Virginia football enters 2014 season rebuilding on offensive line

After the first practice of his fifth season as the Virginia football team’s offensive line coach, Scott Wachenheim came ready with a joke. He was one of just two assistants from Coach Mike London’s original staff in 2010 — cornerbacks coach Chip West is the other — still on campus when the 2014 preseason got underway Monday night.

“I was the last one hired, so maybe that’s why it’s working that way,” Wachenheim said.

Tenure aside, though, few people will play as big a role as Wachenheim during the next few weeks of training camp. With redshirt sophomore Greyson Lambert entrenched as the team’s starting quarterback, the focus on offense has turned toward the players protecting him, and an offensive line that will feature at least three new starters.

Many consider it the most glaring weak link this year’s Cavaliers will have to overcome, but good luck getting the upbeat Wachenheim to admit as much.

“We have seven sophomores, four freshmen out of the 15 guys, so we’re a very young offensive line. Does it worry me? No,” Wachenheim said after Monday’s practice. “I sleep good at night because these guys give me everything they got every day and our challenge every day from the time the season ended to this year, the challenge is let’s just get better. They were better today than they were in practice 15 of spring ball.”

By certain metrics, the 2013 season was a successful one for Wachenheim and the offensive line. Left tackle Morgan Moses and guard Luke Bowanko were picked in the NFL draft — by the Washington Redskins and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively — and tailback Kevin Parks finished second in the ACC with 1,031 rushing yards a year ago, becoming the first Virginia player since 2004 to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark.

But that translated into just two wins last season, when the offensive line often failed to open up holes in short-yardage and red-zone situations even with Moses and Bowanko serving as anchors. The situation has only become more tenuous leading up to camp.

Junior Jay Whitmire (T.C. Williams) has been slow to recover from a back injury and London expects he will miss the start of the regular season, leaving the offensive line without one of its few experienced pieces — and projected left tackle — for at least a portion of the year. To compensate, the Cavaliers began training camp Monday with senior Conner Davis lined up at left tackle and sophomore Ryan Doull manning Davis’s old left guard position.

Sophomore Eric Tetlow was the team’s starting center Monday, while sophomore Eric Smith played right tackle and redshirt junior Ross Burbank was at right guard. Tetlow and Doull have never started a game before.

“We don’t have Jay right now, so we had to make a decision as a staff of who we thought would be the best five on the field,” Wachenheim said. “Ryan’s one of the strongest players on the offensive line and Conner’s the most experienced guy, a veteran. So we’re going to do that for [Monday], watch the film tomorrow morning and if we have to make some adjustments tomorrow, we will.”

Anything resembling a definitive starting unit won’t come for another few weeks, especially with the lack of depth along the offensive line. Aside from senior Cody Wallace, who did not participate with the top two units Monday, the Cavaliers’ reserves are mostly untested sophomores and freshmen. There will undoubtedly be some shuffling on the depth chart before camp breaks.

“He doesn’t really tell someone they have a starting spot. He lets everybody know in the O-line room that everything is up for grabs,” Smith said of Wachenheim. “A center can be a guard and a guard can be a center. He doesn’t let anybody know until like the third week of camp, so I guess we’re all fighting for the No. 1 spot.”

So far, Wachenheim’s unwavering confidence has also resonated with his players.

“No matter where you go, everybody else is always going, ‘What’s up with the offensive line?’ sophomore left tackle Sadiq Olanrewaju said. “Hey listen, we’ll just work here and once the season comes, everybody will see what the offensive line is like. I think it’s a waste of time to worry about what everybody has to say. It’s really about coming out here and working hard every day.”

Notes: The Cavaliers received a committment on Tuesday from Jahvoni Simmons of Ocean Lakes High in Virginia Beach, ranked the No. 4 inside linebacker prospect of the 2015 recruiting class by Rivals.

Virginia also garnered two Washington area commitments, raising their total for 2015 to 17. Good Counsel wide receiver-defensive back Myles Robinson made his commitment Monday, choosing the Cavaliers over schools including Michigan State, Ohio State and West Virginia. Wilson linebacker-defensive end Kareem McDonald, who committed Tuesday, initially selected Old Dominion in June before re-opening his recruitment. He also held offers from Toledo, Charlotte and Albany, among others.

Brandon Parker contributed to this report.

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