CHARLOTTESVILLE — When the carnage was complete last April, and Virginia’s offensive line gathered with position coach Scott Wachenheim on the Scott Stadium field after allowing 14 sacks and three safeties in the team’s spring game, the message was clear: Changes are coming.
Walk-on Jackson Matteo heard that and noticed the entire unit’s “confidence was low.” He didn’t, however, immediately assume he would be a critical part of the face-lift. A day later, though, Wachenheim took Matteo aside and informed the former All-Met from Broad Run that he was now Virginia’s starting center.
“I think that woke a lot of people up.” Wachenheim said Tuesday.
Matteo, a redshirt freshman, is the linchpin to Wachenheim’s plans. His ascension to starting center has allowed senior Luke Bowanko to move to left guard alongside left tackle Morgan Moses. The two played next to each other on the right side in 2011, when Virginia’s offensive line paved the way for a powerful rushing attack.
With new offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild hoping to do the same this year, don’t be surprised if the Cavaliers are running to the left a whole lot.
“That’s the best decision we made,” Wachenheim said. “Why didn’t we do it three years ago? Austin Pasztor and Oday Aboushi were on the left side. Why didn’t we do it last year? Because we needed the center to make the calls. Why did we do it this year? Because we wanted to make sure our left-side tires were very strong.”
Matteo, who will now be expected to make the pre-snap calls, isn’t the only unseasoned cog on Virginia’s offensive line this year. Right tackle Jay Whitmire, a former All-Met from T.C. Williams, will be a first-time starter and junior Conner Davis is taking first-team reps at right guard with senior Sean Cascarano relegated to crutches because of a serious hip injury.
But Matteo is certainly the most surprising addition to the unit, if only because he’s the lone starter playing without a scholarship. The Ashburn native had at least eight offers coming out of high school in 2011, and nearly committed to Temple at one point. Ultimately, though, he eschewed a free ride out of state in favor of becoming a preferred walk-on at Virginia.
“It is a leap of faith, but you know when you’re comfortable at a place and you know when you’re not comfortable at a place,” said Matteo, who also considered walking on at Virginia Tech. “When you take an official visit to Philadelphia and it doesn’t really feel the same, it doesn’t feel like home. Then when you take a trip to Charlottesville and it feels like you’re family before you even committed to the place.”
The 6-foot-5, 290-pound Matteo has already endeared himself to Bowanko, the team’s center last season. Though Bowanko, a Centreville grad, jokes about shaving off Matteo’s outsize sideburns one day, he has also been impressed with the redshirt freshman’s demeanor as he takes his lumps with the starting unit.
“He has the attitude of where: ‘Coach, I don’t care if you’re yelling at me right now. I’m just gonna do it better the next play. I’m gonna move on,’ ” Bowanko said. “A lot of guys struggle to grasp that until they get the confidence of knowing what they’re doing, so they can tell coach, ‘Bug off.’ But he has that confidence.”
Matteo has yet to definitively secure the starting job, and during Tuesday’s practice he was even demoted in favor of sophomore Ross Burbank for a few plays. But he has leaned on Bowanko for guidance, noting that when he struggles, he often tries to replay what Bowanko did last season over and over in his head.
Then again, considering Matteo is on the cusp of becoming a focal point for Virginia’s revamped offensive line in just his second year on campus, the miscues are just another reminder of how surprised he is to be atop the depth chart in the first place.
“The circumstances that I came here under didn’t really point to starting center,” Matteo said. “Would I have guessed this a year ago? I mean who would’ve guessed this a year ago?”