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Young Virginia tight end corps showing progress in pass protection

Virginia had a fair amount of success rushing the ball Saturday against Miami, and as the game progressed, the Hurricanes made adjustments. On a couple of plays, the Miami defense offered a blitz that Cavaliers Tight Ends Coach Scott Wachenheim said Virginia hadn't seen the Hurricanes previously use this season during film study the previous week. Miami had its strong-side linebacker walk up to the line of scrimmage just before the snap and then rush the Virginia backfield.

"If you had a guy like (injured senior tight end) Joe Torchia, he would have recognized it and blocked it right away," Wachenheim said Wednesday. "With a guy like (sophomore tight end) Colt (Phillips), we have to show him on the sideline and draw it up. He may go out there and miss it again, and so we have to show it again and draw it up. Or we might not call that play until the next week until we've shown it to them on film because they haven't seen it before."

Wachenheim was using Phillips as an example, but he may as well have been describing the growing pains of all of Virginia's young tight ends. With Torchia out for the season due to a shoulder injury, the Cavaliers are relying on a trio of sophomores to fill the tight end role. One of those players, Jeremiah Mathis, switched over from defensive end a month ago after Torchia suffered his season-ending injury against Florida State.

"You've got to constantly teach them," Wachenheim said. "And there's never enough plays in practice to show them everything that's going to happen in the games."

Wachenheim said Mathis's natural talent has shown through in recent weeks and that the newly-converted tight end is demonstrating daily improvement. But of late, Mathis has "kind of hit the wall a little bit," according to Wachenheim.

"When you first get moved to tight end and you go out there, you're just doing everything fast because you don't know anything, so you just go fast," Wachenheim said. "And then you hit a point where you've learned quite a bit, and you get conscientious and you're worried about making a mistake and you slow down just a little bit. But every day he's getting a little bit smarter and understanding what we're doing, and every day he's getting a little bit better."

As for the tights ends as a group, Wachenheim said they blocked better against Miami than they had at any previous point this season. On fifth-year senior tailback Keith Payne's five-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter Saturday, Virginia ran an inside zone blocking scheme that resulted in sophomore tight end Paul Freedman blocking an opposing defensive end to the ground.

"Keith cut it back right where Paul flattened the guy," Wachenheim said.

As for Phillips and the new blitz Miami threw at him, Wachenheim said that the first time the Hurricanes came with it, Phillips was supposed to block the blitzing strong-side linebacker, but he didn't. The second time Miami used that blitz, Virginia was running a play in which Phillips was not supposed to block the strong-side linebacker, but he did.

"It's a simple blitz; our defense gives it to us regularly in practice," said Wachenheim, who served as the tight ends coach for the Washington Redskins last season. "We just hadn't repped it last week. After the game, (Phillips) knew exactly what was going on, and the third time he saw it in the game, he picked it up just fine and we had a big run off it.

"It just takes a little bit longer than, you know, when you're coaching (Redskins tight end) Chris Cooley. Shoot, he's seen everything. He knows what all 22 of 'em are doing on the field, and he can come back and tell you what they're all doing, and he picks it up right every time. And the same thing with Joe (Torchia). He's like that, as well. Just because they've done it so often."

By Steve Yanda  | November 4, 2010; 7:52 AM ET
Categories:  Football  
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