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Virginia offensive line is ready to prove the doubters wrong and move forward from tragedy to triumph

A revamped Cavalier line will outwork their competition and play an essential role in Tony Elliott’s rebuilding program

<p>Virginia's offensive line creates a hole for sophomore running back Xavier Brown at the team's spring game.</p>

Virginia's offensive line creates a hole for sophomore running back Xavier Brown at the team's spring game.

Football is won in the trenches. This is a common saying that almost any coach will reference, especially new Virginia offensive line coach Terry Heffernan. “The trenches” refers to the offensive and defensive line, arguably the most physical area of the game. 

It is an indisputable fact that any successful offense features a stout offensive line. 

Enter Heffernan. He has spent 21 years coaching, including stops with the Buffalo Bills and the Detroit Lions in the NFL along with Stanford and Michigan. He comes in with expertise on how to both build a successful offensive line in college and prepare players for the NFL.

“Building an offensive line is like a slow cooker,” Hefferman said. “It’s not like baking or cooking. We have our ingredients. The more they can be around each other doing anything to build bonds, the better we will be.” 

The Cavalier offensive line is in a rebuilding phase largely after the departure of former coach Garett Tujague. Creating a standard of consistency will be crucial to the development of Elliott’s offense. The 2022 offensive line was physically talented — all starters were at least 6’ 3” and 290 pounds — which is a prerequisite for success at the position. However, the play of the unit had much to improve upon, allowing the seventh most sacks in the ACC, and contributing to a rushing offense ranked only 11th in the league. Heffernan, acknowledging the negative comments from fans and professional sportswriters alike, vowed to improve the standard of play. 

“We’re gonna use the bad talk as fuel,” Heffernan said. “I know this group can improve because everyone can improve by working hard.”

Virginia will have to establish a new starting left tackle and left guard with the departures of Logan Taylor to Boston College and John Paul Flores to Louisville, but Heffernan and Elliott managed to bring in two potential starters. Houston transfer Ugonna Nnanna had offers from multiple Power Five schools out of high school, and Dayton transfer Brian Stevens was rated as the top offensive guard at the FCS level by Pro Football Focus. Recently, Heffernan also added Jimmy Christ — a 6’ 7” 316 lb. transfer tackle from Penn State. Heffernan’s new acquisitions will be critical to a return to former dominance for Virginia’s offensive line.

In addition to the transfers on the line, Virginia returns some exciting, albeit young, talent from last year’s squad. McKale Boley is a name to look out for this season after playing well in his sophomore campaign. Heffernan has praised Boley’s performance so far, highlighting his work both on and off the field.

“Boley can play,” Heffernan said. “He’s a very talented, smart young man. He watches extra tape and loves the game. He has really stood out. I’ve been ecstatic about what we’ve gotten from him so far, there’s a lot left too.”

Heffernan knows he has to have the unit prepared, as a daunting test awaits the Cavaliers in their 2023 opener against No. 6 Tennessee in Nashville. However, Heffernan praised Virignia’s defensive line for its experience, noting how “iron can sharpen iron” in order for the team to become as good as possible.

“There's nowhere to hide against this defensive line,” Heffernan said. “Failure can be the best teacher, better competition lets you explore things you can work on.”

A leader on the defensive line, senior defensive tackle Jahmeer Carter, also noticed significant growth on the line. 

“The O-Line has had a lot of growth,” Carter said. “It's a new group, I'm proud to see where they've come from and where they're going.”

It takes time to build consistency, which can be most notable at times due to the difficulty of coaching the offensive line position. While Heffernan has over 20 years of experience coaching the position, it can still be challenging to walk into a new, unique situation. However, he believes in the current makeup of the roster.

“The guys that are gonna play for us this year are the guys we can trust,” Heffernan said in an introductory interview with Virginia football. “If you do the right thing at the right time then the offense will work.”

A Heffernan practice is marked with booming music and consistent loud encouragement. Not letting a bad rep slide, the coach makes his linemen repeat drills until he is satisfied. Junior center Ty Furnish has noticed the coach’s experience during spring practice. 

“Coach Heff expects a lot of us,” Furnish said. “He’s very detail-oriented. He expects all the details to be perfect because that’s what we require to win.”

At the annual spring game scrimmage, Cavalier fans got a casual first glimpse of Heffernan’s offensive line and coaching style. Improvement from last season was clear, even in a scrimmage format. The development of returning starters and future impact players is critical to the team’s success, and there are promising signs of growth. Junior tackle Charlie Patterson started for the blue team at Virginia’s spring game and played well. The 6’6” right tackle protected freshman quarterback Anthony Colandrea and contributed to a solid first half effort. 

The unit as a whole will continue to grow. Virginia features eight offensive linemen over 6’ 3'' and 300 lbs. Five of them have only just completed their first year of college football. This position group is both young and physically talented. Boley and Nnanna worked well together on the left side of the line, creating space for a 35 yard rushing touchdown by sophomore running back Jack Griese in the third quarter of the spring game. 

Alongside Boley and Nnanna, Furnish is establishing himself as a leader among the group, which proved to be a benefit for the other offensive players. Transfer senior quarterback Tony Muskett — who is expected to be the starter in the fall — praised Furnish’s work ethic. 

“Credit to Furnish, he stepped up huge this spring,” Muskett said. “He sets the tone for how this offense will run. We expect to score and we expect to score quickly. When [the offensive line] plays well it's exponentially easier for me.” 

Furnish echoed Heffernan’s remarks on how the outside noise should not have an impact on the potential of the 2023 season

“We’re a lot better than people think we are,” Furnish said. “There’s an understanding of the system that is really big this spring, that’s new. The energy is great.” 

Year two of the Elliott administration will be crucial for future recruitment and program performance. Significant improvement is on the rise for Elliott and Virginia football, starting up front with the offensive line. Elliott closed the spring game media session with a clear goal for his team this upcoming season -— “turning tragedy into triumph.”

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