By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — To University of Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall and his assistants, it became apparent during spring practice last year that running back was one of the team’s deepest and most talented positions.
The staff realized, though, that reinforcements would be needed soon. Speed backs Taquan Mizzell and Albert Reid would exhaust their college eligibility at the end of the 2016 season, as would big back Connor Wingo-Reeves. And so the coaches made running back a priority as they assembled the Cavaliers’ recruiting class for 2017.
“They’re all productive,” Mendenhall told reporters during his press conference Wednesday at John Paul Jones Arena, “and we need production, not only in terms of rushing but receiving. And we need players that are capable of making plays at the ACC level and doing it consistently to help us generate more points. That has to happen.”
The Cavaliers finished 2-10 in 2016, their first season under Mendenhall, and ranked 12th among ACC teams in total offense, 12th in scoring offense and 14th in rushing offense.
“So not only did we feel urgency to replace [Mizzell and Reid], but we’re also doing it with youth,” Mendenhall said. “And so how fast we can get these youthful players out of high school now up to speed and maturing, to even have a chance to fill those roles, it’s vital.”
Hamm, a rising senior who excelled as a punt-returner last season, is a speed back, and Ellis, a rising junior, is more of a big back. They had limited roles in the Wahoos’ offense in 2016.
Taking direct snaps in the Wildcat formation, Hamm carried three times for 4 yards and one TD. Ellis ran 14 times for 61 yards and one TD.
Virginia’s primary ball-carrier was Mizzell, who rushed 187 times for 940 yards and five touchdowns. He also distinguished himself in the passing game, with 52 receptions for 404 yards and two TDs.
Reid carried the ball 98 times for 480 yards and six touchdowns last season, and he caught six passes for 48 yards and another score.
“Albert and Smoke were two of the most consistent and most productive players on our team and in our program,” Mendenhall said at the McCue Center in December. “And so we need Daniel and Jordan to have great offseasons and great springs, and there’ll be a youth movement also. I think you’re going to see everybody [in the fall].”
The 5-11, 200-pound Atkins graduated in December from Lake Braddock High School in Northern Virginia. He was named the state’s Gatorade player of the year after rushing for 1,905 yards and 31 touchdowns last season. He averaged 12 yards per carry in 2016 and left Lake Braddock as the school’s all-time leading rusher (3,656 yards).
Kier, also listed at 5-11, 200 pounds, is a senior at Millbrook High in Winchester. He rushed 141 times for 1,194 yards (8.5 per carry) and 15 touchdowns last season. One of his uncles, Mark Cooke, played football at UVA for head coach George Welsh, and Kier’s cousin Cory Alexander is a former UVA basketball star.
Peacock, at 6-0, 245 pounds, is from Yulee High in Florida, the school that produced running back Derrick Henry, who at Alabama won the Heisman Trophy in 2015.
“We think they’re all versatile,” Mendenhall said. “Jamari gives us a big back that can run, much like Albert, except bigger, with probably an ability and a background of carrying the football more. He’s very difficult to tackle, and he gives you a big back. In a single-back offense, that could be a unique challenge for people.”
Also, Mendenhall said, Peacock could line up in the backfield alongside “maybe Lamont or PK, and there’s two different types of ball-carriers at the same time. PK and Lamont are both capable of catching it out of the backfield well, running for power and running for speed. So versatility is what I would say collectively about the group.”
Among the linemen blocking for the running backs will be at least one graduate transfer. The class includes Colin McGovern, who played in 21 games for Notre Dame.
The 6-4, 310-pound McGovern, who’s from New Lenox, Ill., started eight games at right guard for the Fighting Irish in 2016. He’ll enroll at UVA after this semester ends.
Any time he adds a graduate transfer, Mendenhall said, it’s because “we need someone to contribute at a high level right away. Ideally, it would be [as] a starter.”
Transfers come to UVA, Mendenhall said, “because they see a need … They are not promised anything, other than a chance to compete. I want to make that clear … They are being promised a chance to earn a spot on the team, but the need is there for us to have a starter or a rotational player at a minimum.”