To put it mildly, the Virginia Cavaliers’ offensive line was bad last year. This team could neither run the ball nor protect the QB. The team ranked 101st in rush offense and 120th in sacks allowed. That wasn’t entirely the OL’s fault, as there were problems across the offense. But OL play was a major factor.
This was early on against ODU, a game Virginia won…16-14. ODU ranked 117th in rush defense. Yes, it’s one play. But the Virginia line gets zero push against ODU’s front. Mike Hollins ended up scoring on the play due to second effort and some late push. But the initial action is a stalemate at best, and really some of Virginia’s OLs are pushed back into Hollins. Again, it’s one play. But it’s not a good one.
Although there was some fluctuation along the OL, the starting five was fairly consistent after the first couple of games. Logan Taylor started every game, but moved from RT to LT after two games. Jonathan Leech started the final eight games at RT. John Paul Flores started nine games at LG while Derek Devine started every game at RG. All four of those guys are gone. Taylor to BC, the others exhausted their eligibility.
Virginia also replaced their OL coach, as Garrett Tujague left to join Robert Anae at NC State. Tony Elliott brings in Terry Heffernan, who has both college and NFL coaching experience.
It’s a new OL room, and maybe that’s a good thing considering the struggles. Maybe the unit will be bad again, who knows. At the very least, hopefully they can improve as the season progresses, and build for the future.
In all honesty, this won’t get fully sorted out until pretty close to game time. Or perhaps not until after some games. Some of this is injuries to projected starters, but a lot is due to all the new faces in the OL room.
At LT, it appears to be McKale Boley’s job. The problem is that Boley has missed much of training camp with injury. He is expected to be ready to go by opening day, but is that enough time for him to get up to speed and build synergy with the rest of the OL?
At guard, a couple of transfers should be in the starting spots. On the left is Houston transfer Ugonna Nnanna, and on the right is Dayton transfer Brian Stevens. At 6’4” 309, Nnanna certainly looks the part of an ACC interior lineman. He barely played at Houston, seeing limited action in eight games over the past two seasons. The Cougars had some good teams during his time there, so there aren’t a lot of chances for young OLs to break into the lineup.
Stevens, on the other hand, started 19 games at Dayton, including every game last year. Although Dayton is FCS, Stevens’ playing experience gives him a head start in being ready to play for the ‘Hoos.
The center position is the only one with a returning full-time starter from last season. Ty Furnish started nine games and played in all 10. At 6’3” 282, Furnish is a little undersized for an interior lineman and he struggled against five-down fronts with a defensive lineman in his face. But he’s a smart player who makes the line calls. Having a bigger player there who can’t communicate with the rest of the OL (and the QB) isn’t going to help.
That leaves RT, which is very much still up in the air. This position was meant for Penn State transfer Jimmy Christ, however he has not participated much in training camp due to injury. So he probably isn’t ready for primetime just yet. Like Nnanna, Christ did not play much at PSU. But again, PSU was a very good team, so obviously they would not be looking to a redshirt freshman at OT.
With Christ out, that likely means starting RT against Tennessee will be an untested underclassman. Exactly who that is will probably not be known until game time. Who might that be?
About That Bench
The starting five against Tennessee will likely not be the ideal starting five, because of injuries. Guys who haven’t practiced much during camp just may not be up to speed for live action. Especially against a top-10 team in Tennessee.
The OL last year was not good. And yet, for the most part, no changes were made. Nobody waiting in the wings deserved a shot on the field? Houston Curry made the two-deep at RT as a freshman, but never saw the field. Almost the entire rest of the two-deep from last year is gone and, other than Furnish, almost all of the returnees barely saw the field.
Jestus Johnson is one guy who did see the field. He started over Ty Furnish against Duke, and was listed atop the depth chart for Pitt as well heading into the game. (Ty started.) If Furnish misses time, or struggles, Johnson should be ready to go.
One other guy who played is Noah Josey. He saw action in nine games and has this little tidbit in his UVA bio: “according to Pro Football Focus graded out as UVA’s top run-blocking lineman and had the 10th-highest run blocking grade among ACC linemen with 200 or more snaps”. That’s promising. Anyone other than Furnish would likely be replaced by Josey if needed. Nnanna would move to LT, with Josey stepping in at OG. In fact, that has reportedly been the lineup throughout much of training camp.
Sophomore Blake Steen has been starting at RT in camp, and seems to have the lead in the race to start there against the Vols. Steen is just massive (6’5” 340) and that size and strength may be enough to get him on the field. His brother started for Alabama at left tackle and was picked in the third round by the Eagles, so he’s got the genes for it.
Jack Whitmer, Charlie Patterson and Houston Curry are all possible options at OT, while Noah DeMeritt, Snoop Leota-Amaama, and Grant Lanham are possible options at OG. If Virginia needs one of this group to play significant minutes, it probably means things are going poorly. However, any experience these young guys get will only benefit them in the future.
Maybe this unit will be bad again. Maybe it’ll be good. It’ll definitely be different.