This is part two of a discussion of UVA's depth in the trenches, a major theme running through UVA's performance thus far this year, and often times a sore point for many fans. In Part 1, we deep-dived the defensive line, looking back at the players London left for Bronco, the attrition from that group, and how the current staff has fared in rebuilding that depth. Today, we'll do something similar with the offensive line.
You can read Part 1: HERE
(**Note #1: I used Rivals' recruiting ratings for the purpose of this article.)
(**Note #2: Preferred walk-ons aren't addressed in the recruiting portion of this article, but I do track them, and address them as part of the future depth discussion, where they are flagged as PWO's.)
The Offensive Line
“We are a work in progress. Shows up on film and shows up every week. It's still the position that we're not deep enough and building as fast as we can. We're still considering grad transfers and all other possibilities to build that unit. It's the foundation of our offense, so it's still at risk. It's still a work in proceeding. It's not stable. It's not deep. It's inconsistent.
“But there are glimpses and there are signs that we're playing at a higher level there that than we have been. But it's slow and steady and methodical in the improvement we're making.”
- Bronco Mendenhall, October 8th press conference
Ultimately, the complaints about the lines have been about their lack of veteran depth. The DL has only one multi-year program vet (Hanback) in the rotation this year, while the offensive line has only two upperclass program lifers in its rotation (Proctor and Fieler). We looked back over the last 4 seasons to see how we got to have so few veterans on the D-Line, with the answer being "crazy attrition," with three recruited players 'missing' from the senior class, five from the junior class, with an additional five from the sophomore class either temporarily or permanantly gone. To answer that question for the offense, we'll similarly go back to the beginning.
London's last year was the 2015 season, and his roster that year was very veteran-heavy with 3 seniors, 6 juniors, and 3 sophomores out of the 17 scholarship O-Linemen. Another way to look at it, it was youngster-lite, with only two RS freshmen and three true freshmen, the result of painfully thin recruiting classes in 2014 and 2015.
Bronco arrived as the calendar flipped to 2016, and after the coaching-change-roster-churn (Olanrewaju, Doull, Tetlow, and Polk leaving during that phase) had just 10 O-Linemen waiting for him; 4 seniors, 2 juniors, 2 sophomores, and 2 redshirt freshmen. He tried to bolster the lineup with grad transfer Jared Cohen from UNC but Cohen flaked out before ever suiting up. His incoming freshman class, inherited from London, saw the promising Stephen Spanellis defect to Michigan, leaving only Knutson and Reinkensmeyer to work with (Crutchfield ended up on the D-Line) though neither were ready as freshmen. As such, the 10 returners made up all Bronco had to work with, but at least there were 6 upperclassmen in the group.
2017 was when the depth bottomed out, and the under-recruiting of the 2014-16 classes became evident. Only 8 O-Linemen returned from the previous year, two of them being low-ranked redshirt freshmen. Bronco had to go get two grad transfers to serve as band-aids (with a 3rd, Colin McGovern, failing to ever enroll), and even they weren't all that much to write home about. There's a reason that, in 2017, UVA had far and away the ACC's worst rushing offense; they couldn't open holes for anyone. At least at this point, Bronco was able to put together his first deep recruiting class, even with the miss of 4-star priority 804 target Mekhi Becton. Seven different O-Line prospects were committed at one point or another (two decommitting around the painful 2-10 2016 campaign), and while the remaining five weren't highly rated, they were at least P5-worthy by and large. With time, they could be ballers, though only Chris Glaser cracked the rotation as a reserve that year.
That brings us to this year. Another year where, due to under-recruiting in 2014, 2015, and 2016, Bronco had to return to the grad-transfer well. Steven Moss, once highly rated, had never put the pieces together and didn't return for his 5th year. Bronco only had 10 returners, but where previous years had seen most of those returners be veterans, in this class only three were upperclassmen (Fieler, Bischoff, and Proctor), and only two in the rotation. Even with a grad transfer at RT, this year's line sees three underclassmen starting, with four more underclassmen on the 2-deep (one true freshmen included). Four more freshmen are redshirting, though Mariteragi may be leaving for a 2-year mission, returning as a redshirt freshmen in the 2021 season.
This winds up being the crux of the discussion. How did we get to a point where we only have two organically developed upperclassmen in the line rotation? Because of the 2014, 2015, and 2016 classes. In looking at the D-Line previously, we saw full-sized classes year after year that simply failed to hold together through their careers, numerous players being lost to career-ending medical or injury concerns. Here, however, the classes were poorly recruited from the very beginning. At a minimum you need four guys signed every year, preferably five. And yet London only managed to sign two in his 2014 class (unable to prevent Will Richardson from flipping to NC State). In 2015 he failed again, only signing three (which included two 2-stars). The 2016 class was the transition year, and when we saw Spanellis defect to Michigan in the coaching churn, Bronco was left with only Knutson and Reinkensmeyer to work with. Three classes netted just seven O-Linemen. And when you factor in attrition (Polk) or failure to develop (Moss, Bischoff), you get where we are today. The 2017 and 2018 classes each brought five freshmen into camp, but most of those will need a year or two to soak before being ACC ready.
2014: Will Richardson (3* - decommit), Steven Moss (4* - declined 5th year), Jake Fieler (3* - Starter)
2015: Transfer Jared Cohen (never arrived), Grant Polk (3* - transfer 2016), Ryan Bischoff (2* - not in rotation), RJ Proctor (2* - Starter/Reserve)
2016: Transfer Colin McGovern (medical), Stephen Spanellis (3* - decommit), Ben Knutson (3* - reserve), Dillon Reinkensmeyer (2* - starter), Osiris Crutchfield (2* - moved to DL)
2017: Transfer Brandon Pertile (graduated), transfer John Montelus (graduated), Bryson Speas (3* - decommit), Harry Crider (3* - decommit), Gerrik Vollmer (2* - reserve), Ryan Swoboda (3* - reserve), Ryan Nelson+ (3* - starter), Tyler Fannin (3* - injured), Chris Glaser (3* - starter)
2018: Transfer Marcus Applefield (Starter), Bobby Haskins+ (3* - reserve), Martin Weisz (3* - redshirt), Joseph Bissinger (2* - redshirt), Derek Devine (2* - redshirt), Micah Meriteragi (2* - redshirt)
Key: Starter-Level, Contributing Reserve, Jury Still Out, Didn't Pan Out, Exhausted Eligibility
This is still a desperately young unit. A senior, a junior, and two redshirt sophomores make up the only "program veterans" (what I define as guys in at least their third year at the school) in the rotation. After that, we've got a true sophomore, four redshirt freshmen, and five true freshmen. We're at least one, probably two years away from having the kind of veteran-heavy depth chart that lets our 1st and 2nd years soak in the weight room and intern behind their elders, which is going to be necessary in the ACC when our guys are arriving as less-ready 2- and low-3-stars. Two years from now, when those full-sized 2017 and 2018 classes are redshirt juniors and sophomores (with a couple seniors sprinkled in with Reinkensmeyer, Glaser, and Knutson), watch out. But for this year and to a lesser extent in 2019, youth is still going to be a concern against better recruited or more established defensive fronts, like we saw in the recent trip to NC State.
Let's look at the picture for the future...
Current incoming class of 2019 OL:
Ja'quay Hubbard (4*) - Our top offensive prospect in the 2019 class, the best OL in the state of PA will have an opportunity to crack the 2-deep at tackle as a true freshman, as most every position will be up for grabs and Hubbard is very close to Day-1 ready.
Zachary Teter (3*) - The tackle prospect has good size and a high floor, might've been pressed into early action with a thinner lineup but will redshirt with sufficient depth in place.
Jonathan Leech (2*) - Versatile lineman who's probably underrated, will have a good career waiting for him after a redshirt year.
Kariem Al Soufi (2*) - German interior lineman with a good rep and size, but largely an unknown coming from Europe. It is our opinion he is very underrated, with a Day-1 ready size, and it's only because of established depth at Guard that he's not more of a candidate for early PT.
Charlie Boxley (unrated) - The preferred walk-on from Patrick Henry (Roanoke) High School might have been a late-cycle BCS-level recruit if he wasn't forced to miss his senior season due to a season-ending ankle injury. Has the frame (6-5, 275) and athleticism to someday factor into the UVA offensive tackle equation.
This class is okay, mostly thanks to the addition of Hubbard. Four scholarship bodies is acceptable, though five is preferable, just for the sake of long-term restocking, especially with the European Al Soufi being a bit of a wild card. Look for one more prospect to be recruited before NSD. I doubt we go the grad transfer route any more unless something goes really wrong this offseason.
Projected Rotation for 2019:
- LT Ryan Nelson, So. - He got thrown into the fire this year as a redshirt freshman, taking a ton of snaps as the starting left tackle this year. It's been shaky at times, but he's there for a reason. Coaches think he could be the future on the left edge.
- LG Chris Glaser, Jr. - Chris was the lone member of the 2017 class to play as a true freshman, and earned a regular starting nod this year. Every reason to think he'll still own an interior spot next year.
- C Dillon Reinkensmeyer, Jr. - There was some early thought this year he'd play tackle with Fannin at center, but Fannin's injury ended that. He's steadily improving this year, and with another offseason, could cement himself as the line captain.
- RG RJ Proctor, Sr. - He's battled injuries this year, but when he's healthy, he's worthy of starting. Assuming he's 100% next year, we're confidently penciling him in as an interior starter.
- RT Ryan Swoboda, So. - The lone projected new starter, Swoboda has earned good reviews this year as a versatile reserve on the edges, seeing some meaningful snaps. He's our top bet to replace Applefield on the right edge.
- C/G Tyler Fannin, So. - Coming on strong this offseason before an injury setback, if he can return to form he'll challenge for regular rotation action at center.
- G/T Ben Knutson, Jr. - On the depth chart this year as backup RG, his length makes him more of a tackle prospect long-term, and could back up Swoboda and Nelson on the edges. He's versatile which works in his favor for making the 2-deep, but a bit of a 'tweener at the moment which could limit his starting potential down the road.
- G Gerrick Vollmer, So. - A backup on the interior as a RS Frosh this year, he could be our backup swing guard behind Glaser and Proctor next year, ready to start if necessary.
- T Bobby Haskins, So. - The only true freshmen to play this year, Haskins has high upside at tackle and will compete with Nelson and Swoboda for starting tackle opportunities. He'll factor in somewhere on this line in 2019, even if it's in a first-guy-off-the-bench role at OT.
- G Martin Weisz, RS Fr. - Coming off a redshirt year, will compete for backup reps on the interior.
- G/T Joseph Bissinger, RS Fr. - Will be an unknown coming off his redshirt year, may be another year away from cracking the rotation.
- G Derek Devine, RS Fr. - Slotted on the interior currently, his length will make him a versatile player down the road.
- T Ja'quay Hubbard, Fr. - The 2019 with the best case to play as a true freshman, though given the incumbent depth at tackle (a good problem to have!) his immediate PT is far from a sure thing.
- T Zachary Teter, Fr. - Likely to redshirt
- G/T Jonathan Leech, Fr. - Likely to redshirt
- G Kariem Al Soufi, Fr. - Likely to redshirt, but with an outside shot to get in the mix at guard.
- (PWO) G Ben Trent, Jr. - Kendall's been high on this walk-on, but he's yet to break through into the rotation. Perhaps 2019 is his year.
- (PWO) G/T Victor Oluwatimi, So. - The transfer/walk-on from Air Force (prepped at DeMatha) is an interesting case. His size (6-3, 295) suggests guard, but he has the light feet of a tackle. I expect him to at least challenge the two-deep for a few seasons here at UVA.
- (PWO) T Charlie Boxley, Fr. - Likely to redshirt
- G Ryan Bischoff, Sr. - TBD if he returns for his 5th year.
Final Thoughts: Bronco has had thin groups coming back each year. In 2016 it was 10 players (6 upperclassmen). Int 2017 it was 8 players (4 upperclassmen). And this year was 10 players (3 upperclassmen). Those 2014-16 classes are manifesting themselves in young, thin positional units each year. Next year we project around 12 returners (5 upperclassmen), and in 2020 could see as many at 15 returners (up to 8 upperclassmen), finally getting to a point that there's a steady pipeline of program vets moving through the system year-after-year. Be patient, we're getting there.
How many scholarship OL is too many? Some say more than 17 is too many, while others say 18 is the right number. I personally think you take 80 scholarships (85 - a few given to specialists), divide by 22 starters, and end up with 3.6 per position. 3.6 x 5 OL starters = 18 offensive linemen. Assuming Bisdchoff is not invited back for his 5th year, then we'll be sitting at 16 in 2019, with three wildcard walk-ons in Trent, Oluwatimi, and Boxley. Room to add another 2019 recruit and with only one projected senior to replace, we could see a smaller 2020 class (only 3 or 4 OL signed) necessary barring unexpected attrition.