Last year I ran a two-part series looking at the long term rebuild of depth in the trenches, and the herculean undertaking that faced coaches Tujague (OL) and McNeill and So'oto (DL).
Deep-diving each side of the ball drew very strong conclusions with respect to recruiting and retention. My intent is not to re-litigate them this summer; feel free to reread them here:
Instead I want to check back in with another offseason in the books and see how the rebuilding process is continuing. The offseasons have not always been our friends in recent years as attrition has occurred both during the winter recess and after spring ball. But with summer practices starting up again, we're pretty confident in who we're going to have on the roster for the next season.
Last year, we deep-dived offensive line recruiting going back all the way to the 2014 class. What did we find? That London and his staff criminally underrecruited the position group, only lining up 7 O-Line recruits across the 3 classes from 2014-16, an average of just 2.3 a year, which is basically half of what you want to be targeting year-over-year.
That left Bronco inheriting an offensive line that was starting off really thin in his youngest three classes, classes that with a redshirt year targeted to be RS Seniors, Juniors, and Sophomores last season... basically your core veteran presence.
You hate having to count on first or second years to be part of your O-Line rotation, so a staff really needs to be able to lean into those 3rd-5th years to put together most if not all of their main core. And of course you want those veterans to be incumbents. Preferably home-grown, but at least with a year on Grounds after transferring, to have chemistry with each other, their QB, and their coaches. I'm going to refer to the number of incumbent linemen in their 3rd+ year as the "magic number."
Attrition happens of course, and it happens even faster with inherited players who may not fit ideally with a new coaching staff's ideals. So of those seven players who were expected to be on last year's roster, the magic number was down to five, and of those only three made the rotation (Jake Fieler, RJ Proctor, and Dillon Reinkensmeyer), leaving the rest of the 2-deep to be populated with underclassmen and transfers.
So let's fast forward to this current season. The staff arrived in December of 2015 and, as it was really too late to make much of a mark with the incoming 2016 class (already 90+% locked down by the time they got in town), the 2017 class was where they could really start to make their mark.
That 2017 class is now entering its 3rd year in Charlottesville, which means Tujague is finally getting a big group of homegrown players. Five linemen were a part of that class (Chris Glaser, Tyler Fannin, Gerrik Vollmer, Ryan Swoboda, and Ryan Nelson), and all five are still in the program. They were even buffered by a freshman transfer center/guard in Victor Olawutimi, who at least has now had a couple offseasons in the program.
The staff sadly lost starter Proctor to transfer over the offseason (the last London player on the team, he felt the current system didn't play to his strengths), along with seldom-used reserves Knutson and Bischoff. Additionally, freshman Micah Mariteragi left for a planned LDS mission, hopefully returning as a RS Fr in the summer of 2021. But even with those losses, the staff's magic number ticked up to seven. It's still on the young side (no 5th years), but it at least nears the baseline for numbers and minimum experience. The staff still took a grad transfer with Penn State's Alex Gellerstedt, so there's a real chance the 2-deep features no freshmen (true or redshirt), not unless those youngsters truly breakout and impress.
Looking down the road, next year that magic number could be as high as 12, which is insane. Even if some attrition occurs, you're looking at 9 or 10 veteran incumbents which gives Tujague great options for assembling a Top 5 with some quality backups while also allowing his freshmen the time to develop without the pressure of playing right away.
Four true freshmen arrived in the 2019 class. Of the 2018's, four of five are still in the program (Mariteragi being the only premature loss, and he was always effectively a 2020 anyways). 2020 recruiting is underway with two commitments already in place and, as there are no seniors this year and most previous classes have redshirted, the class can afford to be on the smaller size (3-4 commitments) without a major long term depth hit so long as 2021 bounces back with another 5 man class.
So the rebuild continues. The magic number went from six in 2017 to five last year and now to seven this coming season. But if at times this year the youth shows a little, be patient. Next year is the breakout year for the OL, and with a new QB under center after Perkins' graduation, there couldn't be a better time. After that, there's enough of a continuous pipeline in place, multiple consecutive classes of 4+ inbounds, that the depth chart should finally be fully self-sustaining over out-years.
The offensive line analysis last year pinned depth troubles primarily on underrecruiting the position between 2014 and 2016. The root cause analysis on the defensive line yielded a drastically different conclusion.
D-Linemen made it to UVA. They just couldn't stay there. Three players washed out prior to Bronco's first season, two more before the 2017 campaign. And then disaster, when a sickening SEVEN D-Linemen couldn't make it to opening day of 2018 (a few discipline issues, the rest medical losses). All told, Bronco had a four deep of D-Linemen fail to materialize over three offseasons, leaving Virginia with only 9 on scholarship on opening day of 2018. Nine may sound like a lot, but the magic number was a dangerously low two (Burney and Hanback), and arguably only one since Burney was a late convert from TE to DE. Hanback was the only D-Linemen with two years on the defense going into last year.
Those that remained played valiantly, even as injuries continued to accrue throughout the year. But the lack of depth was very real, and So'oto couldn't put experienced Silverbacks on the field week after week, nor could he adequately rotate them to keep them fresh throughout the game.
So what about this offseason?
Other than the graduation of Dylan Thompson, Virginia is bringing back 8 scholarship players, 6 of whom have game experience. The magic number is a healthy five (Hanback, Burney, Alonso, Christ, and Buell), so we have true system vets for the 2-deep to begin with. In addition, two very highly rated recruits are joining the core in Briggs and Smiley, and they should be in better position to round out the rotation than most true freshmen are. All told, Virginia could have as many as 10 ACC-worthy D-Linemen to get them through the year this year, which could make it a possible relative strength.
Looking down the road, class spacing may become an issue. Whereas the offensive line has managed to redshirt the bulk of their freshmen, the D-Line has not been as lucky. Mandy Alonso played as a true freshman in 2017. Both Redmond and Faumui played as true freshmen last year. And as mentioned both Briggs and Smiley may be tough to redshirt this year, though maybe one keeps their "games played" under four to maintain their eligibility.
Ideally the goal is to get to a point on the lines where you're not plugging true freshmen into the 2-deep, as playing in the trenches in the ACC is physically demanding and even top recruits could use the development year in the S&C program. So given our playing time to true freshmen, with only Christ, Buell, and Reed holding redshirts from recent classes, there may be a need to continue to overstock on the back end, preferably with some longer term prospects who can soak in the weight room for a season and keep a steady pipeline of 2-3 a year going. The staff struggled to find a 3rd lineman in the 2019 class after losing two international prospects, Emil Bo Andersen and Jeffrey M'Ba, to transcript/eligibility issues. Incoming 2020 Jahmeer Carter is a great prospect at tackle, but we need to add a couple DEs to pair with him, as well as grabbing another three DL in the 2021 class.
The target numbers, in my opinion, are about 11-12 DL on scholarship with a magic number of about 6-7. The numbers are a little low this year, though probably in the range of acceptability with some decent health luck. With a couple more 2020 commitments and solid retention of the veterans, Virginia will finally hit the target baselines starting next year, though I think another year or two of 3+ man classes is required due to past redshirt burning and the inability to take a 3rd 2019. They're getting there, and it is noticeably improving, even if it's not quite as fast as we would've liked. The bottom line is that the disastrous 2017/18 offseason is just going to need time to recover from.