Home Nnanna has been the weak link on the Virginia offensive line, but Elliott sees ‘upside’

Nnanna has been the weak link on the Virginia offensive line, but Elliott sees ‘upside’

Chris Graham
uva offensive line
Photo: UVA Athletics

That Ugonna Nnanna is averaging 72.2 snaps per game for the Virginia O line in 2023 is a sign of how little depth there is for coach Tony Elliott with that unit.

Nnanna, a transfer from Houston, where he got a total of 28 O line snaps in three seasons, has allowed a unit-worst eight sacks and 17 QB pressures in six games, and his five penalties are second-most among the linemen.

His 43.2 Pro Football Focus grade is the worst among the regulars, and yet O line coach Terry Heffernan keeps sending him back out there, for lack of better options.

“I think he has a ton of upside. That’s why he is in there,” Elliott told reporters on Tuesday, as his Cavaliers (1-5, 0-2 ACC) are prepping to face #10 North Carolina (6-0, 3-0 ACC) on Saturday in Chapel Hill.

Nnanna, Elliott said, “has been productive at times. When he puts it all together, he can do some really good things. The biggest thing is just being more consistent.”

The UNC defense is consistent in terms of its ability to get pressure on opposing QBs. The Tar Heels are averaging 20.2 pressures per game, led by edge rushers Kaimon Rucker (six sacks, 33 pressures) and Desmond Evans (17 pressures, one sack).

“Yeah, their pass rush is, you can tell that they’re a lot more comfortable in the system,” Elliott said. “I think that’s what’s allowing them to generate turnovers on the back end, interceptions, is because they can rush with four, and they can play a lot more coverage. They can drop guys into coverage.”

Virginia QBs Tony Muskett and Anthony Colandrea, meanwhile, have been consistently under pressure this season.

The guys behind center have faced pressure on 36.4 percent of their dropbacks in 2023, per PFF data.

PFF grades Virginia’s pass-blocking unit at 46.3, ranking 123rd among the 133 teams in FBS.

“When you look at it, you know, we have not done a great job of protecting the quarterback. Just flat out calling it like it is,” Elliott said. “We have 22 sacks on the season. Now, all of those are not necessarily on the offensive line. There were a couple of situations where the quarterback has got to get rid of the ball, and that’s his job, to protect himself.”

In addition to the 22 sacks, Muskett and Colandrea have been forced to scramble an additional 21 times, on a total of 225 dropbacks, for a sack-scramble rate of 20.4 percent.

For comparison, in 2021 unit, QBs Brennan Armstrong and Jay Woolfolk were sacked 43 times and scrambled 37 times on 624 dropbacks, for a sack-scramble rate of 12.8 percent.

Nnanna has been the weak link on the 2023 O line, but Elliott is seeing improvement from the big 6’4”, 309-pounder.

“I have to remind myself that he hasn’t played a ton of football, right. Even his time at Houston, he hadn’t played a ton,” Elliott said. “He is extremely athletic, moves well for a big guy, strong. He’s learning to play with the new technique that Coach Heff is teaching him.”

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].