By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The University of Virginia football roster will include about two dozen freshmen this fall. They won’t be the only newcomers in head coach Bronco Mendenhall‘s program.
The Cavaliers have added three transfers from other FBS teams this spring: quarterback Kurt Benkert from East Carolina, defensive end Jack Powers from Arizona State, and offensive guard Jared Cohen from North Carolina.
Benkert and Powers will each have two seasons of eligibility at UVA, and Cohen will have three. For a team coming off a 4-8 season, the transfers are welcome additions.
“They’re team-first, high-character guys,” said Ruffin McNeill, Virginia’s assistant head coach. “They’re not afraid to compete.”
Mendenhall came to Virginia in December after 11 seasons as head coach at BYU. Of his nine assistants at UVA, seven were with Mendenhall at BYU last season. The exceptions are McNeill, who coaches the defensive line, and Marques Hagans, who works with the wide receivers.
McNeill, of course, needed no introduction to Benkert. McNeill was head coach at East Carolina, his alma mater, for six seasons before the school dismissed him in December.
“It’s awesome,” Benkert said of being reunited with McNeill. “It’s nice to have a familiar face here already. It just puts the icing on the cake that he’s here.”
Benkert, who graduated from ECU last month with a bachelor’s degree in finance, grew up in Baltimore and Cape Coral, Fla. He enrolled at East Carolina in January 2013 and redshirted that fall.
In 2014, he appeared in three games — one of them against a UNC team whose starters that day included Cohen — and competed 8 of 10 passes for 58 yards, with one interception. The 6-3, 225-pound Benkert also rushed five times for 23 yards and two touchdowns as a redshirt freshman.
In training camp last summer, Benkert won the starting job, but six days before the Pirates’ opener he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Reconstructive surgery followed, and Benkert missed the 2015 season.
“It was tough on him, because he had prepared and waited his turn,” McNeill said. “Kurt is like a gym rat in basketball. He’s like a field house rat.”
Benkert took part in ECU’s spring practice this year, but he found that after the coaching change in Greenville he was eager for a fresh start.
“At the end ECU was just not where I wanted to be,” Benkert said, “and I was looking for a new opportunity and a new place to be that fit my skill set and all that other good stuff that goes into it that decision.”
Quarterback is a “position that sometimes gets too much credit and too much blame,” McNeill said, “but Kurt’s a guy that can handle that. He’s a straight team guy, and he’s been that way since high school. It continued at East Carolina, and it’ll be the same at Virginia.”
Benkert visited UVA about two weeks after ECU’s spring game, and the new coaching staff immediately won him over.
UVA has installed the offense Mendenhall ran at BYU, and it’s similar to what McNeill employed at ECU.
“I would say 70 to 75 percent of the offense is exactly what we ran before [at ECU], and 50 percent of that is the same terminology,” Benkert. “So I know half of it already, just based off of what I’ve done … I’m in a good spot right now.”
Unlike Cohen and Powers, Benkert has already moved to Charlottesville, and he’s been studying the playbook and building relationships with offensive coordinator Robert Anae, one of McNeill’s longtime friends, and quarterbacks coach Jason Beck.
“It’s been really awesome,” Benkert said. “I’m really enjoying how they teach and their approach to everything. It’s been refreshing and something that I’m used to kind of dating back to when Lincoln Riley was my [offensive coordinator] at ECU. They’re laid-back, but they get their work done, and they’re very efficient with time. They kind of have a schedule of how they want me to learn the offense and their ways and terms and all that. So it’s been structured since I stepped in the door.”
Benkert and his fiancÃ©e will be married July 2 in Fort Myers, Fla. About a month later, the Cavaliers will open training camp, and Benkert figures to compete with fifth-year seniors Matt Johns and Connor Brewer for the starting job.
Johns started every game for Virginia last season. Benkert has met the Wahoos’ other quarterbacks and has no doubt the group will work well together.
“We’ve all been around, and we’ve all been through it,” Benkert said. “It’s part of the game. It’s part of how college football is. Everybody understands that. You’re a Division I athlete, and you’re going to have to work hard, and I’m going to have to work hard. It’s just how it is. Everybody competes. No matter how long you’ve been anywhere, nothing’s guaranteed. You have to work hard, just like the next guy.”
Benkert was born in Baltimore, and Cohen, save his year in Chapel Hill, N.C., has spent all of his life in that area.
The 6-4, 305-pound Cohen is from Hampstead, Md., about 30 miles northwest of Baltimore, and attended McDonogh School, whose rivals include Loyola Blakefield, which Benkert attended in the ninth and 10th grades.
A one-time Maryland commitment, Cohen re-opened his recruitment when Penn State offered him a scholarship. But after head coach Bill O’Brien left for the NFL, the Nittany Lions’ interest in Cohen cooled, and with signing day approaching he chose North Carolina.
As a true freshman in 2014, Cohen played in 13 games for UNC, with starts against Clemson and East Carolina.
Still, he said, “I didn’t feel like it was the right place for me, for a variety of reasons. I knew after playing my freshman year and after going through spring ball [in 2015], I had a lot of time left in college and I wanted to find someplace that I was going to be happier.”
On the eve of his sophomore year, Cohen left UNC and returned home. He took classes at Carroll Community College in 2015-16 and received an associate’s degree this month. He plans to major in psychology at UVA.
Cohen said he was pleased with his play for the Tar Heels.
“Obviously as a true freshman coming in you weren’t expecting to be starting games against Clemson and East Carolina,” he said. “So I felt like I did very well. I showed myself that I could perform at that level.”
Like Benkert, Cohen chose Virginia in large part because of the coaching staff, and not only his position coach, Garett Tujague.
“Honestly, I love every single one of those guys,” Cohen said. “They absolutely love what they’re doing, and they have a great attitude about it.”
Virginia’s returning players are still learning Mendenhall’s system, so they shouldn’t have too much of a head start on him, Cohen said.
“All they’ve had is spring ball for the most part,” Cohen said. The opportunity to compete for immediate playing time appealed to him, Cohen said, as did “being able to be a part of the Bronco Mendenhall Era at UVA.”
Powers, like Benkert, will enroll in a master’s program in UVA’s Curry School of Education. Powers is from Salinas, Calif., about 60 miles south of San Jose. He’s finishing work on his bachelor’s degree in business communications from Arizona State.
After redshirting in 2013, Powers appeared in every game for the Sun Devils the next season, primarily on special teams. Arizona State finished 10-3 in 2014.
An offensive lineman at Arizona State, the 6-6, 280-pound Powers will play defensive end at UVA, which has installed the 3-4 scheme that was the trademark of Mendenhall’s teams at BYU.
“I can’t even begin to explain how excited I am [about the position change],” said Powers, who was a standout defensive end at Palma High School.
McNeill said: “We like his size and his mentality. He’s a great fit.”
Powers was strictly a student at Arizona State in 2015-16. On the eve of training camp last summer, he decided to leave the football team.
“I knew that I needed a change,” he said. “I just needed something new.”
As he researched his options, Powers said, “I pretty much reached out to every team in the nation. I got a strong response from Virginia, and I was like, `That’s a great school with new coaches,’ so I was definitely interested.”
He had no connection to UVA or the new staff, but he’d been training with Thurmond Moore, a coach who knew Mendenhall well and recommended him highly to Powers.
“So it’s funny how it worked out,” Powers said.
He has a sister who lives in the D.C. area, and his brother graduated from Catholic University, but Powers had never been to Charlottesville before visiting last month. He can’t wait to start his UVA career.
“It gets me pumped up just thinking about it,” Powers said. “I just feel very, very blessed to have the opportunity, and I’m ready to take full advantage of it.”