Don’t look now, but there’s only six more weeks until the Virginia Cavaliers kick off against William & Mary to start the 2017 football season. Over the course of the next six weeks, we’ll give you a position-by-position breakdown so that, heading into fall camp, you’ll know what to look for.
We start today with a look at Virginia’s offensive line.
Of course, all things are subject to additional tweaks and changes as the summer progresses, injuries (knock on wood) creep in, and fall camp shakes things up. But until then, let’s take a look at where the team was last year and what we can expect this year.
The Hoos’ offense last year finished a paltry 115th in the nation in total offense and scoring offense. Worse, they finished 121st in rushing offense. But, they finished finished 61st in passing offense, which isn’t so bad after all. However, they also ranked 113th in sacks allowed, which, once again, is bad. When you recall that sacks in college football count as rushing yards and not passing yards, the rushing and passing offenses were likely a bit more even.
As a team, the Hoos averaged a very poor 3.5 yards per carry, (112th in the nation). But the top three RBs (Smoke Mizzell, Albert Reid and Jordan Ellis) averaged nearly 5 yards per carry as a group, which isn’t bad at all. The three quarterbacks totaled negative-117 yards on 69 attempts, or negative-1.7 yards per carry.
What does this all mean? It means that the Hoos were actually not that bad at running the ball. But, despite the high passing totals, they were actually not very good as throwing the ball. They actually ranked 113th in passing efficiency. Of course, a roughly 3:2 ratio of passes to runs helps. It is possible that the Hoos wouldn’t have been as successful running the ball if they’d tried more. And they may have tried more if they weren’t behind in almost every game they played.
It can be difficult to separate out the running game and the passing game. This is especially true for the Hoos last year, who were led in receptions by Mizzell, a running back. But, the biggest link between the two is the offensive line. It is the OL’s job to open up holes for the ground game and the OL’s job to protect the quarterback long enough to throw his passes.
In particular, the Hoos interior linemen struggled with pass protection. As mentioned, that group gave up 36 sacks. By my unofficial count, 15 of those sacks came from opposing interior linemen, while just 10 came from outside linemen. The rest were either blitzes or “coverage sacks.” People tend to focus on edge pass rushers, especially on the blind side, but being unable to protect your QB up the middle is actually a bigger problem. A QB who is constantly under pressure up the middle may be afraid to step into his throw. And since DTs have a shorter path to the QB than edge rushers do, the pocket often breaks down quicker.
But, Virginia’s interior linemen were actually pretty decent at run blocking. By my unofficial count, the Hoos were 28/45 in power chances. That is 62%, which is pretty good. This counts only rushes on short yardage downs. The Hoos passed in many of these situations. I can’t find college football numbers on that, but NFL teams convert roughly 60% of these chances. You’d expect college football to be a bit higher than that, but 62% is still a solid number.
The Hoos’ OL was very stable last year. Just 7 players started a game, and the Hoos used the same starting five for 10 of 12 games. Of those seven players, the Hoos return four. The returnees are Jack English, Jack McDonald, Jake Fieler, and R.J. Proctor. English is expected to return at LT, McDonald is the front-runner for one of the OG positions (probably RG) and Proctor is the leader to start at C, although he played RG last year. Fieler will compete for a starting job on the interior (he’s listed on the roster at C, but will likely see time at OG as well).
The OL is bolstered by a pair of graduate transfers. The first is John Montelus, from Notre Dame. He was a 4-star recruit out of Massachusetts, but played just a handful of games for the Irish. He actually played both OL and DL, but he’s expected to compete for a starting job at OG. The second transfer is Brandon Pertile, who has had a rather circuitous route to Charlottesville. He was initially a 2 star recruit to Georgia State, where he played as a true freshman (starting 4 times for a very bad Panthers team that went 0-12). He then moved on to Mesa Community College, where he spent an injury-plagued season (and was granted a medical hardship). Then, coming out of JUCO, he was a 3-star recruit and committed to Oklahoma State, where he played 2 seasons but saw action in just 3 games. He’ll compete for the starting job at RT.
Here is a current roster breakdown for the OL:
OT: Jack English (Sr), Brandon Pertile (Sr), Ryan Bischoff (So), Ben Trent (RFr), Osiris Crutchfield (RFr), Garrick Vollmer (Fr), Ryan Swoboda (Fr), Chris Glaser (Fr), Ryan Nelson (Fr)
OG: Jack McDonald (Sr), John Montelus (Sr), Steven Moss (Jr), Trenton Jenkins (So, walk-on), Ben Knutson (RFr)
OC: Jacob Fieler (Jr), R.J. Proctor (So), Dillon Reinkensmeyer (RFr), Tyler Fannin (Fr)
Some of these guys, especially the freshman, could change positions and/or cross-train at multiple positions. For example, as mentioned above, Fieler will likely compete for playing time at all three interior positions and he has already seen time at OT for the Hoos.
Here is our projected depth chart for the OL.
2017 Offensive Line Projected Depth Chart
|Position||First Team||Second Team|
|Position||First Team||Second Team|
|Left Tackle||Jack English||Ben Trent|
|Left Guard||John Montelus||Steven Moss|
|Center||RJ Proctor||Jacob Fieler|
|Right Guard||Jack McDonald||Dillon Reinkensmeyer|
|Right Tackle||Brandon Pertile||Ryan Bischoff|
I purposely did not allow for any player to backup more than one position, but Fieler is likely the first OL off the bench at any of the five positions. Fieler could also win one of the starting jobs on the interior (possibly at OC), which would change things up quite a bit. Reinkensmeyer is also a possible replacement at any position.
The addition of the two graduate transfers really changes the outlook for the OL this year. If both of them work out, the OL has the potential to be much improved over last year. Jack English profiles as above average at LT, and McDonald figures to be an average RG. That potentially covers four spots on the OL. There is, however, a big question mark at center, after four years of Jackson Matteo. Though Matteo struggled at times to contain bigger DTs, he was a steady presence in the middle and was generally a very strong run blocker. None of the current OCs are ready to provide that presence, though a pair of redshirt senior guards will help the new guy break in.
For the first time in a while, the future of the OL doesn’t look so bleak. Even with potentially 4 starting OLs graduating this year, there is a clear path for next year with Proctor, Fieler, Moss and Reinkensmeyer all figuring to get playing time this year. Add in promising youngsters like Ryan Nelson, Ben Knutson and Chris Glaser, and there is a way forward for the next several years.
That last paragraph should be the most important takeaway from this year’s OL preview. The OL this year could be decent. It’s probably not going to be good, but decent a strong possibility. But there is a real chance that the Hoos OL could be pretty good by 2019.