If Virginia football ever needed to readjust its mindset, pull itself up by the bootstraps, tighten up its chin straps, it’s right now. And who better to lead the way other than the old marine?
Tom O’Brien stood beside Hall of Famer George Welsh when Welsh rebuilt Navy into a winner and performed the impossible in rebuilding Virginia into one of the nation’s most consistent programs. Then, O’Brien took those lessons to downtrodden Boston College and built that program into a model of consistency before he ran out of time at N.C. State.
With Virginia mired in a turnover-plagued, two-game losing slide, it’s time to get tough.
O’Brien was brought in to mentor UVa head coach Mike London this season, accepting a role as associate head coach for offense and tight ends coach. London worked for O’Brien during the rebuilding process at BC and knows what the veteran coach can do. Now, it’s just a matter of how long it will take for that blueprint to work at Virginia.
When O’Brien came in during the winter, he was viewed as kind of a troubleshooter. Has that role expanded, remained the same?
“I think I’m doing what Mike wants me to do for this football team,” O’Brien said this week. “I’m trying the best I can in whatever area I can help with. We have to do better at certain things.”
He knew he was walking into a situation that wouldn’t be turned around overnight and he has since diagnosed at least a few problems that have been addressed, including a reorganization of recruiting so that Virginia won’t be overloaded at one position and depth-shy at others, or so that the offense and defense will have the same amount of scholarship players, and special teams will be allotted what it needs.
The more pressing problem is the Cavaliers’ offensive line and that, my friends, will take time. If you don’t have a dominating offensive line, your offense has already started behind the eight-ball and that seems to be the root of the offensive problem. Not just this year, but for the last several in my humble opinion. But back to this year.
“Part of the problem walking into this situation, was the offensive line,” O’Brien said. “We have two seniors, two juniors, two sophomores, and nine freshmen on the offensive line, with basically two seniors playing. There’s only seven seniors in this football program, two on the defensive line, two on the offensive line, the others are kind of in and out. Right now it’s a young football team with nearly 60 scholarships tied up in the first- and second-year classes.”
While O’Brien is in favor of redshirting as many youngsters as possible, sometimes they have to be used earlier than desired and that’s one reason Virginia’s staff decided to take the redshirt off of true freshman offensive right tackle Eric Smith, who made his first start last week against Ball State.
“We only had six upper classmen on the line and one of them [Connor Davis] got hurt, so we were down to five,” O’Brien said. “We were going to have to play freshmen anyway, whether they were backups or not. We made a decision that we’re going to get the best five guys in there and Eric’s one of the best five we have. He’s going to be a heck of a player. A couple of those young kids are going to be good offensive linemen.”
Offensive line is one of the most challenging positions for a freshman to play. Only five freshmen have started on the O-line for the Cavaliers in history as much as we can determine. There’s not only the maturity factor that must be overcome but the strength level as well.
In addition, we’ve all heard about the speed of the game, and that’s another thing Smith has had to reckon with along with sophomore center Ross Burbank, redshirt freshman center Jackson Matteo and right guard Jay Whitmire.
“We went from playing 3-4 (scheme) teams the first three games to a four-down [lineman] front at Pitt, which exposed some of our warts up front,” O’Brien said. “Then we played a 3-4, slash four-down team that combines both in Ball State. That’s a lot to handle even for a veteran line, let alone when you play a redshirt freshman and a true freshman. It’s caught up to us right now.”
O’Brien said the line is working hard in practice and the coaches are trying to make them not only physically tougher, but even more importantly, mentally tougher.
The fact that tight end Zach Swanson has missed the past couple of games due to injury has also set the offense back.
“He was our best player at tight end,” O’Brien said. “He allowed us to do some things at tight end that we haven’t been able to do since he got hurt.”
Swanson, who is both a solid blocker and receiver, is listed as probable for Saturday’s game at Maryland.
When Welsh and O’Brien and that crew sailed into Charlottesville from the U.S. Naval Academy back in 1982, they talked a lot about how Virginia needed to learn how to win. It’s no different in that respect three decades later.
“Losing becomes a habit,” O’Brien said. “We have to change that. We have to learn how to win a football game. Forget all the noise on the outside.”
Several of his N.C. State teams, perhaps the most injury-plagued teams we’ve seen in ACC recent history, overcame that and other adversity that resulted in slow starts but ended up with winning enough games to salvage seasons late and usually playing in a bowl game.
We’re not saying that’s going to happen to this team this year. It’s a process and it’s probably not going to happen overnight.
“Right now we’re trying to establish a culture of how we have to practice, how we have to do things,” O’Brien said. “We have so many young kids in the program that we have to teach them about leadership, about being a team and what has to be done. We’re trying to teach them the game of football.”
The schedule, dotted with teams that played in bowls last season, didn’t help this particular year.
“The schedule has been a little bit daunting, especially early for a team that has only seven seniors and all the young kids we have,” O’Brien said. “That’s going to be better in the long run for us, but certainly not the short run.”
Until then, it’s time for O’Brien, a former Marine, to get this team through boot camp.