When left tackle Eugene Monroe graduated from Virginia this past May, he took 32 starts, two years of All-ACC recognition, and last season's Jacobs Blocking Trophy with him into the NFL.
Since regaining his starting job in 2007 after an injury-plagued 2006 season, Monroe had become a rock on his end of the Cavaliers' offensive line. His departure has created a hole in Virginia's starting lineup that no one on the current roster seems equipped to fill seamlessly.
Landon Bradley, a 6-6, 275-pound redshirt sophomore from Conway, S.C., has been tabbed to succeed Monroe at left tackle.
After winning the Cavaliers' Rock Weir Award a year ago for being the most-improved player in spring practice, Bradley has only one game appearance (in last year's road loss to Connecticut) to his credit. But coach Al Groh is optimistic that his new left tackle's athleticism and intelligence will make him a solid starter.
"[Bradley has] very good feet [and] good awareness," Groh told Jeff White of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "He gets concepts well. They make good sense to him."
"We're very positive about what he's getting done here."
In any case, Virginia shouldn't need Bradley to be a one-man force like the NFL first-rounder he's replacing. The group charged with picking up Monroe's slack this year figures to be better than the unit he led in 2008.
The Cavaliers' line entered last season with a combined 51 starts to their credit, all but six of which belonged to Monroe and right tackle Will Barker. Between those two experienced tackles were three greenhorn interior linemen: senior Zak Stair, who had started six games at left tackle in 2006, and untested sophomores B.J. Cabbell and Jack Shields.
Stair gave way to true freshman Austin Pasztor at left guard in the fifth game of the season, a 31-0 home win against Maryland. Pasztor held the position for the next seven games, while Cabbell and Shields each accumulated a full season of starting experience.
Virginia's rushing attack surpassed the 200-yard mark in each of Pasztor's first two games as a starter, and the Cavaliers allowed only 16 sacks all season, fewest in the ACC. But they were the only ACC team to average under 100 rushing yards per game on the year, and Monroe's play was a huge reason for their success against opposing pass rushers.
This year, as new offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon installs his offense, the hope is that Barker and last year's interior linemen—who now boast 69 starts as a group—can build on that game experience, maintaining a high standard of pass protection while paving the way for more yards on the ground.
The 2008 schedule was difficult enough to make last year's lessons meaningful going forward. Virginia's opponents had a combined record of 90-54, not counting FCS national champions Richmond. Having played against such a tough slate, the term "battle-tested" can legitimately be applied to the Cavaliers' starting linemen.
One of the group's biggest challenges this year will be adapting those lessons into Brandon's new offensive system.
"It's a completely new offense," Barker said in an interview with VirginiaSports.com. "There's some carryover from our old offense. Making calls in the line, we are able to make some of the same calls that we used to make."
"[But] there is some new terminology in techniques, as well as splits and stances that are changed."
Some of the experience last year's linemen gained in playing together will be tough to translate. Part of the process of developing chemistry along a line involves learning each player's role in the offense and getting a feel for how the rest of the line moves on a given play.
Still, on a unit where four of the starting five return from last season, continuity will play the biggest role both in improving on 2008 and bringing Bradley into the fold. Among such a young but experienced group, Bradley won't have to be Eugene Monroe to be effective.
For now, he'll just have to fit into the group.
[This article was originally published by WahooWire.com, a student-run sports news outlet covering University of Virginia athletics.]