Cavalier Close-Up: The Offensive Line

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2003 Review

Elton Brown

For the past two seasons, it’s appeared to some observers that the Virginia offensive line has started out slowly and not really gelled early on. In 2002 the Cavaliers averaged 109.8 rushing yards in the first seven games of the season. Over the last seven games, five against ranked opponents, UVa averaged 144 yards on the ground. In fact, in the last four games of that season, the ‘Hoos averaged 174 rushing yards, all against teams ranked in the top four of their respective conferences in run defense.

Last season Virginia had a better start, averaging 138 yards per game (aided by three 200-yard games against Duke, Western Michigan and hapless North Carolina). But there were still concerns about the line’s ability to get a solid push as the Cavs seemed to experience difficulty running to the right side of the field and between the tackles. Virginia closed the season averaging 121 rushing yards in their final six games, five against teams that played in bowls.

There is no doubt that Al Groh loves the power running game. And with a new quarterback leading the offense, the ground game must gel early in 2004. So far, so good. Despite injuries to Ian-Yates Cunningham and Ron Darden, the Cavaliers rushed for 286 yards against Temple. There are still opportunities for improvement, but it appears the unit as a whole has benefited from the off-season program and has some clear objectives for the 2004 season. Mainly, winning an ACC title and leading the conference in rushing.

2004 Depth Chart

Left Tackle

First Team – D’Brickashaw Ferguson (6-5 295 Jr.)

Career Starts: 28.

Second Team – Eddie Pinigis (6-7 290 Fr.)

Career Starts: 0.

Left Guard

First Team – Brian Barthelmes (6-6 288 Jr.)

Career Starts: 17.

Second Team – Ron Darden (6-4 327 So.)

Career Starts: 1.


First Team – Zac Yarbrough (6-4 276 Sr.)

Career Starts: 23.

Second Team – Jordy Lipsey (6-3 266 Fr.)

Career Starts: 0.

Right Guard

First Team – Elton Brown (6-6 338 Sr.)

Career Starts: 28.

Second Team – Marshal Ausberry (6-5 324 Fr.)

Career Starts: 0.

Right tackle

First Team – Brad Butler (6-8 296 Jr.)

Career Starts: 15.

Second Team – Eddie Pinigis (6-7 290 Fr.)

Career Starts: 0.

With his 13 starts last season and his opening-day start against the Owls, rising star D’Brickashaw Ferguson ran his streak to 28 consecutive starts. That’s the longest streak by a UVa left tackle since Ray Roberts started 37 in a row from 1989-91. Even though he played at around 265 pounds in 2002 and 2003, Ferguson performed well, earning freshmen All-American honors in 2002 while protecting Matt Schaub’s blind side.

During the winter Ferguson set a goal to improve his strength and size. “I really needed to gain some size to just be a really dominant offensive lineman,” he said. “Basically I just tried to go into the off-season with a different mentality.” He entered fall camp weighing 296 while maintaining his speed and agility, so he may be on the verge of an All-ACC season.

Brian “Bart” Barthelmes is one of the more versatile and physical linemen on the roster. During his career he’s played left guard, left tackle, right guard and right tackle. For now, he is starting at left guard in place of Ron Darden, who has an undisclosed injury.

“We’ve got a saying the more you can do the better, so it adds to his value,” Groh said of Barthelmes. “He’s one of the real tough guys on the offensive line. I think he kind of helps set the personality on the offensive line.”

Zac Yarbrough

Senior center Zac Yarbrough is one of the most consistent players on the line. In two seasons as a starter, he has yet to give up a sack. Now he is on the watch list for the Rimington Trophy, awarded to the best center in the country. But early in his career it seemed unlikely that he would ever start for the Cavaliers.

“At one point early on it looked as if he was going to have a hard time grinding something out,” Groh said. “He just stayed with it, he was determined and then all of a sudden we lost two centers within five minutes of each other in the same game. He became the center and ever since then he’s been working on his game and we’ve won 17 of 23 games with him playing so that’s a pretty good record for a guy.”

Elton Brown enters the 2004 season rated by Phil Steele and Lindy’s as the third-best guard in the nation. The consensus preseason All-American and Outland Trophy candidate is considered a likely first-round NFL draft selection.

Street & Smith called Brown “a devastating blocker” and “one of the ACC’s most physically imposing players.” The 338-pounder has superb speed for a big man and rarely misses blocks when it counts. Then again, he rarely misses blocks at all. Last season he earned the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the top blocker in the ACC and also received the Frank C. McCue Award as UVa’s outstanding interior lineman.

Brad Butler

Brad Butler made his first career start in the 2002 Continental Tire Bowl win over West Virginia and has started every game since (15 in a row) at right tackle. He joins Ferguson as the only linemen on the team to start every game in 2003.

“This is a player who has unusually good athletic skills for the position, so that gives him an asset that most offensive lineman aren’t blessed with,” Groh said. Butler, who won’t turn 21 until UVa’s third game of the season, is one of those young, still-developing linemen who played as a true freshman and continues to mature physically and mentally.

All-ACC Candidates

Elton Brown

D’Brickashaw Ferguson

Zac Yarbrough

All-American Candidates

Elton Brown

2004 Analysis

UVa’s starting offensive line has 111 collective starts.

The Cavaliers arguably have one of top starting offensive lines in the country. Elton Brown is a legitimate first-round NFL pick and D’Brickashaw Ferguson is on the way to becoming one. For Butler, Brick, Bart, Brown and Yarbrough, this is their third year together and there is a superb chemistry that prevails with this unit.

There is a lack of game experience for many of the backups but Groh traditionally has not been a proponent of heavy rotation among the offensive linemen. Substitutions usually occur en masse or because of injury.

Virginia led the conference last year in fewest sacks allowed and there is no reason to believe that trend will not continue again in 2004.

But the focus of the line is clearly becoming a more dominant run team and all of the elements are in place to make that a reality. Cunningham, Darden, Brown and Barthelmes give the team solid drive blocking on both sides of the line. Ferguson and Butler are bigger and stronger and with Estes and Miller in the double tight end set, teams are going to find it hard to contain the Virginia running attack.

While the Temple defense will not be confused with those at USC or LSU, Virginia fans should be pleased that the Cavaliers were able to display an ability to run between the tackles last Saturday. As the staff implements more of the diverse Virginia offense, and when they begin to open up the vertical passing game, there will be wider running lanes and even more cutback opportunities for Virginia backs.

When that happens, look for the running game to become the weapon of choice for the Virginia offense.

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