Virginia gets two key players back from injured list ahead of Saturday’s Illinois game

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Ronnie Walker Jr. (Photo: UVA Athletics)

Virginia will get two players back this week off the injured list, and both have been cleared for contact ahead of the Cavaliers’ road game at Illinois (1-1, 4 p.m. EST, ESPNU).

Jonathan Leech, who was the training camp favorite to start at left offensive tackle, was sidelined late in camp with an arm injury that prevented him from participating in Saturday’s opening win against Richmond. He was replaced by McKale Boley, the first true freshman to start at that position for UVA since D’Brickashaw Ferguson in 2002.

While Boley was listed as the starter on this week’s depth chart released Tuesday, Leech could play against the Illini.

Meanwhile, running back Ronnie Walker Jr. was cleared for contact. Walker, who missed the majority of training camp with a leg injury, will add depth to the backfield along with Miami transfer Cody Brown, who apparently was nicked up and did not play in the opener.

“Leech was available last week from an emergency standpoint because he had gotten the stitches out of his hand,” UVA coach Tony Elliott said during his game-week presser on Tuesday afternoon. “He could play with a cast.”

Elliott said that Leech has returned to practice and that he is excited to go review film of today’s workouts to see how the big tackle performed.

“Talking to him coming off the field, he said he felt good,” Elliott said. “He said the cast that he was in made his hand very functional. We anticipate he’ll be ready to be in the rotation and see where his conditioning is by the end of the week.”

Meanwhile, Boley was given one of the three lowest grades on UVA’s offense by Pro Football Focus. The Hattiesburg, Miss., freshman was graded out at a mere 46.8 percent by PFF, which reviews the performances of every player in the nation. Wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks (52.1) and tight end Grant Misch (46.8) were the other two lowest-graded offensive players. Wicks experienced the first fumble of his career, while Misch dropped a pass.

The PFF grade doesn’t mean that Elliott is down on Boley.

“Boley is physically gifted as a young guy,” Elliott said of the 6-foot-4, 331-pound tackle. “We’ve just got to pull him through some knotholes at times of being a freshman. Sometimes a freshman is like, man, I just want to be a freshman. But hey, buddy, you’re the starting left tackle. You don’t have time to be a freshman. You’ve got to be ready to go.

“So coaching him through that and being able to get him to stay locked in the entire practice, the entire game, he’s still a young guy, but he cares. He wants to, he just has to mentally be able to push himself.”

Walker, who transferred to Virginia from Indiana and played in spots last year, enjoyed a good spring until he suffered the leg injury, which caused him to miss most of camp. He wasn’t available last week when the team rushed for more than 200 yards, with both senior and little-used tailback Perris Jones and quarterback Brennan Armstrong going over 100 yards on the ground.

“So [Walker] is cleared for contact, he’s ready to go,” Elliott said. “Still wouldn’t say he’s 100-percent, but he’s at a point now where structurally he’s good to go. Now it’s just a matter of pushing through the discomfort of the remaining healing that has to take place.

“So we’ll see how he does the rest of the week, but we do get Cody Brown back, we’ve got Perris, we’ve got Mike [Hollins], and Xavier [Brown], so it’ll be more situational. If he’s ready to go, then we’ll turn him loose and try to get him some action. But if I see any kind of hesitation, especially at that position, if you’re not ready to go, you can get yourself hurt as a running back, especially as much contact as you’re involved in. It’s a game-time decision on him to see if he’s ready.”