Reshuffled Virginia offensive line striving to find cohesion quickly
Given that Virginia has given up more sacks than all but one Atlantic Coast Conference team this season and has struggled to produce points and yardage in the first halves of recent games, one would think that having to reshuffle several components of the offensive line would give Offensive Coordinator Bill Lazor some measure of anxiety heading into Saturday's game against North Carolina.
Not so much.
"When you've been places where you dress seven linemen on game day, which is typically what most NFL teams do, and have had two go down, and then you see the third guy go down, you know, and you're ready to put a tight end in there, you gain perspective on what these guys can do," said Lazor, who spent the last seven seasons as an offensive assistant in the NFL before coming to Virginia last January. "So with a whole week of practice, I feel pretty confident with the guys that we have that they'll be prepared. I don't have anxiety about these guys."
Junior Landon Bradley -- the usual starter at left tackle -- will miss Saturday's game with a broken hand. Sophomore Oday Aboushi -- the usual starter at right tackle -- will switch over and play on the left side to fill Bradley's spot. True freshman Morgan Moses -- who last week had switched from right tackle to right guard to hasten his development -- will move back outside and start at right tackle.
That's more than a few moving parts for a unit that has struggled in pass protection this season. Offensive lines typically thrive on continuity, and Offensive Line Coach Ron Mattes said Wednesday that the linemen had been taking in extra film study together this week in an attempt to build cohesion in their re-assembled group.
"It's basically being familiar with the guys next to you and getting down the calls," Mattes said. "We have a lot of calls in our offensive line and you're getting everybody on the same page. Once everybody gets on the same page, we've been through all the footwork in practice and been through the drills in practice, and everybody's been doing them."
Mattes said technical issues, not mental errors, are what have led to Virginia's pass protection issues. The Cavaliers have given up 15 sacks in five games this season. Only North Carolina State (17) has given up more in the ACC, and the Wolfpack has played six games.
"We just keep working on techniques, working the kick-slides, working on hand placements," Mattes said. "For the most part, the good news is that it hasn't been mental errors. There's been a few mental errors that caused some protection issues, but you know, you're going to have guys on edges and just not being in the right place. You just keep on working it in practice and keep on doing the drill work and eventually hopefully it will work itself out."
The North Carolina defense ranks No. 11 in the ACC in sacks (six), but that didn't make the Tar Heels' pass rushers any less impressive on film to Lazor. North Carolina does not blitz much, and similar to Florida State, the Tar Heels create most of their pass rush with their four defensive linemen.
North Carolina defensive tackles Quinton Coples (6-foot-6, 275 lbs.) and Tydreke Powell (6-foot-3, 305 lbs.) have formed a solid duo on the interior of the Tar Heels' line. Coples leads the team in sacks (three) and tackles for a loss (six). He and Powell have combined to register 51 tackles thus far. Freshman Tim Jackson (6-foot-5, 240 lbs.) and sophomore Donte Paige-Moss (6-foot-4, 260 lbs.) are starting at defensive end. Jackson has tallied six tackles and two quarterback hurries. Paige-Moss has recorded 15 tackles and 2.5 tackles for a loss.
"It's a great challenge playing North Carolina with some reshuffling of the line because they're really an extremely talented group, especially up front," Lazor said. "Watching them on video, I've just been very, very impressed with their young guys, their older guys. I know they've lost some people, and gosh, if they're better than the guys they've got playing now, I can't imagine how good they must have been. I think they're as talented a group as we've seen. They're big, and they're athletic. I don't know that we've seen anyone with quite that same mixture that this group we're about to face has."
Lazor said he has been pleased with the physicality of the Virginia offensive line so far, as well as the push-off that the Cavaliers are getting off the line of scrimmage. But he also understands there are many other aspects that must be in place in order for the line -- and thus, the offense -- to be effective.
"The key to me is, 'How well do new people next to each other communicate?'" Lazor said. "Because playing offensive line and coaching offensive line, it's a lot like a basketball team, not only because you have five guys, but because you really have to work together. It will be interesting to see how well our guys communicate and work. There's a lot of subtleties of guys working next to each other on the offensive line ...
"It will be interesting to see if we can pick up on some of those subtleties with new guys next to each other. I think we're doing a great job in practice, so I'm feeling like it's going to work out this week."
| October 14, 2010; 2:51 PM ET
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