Home New Virginia O line coach Terry Heffernan knows he has his work cut out for him

New Virginia O line coach Terry Heffernan knows he has his work cut out for him

Chris Graham
terry heffernan
Photo: UVA Athletics

The new Virginia offensive line coach, Terry Heffernan, met a UVA football fan at the grocery store recently, which gave him a story to tell his guys the next day before practice.

“He came up and told us how he was at the grocery store or something, and some just random person at the store came up to him and started talking to him, and noticed, he was like, knew him, saw his picture on Twitter or something, knows he’s the offensive line coach, and he, the guy, told him that, man, he goes, man, that offensive line needs a lot of work, something along those lines,” junior center Ty Furnish said.

The reaction was what Heffernan almost certainly wanted.

“It kind of just pissed us all off, because we know we’re a lot better than what people think we are,” said Furnish, 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.

The line as a whole graded out at 34.6 for its pass blocking, ranking 127th among the 131 teams in FBS.

Yeah, yikes.

The run blocking graded a little better, at 59.7, ranking 65th nationally, not that you’d know that from the meager numbers produced in the ground game.

Tony Elliott came in touting how he wanted balance in the offense on the heels of years of the program, under the previous offensive coordinator, Robert Anae, erring on the side of throwing the ball all the time.

The result was actually a slight decline in overall productivity in the run game – 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.

The O line, apologies to Furnish, who I wouldn’t want to be mad at me for any reason, because he’s huge, but no, it wasn’t good, not good at all, and that was before the group lost four experienced guys who decided not to return for the 2023 season.

Logan Taylor, a four-star recruit from the 2021 recruiting class, is headed to Boston College; John Paul Flores, a transfer from Dartmouth in 2022, is on his way to Louisville; and Jonathan Leech and Derek Devine just decided not to return for what could have been their final year of eligibility.

The guys on their way out accounted for 68.1 percent of the offensive line snaps in 2022.

The O line does return Furnish and Jestus Johnson (194 snaps) at center, along with guard Noah Josey (277 snaps) and tackle McKale Boley (135 snaps).

But that’s it. Nope, there’s not that much for Heffernan, who worked under David Shaw at Stanford for the past two seasons, to work with.

Seriously, the guy at the grocery store, it’s not like he was necessarily wrong about anything he said.

“I think there’s a lot of chatter, and to think that these kids don’t hear the chatter about what the expectations for this line is would be naive of me. So I think, the way I’ve approached it, and I think the way they’ve approached it, is that, let’s use that as fuel,” said Heffernan, who prior to his tenure at Stanford spent two years in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills as the assistant O line coach, in addition to his time in the college ranks as an assistant at Eastern Kentucky and Wayne State and as a grad assistant at Louisville and Michigan, around a three-year stint in the NFL with the Detroit Lions.

“I do better when I’m pushing against odds, and people are doubting me, and so that’s something we’ve kind of tried to embrace,” Heffernan said. “You know, we’ve got a chance, every single day, we come out here to improve, and we know we need to improve, and we’re building this line, we’re building this product, and nobody else is gonna get to see it until we hit the field against Tennessee, you know, or at least from you guys and your media exposure during training camp. But we know what we’re building here, so let’s not listen to the noise outside, cut that out and just focus on improving every day.”

That us-against-the-world message is probably just what this group needs after last year’s debacle.

The UVA offense last year averaged a meager 344.1 yards per game, after the offense had averaged a school-record 515.8 yards per game in 2021.

The O line surrendered 34 sacks and 159 QB pressures in 2022 on 411 pass dropbacks.

The 2021 unit, which also lost four key contributors, including Olusegun Oluwatimi, who went on to win the Rimington and Outland trophies at Michigan last fall, had given up 40 sacks and 159 pressures on 571 pass dropbacks.

Looking back on it, it was probably a mistake for Elliott to retain Garett Tujague from Anae’s offensive staff, given Elliott’s stated desire to tear down the program he inherited from Bronco Mendenhall to start from scratch.

Tujague leaving to reunite with Anae at NC State allowed Elliott to address that issue with the hire of Heffernan, who is implementing a total overhaul in terms of approach.

“I didn’t really come in and ask and say, Hey, what was done previously? I just said, Hey, here’s how we’re going to do things. And there’s been no pushback, just acceptance,” Heffernan said.

The group, at this early stage, is still “a work in progress,” Heffernan admitted, “but I’ll tell you a secret, so is every group I have ever worked with.”

“You’re always trying to get better, you always can improve, your pads can get lower, your hands can get tighter, your feet can move in phase more, and that’s something that we’re working on every single day,” Heffernan said. “You know, it’s a young group, so some guys have, you know, more screws that they need to tighten on their technique than others. But every group I’ve ever worked with, you try to dive into that technique to build your foundation.”

Heffernan comes across as a guy who is never satisfied, and uses that trait about himself to push himself, and the guys that he coaches, to work harder.

“Do I like where we are? No, I’ll never like where we are,” Heffernan said. “Always want more, always push these guys to be better, because there’s so much more left in the tank for this group, you know, and I hope they have that same attitude, that we can improve every day and need to improve every day. Being satisfied and really happy with where we are is going to work against us.”

To be fair, what’s working against Heffernan’s O line is a general lack of talent, an overwhelming lack of college experience, pretty much, you know, everything.

Coach Hef at least has a good sense of humor about the task he signed on for.

“Building an offensive line, it’s not like grilling or baking, it’s kind of like a slow cooker. You guys like slow cookers?” he asked a group of reporters during a media avail this week. “Alright, so you’ve got to have all those ingredients around each other for a long time, alright, and it might, when you put them in the in the slow cooker in the morning, you might say, that doesn’t look very good. And then you come home from work, and it’s, you smell it when you come in the kitchen, and you’re like, alright, now we’re rolling.

“Right now, we got our ingredients in there, and we’re trying to just, the more they can be around each other, right? Whether that’s out at dinner, you know, whether that’s in the cafeteria, whether that’s in the film room, whether that’s on the practice field, the more they can interact and build those bonds in that communication, the better off we’re going to 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].