By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Inside the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility, the first-team quarterback wore an orange jersey, as usual. But for the first time all season, the number on that jersey this week was 15.
Matt Johns, one of the most well-respected players on the University of Virginia football team, is back in a role with which he’s familiar.
“It’s been fun,” he said after practice Wednesday morning.
Johns started every game for the Cavaliers in 2015. In December, though, Bronco Mendenhall took over as head coach, and he installed a spread offense similar to the one Kurt Benkert played in at East Carolina.
Benkert transferred from ECU to UVA at the end of the 2015-16 academic year. At Virginia, he won the starting job early in training camp.
“Kurt had a really good preseason, and he was really comfortable with this offense,” recalled Johns, a graduate student from Chalfont, Pa.
In recent weeks, however, Benkert, who wears jersey No. 6, has struggled and his decision-making has slipped. And so Mendenhall, after watching Benkert’s performance Saturday against Miami at Scott Stadium, decided a change was needed.
Johns has “earned the chance through not only his career here but the season in leading our scout-team offense and how unselfish he’s been battling his way back into contention at quarterback,” Mendenhall said at his weekly press conference.
“And I think it’s not only the right thing to do, I think it’s the fair thing to do. I think it’s the best thing for our team. I also think it’s the best thing to do for Kurt. I think he’ll grow and develop more so by playing this role for a little bit. And I have to let Matt have his chance.”
Mendenhall wants Benkert, a graduate student who’s a junior in football eligibility, to take a step back, to watch and learn from the sideline. That’s essentially what Johns did for the first two-plus months of the season, and the perspective he gained was valuable.
“You learn from every experience, positive or negative, good throw or bad throw,” Johns said. “I think I learned how to be decisive within this offense, which is something that’s very key to success. Hopefully that pays off on Saturday.”
At Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta, Virginia (2-8, 1-5) meets Coastal Division foe Georgia Tech (6-4, 3-4) at 12:30 p.m. in a game the ACC Network will televise.
This offense differs significantly from the one he ran last season, Johns said. “When it was a new system to me at first, in the spring, mentally I knew the plays, but once you get on the field it’s a different type of experience. I think standing back and watching it has helped me get some mental reps and move forward.”
Mendenhall informed Johns and Benkert of his decision at a meeting Monday morning.
A quarterback change can create “a difficult situation,” Johns said, “but we’re both mature enough and have enough experience that we understand that sometimes this comes along with the sport that we play.”
In his first season as a starter, Benkert has completed 219 of 380 passes for 2,430 yards and 20 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions. He lost two fumbles against Miami last weekend, and Johns replaced him in the fourth quarter.
When he learned of his demotion, Benkert “was disappointed, just as anyone would be that’s a competitor,” Mendenhall said. “But my simple message to him is: I love him, I believe in him and this is still the beginning, not the end. Meaning that I’m investing in his growth as much as I’m investing in Matt Johns’ growth.
“I think [Benkert] will be better because of stepping back. I don’t think he could continue under the same circumstances and make the jump that’s necessary. There needs to be a stepping back and reassessing and reframing before he goes back in.”
Johns said Benkert is “a very confident and poised guy, and it’s been a lot of fun working with him. Hopefully this will help him grow and be ready for next year.”
On a UVA team that finished 4-8 last season — one of those victories came against Georgia Tech — Johns completed 247 of 403 passes for 20 touchdowns, with 17 interceptions.
During spring practice this year, Johns battled another fifth-year senior, Connor Brewer, for the starting job. Brewer, who came to UVA in 2015 after stops at Texas and Arizona, was more familiar with the spread offense, and he went into this season as Benkert’s backup.
As the No. 3 quarterback, Johns found himself working with the scout team during practice. During games, he was the holder on extra points and field goals, but otherwise he stayed on the sideline.
“It was a big drop,” Johns acknowledged.
Still, he never pouted or complained. For support, Johns leaned on teammates and coaches, among them Marques Hagans, a former UVA quarterback who now oversees the team’s wide receivers.
“Coach Hagans is a guy who always says, `Trust in the process,’ ” Johns said Wednesday. “So the first week against Richmond I’m the third-string quarterback, but I’m preparing like I’m the starter. I’m in the film room four days a week, Monday through Thursday, and then Friday you’re just cleaning up on some things. And I’m preparing as if I’m going to play, even though I know at third string there’s probably a zero percent chance of me playing.
“However, I think that’s what led me to be successful on scout team. I was able to be confident and just throw the ball like I know I can. So once I went to scout team and was performing pretty well, I think that was because of my preparation.”
It was important for him, Johns said, not to become a divisive presence in the locker room.
“I’ve been on this team for five years now, and I’ve seen players be cancerous to a culture that doesn’t need that,” Johns said. “And it’s not like I do it just because we didn’t need it. I wanted to set an example for the younger guys that when adversity hits, if you just keep going and keep going and keep going, something positive will come out of it.
“It may not always be playing again, but there will be some type of experience that you can take away from the adversity that you face.”
On a trick play, Johns threw a touchdown pass to tight end Evan Butts against North Carolina on Oct. 22 at Scott Stadium. Until the Miami game, though, Johns had not played quarterback this season. He finished 3-for-7 passing (for 64 yards) against the Hurricanes on an afternoon when receivers dropped three of his throws.
As a redshirt sophomore in 2014, Johns split time with Grayson Lambert, who transferred to Georgia last year. He’s anything but untested, then, as he prepares to face the Yellow Jackets.
“This is a little bit different experience, because I haven’t played all year, but I have started 15 games in the past two years, excluding this season,” Johns said. “It’s just a different feel, but I think having the experience from the past couple years is beneficial going into this situation, in terms of knowing how to attack a game plan and move forward to be successful on Saturday.”
Johns “is an amazing human being and a really good player and a good leader,” Mendenhall said. “I think our team recognizes that, and no one wants success for him more than his teammates.”
That’s no exaggeration. Asked Monday about Johns, senior linebacker Zach Bradshaw said, “I’m really happy for him that he has this opportunity. If there’s anyone on the team that deserves it, it’s him … He hasn’t complained once.”
Virginia closes the regular season Nov. 26 against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. No matter what happens on the next two Saturdays, the `Hoos won’t be eligible for a bowl. Even so, Johns said, these are important games for the program.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s building the platform and the culture that we’ve been talking about for the past 10 weeks. It’s building that culture so it’s sustainable for a long period of time. We’re playing to win.”