As the “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series moves along, one position that’s been on my mind is center. The center of attention headlines write themselves don’t they? Anyway, as Virginia reshapes the offensive line following the completed careers of Jack English, Brandon Pertile, John Montelus, and Jack McDonald, it looks like the center spot could be the key domino for building the depth chart.
Before digging in deeper with that though, the previous series articles are below. Click away.
No. 93 – The Center Spot
Since arriving with Bronco Mendenhall ahead of the 2016 season, offensive line coach Garett Tujague routinely has said that he looks for the best five linemen and then hopes one of them can snap. That’s a little bit of a figure of speech to emphasize that the goal is to find five linemen that are not only good individually, but also find the right chemistry to work well collectively. Or, put another way, the center position isn’t as much of an afterthought as that makes it sound like.
Last season, Virginia used two different linemen as a starting center. Jake Fieler opened the season in that spot against William & Mary and Indiana, but shuffled around the line most of the season before starting at center again against Georgia Tech and Louisville. For the other nine games (UConn, Boise State, Duke, UNC, Boston College, Pitt, Miami, VT, Navy), Dillon Reinkensmeyer started at center.
The Cavaliers first made the decision to start Reinkensmeyer at center for the Connecticut game. That came one week after losing 34-17 against Indiana. That next week against the Huskies, the offense exploded for a 38-18 win with 626 yards of offense. That included 455 yards passing with three touchdowns for Kurt Benkert and 95 rushing yards with one touchdown for Jordan Ellis. Three different players – Olamide Zaccheaus, Doni Dowling, and Andre Levrone – cracked 100 yards receiving. The Hoos gave up just one sack.
UVA opened that game with a 9:46 touchdown drive, the longest in program history by time.
And Reinkensmeyer picked up a lot of praise in the weeks that followed. Mendenhall though he was the “key” to jumpstarting the offense between the Indy and UConn games. Tujague noted that Reinkensmeyer’s “communication skills” allowed him to start in the middle. He ended up staying there and starting the next six games at center. UVA switched back to Fieler for the Georgia Tech game because English exited the lineup with an injury so Reinkensmeyer flipped back to left tackle where he opened the season with English suspended for the first game.
Fieler and Reinkensmeyer each started at least one more game at center over the last month. Reinkensmeyer got the nod against Navy in the bowl game. I think both saw some time there down the stretch regardless of who started. Both return this season. So who starts this time around?
That requires the inclusion of a third name now too. Tyler Fannin took a redshirt last season and enters the mix as a redshirt freshman this season. He projected as a potential starting center during his recruitment out of Mill Creek High in Georgia. Fanning twice earned all-state honors at MCHS, while his team made it to the state playoffs for each of his final two seasons. He’s from a football family too; his father played at Marshall and his older brother got three starts last season at Middle Tennessee State.
This spring, all three were mentioned as working at center early. In the final practice session at Scott Stadium, Reinkensmeyer and Fannin appeared to make the majority of and possibly all of the snaps. That doesn’t exclude Fieler either way because the coaches have a good idea of what he brings to the table entering his senior season with lots of utility work on the O-Line.
To be clear, I’m not sure there’s a wrong choice in this scenario. I think any of the three could be a strong candidate to hold down the spot at center. The decision here likely comes down to where we started the discussion: the best combination of five linemen in terms of cohesion. And I’ll add one thing: the best combination with versatility in mind.
That’s where Fannin’s readiness becomes intriguing. From what limited sample sizes area available in practices, he seems like a center candidate more than a utility candidate, though UVA trains its linemen at multiple spots regardless. If he can get into that center spot and perform well – which may be asking a lot for a redshirt freshman, though that’s exactly what Reinkensmeyer did last year – it opens up possibilities everywhere else.
You know that Fieler can play virtually any spot on the line, but especially the three interior positions. You know that Reinkensmeyer can play tackle and perform well there too. Imagine if those two players could move to those spots, but then be able to rotate in or out virtually anywhere across the front. That potentially strengthens the overall unit and the overall depth much more than if one of them is solely taking snaps at center.
For example, what if the starting five looked like this left to right: Reinkensmeyer, Fieler, Fannin, R.J. Proctor, and Marcus Applefield. That leaves four experienced players surrounding Fannin. Then you’d have the option of Chris Glaser, Ryan Nelson, and Ben Knutson to rotate in for depth (but you could keep one or both of Reinkensmeyer and Fieler on the field at a different spot to always keep that steady presence out there). Two of the three backups got experience last season too so you’re building a strong overall unit. Glaser and Knutson started two games each in fact.
There’s enough versatility to do a similar strategy with one of the other two at center too, though. For example: Reinkensmeyer, Applefield, Fieler, Proctor and Glaser. Another: Glaser, Fieler, Reinkensmeyer, Proctor, and Applefield. Or: Reinkensmeyer, Knutson, Fieler, Proctor, and Applefield. Or: Glaser, Fieler, Reinkensmeyer, Knutson, and Applefield. Everyone in those groupings started at least one game last season.
There are a lot of possibilities. It’s up to Coach Tujague to figure out the best starting combination, the best rotation for season-long freshness and health, and the best plan for building both in the short term and long term. It will be interesting to see where it goes, whether that process starts with finding five linemen first or settling on the starting center first.