Home How quickly the UVA offensive line gels is the key to how good the offense can be

How quickly the UVA offensive line gels is the key to how good the offense can be

terry heffernan
Terry Heffernan. Photo: UVA Athletics

I’m hearing a lot of good things about Clemson transfer tailback Kobe Pace, who could be the best running back that Virginia has had dating back to the Wali Lundy-Alvin Pearman days.

My concern is: he can’t block for himself.

The offensive line room lost four guys who accounted for 68.1 percent of the snaps in 2022 – Logan Taylor, a four-star recruit from the 2021 recruiting class, who transferred to Boston College; John Paul Flores, a transfer from Dartmouth in 2022, who landed at Louisville after hitting the portal; and Jonathan Leech and Derek Devine just decided not to return for what could have been their final year of eligibility.

New O line coach Terry Heffernan, late of Stanford, will have to cobble together a blocking unit from among a mash of relatively inexperienced returning guys and pick-ups from the portal.

The guy with the most run is one of the transfers, Brian Stevens, a 6’2”, 290-pound guard from Dayton, an FCS program that went 8-3 in 2022, so, respectable.

Stevens is a grad senior who only has two years of experience at the college level, but both were as a starter, getting 1,385 snaps at left guard and left tackle.

Pro Football Focus loves his game – Stevens got an 87.4 grade on his 718 snaps in 2022, and he allowed just eight QB pressures (and just one sack) on 317 pass dropbacks last season.

The other two transfers – 6’4”, 300-pound tackle Ugonna Nnanna (Houston) and 6’7”, 315-pound tackle Jimmy Christ (Penn State) – don’t bring much in the way of college-level experience, and that’s being generous.

Nnanna, a senior, didn’t get any snaps on offense in 2022, and in his three years at Houston, he logged a total of 28 O line snaps. Christ, a grad student, got 60 snaps in 2022 and had 72 total in his three years at Penn State.

The returning guy with the most run is Ty Furnish, a 6’3”, 279-pound junior center, who got 505 snaps as a sophomore in 2022, and was graded out by Pro Football Focus at 45.6, which, in case you were wondering, no, that isn’t good, but it is experience to build from.

The other returnees are Jestus Johnson (194 snaps, 50.7 PFF grade) at center, along with guard Noah Josey (277 snaps, 67.1 PFF grade) and tackle McKale Boley (135 snaps, 47.1 PFF grade).

The pro-style offense installed last spring by head coach Tony Elliott and offensive coordinator Des Kitchings is built around the run game, but the early returns on the dramatic change in scheme from previous OC Robert Anae’s Air Raid weren’t positive.

The numbers show that there was actually a slight decline in overall productivity in the run game under the new regime – 123.1 yards per game on the ground in 2022, down from the 123.2 yards per game in 2021 put up on the ground under Anae.

And that said, the run blocking was graded out by PFF as being better, at 59.7, ranking 65th nationally, than the pass blocking, which was graded out at 34.6, ranking 127th among the 131 teams in FBS.

Meaning, my concern about Pace, who was Clemson’s RB1 in 2021 before dropping on the depth chart last year due to lingering issues, should also be spread out to include concern for the guy that I expect to be the QB1, Tony Muskett, a transfer from Monmouth, a mid-tier FCS program.

Three-year starting QB Brennan Armstrong, now at NC State, was the team’s leading rusher in 2022, and the bulk of his yards came on scrambles.

Even if Heffernan is a miracle worker, it’s hard to imagine him taking the pieces that he has at his disposal and getting more productivity than we saw from the UVA O line last year, at least early on (again, that’s me being generous, hedging with the qualifier “early on”).

O line play is key to any offense. How quickly the second iteration of a makeshift O line in the Elliott era gels, if it gels, will tell the story of how good the 2023 UVA offense can be.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].