CHARLOTTESVILLE — Fix it.
That’s what Garett Tujague remembered hearing everywhere he went his first few seasons coaching Virginia’s offensive line — from fans, from the media, from his fellow coaches.
Of course, like many things in the UVA program when Tujague followed Bronco Mendenhall to Charlottesville before the 2016 season, there was no quick fix.
The offensive line he inherited was inexperienced, undersized and lacked depth. Just two seasons ago, the Cavaliers’ staff had to design an offense that essentially ran away from the line’s deficiencies, rolling out star quarterback Bryce Perkins, creating a mobile pocket because the line couldn’t hold up establishing a traditional one.
“We were trying to find ways to get him away from the weaknesses,” recalled Tujague. “But you can only hide so many things.”
There’s nothing to hide this spring as Tujague returns the same starting five that UVA played in its final three games last season.
That group — Olu Oluwatimi at center, Chris Glaser and Joe Bissinger at guard and Ryan Nelson and Ryan Swoboda at tackle — have combined for 109 career starts, led by Nelson’s 37 and Glaser’s 32. Oluwatimi, Glaser, Nelson and Swoboda are seniors, Bissinger a junior.
Add senior tackle Bobby Haskins, who made 13 starts in 2019, and UVA has the most experienced offensive line since Mendenhall took over the program.
“We have a lot of continuity,” Oluwatimi said. “It’s helpful for the QBs, helpful for the running backs, helpful for the whole for the offense. It just gives [the coaches] confidence to rely on us as a unit. … We have a chance to be the best unit in the country, honestly. We have that confidence and we have that swagger.”
That experience has allowed Tujague to coach his line at a higher level, and it’s made communication during games and practices more of a two-way flow.
“When they come to the sidelines, I’m getting feedback and answers like this,” said Tujague, snapping his fingers. “On Saturdays, they’re talking about it before I get a chance to even adjust it or address it.”
Mendenhall hopes the group can shift Virginia’s running game away from one centered on quarterback runs and transition it to a more running back-driven attack. Deducting yardage lost to sacks, UVA has been led in rushing by a quarterback in the past three seasons.
In an effort to control games and time of possession while taking some hits off returning QB Brennan Armstrong, the Cavaliers hope that one of their backs — Wayne Taulapapa, Ronnie Walker and Mike Hollins are the obvious candidates — can become the running game’s workhorse in 2021.
The line’s experience means there’s no shortage of leadership from the offensive front this spring. It comes in all forms and fashions, from the cerebral X’s and O’s pointers from Oluwatimi, to the vocal prodding from Glaser to the hype and energy from Haskins.
“It’s a group that knows we have to lead,” Nelson said. “We bring the juice everywhere we go. And we hold people accountable now. Instead of us being told, ‘Let’s go,’ it’s us telling everyone else, ‘Let’s go.’ ”
Off the field, the veteran nature of the offensive line group has altered the players’ relationship with Tujague, whom Nelson affectionately called “Uncle Tuj” as the two men swapped spots during a Zoom session with reporters on Tuesday.
“Relationships evolve as time goes on,” Oluwatimi said. “The way he treated me when I first got here, is different. On a one-on-one relationship basis, the talks have been different. … I can be personal with him. They’re not always about football. He’s kind of like a big brother or father figure.”
And he may be the man who’s finally solved UVA’s offensive line issues.
“For years — ‘Fix it.’ People walking by saying, ‘Fix it,’” Tujague said. “We’re close, I think, but it’s time. It’s been long enough.”