The offensive line doesn’t generate headlines.
Fans don’t flock to the message boards to discuss offensive linemen months before the start of a college football season. Offensive linemen don’t sell tickets and rarely appear on flashy marketing materials.
But watch last season’s Virginia-Notre Dame game, however, and it becomes clear the value of a good offensive line.
In a 35-20 loss to the Fighting Irish, the Cavaliers allowed eight sacks. Julian Okwara tallied three of those sacks for Notre Dame and caused a fumble that was returned for a touchdown with the Cavaliers only trailing 21-17. That helped put Notre Dame over the top.
Despite recording more yards than the Irish, UVa lost the game by two touchdowns due to five turnovers caused by constant pressure in the backfield.
“Our ball security is tied directly to pass rush in four-man rush situations, which is what the defense would love,” UVa head coach Bronco Mendenhall said after the game. “If you can pressure the quarterback and still play coverage, there’s relatively no risk.”
Offensive line play matters, and with quarterback Bryce Perkins off to the NFL, it becomes even more critical to UVa’s offensive success. Perkins frequently scrambled away from pressure while at UVa and that same level of scrambling ability is tough to sustain at the position year after year.
Let’s take a look at Virginia’s offensive line, which did show drastic improvement toward the end of the 2019 season.
Good news, UVa fans, the offensive line returns a tremendous amount of talent. Virginia didn’t have a senior along the offensive line in 2020.
That means Dillon Reinkensmeyer, Ryan Nelson, Ryan Swoboda, Olu Oluwatimi and Bobby Haskins all return.
The Cavaliers also have depth with key players like Chris Glaser and Alex Gellerstedt, who should compete for starting roles. The latter, a Penn State transfer, sat out last season with an injury.
The Cavaliers are experienced, deep and talented up front. If the group stays healthy, it has a chance to be the best offensive line of the Mendenhall era.
Ja’Quay Hubbard will transfer, Mendenhall announced earlier this offseason. Outside of Hubbard, the Cavaliers return the main group of players expected to contribute in 2020. The departures along the offensive line are minimal.
Jestus Johnson is expected to be the only incoming freshman along the offensive line. Andrew Gentry, an offensive lineman and the top prospect in the 2020 class, is expected to go on a religious mission trip before joining UVa ahead of the 2022 season.
With few departures come few offensive line additions.
The offensive line was arguably the weakest offensive position group for the Cavaliers through the first half of last season. Entering 2020, the Cavaliers’ offensive line might be the best position group on offense.
Between the experience and depth at the position, the Cavaliers should see lowered sack totals — the Cavaliers allowed nearly three sacks per game in 2019 — and improved rushing totals. Allowing too many sacks and failing to run the ball well were two of UVa’s biggest offensive problem areas in 2019.
Those shouldn’t be issues in 2020.
“I will say this, we have spent four years recruiting and developing our offensive line, and going into this season, we’re at the best spot in that regard,” UVa offensive coordinator Robert Anae said in April. “One with depth, so there’s going to be competition for the guys up front and No. 2, for the most part, they now gave a couple years of experience in doing what they’re doing.”