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Mr. Fix It: Garett Tujague has to rebuild the Virginia offensive line, again

Garett Tujague
Garett Tujague. Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

The six guys that Virginia offensive line coach Garett Tujague used for the bulk of Virginia’s offensive snaps in 2021 are gone – either to trying to catch on in the NFL or to what they think are greener pastures at another college program.

Tujague has just five guys in camp this spring who have seen the field at the college level, for a grand total of 312 snaps, the bulk of those by 6’4”, 280-pound junior Jonathan Leech (224 career snaps, including 183 in 2021).

“Fix it. We’re right back to fix it,” said Tujague, who’d had to rebuild the offensive line from the ground up when he arrived on Grounds with Bronco Mendenhall in 2015, and now has to do so again.

Spend a few minutes with Tujague, and you realize that he’s up for any challenge.

“One of the things that is probably the most important thing is the effort in which to do that,” Tujague said. “There’s a lot of things moving really fast. I love the challenge, the opportunity to take something and have it excel. It’s going to happen. There are moments with my guys where they were, oh, hey, that this is working, or whatever. It’s going to come to fruition, I promise you.”

There are obvious growing pains – the big one being, the lack of depth up front has caused some issues for the offense to get the reps it needs to get new offensive coordinator Des Kitchings’ scheme installed this spring, according to head coach Tony Elliott.

“I was hoping that offensively we’d be a little bit further ahead, but as I step back and I look at the big picture, I’m not disappointed because of the depth situation,” Elliott said. “I mean, we’ve got 10 linemen, and there’s been days when we’ve had eight linemen, and so if you’re running two groups, you need at least 10 linemen so that means guys are doing double duty.”

Leech has been seeing time at both tackle and both guard spots this spring, Elliott said. Jestus Johnson, a 6’6”, 330-pound sophomore, is getting snaps at center and the guard spots. Derek Divine, a 6’6”, 286-pound soon-to-be grad senior, is rotating at guard and tackle.

“When you’re installing a new offense, new schemes, different calls, different verbiage, that’s tough for those guys,” Elliott said.

And the approach from Elliott, Kitchings, Tujague and defensive coordinator John Rudzinski is to put everybody on both sides of the ball through a bit of baptism by fire, as opposed to taking things slow and steady.

“Offensive football, it’s a lot of communication, and Coach Rud does a good job of changing fronts, and anytime you move a defender five inches, on the offensive line, all the calls change, and with the depth issues that we have, we don’t have the continuity,” Elliott said. “So, what’s happening is it’s just taking a little bit longer for things to come together up front, not because they’re not working hard or they don’t want to, it’s just it’s difficult. And to be effective on offense, it starts with the five guys up front, and we’ve had guys up and down with a couple of guys sick and out.”

Basically, “it’s just a function of depth, more so than the guys not being able to grasp the install,” Elliott said.

There are reinforcements on the way. The two most important signees from the transfer portal in the offseason, by an order of magnitude, were John Paul Flores (Dartmouth) and Mac Hollensteiner (Georgetown), both tackles.

Flores (6’5”, 300) and Hollensteiner (6’6”, 310) played at the FCS level, but they each played extensively, and played well, from their Pro Football Focus profiles.

Flores, a second-team All-Ivy guy this past season, graded out at 67.4 in 2021, on 621 snaps over 10 games, allowing 10 QB pressures and two sacks on 300 pass-block snaps, and grading at 65.0 on 321 run-block snaps.

Hollensteiner, a two-year starter at Georgetown, graded out at 66.8 on his 707 snaps in 2021, allowing 23 pressures and two sacks on 431 pass-block snaps, and grading 64.7 on his 276 run snaps.

Before you turn your nose up at those numbers, consider that Hollensteiner had offers from the likes of Michigan State, Oklahoma State and Colorado, and Flores had offers from a host of schools, including SMU, Temple and East Carolina.

But they’re still wrapping up their academic semesters at their current schools, which means, they’re not available for spring practice at Virginia.

Tujague has made it clear to the guys who are on Grounds for spring practice that they can get a leg up on the guys who won’t be here until the summer with their play in the here and now.

“I took them all, sat them down and said, it would kind of be embarrassing if a kid came in here in fall camp or over the summer and took your job. I mean, honestly, for being real, there’s 15 practices. If someone who didn’t have those 15 practices comes in here and takes your job, you probably should be embarrassed,” Tujague said.

The early look, with two weeks to go until the spring game, has Johnson and 6’4”, 270-pound sophomore Ty Furnish getting snaps at center, Leech, Devine and 6’5”, 323-pound Noah Josey getting the bulk of snaps at the two guard spots, and 6’7”, 272-pound sophomore Charlie Patterson getting his feet wet at left tackle.

Logan Taylor, a 6’7”, 332-pound sophomore who was a four-star prep recruit, will “help things immensely” once he can get fully recovered from injury, Tujague said.

“The bottom line is the effort in whatever five it is that are out there, I’ve got to have their maximum effort,” Tujague said.

Story by Chris Graham

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