April 24, 2013
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- The UVa football team opens the season Aug. 31 against BYU at Scott Stadium. Jackson Matteo can't wait. To take the field as a starter that day "would mean the world to me," Matteo said this week, and it may well happen.
On the depth chart that fourth-year coach Mike London released Monday, nine days after the Cavaliers' 15th and final practice of the spring, Matteo was listed as the first-team center. And that prompted many UVa fans to ask two questions: Who is this Matteo kid, and how did he ascend so quickly on the depth chart?
That few outside the McCue Center saw this coming is understandable. Matteo enrolled at the University last summer without a scholarship, and most walk-on linemen never play in games.
His profile remained low last fall, when Matteo, who starred at offensive tackle for Broad Run High in Loudon County, began to learn the nuances of a new position.
Luke Bowanko, the Wahoos' starting right guard in 2011, took over as the first-team center last year, and he still held that job when spring practice began in early March, with Matteo backing him up. But the first-team line's uneven performance April 6 in the Orange-Blue spring scrimmage resulted in a major overhaul by line coach Scott Wachenheim.
Bowanko, a fifth-year senior, moved to left guard, and classmate Sean Cascarano, who had been working with the second team at right tackle, became the starter at right guard, replacing redshirt sophomore Ross Burbank. The 6-5, 290-pound Matteo was promoted at center, where Burbank is now backing him up. Redshirt junior Conner Davis, who started 11 games at left guard last season, missed spring drills while recovering from shoulder surgery. He's listed as the No. 2 right guard on the depth chart released Monday.
The coaches were trying "to find the right balance of guys that can complement each other," London said Monday afternoon.
"We asked, `Who are the best guys who give us opportunities to win, to be a physical team that can run the ball?' And the depth chart that you have in front of you is a result of those conversations and watching film and watching them compete against our defense."
Bowanko is "a very, very good center," London said, but playing him next to Matteo will "make us more of a rugged and more tough, physical team."
That Matteo is a Cavalier is a story in itself. In December 2011, as a Broad Run senior, he committed to Temple. The Owls offered him a scholarship, Matteo said Monday, as had Old Dominion, Marshall and many Mid-American Conference schools.
About three weeks before national signing day, Matteo decided Temple wasn't the right place for him and withdrew his commitment. Ohio University then contacted him, but Matteo wanted to be closer to home.
Virginia, led by Shawn Moore, then one of London's assistant coaches, had long been recruiting Matteo, but did not have a scholarship available for him in 2012. Virginia Tech wanted Matteo as a recruited walk-on, too, and he considered the Hokies. But he fell in love with UVa's coaching staff and players -- and with Charlottesville -- during a visit.
"It feels like home to me," Matteo said. "You get the right feel when you show up, and that's really what I got from Coach London."
Turning down a scholarship to walk on was a gamble, Matteo acknowledged, but he did so with his parents' blessing, and he was confident he could earn playing time at UVa.
"I think -- no, not think, I know I can play at the highest level," said Matteo, who made The Washington Post's All-Metro team as a Broad Run senior.
He smiled. "At least that's what I tell myself. That's what my dad tells me. He's a huge fan of Virginia sports. He's a huge fan of mine. He supports anything I do. Same with my mom."
Matteo, who was born in Fairfax County, moved to Ashburn when he was around 10, and he lives near Redskins Park, where his favorite NFL team trains. Matteo also played basketball at Broad Run, and at UVa he made a positive impression on Evan Marcus, the football team's strength-and-conditioning coach.
"He can bend," Marcus said Tuesday. "He's flexible, and it's going to help him. First of all, when a kid can bend like that, it shows some athleticism. He's going to be able to get himself out of a bad spot sometimes. He's going to use leverage, because he can get low. Obviously that's what you want out of your line, to work with leverage. And he's got a little edge to him. You certainly want an offensive lineman with that quality."
From Day One, Matteo said, UVa's coaches treated him the same as they did the scholarship players.
"I don't really like to use the word `walk-on,' " he said. "I feel like everyone has the same opportunity to get on the field and show what they have. I got that opportunity and I kind of ran with it. I've been studying my stuff and keeping up with the plays and I jumped in there and tried to make an impression."
He played football at about 280 pounds for Broad Run in 2011. By the end of his senior basketball season, however, Matteo was down to about 255, and he wasn't much heavier when he enrolled at UVa last summer.
If he wanted to play in college, Matteo knew, he had to get bigger, so he sat down with UVa sports nutritionist Randy Bird and mapped out an eating plan before heading home for the holidays in December.
"I got pretty serious about it. I started eating better and [more] food," Matteo recalled. "I was working hard in the weight room and eating a lot of good stuff, and the next thing I knew I looked on the scale and I was 288."
Final exams end May 10 at UVa, and the first session of summer school begins three days later. Matteo is enrolled in all three sessions, which means he'll be on Grounds all summer.
"I'm living in Charlottesville, and I'll be in the weight room room every day with Coach Marcus," he said.
Marcus said: "The size will come, as he gets older and matures more. But until then, if he gets in good habits of being a technician in here and on the field and everywhere else, he's going to make himself into a player.
"He needs to just be a technician with whatever he does [in the weight room] and try to do it as best as he can. I imagine that translates to the same things he does on the field, too, just being a technician. `Where do my hands go? Where does my head go? What steps do I need to take so it's maximal?' "
Training camp begins in early August for the Wahoos, and Matteo will look to tighten his grip on the starting job he won this spring. "I can't wait to get the pads back on," he said.
Matteo is one of four offensive linemen who entered the program last summer and redshirted last fall, along with tackle Michael Mooney and guards Ryan Doull and Sean Karl. They quickly bonded, Matteo said, and then "transferred it over to the football field. Everything was being thrown in our face real fast, but once you started adapting to it, you can really see what we're capable of."
Mooney, Doull and Karl are on scholarship. Matteo remains a walk-on. But Virginia's coaches reward walk-ons with scholarships whenever possible, and that's a distinct possibility with Matteo.
"I would absolutely love to earn a scholarship at one point," he said, "but that just comes with hard work and putting your nose to the ground and working, putting your head down."
EXTRA POINTS: The priority ordering deadline for Virginia football season tickets is Tuesday, April 30. Season tickets are available at five price levels from $176 to $345 for UVa's eight home games in 2013. An interest-free payment plan option is available.
For information, visit VirginiaSports.com/tickets or call (800) 542-8821.
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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