Editor's note: This story contains a clarification after Pittsburgh's Rashad Weaver sustained a season-ending knee injury.
Virginia offensive lineman Ryan Nelson is a West Coast guy, but it was a longstanding relationship with head coach Bronco Mendenhall and his staff that brought the Cavaliers’ starting left tackle east.
Coming out of Buena Park, California, Nelson was recruited by Mendenhall’s staff when they were at BYU. Nelson said he has known Mendenhall, offensive coordinator Robert Anae and offensive line coach Garrett Tujague for about seven years.
“I think there’s a mutual level of comfort there,” Nelson said. “I’ve had a good relationship with those guys, and I trust them and they trust me. I followed them here, immediately fell in love with the school and knew I made the right decision.”
Nelson started all 13 of Virginia’s games at left tackle last season as a freshman. This year, he’s more comfortable than ever in his role as quarterback Bryce Perkins’ blindside protector, and he said comfort is key.
“Last year was me trying to get a foothold. Now I have that foothold and I feel like I can take strides to get way better this year,” Nelson said. “The key is staying calm and levelheaded. You have to think of it this way, Bryce cannot see your guy, so you have to go into every play with the mindset that I’m going to make this block.”
Nelson (6-4, 315) credits former UVa offensive tackle Jack English with showing the ropes when he landed on Grounds in 2017 — a season in which he didn’t appear in any games and retained a year of eligibility.
“He taught me how to watch film properly, and he taught me my kick and how to fix it,” Nelson said.
These days, Nelson puts in extra work with former Virginia center Jackson Matteo, who started 24 straight games for the Cavaliers between 2015-16 and is now in his third season as a graduate assistant on Mendenhall’s staff.
Matteo said he and Nelson have been working one-on-one for about a year and a half now.
“He’s just hungry. Whether he’s sweaty after they’ve already been out there for two and a half hours or we’re up at 6 a.m., he just wants more,” Matteo said. “Really what we’re working on is polishing off those small parts of his game – his hands, his feet. He’s already a great player and it’s all going to come together. It’s just a matter of time.”
Nelson is one of three starters back on the line, joining guard Chris Glaser and Dillon Reinkensmeyer, who is moving to right guard this fall after starting at center. Nelson can also play multiple positions and has seen time in the offseason and both guard spots.
“At tackle, you face the quick guys. When you go inside, you’re not facing quick guys. You’re facing big strong guys, so you’ve got to work on your strength and leverage,” Nelson said. “But then when you go back outside, you have an advantage those guys aren’t strong enough.”
Nelson knows how much Mendenhall and Tujague value versatility, but he also sees the upside of narrowing his focus to the guys on the edge.
“It’s nice to really focus on getting my bearings and improving on the little techniques that will help me get my hands on quicker guys,” Nelson said.
Nelson and right tackle Ryan Swoboda expected to have their hands full Aug. 31 in the season opener at Pittsburgh against one of the ACC’s top pass rushers in Rashad Weaver, but he tore his ACL early in fall camp and will miss the season.
The Panthers will turn to redshirt sophomore Deslin Alexandre and redshirt junior Patrick Jones II on the edge, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
No matter who Virginia faces, though, the men in the trenches have earned Perkins’ trust.
“Those guys are out here working harder than anybody and getting better every day,” he said. “They’re fighting tooth and nail and doing whatever it takes to make this team successful.”