March 30, 2015
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- On the UVa football practice field last week, the big guy in the No. 77 jersey looked familiar, and for good reason. Offensive lineman Jay Whitmire started all 12 games for the Cavaliers as a redshirt sophomore in 2013 -- four at tackle and eight at guard.
In 2014, however, Whitmire's profile in the program was much lower. Coming out of the 2013 season, he needed back surgery, but another medical problem -- a cyst in his lower-back region -- sidelined Whitmire and delayed the operation.
"It was a long process with a lot of letdowns," recalled Whitmire, a graduate of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, where he also played basketball and lacrosse.
For months, the cyst defied treatment. "I had several operations last year," Whitmire said. "I had a couple on that cyst that just didn't work, and then eventually one of the more complicated ones worked."
That made it for possible Whitmire to have his back surgically repaired in early January this year. Some three months later, he's thrilled with how his rehabilitation is going.
"I'm surprised at how good I'm feeling now," said Whitmire, who'll compete as a graduate student in the fall. "I didn't really know I was going to be doing all this kind of stuff. I just kind of jumped in and said, `Hey, I feel pretty good.' "
He's been more spectator than participant in practice this spring, but Whitmire is steadily increasing his workload in the McCue Center weight room and football drills.
"I've been doing some arms and stuff, and of course I've been doing my rehab, which is a lot of abs, a lot of back stuff," Whitmire said Tuesday. "And then today, I ran some 60-yard shuttles and [similar drills], and I've been doing the individual work, without shoulder pads on."
During his long layoff, the 6-6 Whitmire was able to keep his weight around 300 pounds, and he didn't lose much strength, either. He's not likely to play in the Orange-Blue spring game April 18 at Scott Stadium, but Whitmire expects to be cleared by the start of training camp in August.
"Right now I'm just getting back in the groove of things and feeling pretty good," he said. "I'll for sure be ready by then."
UVa has a new offensive line coach this year, Dave Borbely, who took over after Scott Wachenheim left to become head coach at Virginia Military Institute. But Borbely and Whitmire needed no introduction.
This is Borbely's second stint as a UVa assistant. In his first, he coached the offensive linemen for four seasons (2006-09). In his final year on then-head coach Al Groh's staff, Borbely got his first look at Whitmire.
"He came to camp as a sophomore, and he was a big tight end," Borbely said. "I remember we were in the stadium, and he walked in with his dad and his little sister, I think, and it was like, `Whoa! There's our tackle for the future.' So then we recruited him from that time."
Borbely has also been offensive line coach at Rice, Temple, Tulane, Stanford, Notre Dame, Colorado, Louisville and, most recently, Colorado State-Pueblo, which won the Division II national title last season.
"It's been great," Whitmire said of his relationship with Borbely. "He knows a lot, for sure. He's seen a lot of stuff, and I think it's been going really well."
Whitmire, who also received scholarship offers from such schools as Penn State, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Pittsburgh, chose UVa in part because of its tradition of elite offensive linemen, among them D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Branden Albert and Eugene Monroe.
After redshirting in 2011, Whitmire appeared in all 12 games in 2012, on special teams and as a backup tackle.
In 2013, when he helped tailback Kevin Parks become UVa's first 1,000-yard rusher in nearly a decade, Whitmire began the season at right tackle before moving to right guard.
Whitmire's position once he's cleared to play this year?
"I'm not sure," he said. "We'll see. Coach Borbs says the best five [linemen] are going to play."
Borbely is in no hurry to decide. "I'm just gonna wait and see that he comes back healthy, and then I'll worry about that and see where we can plug him in."
In their short time together, Whitmire has impressed his new position coach.
"He's a veteran player, and he knows a lot of the answers to the questions that I ask, because he's been around for a long time," Borbely said. "At least conceptually he knows the answers. My lingo might be different. But he's been around and played a lot. He's very sharp mentally. He's very sharp."
In head coach Mike London's program, Whitmire is one of 10 scholarship offensive linemen with college game experience, along with Eric Smith, Michael Mooney, Sadiq Olanrewaju, Jack English, Ross Burbank, Jack McDonald, Eric Tetlow, Ryan Doull and Jackson Matteo.
"It's a real hard-working group," Borbely said. "I think we have a good baseline understanding, as far as our football IQ goes. Talent-level, we have some talented guys. Are they first-round draft picks? I don't know that. But the key is really not the individuals, but how they work together, and right now I kind of like what I'm seeing. We're still growing and we're still learning, but so far we're about on track with where I was hoping we'd be at this point in time."
In 2014, Smith started all 12 games. Burbank started 11, Mooney nine, Doull six, Olanrewaju and Matteo two apiece. (Like Whitmire, Olanrewaju is recovering from surgery and participating on a limited basis this spring.)
"I'm real happy with the adjustment they've made," Borbely said of his linemen. "They struggled the first couple of days, but as I told them, my system [is simple]: come off the ball, go rock somebody and protect the passer.
"The system is kindergarten simple. They're still learning the concepts and the calls that go with those concepts, but it's meant to be simple, so that they can play fast."
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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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