UVA’s ‘running game by committee’ ready to roll if O-Line can get healthy

Countdown to Kickoff

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

Tony Elliott and offensive coordinator Des Kitchings believe that if Virginia had to play a game tomorrow, the running game is in good shape … depending on the health of the Cavaliers’ offensive line.

At last glance this past Monday, that was the question mark as sophomore left tackle McKale Boley was out with an ankle injury, causing the Cavaliers to move sophomore Blake Steen from a guard position to left tackle and move left guard Ugonna Nnanna (transfer from Houston) to right tackle.

“Overall in terms of the [running] operation and the knowledge of knowing where to be and who to fit, I felt really good about that,” Elliott said this week. “Obviously we’ve got to get the right pieces up front, so we’re not ready with the first five yet.”

Besides Boley’s injury, junior guard Noah Josey and Jimmy Christ, a transfer from Penn State, have also been hobbled with injuries and weren’t ready to play, leaving the O-line in limbo in terms of depth for the opener next Saturday against Tennessee in Nashville.

“So the overall understanding (of the running game), I feel good about,” Elliott said. “I’m a firm believer that you’ve got to be balanced, you’ve got to be able to run the ball. What does that mean? That means that you’ve got to be efficient, and then whatever the situation calls for, you’ve got to be able to produce for that situation.

“Now, we’ve just got to get the right pieces, the right five in place by the time we get to Tennessee.”

Virginia wasn’t able to establish a consistent running game last season, finishing 11th in the ACC with 123 yards rushing per game. While the team’s leading rusher, quarterback Brennan Armstrong, is now playing for NC State, the Cavaliers return 62 percent of their rushing from a year ago when they picked up 1,231 yards on the ground (Armstrong claimed 371 of those and six of 13 rushing TDs).

Perris Jones is the leading returning rusher with 365 yards last season, with Mike Hollins posting 215 and Xavier Brown 210.

There will be some major question marks heading to Nashville against a ferocious Tennessee front seven that has been boosted by the transfer portal.

Kitchings has been studying the Vols’ defense for quite some time and expects a very aggressive opponent for the opener.

“Structurally, [Tennessee] wants to crowd the box, stop the run,” Kitchings said. “The front seven stands out. They had a couple of acquisitions in the transfer portal, so the roster will probably look a lot different than what it did at the end of last season, even in the spring.”

If the Vols successfully stop Virginia’s running game, how much pressure will that put on Cavaliers quarterback Tony Muskett and the passing game? Tennessee will surely try to rattle Muskett in an attempt to force him to make mistakes.

“Certainly … it’s the guy’s first start (Muskett is a veteran transfer from Monmouth, stepping up from FCS to FBS football),” Kitchings acknowledged. “[Tennessee is thinking] let’s test him, test the O-Line to see if we can protect the quarterback because they’re going to try to move him off his spot.

“So that’s where everybody — all 11 of us playing together — gives us the best opportunity. It’s not gonna be just Tony Muskett. It’s not gonna be the running backs. It’s going to be all the position groups playing together to give us the best chance to go out there and win.”

One might expect veteran tight ends Grant Misch and Sackett Wood to be a big part of the run blocking and the short passing game, along with Muskett throwing to backs on short-to-intermediate routes, particularly if the running game is bottled up.

One of the questions would be, can the offensive line protect Muskett against an aggressive Vols front seven?

For certain, Virginia will attempt to run the ball to keep the pressure off Muskett. Expect the Cavaliers to rotate running backs among Jones, Hollins, Clemson transfer Kobe Pace and others.

“We feel like we have a really good rotation of guys in the backfield that can stay fresh, especially early in the season,” Kitchings said. “It would be a committee approach, and then as the game flows and one guy is getting hot with the ball, then we can cater things toward him. But the initial attack will be as a committee.”

Kitchings said Virginia has put a strong focus in training camp on third-down conversions and red-zone efficiency, two sore points in the Cavaliers’ anemic offensive numbers. In 2022, UVA was No. 117 out of 131 FBS teams in third-down conversions (32.1 percent) and tied for No. 119 in red-zone offense with 32 visits inside the red zone resulting in 12 rushing scores, four passing and eight field goals.

“Major, major, major offseason emphasis,” Kitchings said. “A point of emphasis in the spring and fall, and so we put our guys in a lot of varying distances and downs, and the third-down deal with short yards. We don’t want to be third-and-long, but those are going to happen and we put the guys in situations to see how we would respond and they did a good job of responding, executing. That’s the key thing, execution.”

Virginia was No. 102 in the nation in rushing the football last season, so it would be difficult for the Cavaliers to be worse.

The key, it seems, is if the O-Line can get healthy, stay healthy, open holes for the backs and keep Muskett upright.