwatimi, a 6-3, 295-pound center who’s sitting out this season after transferring from Air Force to UVA.
“He’s a great addition to our organization,” Tujague said of Oluwatimi, a graduate of DeMatha Catholic High in Maryland. “He will absolutely push Dillon Reinkensmeyer [in 2019].”
Three regular-season games remain for Virginia, which is bowl-eligible in back-to-back seasons for the first time in than a decade. After hosting Liberty this weekend, the ‘Hoos will play at Georgia Tech on Nov. 17 and at Virginia Tech on Nov. 23.
Even after losing to Pitt, UVA is a contender for the ACC’s Coastal Division title. But for the Cavaliers to reach their goals, they know they need to re-establish Ellis (81.0 yards per game rushing) in the running game.
When the ‘Hoos met last Saturday, Mendenhall said, “that was one of my points of emphasis to the team. Our run game can’t just be Bryce on zone-read pull and then quarterback scramble. That can’t be the majority of the yards. That can be complementary, but it has to come off of run-game execution off our core plays.”
The job of opening holes for Ellis, of course, falls on the offensive line. The home stretch offers an opportunity for the line to show how far it’s come.
“I’m expecting our best ball the next three weeks and on,” Tujague said.