By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– When he went to bed, he felt fine. When Alex Gellerstedt woke up the next morning, he couldn’t straighten his left leg.
“It was a total fluke thing,” said Garett Tujague, Virginia’s offensive line coach, “nothing he did.”
In a flash, though, Gellerstedt found the start of his UVA football career delayed. A graduate transfer from Penn State, the 6-7, 325-pound offensive tackle underwent surgery in late June and will miss the upcoming season. Unbeknownst to him, he suffered from osteochondritis dissecans, a condition that develops in joints, and a piece of his femur had broken off and lodged in his knee joint.
“This is the first injury I’ve really had,” Gellerstedt said.
He’s been wearing a cumbersome knee brace for the past month, but he’ll be able to shed that soon.He’s been rehabbing diligently to improve his range of motion, “and I’m trying to do everything I can to make sure I don’t lose too much [strength in] my quad or my calf or my hamstring,” Gellerstedt said.
Virginia’s medical staff expects him to be ready for the start of the winter strength and conditioning program in January.
“It was a pretty huge disappointment, because I was really feeling good going into the season, so hearing it was six months was a huge blow,” Gellerstedt said Tuesday at the McCue Center. “My body felt great. I was feeling strong, and my conditioning was feeling really good, so I was really ready to go.
“Even when [the knee] did lock up, we initially thought it was going to be a meniscus, so it would just be a couple weeks. That’s kind of what I was thinking: Maybe I’ll be limited for the first week or so of fall camp, and then I’ll be ready to go.”
Gellerstedt, who was born in Cleveland, spent most of his childhood in Columbus, Ohio, where he starred at Dublin Coffman High School. He enrolled at Penn State in January 2016 and redshirted that fall. He played in eight games during the next two seasons, after which he decided to start fresh at another school as a grad transfer.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Penn State in three-and-a-half years.
“I really liked the school, and I had a great time being on the team,” Gellerstedt, “but I just felt like it was time for a change.”
The Nittany Lions’ graduate assistants last year included former UVA offensive lineman Sean Cascarano. After Gellerstedt, who with two years of eligibility remaining was an especially attractive prospect, entered the NCAA’s Transfer Portal, Virginia contacted him.
“I talked to Sean about it, and he told me he thought it would be a great fit for me.” Gellerstedt said.
Gellerdstedt, whose paternal grandparents live in Lynchburg, had visited Charlottesville a couple of times and was aware of UVA’s academic reputation.
“I’ve always liked the school,” said Gellerstedt, who next month will start a two-year master’s program in UVA’s prestigious Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. “It was a good academic opportunity, along with football, so it was really just a great fit for me.
“I definitely wanted to be a part of a team that had a chance for great success, and the trajectory over the last year has been amazing. I wanted to come here and be a part of building [the program] up to an even better level than it’s been.”
He arrived in Charlottesville in early June and began training under Shawn Griswold, UVA’s director of football development and performance. On an offensive line that lost three full- or part-time starters from 2018 –– Jake Fieler, Marcus Applefield and R.J. Proctor –– Gellerstedt figured prominently in the Cavaliers’ plans.
“He expected to play right away, we needed him to play right away, we were hopeful he would play right away, we were counting on him and slotted him to play right away,” UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall said this month at ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte. “Luckily he has two years remaining, but this been hard on everybody.”
Of the Wahoos’ offensive linemen, Tujague said, Gellerstedt “has by far the best feet out of the whole group, so I was really, really excited to work with him. His feet are amazing, and he’s the strongest guy in the room. [The setback] was a shock, but that’s college football. That’s what happens.”
Griswold never likes to see anyone get injured, but he believes Gellerstedt can grow from this setback.
“That’s what I was telling Tujague on the very first day that we got news of it,” Griswold recalled. “I said, ‘Here’s the deal: You can take it as glass half-full or glass half-empty.’ I know it’s an old adage, but you can.
“What was sitting in [Gellerstedt’s knee] was already in there, so at some point it was going to happen. Does it stink that he can’t go right now? It does. But in the long run, it’s so much better for it to happen now instead of the middle of the season or going into pro day. We can rehab him and spend more time working on his weaknesses and [building] his mobility and upper-body strength and core strength, because he’s big and long.
“It stinks, I get it, but we’ll have a good plan for him to get better in all the weaknesses that he has and make him a better total athlete.”
Should he decide to apply for one, Gellerstedt might well be granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, so he could be at UVA through the 2021 season.
That’s to be determined later. For now, Gellerstedt said, he’s focused on rehabbing “and lifting and making sure everything’s strong around the area, as much as it can be, while it’s recovering, so I can hit the ground running once I’m full go again.”
His new coaches and teammates, “especially in my position group, have been checking up on me and making sure everything’s good,” Gellerstedt said. “It’s been great.”
Gellerstedt was a strong candidate to start at right tackle this season for UVA, which opens Aug. 31 at Pitt. In his absence, Virginia is likely to open training camp Friday with a first-team line consisting of sophomore Ryan Nelson at left tackle, junior Chris Glaser at left guard, sophomore Olusegun Oluwatimi at center, junior Dillon Reinkensmeyer at right guard, and a sophomore, Ryan Swoboda or Bobby Haskins, at right tackle, Tujague said.
The loss of Gellerstedt is a painful reminder, Tujague said, that there’s “no such thing as too many offensive linemen. But I think more than anything it’s tough, because he was devastated. He’s been patiently sitting by the side, waiting for his opportunity, for the last three years, and here it was.”