Media interviews were over. Coaches and players had vanished into the McCue Center to freshen up for team dining in John Paul Jones Arena, signaling an end to the fourth practice of Virginia’s 2013 season.
But not all jerseys and helmets had been packed away just yet. Underneath one goal post of the turf field, Luke Bowanko stood five yards in front of Eric Smith and Sadiq Olanrewaju. With their gear to the side, this trio of offensive linemen kept the sweat dripping on this early August evening.
It was a teaching moment. Bowanko, a well-seasoned veteran with 25 consecutive starts to his name, going over instruction and offering advice to a pair of wide-eyed rookies.
“He brought up stuff from the past,” Smith said. “As a fifth-year senior, he’s seen a lot of things.”
Two months after that scene unfolded outside the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility, Bowanko saw something he’s spotted just one other time during his UVa career.
He watched a true freshman start on the offensive line.
Smith’s nod against Ball State on Saturday was significant. He’s just the fourth first-year in Virginia history to start at an offensive tackle position, joining D’Brickashaw Ferguson (2002, left tackle), Brad Butler (2002, right tackle) and Morgan Moses (2010, right tackle).
Not bad for a three-star recruit who picked UVa over the likes of Arkansas, Florida International, Central Florida, Jacksonville State and Georgia State.
Smith’s preseason camp mentor could only stand and applaud the accomplishment.
“The best thing about him is his attitude and the way he approaches everything,” Bowanko said of Smith prior to the Ball State game. “The important thing about the offensive line is you’re going to make mistakes, it’s how you respond to those mistakes.
“He has a great attitude that he brings to the game and, obviously, a ton of ability. Mentally, he’s up there with several of the upperclassmen. Obviously, we’re excited for him to have the opportunity to get his first start. ... Hopefully, he shines.”
Smith was part of an offensive effort that gained 459 yards, including 236 on the ground, in the 48-27 loss to the Cardinals.
Upon film review, UVa head coach Mike London called the 6-foot-5, 295-pounder’s debut “admirable.”
All-MAC Ball State defensive end Jonathan Newsome sacked Wahoo quarterback David Watford twice. One came from Moses’ left side in the second quarter. The other started on Smith’s right side and then was stunted by guard Jay Whitmire in the fourth quarter.
“After the game, [Newsome] came up and he was like, ‘You’re a freshman’ and shook his head,” Smith said. “All the D-ends — 91 [Tracy Key], I went against 52 [Nick Miles], all of them said the same thing: ‘You’re a freshman. You did good work.’ They were shaking my hand.”
Smith’s most glaring mistake was being an ineligible receiver downfield on UVa’s first play of the fourth quarter. The penalty took away a Watford-to-Tim Smith 79-yard touchdown that would have cut the Ball State lead to 34-30.
“The play was a waggle,” Smith said. “It’s a pass play. I know it’s based off one of our run plays. So I got mentally ready to hit the [Cardinal defender]. I was ready to hit the guy and he started backing up. I noticed where I was and I started backing up because I knew what I did.
“When they threw that flag, I didn’t get upset. I knew it was me. I let the offense know. I told the offensive line, ‘It’s my fault, guys.’”
Bowanko felt Smith’s pain.
“That’s a tough play, especially on a call like that,” Bowanko said. “It was such a non-impacting call. In sports in general, that really frustrates me when it has no impact on the play and they call it.”
The Cavaliers (2-3, 0-1 ACC) still managed a field goal on that drive, but wouldn’t score again in suffering their second straight defeat.
Smith’s next opportunity is 3:30 p.m., Saturday, at Maryland (4-1, 0-1). He’ll make his second start, this one coming against one of the ACC’s top pass rushes.
Terrapin linebacker Marcus Whitfield is third in the league with 5.5 sacks.
Smith’s Virginia practice competition, Eli Harold, is ninth with 3.5 sacks.
“I’m all for Eric,” Harold said. “I’m Team Eric. I’m happy he’s starting to help our team out. He complements Morgan very well on the other side. He’s growing. He’s maturing. He had a penalty that cost us a touchdown, but those are just growing pains being a freshman.
“His job is a lot harder than what mine is. He’s starting on the offensive line. He’s out there on an island by himself going against some pretty good guys. I’m psyched for him. I wish him the best. I’m going to do whatever I can to make him the best tackle he can be.”
As is Bowanko.
“He has all the intangibles, assets to play at this level,” Bowanko said.