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By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– On a night when sophomore Olusegun Oluwatimi, who started Virginia’s three games at center, barely played, and then only at guard, the Cavaliers lost two other offensive linemen to injuries last weekend against Old Dominion: sophomore center Tyler Fannin and sophomore tackle Ryan Swoboda.
Such predicaments are why the Cavaliers’ offensive linemen often cross-train during spring practice and training camp.
“You’ve got to have a contingency plan for this,” said Garett Tujague, who’s in his fourth year as Virginia’s O-line coach.
It’s been a challenging year for Tujague, who has no seniors in his group. Graduate transfer Alex Gellerstedt, a candidate to start at tackle, suffered a season-ending knee injury in June, costing the Wahoos a key piece.
In the Hoos’ first three games, Oluwatimi played center, junior Chris Glaser and sophomore Ryan Nelson were at guard, and Swoboda, sophomore Bobby Haskins and junior Dillon Reinkensmeyer rotated at tackle.
After Fannin left the ODU game with an injury, Reinkensmeyer took over at center, the position at which he started last season. His versatility is “enormously great,” Tujague said. “There’s all kinds of things that you’ve got going on, but the fact that he can play multiple positions and be a viable answer is huge.”
Swoboda returned to practice this week, and Oluwatimi’s injured thumb has improved, so the O-line should be closer to full strength when No. 18 Virginia (4-0) meets No. 10 Notre Dame (2-1) in a 3:30 p.m. game at Notre Dame Stadium.
Asked about his group’s progress, Tujague said, “We need to be a very, very consistent unit and take ownership of the run game. There needs to be more ownership, and by doing that, there’ll be more consistency. I think we’ll be much better if we can take a step forward this week with that.”
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall said the injuries have affected the line’s “consistency and continuity. Every time there is a change from one spot to another, our players shifting here or there, it’s not quite as precise as what you would have hoped if it was just the same five all the time … The offensive line is unique because the reactions have to be so fast and the time frame to make decisions is very tight and shrunken.
“How they communicate with each other, how they react and who they’re playing next to really matters. It still is affecting us. I would love to get the right five and keep the same five healthy. It seems like just when we kind of get that there is an injury or two, so we haven’t yet got it dialed in.”
True freshman Jonathan Leech, a 6-4 offensive tackle, made his Virginia debut against ODU. At about 255 pounds, Leech is extremely light for an FBS tackle, but he’s impressed in practice recently, Mendenhall said, and “there continue to be injuries and wear and tear, and so it won’t be the last you’ll see him. The circumstance required it. Now we’ll try to make the most of it now that he’s played.”
HARSH REALITY: Injuries are part of the game, and the “chance for being [completely healthy] is over for college football players,” Mendenhall said. “Once game one starts, they’re healthy again maybe in January, maybe February, maybe March.
“They’re all playing with something. The off-season work in terms of strength and size helps mitigate that, but not all the way.”
HOSTILE ATMOSPHERE: A sellout crowd is expected Saturday at 77,622-seat Notre Dame Stadium, where UVA has never played.
The Cavaliers’ upperclassmen and coaches expect something similar to what they faced on Nov. 18, 2017, against the Miami Hurricanes. In front of 63,415, second-ranked Miami rallied for a 44-28 victory over Virginia at Hard Rock Stadium.
“That was one of the best atmospheres I’ve ever been in,” co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga said Wednesday. “So our [veterans] have been in that situation before. I think they’ll be more excited than they will be timid about the atmosphere.”
The key in such settings, junior offensive guard Chris Glaser said, is “being able to gel as one team, trusting each and every guy and knowing what their capabilities are and what they can do.”
Virginia will be trying to do something no ACC team has done. When the Irish are ranked, they’re 20-0 against ACC opponents at Notre Dame Stadium.
UVA quarterback Bryce Perkins said he’s “heard that’s a great place to play [against a] historic team that has such a great history, so I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be fun. I know the atmosphere is going to be great and they’re a great team this year … I think that brings out the best in everybody, so I’m excited to go out there.”
The Irish have won 12 straight games at its storied venue, where a steady rain was falling when the Cavaliers stopped by Friday afternoon after landing at South Bend International Airport.
BRINGING THE HEAT: The Cavaliers are tied for first nationally in sacks, with 20. Senior linebacker Jordan Mack leads the team with five.
“The reason why we’re getting sacks,” Poppinga said, “is the quarterback’s holding on to the ball, because our guys are covering. So I think it’s a little different from last year. A lot of attention [in 2018] was on the secondary, because they were breaking up balls, they were getting interceptions. This year … now that we’re getting to the quarterback, we’re actually getting them down. But it’s a collective effort.
“We’ve got to be able to cover, we’ve got to be able to finish once we get to the quarterback, which I think we’re doing a better job of this year. The collective effort as a defense has been a positive in the first four games.”
When the Cavaliers’ front seven “can get after the quarterback,” senior cornerback Bryce Hall said, the defensive backs “don’t have to cover as long and the ball’s getting forced out maybe before its intended time. So that opens up plays to be made in the secondary.”
DUAL THREAT: Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book, a 6-0 senior, averages 276 yards passing and 48.3 rushing per game. The Cavaliers are coming off a game in which they faced another athletic quarterback, ODU’s Stone Smartt.
“I thought we did a really good job in that as far as [defending] a scrambling quarterback,” Poppinga said. “He could not get out of the pocket. We call it ‘caging the quarterback.’ “
Against Book, Poppinga said, the Hoos “have to do a really good job of making sure that he doesn’t want to step up in the pocket, but also that he doesn’t break out of the pocket as well. Book, I think, does a good job of doing both of those, so we’ve got to cage him and not let him extend plays. That’s what he loves to do, extend plays, and when he does that they’re really good.”
One of Book’s top targets is Cole Kmet, a 6-5, 250-pound junior who last weekend at Georgia tied Notre Dame’s single-game record for receptions by a tight end. Kmet had nine catches (for 108 yards and one touchdowns) in a 23-17 loss to No. 3 Georgia.
SOLID START: Virginia’s base defense is a 3-4, and true freshman Jowon Briggs has started every game at nose tackle this season. He has eight tackles, including 1.5 for loss.
“As far as just eating up blocks and being physical, he’s doing a great job of that,” Poppinga said. “He needs to be more productive and he needs to get off blocks and make plays now.”
RARE COMBINATION: For his performance against Old Dominion, UVA outside linebacker Charles Snowden was named the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week. A 6-7, 235-pound junior, Snowden had a career-high 15 tackles, including two sacks, in Virginia’s 28-17 win at Scott Stadium.
Quarterback Bryce Perkins, who enrolled at UVA in January 2018, remembers seeing Snowden for the first time.
“I was wondering if we could steal him and bring him on the other side of the ball,” Perkins said Monday. “He’s crazy athletic and he moves really well, and when he’s on the edge and he’s pass-rushing, it’s hard to get a pass over him, and it’s hard to escape or scramble if he beats a [blocker], either under or over the top because he’s fast and his arms are so long that he can reach out and grab you.”
UNITED PURSUIT: Upperclassmen dominate the two-deep for Virginia’s defense, and their collective experience helps them stay poised in the face of adversity, such as the 17-0 lead that ODU built last weekend.
“I think as a defense we have a lot of trust in each other,” said fifth-year senior Eli Hanback, a four-year starter on the line. “We have guys all over the place with experience who played a lot and who have been, as we say, through the warehouse. We’ve been through hard stuff, whether that be in spring ball, in the offseason, in the weight room, we’ve been through a lot of stuff together and done a lot of hard things. So I think the fact that we trust each other to do our job and do it at a high level is huge for us, especially when we’re behind and need to battle back and get stops.”
NEVER SATISFIED: After a junior year in which he earned All-America honors, Bryce Hall put his NFL dreams on hold and returned to UVA. His assessment of his performance so far this season?
“I feel like I can play a lot better,” Hall said. “I think I’m my biggest critic and I expect a lot out of myself. I think that’s the beauty of it. We’re only four games in and have a lot of games left to play, and so I’m working fiercely to just kind of improve each week and look at myself and evaluate and see how I can get better. I know I’m certainly capable of playing at a high level.”
Of his return to Virginia, Hall said that even “before the season started I knew it was the right decision for me. I think I was validated throughout the offseason and the things I’ve been able to be a part of. I think the run we’re on right now is confirmation. … I think we’re on the right track and I’m absolutely where I’m supposed to be and I don’t have any regrets about whether I should have left early or not.”