In 2011, Luke Bowanko lined up alongside Oday Aboushi, Anthony Mihota, Morgan Moses and Austin Pasztor to start every game on the offensive line, marking the first time the same five linemen started every game in a season for the University of Virginia since 2004.
This year, three of those five return to the Cavaliers. Yet, even with all that chemistry being carried over from last season, Bowanko might not find much familiarity with his place on the line, at least not at first.
A former offensive and defensive tackle at Centreville High School, Bowanko is lining up at center this fall, a position he never played before. The graduation of Mihota, who held down the spot during the past two seasons, left a vacancy that was quickly filled by the redshirt junior.
With his quick hands and athleticism, Bowanko always knew he might be called upon to fill the spot after Mihota graduated. He could even be seen practicing snaps on and off during the past couple years, always aware of his potential place in the middle of the line.
This past weekend’s season-opening win against Richmond (43-19) served as Bowanko’s first real test at the new position. Although he turned in a respectable overall performance, a couple of fumbled snaps — something that didn’t happen during camp — left Bowanko with room for improvement.
“In camp, I sort of got used to things and was in a pretty good rhythm, so the first game was a little bit of a shock,” said Bowanko, who rehabbed from two offseason shoulder surgeries this year. “It’s just a quicker pace and things move a little bit faster. ... I definitely played better in the second half than I did in the first half. I got more and more comfortable as the game went on, and it put some perspective on this week in practice.”
Bowanko’s fumbles — both of which were recovered by Virginia — occurred near the goal line, where the position’s requirement for quick steps and fast reactions are exacerbated by a surging defensive line that uses more bodies to penetrate the backfield. The blame for the two poor quarterback-center exchanges might also have fallen on Michael Rocco, who needed to quickly get the ball and into the hands of his running backs on handoffs.
Despite their concern with those two plays, coaches and players pointed to Bowanko’s intelligence and leadership in expressing confidence in their new center going forward.
“I played against him when I was a sophomore and he was a senior, so I’ve always kind of known him a little bit,” said Jay Whitmire, a redshirt freshman for Virginia who played at T.C. Williams. “He’s really, really smart, which you have to be when you play center. You’ve got to know how to make all the calls and everything.”
Making the shift to center isn’t the first change to be thrown at Bowanko, who shined as a basketball player at Centreville before he stood out on the gridiron. Former Centreville football coach Gerry Pannoni put Bowanko on a rigorous training regimen to give him the bulk needed to thrive at the line of scrimmage. The result was jumping from 185 pounds as a freshman to 260 as a senior, an increase that also resulted from his four-inch growth to reach 6-foot-6.
Bowanko’s combination of strength and agility led to a senior year in which he earned All-Met Honorable Mention honors.
“Usually big kids tend to move slow, but Luke was very quick,” Pannoni said. “A lot of kids are big, but they have no flexibility in the hips, so they can’t generate any power. Not only was he strong, but he had the flexibility to get down low in his squats and generate a lot more power than most other kids.”
Bowanko remembers the day Virginia assistant coach Anthony Poindexter came to Centreville to watch the young lineman work out in the weight room, where Bowanko’s powerful display in the squat convinced Poindexter to recruit him.
“Coach Dex always jokes around with me [about that day],” Bowanko said. “He says, ‘All I did was stare at your butt.’”
As Bowanko’s understanding of his new position increases alongside his leadership skills, Poindexter and company expect him to become one of the best centers in the Atlantic Coast Conference as the weeks go by.
“I think he’s really going to be a great leader for a long time for us up front,” Virginia offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “I think he’s a natural at the spot. It’s always helpful when your center’s a real good leader.”