Virginia Football Opens Preseason Practice

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The Virginia football team opened practice on Friday.
Who will protect Kurt Benkert? The offensive line remains a hot topic at Virginia football practice. ~ Kris Wright

Offensive line coach Garett Tujague had a unique way of describing the start of Virginia football practice on Friday. The underwear olympics.

“Again, it’s underwear olympics right now,” Tujague said. ”We’ve got no pads on. We’ve just got helmets.”

That’s not a surprising description from somone with the rough and tumble persona like Tujague. It also paints an accurate picture. Preseason practice always opens with jerseys and shorts only. No shells. No full pads. Limited contact. On Friday, the Cavaliers shortened the workout to be a crisp practice with no offense vs. defense scrimmage sessions of any kind. That’s part of the plan with the NCAA allowing practice to start earlier (more on that at the end of the notes below).

Still, the first day of practice is a necessary and important checkpoint on the offseason timeline. And Tujague’s group is one of interest no matter where you land on that timeline from winter workouts to spring practice to summer workouts to preseason practice. With three multi-year starters gone from a year ago, the rotation and overall situation on the offensive line is one of the main storylines for the 2017 season.

With much of that offseason calendar in the rearview mirror, Tujague is pleased with how the players have gained strength and come in prepared for the fall season.

”I’m really happy with Jack English and his performance up until this point – he’s done an amazing job of getting himself ready,” Tujague said. ”Jake Fieler has done a phenomenal job as well. I’m actually really happy with Dillon Reinkensmeyer as well. I’m excited to have R.J. Proctor back just so we can get him going off that injury. [Steven] Moss has done a good job preparing himself for this campaign.”

That quintet, with the exception of Reinkensmeyer as a redshirt freshman, represents much of the returning talent on the roster. Jack McDonald and Ryan Bischoff are the only other players to get any snaps on the offensive line from a year ago. McDonald didn’t get a mention because he is inactive right now after a knee injury and spent Friday’s practice on crutches. That makes a fourth starter from last season’s group that is not in the rotation.

”He just got a scope,” Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall said. ”He’ll be back no sooner than two weeks, but he’ll be back for the first game.”

“You could see it was kind of like a feeding frenzy, everybody vying for his position because he’s not there,” Tujague said. “Again, it goes back to the five coins. I’m throwing them in the room and the first five to come out with them, hopefully one of them can snap.”

Finding out who will handle that latter job of snapping is a critical one. Jackson Matteo manned the center position for nearly every offensive play last season, but he finished his eligibility and then joined the coaching staff as a graduate assistant (he’s lost in the range of 65 pounds too by the way).

Fieler emerged as the spring leader in that spot and he will be in competition there in the preseason. Reinkensmeyer has looked good in there as well per Tujague and an incoming freshman could work his way in once practice gets going.

Tyler Fannin is part of a five-man freshman class that was targeted to help rebuild line depth. Fannin comes in as a three-star recruit with the No. 9 center ranking from Rivals.com. His older brother plays at Middle Tennessee State so he had an idea of what would be required for Division I football in his own household.

”Hopefully Jake earns that spot. That would be the plan,” Tujague said. “I think Dillon is pushing him hard there and then don’t count out Tyler Fannin. That kid’s done an amazing job. He understands our offense. He and I have been talking all summer before he even got here on what he needs to do and calling the offense and running through him. He’s done a great job of preparing himself. I look to have by the end of fall camp there should be an intense three-way battle there.”

Considering McDonald’s injury and Fannin’s possible preparedness, a general idea of the two deep starts to form. English, Proctor, Fieler, Moss, and Bischoff all played last season while Reinkensmeyer is clearly in the mix off his redshirt year. Fanning potentially could be in quick competition as well.

You can add two graduate transfers in to get to nine on the offensive line. If and when McDonald comes back, you’d have 10 possibilities before any other redshirt freshmen or true freshmen get into the conversation. As for the grad transfers, Notre Dame transfer John Montelus arrived in June and will be in the battle for playing time at guard. Oklahoma State transfer Brandon Pertile came to Charlottesville in May and will compete at tackle. Both players checked in at around 320 pounds and are physically ready to play football for the Cavaliers.

The next step is to get them ready for UVA’s schemes and system.

“Kind of a baptism by fire really,” Tujague said. “Getting them going, holding them accountable, and making sure they know their plays and just giving them reps so they have the experience of working with the other guys that have been here a while.”

”Both of those players so far seem athletic enough and committed enough and capable of helping us, which is the only way we’d consider a graduate transfer football-wise,” Mendenhall said. ”They have to really like school and want to get a Master’s degree. I’m not interested in a grad transfer for the sake of playing football market. So I think both of them fit really well.”

One thing UVA for all the lineman this summer was bring in someone to put playing on the O-Line at Virginia in perspective. The Hoos have had a long list of successful linemen pass through the program from Morgan Moses, Luke Bowanko, and Oday Aboushi in recent times back through the years to Elton Brown, Eugene Monroe, Branden Albert, Doug Karczewski, Ray Roberts, and many others. All of those players made it to the NFL.

That includes someone from the beginning of the George Welsh era too. Jim Dombrowski earned All-American honors at UVA, got picked in the first round of the NFL Draft, and spent 11 seasons with the New Orleans Saints. The College Football Hall of Fame elected him into its ranks in 2008. Dombrowski visited with Virginia this offseason.

“It was actually really cool,” Tujague said. “We had an alumni return this summer and spend a couple of days with them and talk to them about the tradition and history and what that means and what that entails to be an offensive lineman at the University of Virginia. I think that was beneficial and let a lasting impression on these men and understanding what they’re striving for to help their team as a group and as a unit and obviously excelling throughout the ACC.”

Injury Report

Mendenhall provided a snapshot of the injury report Friday. In addition to McDonald’s knee scope, there are several other players working through injuries right now.

Redshirt freshman inside linebacker Robert Snyder is out for the season with an injury he suffered in the spring. Junior corner Darious Latimore is still recovering from his knee injury last fall but he is expected back at some point. Mendenhall wasn’t sure if that would come in time for the first game. True freshman Ryan Swoboda is expected back soon from a medical condition.

Perhaps just as notable as who is dealing with injuries is who isn’t. Redshirt senior Tim Harris and Andre Levrone are both healthy and could have big roles this year if they stay that way. ”Those are two that we would love to have be consistent, durable, and productive the whole year,” Mendenhall said.

Warren Craft, another receiver that missed the final six games of last season plus two others with injuries, is back in action too. He caught eight passes for 97 yards and a touchdown in the early going last year. Mendenhall is excited to have him back as an option, though they’ll need to manage his practice reps.

”It’s bigger than nice,” Mendenhall said. ”Experienced football players that are ACC caliber that can play in the game, we need everyone we can get. He’s one of those guys. We’ll practice him in a manner that gives him his best chance to be ready on game day, not only physically but safety wise and assignment wise. His model will look a little bit different. He wants it to look that way and so do we. We want him to be consistent and within his threshold durable and productive.”

The Virginia football team opened practice on Friday.
True freshman Joey Blount works through a tackling drill at Virginia. ~ Kris Wright

More First Day Virginia Football Notes

  • Virginia added 31 players to the roster this season per Coach Mendenhall.
  • Chris Sharp missed the spring, but is back in action and getting snaps at his new position – he flipped from safety to running back in the offseason. Coach Mendenhall liked what he saw from him as a runner on his high school film.
  • Per Malcolm Cook, true freshmen Elliott Brown and Zane Zandier are working at outside linebacker. Cook thinks both could make an impact this fall.
  • Per Andrew Brown, true freshmen Mandy Alonso and John Kirven have caught his attention on the defensive line. Brown thinks Alonso could play at nose tackle.
  • De’Vante Cross took reps at both quarterback and receiver during practice. If he gets in at quarterback, expect a specialized package for him vs. what’s in place with starter Kurt Benkert. Get a look at Cross in action in this photo gallery.
  • During a tackling drill, true freshman Joey Blount received a little bit of praise for his technique. .
  • True freshman quarterback Lindell Stone, the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart, re-emerged from the locker room area after a lift session to get in extra throws after practice.
  • Chuck Davis, a walk-on from Broad Run in Virginia, redshirted last season and moved from corner to receiver this fall. He is also the No. 2 punt returner behind Daniel Hamm.
  • Virginia Sports TV provided some video from the practice here.
  • With the NCAA eliminating two-a-day practices, teams have been allowed to start a week earlier than in previous seasons. Since summer school remains in session, UVA has decided to use the week with alternating practices. Friday was what Mendenhall called an integrated practice, meaning a heavy focus on skill development and cross-training among position groups. The next practice will be a normal football only style practice and it alternates from there for the first week.
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