By BRIAN HUNSICKER
At 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds, Justin McElfish is one of the biggest players on the University of Richmond football team. Players like that are usually found at offensive tackle, bulldozing for the running game at the point of attack or opening throwing lanes for the quarterback.
But life on the outside wasn’t to be for McElfish, who enters his final season as one of the Spiders’ starting guards.
McElfish, an Osbourn Park graduate, remembers when the coaching staff made the decision to move him inside and the minimal impact it had on him.
“I got moved two springs ago. They wanted the bigger guys inside and, probably being one of heaviest guys, they wanted us on the inside,” McElfish explained. “They told me I was going on the inside, and that’s fine.”
While McElfish’s new position is just a few feet from his old one, it’s a world apart in what happens. Playing guard requires pulling abandoning the spot where the guard lined up to block elsewhere. The position also sees much more immediate action. Against a defense with four down linemen, the tackle will have a moment before engaging the defensive end. The guard, meanwhile, will be hit as soon as the ball is snapped.
The move has paid off. Although McElfish wasn’t on any post-season honors lists after last year, he begins this year as a preseason Division I-AA all-American and a preseason first-team All-Atlantic 10 selection.
And the expectations of those involved with the team are just as high as those that come from outside of the program.
“I’m expecting just his best year ever, right here,” Spiders’ head coach Jim Reid said. “He has to be a better pass blocker, and that’s the only thing he needs to play on the next level. As far as work ethic, the want to be a great player, the guy’s marvelous.”
McElfish will get chances to work on his pass sets. Despite some inexperience at quarterback, the Spiders, who finished 3-8 last year with a 3-6 mark in the Atlantic 10, will feature more passing this season.
The tools that McElfish already has his size and his athleticism will likely make the physical aspect of learning easier. And his position coach believes there isn’t much of a problem with his mental abilities, either.
“His strength is his athleticism. He’s one of, if not the best athletes that I’ve coached on the line since 1997,” said Richmond offensive line coach Frank Leonard, who has coached at the school since 1994. His first year was spent as offensive line coach before he moved to running backs coach in 1995. Leonard moved back to the line in 1997.
“He’s very athletic. And he’s very bright, he’s extremely intelligent. He sees what the whole picture is, and not a lot of guys are always able to do that.”
McElfish is part of an offensive line that returns three starters. McElfish, at left guard, is the most notable, but both tackles return as well. The spots left over center and right guard will be filled by players who saw some time last season.
McElfish has started all of the Spiders’ games over the past two seasons, played in five games as a sophomore, and redshirted as a freshman.
He says he doesn’t have any personal expectations for the season, but team goals are a different matter.
“I don’t have any expectations for myself, but as a team we’ll do as well as we can,” said McElfish, who is the son of Manassas Park defensive coordinator Joe McElfish.
“We’ve got a lot of potential, and hopefully we’ll do really well. I’ll play as hard as I can.
“It’s hard to say [how the team will fare], we’ve got a lot of potential. We’ll do as well as we want to do. We’ll have a great season if everybody comes together.”
If Reid is to be believed, McElfish’s football career won’t end with the Spiders’ last game of the season, whether it’s the scheduled finale at William & Mary on Nov. 23 or a trip to the I-AA playoffs. If the past is any indicator, McElfish has a three-to-one shot at being taken in the NFL Draft. Of the 17 seniors on last year’s I-AA all-American team, six were selected in the 2002 NFL Draft.
But just like the move two and a half years ago from tackle to guard, McElfish isn’t worried just yet about moving after the Spiders’ season.
“When I look at it,” McElfish said, “I take it for what it’s worth.”