Sept. 2, 2016

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — He expects to feel some nerves Saturday, especially during the short bus ride to Scott Stadium. That’s typical for Kurt Benkert on game day, but any anxiety has always proved temporary for him.

“As soon I start doing football-related stuff, it goes away,” Benkert said Thursday.

Less than five months after graduating from East Carolina, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in finance in three-and-a-half years, Benkert is about to make his debut as a Virginia Cavalier.

The 6-4, 230-pound Benkert, who has two seasons of eligibility left, will start at quarterback Saturday when UVA opens against Richmond in a 3:30 p.m. game at Scott Stadium.

The opener is nearly here, but “as I go throughout my day, there’s so much that goes on that I’m not really thinking about how many days are left,” Benkert said. “But there’s a lot of excitement and anticipation building up.”

Benkert hasn’t played in a game since Jan. 3, 2015, when ECU lost 28-20 to Florida in the Birmingham Bowl in Alabama. In a brief appearance, Benkert carried two times for six yards and did not attempt a pass.

Leading that ECU team, of course, was Ruffin McNeill. He was head coach at his alma mater for six seasons before ECU dismissed him in December, after which McNeill joined Bronco Mendenhall‘s new staff at UVA.

When Benkert decided this year that he wanted a new start at another school, McNeill’s presence in Charlottesville helped make Virginia an attractive option. McNeill is the Cavaliers’ assistant head coach and also oversees the defensive line.

“Coach Ruff deserves a lot of credit for the training Kurt received [at ECU] and the preparation he received and probably for him being at UVA,” Mendenhall said Monday. “The staff calls Coach Ruff our most valuable coach because of Kurt.”

Benkert, who grew up in Baltimore and Cape Coral, Fla., enrolled at ECU in January 2013 and redshirted that fall.

In 2014, he appeared in three games and competed 8 of 10 passes for 58 yards, with one interception. He also rushed five times for 23 yards and two touchdowns that season.

In August 2015, he won the starting job at ECU, but six days before the team’s opener he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Reconstructive surgery followed, and Benkert missed last season. He returned to participate in spring practice this year but found he wasn’t as content after the coaching change at East Carolina.

He moved to Charlottesville in early May with his then-fiancée, Samantha Morreal — they were married in July — and started learning the Cavaliers’ playbook. Offensive coordinator Robert Anae and quarterbacks coach Jason Beck came to UVA from BYU with Mendenhall, and their no-huddle spread attack is similar to the one McNeill ran at ECU.

“I’m not going to call it a seamless transition, but it’s close,” Mendenhall said.

“Kurt came wanting a challenge, and he came wanting an opportunity, and he came wanting to do hard things. When a player comes with that mindset already, really anything we’ve been able to throw at him, he’s just smiled and said, `That’s why I’m here.’ ”

His short time in Charlottesville, Benkert said, has entailed “a lot of long days and hard work. I’ve really been just taking it one day at a time and enjoying the process and the moment, because it can be taken [away] at any second. I’m just trying to focus on compiling constructive days together.

“Everybody’s got their days where they feel tired and didn’t get enough sleep the night before or what have you.” The torn ACL he suffered in 2015, Benkert said, “kind of helps you realize, `Man, this can be taken really fast.’ And I was on the other end of it where I didn’t have the opportunity to practice because of an injury. It makes you appreciate everything a lot.”

At UVA, Benkert joined a team whose leaders include fifth-year senior Matt Johns, who started every game at quarterback last season. Benkert knew he had to win the respect and trust of his new teammates.

“Going into it, you’ve just got to be yourself,” said Benkert, who turned 21 in July. “You’re not going to try to act any different for a new group of people, but I definitely understood the situation and knew how much people respect Matt and just the type of person that he is. Everyone knows he’s a great person. He does a lot for everyone, and he has my back. He’s excited for this year, just as much as I am.

“I looked at it like, I just need to work hard, keep my head down, [master] the plays as much as I can and just do everything I can to be in the best position to lead. I wasn’t trying to come in and step on people’s toes or be too vocal. But it’s a different mentality once we get on the field. I’m going to speak up, and I’m going to do what I need to do, but it’s not in an overbearing way at all. I’m not trying to be something that I’m not.”

Benkert, who’s enrolled in a master’s program in the Curry School of Education, said he’s grown increasingly comfortable running Anae’s offense.

“Every week there’s been a lot of improvement, especially now that we’re getting into game plans. We know exactly what we’re going into each week and understand what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Benkert, who’ll wear jersey No. 6, as he did at East Carolina.

“The game-planning part is the easiest. At the beginning of camp, feeling out how the coaches wanted the offense to be run was a little bit — not difficult, but it was different. And now we have meetings about it. We know exactly what we’re looking for in each look and what we’re trying to take from the defense, so it’s very clear.”

For much of McNeill’s tenure at ECU, his teams were known for their explosive offenses. Asked to compare the personnel around him now with what he had at East Carolina, Benkert said, “I think the biggest difference is the size. There’s a lot of bigger guys here. The line’s bigger here too. There’s more depth at certain positions, and the running back position is just kind of crazy.”

Virginia returned its top four tailbacks from last season — Taquan Mizzell, Albert Reid, Daniel Hamm and Jordan Ellis — as well as fullback Connor Wingo-Reeves.

“There were always one or two really good running backs at ECU,” Benkert said. “Here, it doesn’t matter who goes in. Everyone’s really explosive. It’s kind of unheard of. And the receivers here are so big. They’re strong guys, they’re smart, they’re in the right spots. It’s going to be fun to see how this team and offense develops as the season goes on, because it’ll look different Week 6 than it does Week 1. We all have really high hopes, and I have a lot of high expectations for it.”

The right-handed Benkert will run the ball on occasion, but his biggest physical asset is his ability to hit receivers all over the field.

“He throws a nice deep ball,” said Kelvin Rainey, a starting safety. “His arm is strong enough to get it where he needs to get it. He makes great decisions when he’s back there as well.””

Benkert said Beck and Anae have done “a good job of figuring out what my strengths are and what I can bring to the offense, and making me aware of my strengths as well. They’ve helped me corral what I’m good at and do it on more of a consistent basis.”

Virginia’s starting center, Jackson Matteo, is also a graduate student. He was asked Monday about Benkert.

“What I like about him as a person is, he’s a hard worker, and he’s always looking to do something extra,” Matteo said. “I heard Coach Mendenhall say this, and it is very cliché, but it’s very true: [Benkert] is quite literally a student of the game. He loves, loves watching film. He loves to see if he can one-up someone in a certain area, and he will. He’ll expose it.

“What I like about him as a player, he’s very complete. I think that he can make all the throws … I’ve seen it. He can really throw the ball. He’s mobile, he’s smart. He can read the defense, and he’s a very good communicator.”

Mizzell led the Wahoos with 75 receptions as a junior last season. He said Benkert meshed easily with the team from the start.

“I don’t think there’s anything he can’t do on the football field,” Mizzell said, “but as a person in the locker room, he fits in with everybody just fine.”

The UR game will be the first Benkert has started as a college quarterback, but “he certainly doesn’t practice or manage practice like he’s a first-time starter,” Mendenhall said.

“I might be surprised game day, but it doesn’t seem like the game is too fast for him, that the stage is too big for him, or that he doesn’t maintain poise. It seems like he’s prepared well and is prepared well for the stage he is going to be on. I’m anxious to monitor that and see it.”

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