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2018 Virginia Cavaliers Football Position Previews: Offensive Line

Does this year’s offensive line have the experience necessary to take the Hoos to the next level?

NCAA Football: Indiana at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

The most important position on a football field is the quarterback. A bad team with a good QB is going to be decent. A good team with a bad QB is not going to be successful.

But there are ways to help make your QB look good. The best way is to have a good offensive line. A good OL will cover up a lot of problems at QB: many QBs struggle under pressure, but a good OL can prevent pressure. A good running game makes a QB’s job easier, but a good running game requires a good OL.

Unfortunately, it’s been a while since the Virginia Cavaliers have had an offensive line they can...get behind. (See what I did there?)

Here’s a chart to show just how bad the Wahoo OL has been over the years. Over the years, the Virginia offense has ranked poorly nationally in both rushing offense (yard per rush) and in sacks allowed, both of which can be attributed, at least in part, to the strength of the offensive line.

Offensive Line - National Rankings

Year Rushing (YPC) Sacks Allowed
Year Rushing (YPC) Sacks Allowed
2017 127 92
2016 112 108
2015 84 43
2014 102 17
2013 90 82
2012 95 63
2011 52 21
2010 76 52
2009 114 114
2008 96 19
2007 87 92
2006 96 99
2005 66 94
2004 8 16

Not surprisingly, the advanced stats tell a similar story. (Hopefully, by now, you’ve read our advanced stats primer.) Those do not go back very far, which is probably a good thing for Wahoo fans.

Offensive National Ranking - Advanced Stats

Year Rushing S&P Adjusted Line Yards Power Success Rate
Year Rushing S&P Adjusted Line Yards Power Success Rate
2017 112 105 90
2016 92 75 69
2015 100 85 90

Other than a blip in 2011 (when the Hoos won eight games), there hasn’t been an above-average performance since 2004, a team that was ranked as high as #6 in the polls. That’s also the last time the Hoos finished a season ranked. The 2007 team won nine games despite having such poor OL play, and for anyone who remembers that season, you’ll remember just how dominant Chris Long and the defense were.

Enough about the past—what about this year’s offensive line?

Last year, eight OLs started a game for the Hoos. Five of those guys return, but these five accounted for only about half (33/65) of the total starts on the OL. The returnees are Jacob Fieler, Dillon Reinkensmeyer, R.J. Proctor, Ben Knutson and Chris Glaser. Knutson and Glaser started just two games apiece.

Starters

Based on the beginning of training camp, here’s the expected opening day starting line:

LT: Chris Glaser
LG: R.J. Proctor
OC: Dillon Reinkensmeyer
RG: Jake Fieler
RT: Marcus Applefield

Head coach Bronco Mendenahll (and OL coach Garett Tujague) have consistently talked about playing the best five OLs regardless of position. Fieler and Reinkensmeyer are the only two guys who played center last year and figure to compete for that spot this year. Each played multiple spots on the line last year, and we’d expect both to be in the starting lineup this year, whether at C or elsewhere. Marcus Applefield is a graduate transfer from Rutgers, a guy who started 11 games last year in the Big Ten and didn’t come here to ride the bench. While he’s lined up at RT in camp, he was a guard for Rutgers, so he’ll likely move around the line depending on needs.

An interesting aspect this year is the switch to a mobile QB. The offense figures to be more run-heavy than previous years. Even if a lot of that is option play, as opposed to “traditional” run plays, the job of this OL is different from last year’s. How does that impact the unit that is out there? Run plays, and especially the zone-read, often require interior linemen to be able to pull and make blocks out on the perimeter. That means having mobile interior linemen. That wasn’t the case in the pass-heavy scheme last year.

Fieler is entering his fifth season, but only his third seasons on the field due to an injury suffered before his redshirt freshman year. Whether or not he gets an extra year (or even attempts to) may depend on his play this season. Fieler has proven to be an adequate pass blocker, but his strength is in open space. He has the foot speed to pull in front of a run play or to get to the second level and make a block on a LB/DB. He’s tough to beat once he’s engaged.

Reinkensmeyer plays both C and OT, which is weird. Usually guys who either play interior line or OT. He’s put on 35 pounds since arriving on grounds, but he’s still a tad small for the interior of the line.

Glaser looked solid at RT late last year, so he gets the nod at the final tackle spot. But Glaser’s strength is pass blocking. His technique is very good for a younger lineman, but whether he’s the best lineman for the new offense remains to be seen.

Proctor has the most experience and probably opens the season playing at one of final guard spots. He’s also the biggest of the linemen, at 335 pounds. He is an interesting case. He was benched at times last year, but kept finding himself back in the lineup. Is he the best option for LG right now? Perhaps. But would the Hoos be better off later in the year if one of the youngsters got the experience early in the season?

For a team in rebuilding mode, the answer should possibly be yes. But Bronco Mendenhall isn’t really seeing it like that. That’s why a pair of graduate transfers combined for 21 starts last year. Yes, John Montelus and Brandon Pertile were the best options at the time. But would Ben Knutson and Chris Glaser have benefited from more than two starts each? Would this year’s OL be better if those two guys had started half of the games? On the other hand, would the Hoos have opened 5-1 and made a bowl game?

Backups

Knutson played both guard spots last year, but at 6’9” 310 seems to fit better at OT. He’s still listed at OG, but he may be another guy asked to play multiple positions. He’ll almost definitely be the first OL off the bench, regardless of who needs replacing.

Others in the mix include redshirt freshmen Tyler Fannin, Ryan Swoboda, Ryan Nelson and Gerrick Vollmer, all of whom were well regarded prospects. Glaser played as a true freshman last year, so don’t be shocked if a true freshman gets action this year. There’s really only two candidates in the first-year class: Martin Weisz and Joe Bissinger. The other incoming OLs need to add significant weight before they’re ready to see the field.

Fannin was a highly rated C prospect (11th in the nation according to ESPN, 14th by 247sports). He’s put on 20 pounds since last season. If he were ready to handle C, that might improve two positions at once.

Yes, the backup candidates are really all freshmen (redshirt or true). That doesn’t bode well for the depth this year, but it does make future years promising. As we’ve heard over and over again, the cupboard was bare when Bronco took over. That was especially true at OL. Now, there is quite a bit of talent at the position, but much of it simply isn’t ready. Yet.