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Linemen transferred from Virginia enjoyed winning times

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Olu Oluwatimi knew he wanted to be a Michigan man. More so, he wanted to be a Michigan offensive lineman.

“Even before I entered the portal, I wanted to come to Michigan,” said Oluwatimi, the Wolverines center and a former three-year starter in Virginia. “I knew in my heart that I loved the brand of football and the way they outplay physical opponents. I wanted to be a part of it.”

At UVa, Oluwatimi was part of a group of linemen who went from being young and a drag on the team to becoming one of the ACC’s best units. In 2019, this line helped the Cavaliers win the ACC Coastal Division title and reach the Orange Bowl. They also beat Virginia Tech, ending a 15-year losing streak against their rivals.

The group was inseparable… until they broke up. After Virginia’s loss to Tech at the end of the 2021 season, coach Bronco Mendenhall announced his retirement. Over the next month, Oluwatimi and fellow players Joe Bissinger, Bobby Haskins and Ryan Swoboda decided to join the NCAA’s transfer portal.

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Now all four starters were in new schools. Three are chasing conference titles and two — Oluwatimi of Michigan and Haskins of Southern California — are in the middle of chasing a college football playoff berth.

Oluwatimi has started all 11 games at center for the Wolverines, who sit third in the CFP rankings and head into Saturday’s mighty showdown against No. 2 rival Ohio State.

Haskins has started six games in left tackle for the No. 6 Trojans, who host Notre Dame in their regular-season finale on Saturday.

Swoboda has started all 11 games with the right tackle for No. 22 Central Florida, who still has a chance of reaching the American Athletic Conference championship game despite Saturday’s loss to Navy. The Golden Knights need to beat South Florida and win Tulsa against Houston.

Bissinger has started six games at left for SMU, who go 6-5 into their final game of the regular season against Memphis.

“We’re all staying in touch,” Bissinger said. “We all want to see how everyone is doing.”

Such was the case last offseason, as the group updated each other on which schools were being considered and which coaches had reached out to them after they accessed the portal.

“We all entered at a different time,” Swoboda said. “We’ve all been at different places in our careers, but we’ve talked about it and helped each other through that process. And we still talk.”

For Swoboda, he was the last to officially enter the portal and only entered his name at the end of December. He was looking for a school that had a more running-based offense so he could develop as a run blocker. The Orlando native also wanted to play closer to home.

Bissinger also said he was excited to return to his native Texas and was eager to pursue a master’s degree in business administration from SMU.

(USC declined to provide Haskins for an interview for this story.)

Oluwatimi began his college career in the Air Force before joining UVa. He arrived in Charlottesville as a low profile prospect. He left as a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, awarded annually to college football’s top center.

After entering his name into the portal, Oluwatimi attracted great interest in recruitment for the first time. But it didn’t take long for him to decide where he wanted to go next. Michigan had the football style, fan support, and national title aspirations he craved.

“I always expect to win,” said Oluwatimi. “In Virginia I expected to win. … I always thought I had the talent to be on a team that could win the national championship and make a big contribution.”

Virginia hired Tony Elliott to replace Mendenhall in mid-December. But by that point, the linemen had already decided on a transfer. Elliott, a former Clemson offensive coordinator, said one of his few regrets after the transition was not having a chance to re-recruit the four linemen that were substituted.

“I really didn’t get a lot of opportunity because as soon as I got there the guys were like, ‘Nice to meet you, but I plan on moving on,'” Elliott said. “It just happened so late in the cycle. So they have to make these decisions relatively early on to ensure they secure their place in other places.”

Said Oluwatimi, “Virginia really wasn’t a big option when I entered the portal,” he said. “I thought I did everything I could in Virginia and I thought that whatever lay ahead was another opportunity for me to achieve my goal.”

The group left another rebuilding job for line coach Garret Tujague. The team lost all six players that started in multiple games in 2021. Guard Chris Glaser and tackle Ryan Nelson turned pro.

“I wasn’t surprised at all. I kinda know what was going on with all of them,” said Virginia senior tackle Derek Devine. “I firmly believe that when you sign up for a scholarship at a university, you sign up for four years and then after those four years you make the best decision for yourself. They are my best friends and I think they made great decisions. I would like to still have them here and I miss them, but I think they made great decisions.”

In the end, the group said their experience playing for Mendenhall and UVa helped prepare them for new goals.

“Under Coach Mendenhall and this staff, the things we did at UVa were extremely tough, and for a reason,” Bissinger said. “Once you get through four years under Bronco, with all the stuff we did off-season, when you gave it your all and then you go to a different school, the transition will always be seamless.”

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