UVA’s O-Line inconsistent due to illness; Freshman kicker drills 48-yarder under pressure

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Rebuilding Virginia’s offensive line has been a slow process, most recently bogged down with players missing practice due to illness.

Cavalier fans could hardly bare to look at daily reports last winter when the entire starting offensive line exited via the transfer portal. The cupboard wasn’t totally bare for position coach Garett Tujague, a holdover from Bronco Mendenhall’s staff, but he didn’t have a lot of returning experience to rely on.

Tony Elliott, who took the reins of UVA’s football program in December, provided some detail of the struggle with the O-Line following Monday night’s practice.

“I’m pleased with the effort,” Elliott said. “What we’re trying to do on some of our run schemes, I’ve seen improvement. Footwork is better. It has been tough because we’ve had guys with some illnesses, up and down, so we haven’t had a chance to have two practices in a row where we’ve had the same units out there.”

Elliott commented that sophomore Logan Taylor (6-foot-6, 300 pounds) returned to practice Monday and that junior tackle Jonathan Leech (6-5, 291) has “really been progressing.”

Leech, from Hoschton, Ga., is a two-time letterman who backed up Ryan Swoboda at right tackle in 2021.

“We saw some good things out of Jestus (Johnson, a 6-3, 306 sophomore),” Elliott said. “JP (transfer John Paul Flores, 6-4, 308 fifth year) adds some toughness and some depth and some competition there, but in fairness to those guys, they haven’t had the same five guys line up for two practices in a row and that’s tough, especially when you’ve go so many young ones.”

Elliott said his team needs to get the other guys back to practice, which should be some time this week.

All of this will impact the running game, which Elliott hopes to emphasize more this season (we’ll take a look at the running game in Tuesday night’s report on training camp, focusing on Mike Hollins).

In the meantime, Elliott has had watchful eyes on the place-kicking and punting, which can easily win or wreck a game in the blink of an eye.

Virginia executed some punting drills for the first time in camp on Monday and Elliott reported that while the team isn’t in full pads and the drills weren’t at full-speed, he was encouraged with what he saw.

Transfer Daniel Sparks is battling Brendan Farrell for punting duties. Both have produced good hang time, but the addition of Sparks “has definitely increased the competition level.”

Meanwhile, Justin Duenkel, who was UVA’s kicker at the end of last season, is competing against true freshman Will Bettridge from Miami, Fla.

“We call him ‘Walk-Off Will,’ and at first I didn’t know if I was going to use that nickname for him, but I tell you what … it looks like he’s got pretty good nerves about him,” Elliott said.

Coaches put Bettridge in a pressure situation at the end of practice Monday, treating it as if it was a game-on-the-line scenario demanding a 48-yard field goal.

“[Bettridge] walked out there and he hit it, so good competition,” Elliott said. “We haven’t had a chance to go live yet because we haven’t had full pads on, so once the bullets are really flying full speed, I’ll be anxious to see how they perform under pressure. We’ve been trying to create distractions and noise (in kicking/punting scenarios) at the end of practice.”

TUESDAY: A closer look at Mike Hollins and Virginia’s running game