His move across the country from Stanford to Virginia was anything but conventional.
New Cavaliers offensive line coach Terry Heffernan didn’t have a previous relationship with Hoos coach Tony Elliott or offensive coordinator Des Kitchings. Heffernan needed to do a little campaigning for the job he landed, too.
“No connection, which is very uncommon in our business,” Heffernan said Friday. “Usually, you get hired places where your friends work or they can vouch for you.”
But Heffernan was freely available following former Stanford coach David Shaw’s decision to step down from his post following a 12-year run at the helm of the Cardinal. So, Heffernan, upon learning the responsibility of O-Line coach at UVa had opened, decided to show his interest.
“It was really more me pursuing it and trying to get my name in it,” Heffernan said, “trying to make contact with people I didn’t have a direct connection with and fortunately, it worked out to where I was able to get Coach Kitchings and Coach Elliott on the phone. And it kind of grew from there.”
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He’s one of two new on-field staffers Elliott hired since the end of this past season.
Heffernan filled the void left by former offensive line coach Garett Tujague, who departed for the same role at N.C. State, and Cavaliers offensive analyst Adam Mims was quickly promoted to wide receivers coach following former longtime assistant Marques Hagans’ jump last month to Penn State.
Unlike the getting-to-know-each-other process Elliott and Kitchings had to go through with Heffernan, they didn’t have to do the same with Mims — a former Furman star who played there for Elliott.
Still, Mims said he didn’t have an inclination about whether or not he’d be elevated to wide receivers coach. Prior to joining Elliott’s staff in Charlottesville, Mims had worked as a wide receivers coach at FCS Chattanooga and Tennessee Tech.
“I hoped and prayed I would,” Mims said, “but I had no clue what direction Coach E was going to go in. Of course, we had a prior relationship, but you never know in this business. And so, one piece of advice I’d always been given is to, ‘Grow where your feet are and in whatever capacity it is, to be the best you can be.’ And in my role last year, that’s what I tried to do.”
As an offensive analyst last season, his responsibilities included working with Hagans and the wide receivers as well as developing practice plans and game plans.
Now, he and Heffernan both have a critical task — boost and teach their respective young position groups.
At receiver, the Hoos are without accomplished pass-catchers Dontayvion Wicks, Keytaon Thompson and Billy Kemp IV. Wicks is off to the NFL. Thompson graduated and Kemp transferred to Nebraska. So, Mims’ core of wide receivers most notably features JR Wilson, Malachi Fields and Demick Starling — three players that combined for 16 catches in 2022 — in addition to Northwestern transfer Malik Washington.
The three returners didn’t play much until late this past fall.
“I think it makes things fun,” Mims said, “because guys are having to really compete and that’s the one thing that I can say I’ve seen over the last three, four weeks is that in the weight room and during Wahoo drills, they enjoy being around each other but there’s healthy competition because I think every one of them wants to prove something. That’s one thing we’ve talked about is having a chip on our shoulders and playing like they have to prove something.”
He said the issues the Cavaliers had at receiver last season were for a variety of reasons. Some were on the receivers themselves, according to Mims, who noted some were also due to the quarterback not putting the ball exactly where it needed to be and some were chalked up to the first year of everyone learning a new offense.
But he said those pass-catchers who return are already showing better understanding of the offense ahead of spring practice, which begins next month, and they are taking ownership of what went wrong last year.
“We have capable bodies and capable guys of doing it,” Mims said, “so it’s just getting to work and focusing on the little things, and if we really take heat on those little things it’ll turn into big production.”
On the O-Line and because Heffernan doesn’t have the yearlong rapport with the offensive linemen that Mims has with his receivers, Heffernan said he feels it’s critical for him to give his players a clean slate.
UVa brings back McKale Boley, Noah Josey, Ty Furnish and Jestus Johnson, who each started at least once up front last year, but other than those four, the group lacks serious game reps.
“And there are certainly challenges as an offensive line coach when you’re coaching young players,” Heffernan said, “because they just don’t have the time on task. They haven’t felt it. You can put it up on a TV screen or send it to them on their iPad, but it’s something different to have felt the defensive end cross your face and then you work up to the backside linebacker or whatever. It’s my task to get those guys as many reps as humanly possible to have those feelings and be prepared for the challenges coming.”
He said he’ll do so through plenty of reps in the spring, when he’ll move guys around to see where they best fit, even though typically he prefers to keep offensive linemen in the same spots during practice in order to help the group build cohesion. But in coaching them for the first time, he’ll need the 15 practices to figure out where on the front his players perform at their top level.
Heffernan said there are also ways schematically to aid a younger offensive line, and that to this point, he’s been able to have open dialogue with Elliott and Kitchings about the system.
In addition to his time at Stanford, Heffernan had stints in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions.
“If you think about Coach Shaw’s time at Stanford,” Heffernan said, “you think about lots of tight ends on the field and big personnel groupings and running power. And we still had some of that in our offense a year ago, but we had some really talented receivers, so we ran some 11 personnel and spread out, so there are a fair amount of similarities there.
“But beyond that,” he continued, “with the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions or some of my other stops, there’s not a scheme that we will run this year that I haven’t run before somewhere.”
The veteran assistant is entering his 20th season in coaching, and he said discussions about the scheme began during the interview process with Elliott and Kitchings.
“His experience coming from that run-game aspect with Stanford is really going to help,” Elliott said, “and also his experience in the NFL. But also, in the interview process we had a chance to talk about pass protection and things of that nature, and I think he’s got a wealth of experience in that area.”
Heffernan said what he took away from interviewing with Elliott is that the second-year UVa boss was looking for someone who could work well within the program, too.
“Some of it was schematic,” Heffernan said, “but more of it was who you are as a person and what things are important to you as a coach, which at the end of the day I agree, that’s more important. Anyone can learn scheme, but are you the right fit in what they’re looking for? As a candidate, you’re trying to figure out a little bit about what they’re looking for, but I’m past the point in my career of trying to represent myself as something that I’m not. If someone wants me for the type of coach that I am, I’m really excited about that, but I can’t fake it.”
Heffernan is a match from a recruiting perspective, he said, too, having recruited at Stanford where academic standards are high like at UVa.
He said he’ll recruit south-central Virginia in addition to Nashville and Knoxville, Tenn., as well as the private and parochial schools in the Northeast. Heffernan said he’ll go where linemen prospects are, too. Mims said he’ll mostly recruit the Carolinas, but also dip into his hometown of Birmingham, Ala.