Virginia looks to build from deep, experienced O line
We all love the skill players – QBs, running backs, wideouts.
But football is won in the trenches.
For all the talk this spring from Bronco Mendenhall about getting the running game going, this is where it starts – with maybe the deepest and most experienced O line in all of college football.
“We have a chance to be the best unit in the country, honestly,” said junior center Olusegun Oluwatimi, who had an overall Pro Football Focus grade of 71.1 in 2020, and led the O line with a 77.1 run block grade.
“We have that confidence, and we’ve got our swagger, and we’re just trying to live up to everything that all the media and all what our coaches put on us,” Oluwatimi said.
“I mean, at the end of the day, we’ve got to earn it, and we’ve got to grind to get there. Because each year you start anew, so we’re just trying to grind and really trying to just be the best unit in the country,” Oluwatimi said.
The O line has been a work in progress for line coach Garett Tujague almost from the ground up upon his arrival in 2016.
The position had fallen into disrepair in the last couple of years in the Mike London era, so the Bronco Mendenhall regime didn’t have a lot to work with when it came in from Utah.
“There were some rough, rough, rough years. It just takes time. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have the time to build the room to where it’s at,” said Tujague, now in his sixth season at UVA, after serving as O line coach under Mendenhall at BYU from 2013-2015.
The run game has suffered the most from the relative hollowness on the line. Virginia has not ranked better than ninth in rushing in the ACC since 2016 – that ninth-place finish coming in 2020, when the Cavaliers put up 162.7 yards per game on the ground.
But that was with QBs Brennan Armstrong, Lindell Stone, Keytaon Thompson and Ira Armstead accounting for 53.9 percent of the yardage on the season – a ratio that is actually up from the Bryce Perkins era of 2018-2019.
The 2018 run game got 44.3 percent of its yards from the QB position; the 2019 run game got 46.1 percent from the QBs.
“Obviously, the main reason you try to run the quarterback is to get an extra hat, right?” Tujague said, explaining that using QB draws and straight runs turns the tailbacks into extra blockers, boosting the efforts of the O line.
“It’s being able to identify second- and third-level defenders, who’s the secondary, run support. So it’s different in that sense that we’re starting to target those guys. When you have a quarterback run game, now you have that extra hat to take care of that extra level, so it’s a little bit different,” Tujague said.
The QB runs aren’t going away, because Virginia has guys in Armstrong, Thompson and Armstead who can move the chains with their feet at the QB position, but it will be a big help if the offense can get productivity in the traditional run game from guys like Wayne Taulapapa, Ronnie Walker, Mike Hollins, the linchpins of a tailback group that Mendenhall feels is the deepest and most talented he has had at UVA.
“You can go looking at all the running backs right now, and they’re all studs, they’re interchangeable. You’ve got to think about every great vehicle, you can replace one piece and put another piece in, and it still works. Our running backs are all great. They all have things they excel at,” said senior tackle Ryan Nelson, who had an overall PFF grade of 68.0 in 2020.
“When you have your guys now, you turn around like alright, cool, we’re handing the ball off to Ron, you’re handing it off to Wayne, any single one of those guys, you know, like, we’re about to get a huge gain,” Nelson said. “It’s a great thing for us because we don’t have to worry about, oh, man, well, let’s get three yards and see what we can do next play. It’s, this play is about to hit off, like, let’s go. So that’s a great thing right now.”
O line guys like to get down and dirty, as Nelson explained.
“We always want to run the ball. There’s times where you’re like, oh, you know, let’s pass the ball. Like, no, we want to run the ball, we want to, like, impose ourselves on you,” Nelson said. “And this year, it’s been a crazy thing for us to push hard for it. We know that last year wasn’t what we wanted, and now we have goals that we want to reach, and this group of guys has to get those goals done. And we’re going to run the ball.”
Nelson has logged 2,465 snaps over his three-year UVA career, the most in the position group, which returns five guys (Nelson, Oluwatimi, Chris Glaser, Ryan Swoboda and Bobby Haskins) with at least 1,000 career O line snaps.
The advantage to that depth and experience, hearing Tujague tell it: they know what they’re doing as well as he does.
“When they come to the sidelines. I’m getting feedback and answers like this, what’d you see, what I saw, it’s like this, where almost on Saturdays, it’s where they’re talking about it before I get a chance to even adjust it or address it,” Tujague said.
“Having everybody back is a great feeling just because we have a lot of continuity, really,” Oluwatimi said. “This is about to be my third year playing with basically the whole same unit. I’m not sure if we lost anybody for the last three years that I’ve been playing. So it’s definitely helpful. It’s helpful for the QBs, it’s helpful for running backs, it’s just helpful to the offense. It gives the coaches confidence to rely on us as a unit.”
Story by Chris Graham