Musical chairs throughout the preseason, Virginia’s offensive line is a ‘fluid situation’

August 25, 2014

Virginia tight end Zach Swanson claims to never have paid much attention as offensive lineman after offensive lineman was shuffled through the lineup and from position to position during training camp this year. He isn’t even sure when the coaching staff settled on its top five options. And don’t bother asking him what linemen he’ll take the field with when Virginia opens the regular season against No. 7 UCLA on Saturday.

“I can’t tell you the starting five right now,” Swanson said with a laugh Monday, before reading the names from a sheet of paper.

After weeks of Coach Mike London describing his offensive line as a “fluid situation,” the Cavaliers finally brought some clarity to a unit that paved the way for a 1,000-yard rusher in 2013, but must replace two NFL draft picks And there were some significant tweaks since the last time reporters caught of glimpse of Virginia in practice more than two weeks ago.

The starters on Saturday will be (from left to right): redshirt sophomore Michael Mooney, redshirt sophomore Ryan Doull, redshirt junior Ross Burbank, senior Conner Davis and sophomore Eric Smith. Of those five, two switched positions in the middle of this preseason (Davis started at left tackle and Burbank began at guard) and two have played fewer than 47 snaps (Mooney and Doull) in a college game.

Davis even referred to himself as “a Swiss Army knife” after seeing time at three positions over the past few weeks. London indicated injuries played a role in all the shuffling.

“Some players have been out and we’ve had to make the best of making changes and moving guys in different positions, but the five indicated right now are the ones that are the healthiest and in the best position to help us win football games.”

The most significant injuries belong to junior Jay Whitmire (back), who had been projected as the team’s starter at left tackle and sophomore Sadiq Olanrewaju (lower leg), another promising tackle. London is hopeful Olanrewaju is available in “a few weeks,” but offered no timetable on Whitmire’s return. It has left Virginia dangerously thin up front, with center Jackson Matteo (Broad Run) suddenly listed as the team’s backup left tackle.

But the left side of the offensive line also proved to be a pleasant surprise with the emergence of Doull and Mooney. Doull has been praised as Virginia’s strongest linemen after coming on this spring. London, meanwhile, called Mooney “one of the unsung heroes in camp,” particularly since he will now be entrusted to protect quarterback Greyson Lambert’s blind side.

Lambert said Mooney’s footwork separates him from other linemen and his daily battles with defensive end Eli Harold earned him the confidence of teammates.

“Going against Eli, if you do really well, you can block anybody in the ACC,” said Davis, adding the starting five seemed to come together early last week.

Mooney’s improvement also allowed Davis, the unit’s leader, to move back inside to guard, where he has started 20 games over the past two years.

“It’s where I have the most confidence because I played all my games there,” he said. “I played tackle when they told me to and it wasn’t really working out as well, but I can always go back. I’ve been here before. This is where I’ve played against the best guys I’ve played against and I see things the best at guard.”

Davis, though, admitted this training camp experience was wholly different than any he had been through before at Virginia, if only because he had always been at one position. He believes it will prove beneficial in the long run, with more depth developed through all the movement of players.

Even if some of his own teammates can’t remember who they are at this point.

“We got young guys,” Swanson said. “Our coaches are trying to figure out which combination works best. This may not be what it is going into the second game, but at the end of the day, what we’ve gained having that rotation is a bunch of guys who are willing and able to, they have the experience now, that they can step in and be successful if called on. I’m not worried that we’re not settled. . . . These guys are going to be successful.”

Notes: Cornerback Demetrious Nicholson (toe) was not listed on Virginia’s initial depth chart as he continues to work his way back from offseason surgery. London said his status will be determined “week by week.” For now, the Cavaliers’ top two cornerbacks are junior Maurice Canady and senior Brandon Phelps (Damascus). . . . London also announced walk-on running back Daniel Hamm has been put on scholarship.

Mark Giannotto covers high school sports for The Washington Post.
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