By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The cumbersome brace he wore on his right knee last season? University of Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert has shed that device, much to his delight.
“It’s very restrictive, especially in games, so I’m glad I don’t have to wear that thing any more,” Benkert said.
“It’s tough. If you slide a certain way and you get it caught in the ground, you’ve got to readjust it, and it weighs a pound and a half or two pounds, so it’s just heavier.”
That’s not the only change for Benkert, who transferred from East Carolina to UVA after the 2015-16 academic year. After carrying 235 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame in the fall, he’s down to about 218.
“I feel a lot better when I’m lighter, with lower body fat,” Benkert said.
In August 2015, Benkert was named ECU’s starting quarterback. Six days before the Pirates’ opener, however, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Benkert missed the 2015 season after having reconstructive surgery.
He was a full participant during UVA’s training camp last August and earned the starting job. But he’s in a much better place physically now than he was in 2016.
“I feel like I’m getting really, really close to being almost as fast as I was before my injury,” Benkert said. “The past few months have been really huge for me. Having, obviously, the month off [after] the season helped me heal up a lot, and I’m just trying to do everything I can to be as athletic as possible.”
In Virginia’s third game last season, a 13-10 loss at Connecticut, the right-handed Benkert hurt his left shoulder on a play during which he was sacked. The injury did not require surgery, but his shoulder bothered him for the rest of the season.
“It’s getting better,” Benkert said. “The pain is pretty much for the most part gone.”
On a team that finished 2-10 in its first season under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, Benkert started the first 10 games. Matt Johns, the Cavaliers’ starter in 2015, took over at QB against Georgia Tech in Atlanta, and then he and Benkert split time in the season finale at Virginia Tech.
Benkert finished the season 228-of-406 passing for 2,552 yards and 21 touchdowns. He also threw 11 interceptions, several of which came on ill-advised passes.
“I would say looking back [on the season], the highs were really high,” Benkert said. “I feel like there’s a good ceiling with my abilities and everything. I can be a really productive player.
“The lows [were the result of] making bad situations worse. That’s my biggest coaching point going into this next season: to not dig us into a hole and not do these certain things, but really just play to my strengths.
“I don’t have to do everything on my own, and I realize that I don’t have to make the great play every time. Just take what the defense gives me.”
Mendenhall’s decision to bench him in favor of Johns against Georgia Tech was not “really a blow to my confidence as much as it was a reality check of how fast things can be taken from you,” said Benkert, who’s on track to earn a master’s degree from the Curry School of Education in December.
“I know my abilities. I had some good games and I had some really good plays, even in some bad games. But I know that the ball is the most important thing, protecting the ball at all costs and not being reckless when you’re out there. Some good things happen when you play reckless, but most of the time you’re going to get a bad play.”
Reviewing videotape of Virginia’s 2016 season, Benkert said, has “given me a better sense of confidence going forward that I know what I can do and I know what I bring to the table. It’s just about cleaning things up.”
Spring practice begins late next month for the Cavaliers, who expect to have five scholarship quarterbacks in training camp come August. Only three, however, are at UVA this semester: Benkert and rising redshirt freshmen De’Vante Cross and Sonny Abramson. (Joining them will be incoming freshman Lindell Stone, who’s at Woodberry Forest, and Marvin Zanders, a transfer from Missouri who has two years of eligibility remaining, beginning this fall.)
At this time last year, Benkert was still at ECU, rehabbing his knee and finishing work on his bachelor’s degree in finance. When he arrived in Charlottesville late last spring, he had to learn a new playbook and get to know his new teammates and coaches.
“It’s definitely really challenging,” Benkert said of that experience, especially “learning people’s strengths. Knowing the offense is one thing, but knowing what the offense is like when a certain guy is in is more important than anything. Because if you’re both doing the wrong thing but you’re on the same page, it’s going to work. That’s just how football is. Not everything is going to be perfect, but if you have a feel for the guy that you’re playing with, it’s going to work.
“That was developed more as the year went on, and it’s going to really develop this spring and this offseason. The more time I have with these guys, it’s going to definitely show, and it’s going to pay off … I think being around the system for a second year and the guys for a second year, just going through it all, I think it’s going to be really beneficial for this season.”
ALL IN: The Cavaliers’ top two defensive players — inside linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding — considered leaving early to pursue NFL careers. That they decided to return to UVA for one more season was significant for the program, Benkert said.
“They’re guys you know will have a good career at the next level, and for them to come back, even though it was a 2-10 season, shows that they believe in what the staff is doing,” Benkert said.
“That shows the younger guys [on the team] and people being recruited that if [Blanding and Kiser] decide what we’re building here is important enough to spend another year of their lives here, something special has to be going on here. It wasn’t reflected in the wins, obviously, last year, but it’ll come in time.”
POSITION OF NEED: Donte Wilkins, the starting nose tackle last season in Virginia’s 3-4 defense, is out of eligibility. Wilkins’ departure created a void that Mendenhall hoped to help fill in his 2017 recruiting class, but the Cavaliers did not achieve that goal.
“There wasn’t a true nose that I could just now crown and say, `That was the nose we were looking for to add to our program,’ ” Mendenhall said.
“Didn’t happen … We have some really tough D-linemen coming in that I really, really like, and we’ll look from within our existing pool of who we might be able to convert to a nose, but that would be the one need that, yeah, I still lose a little sleep over that.”
RECRUITING CALENDAR: National signing day for football traditionally has fallen on the first Wednesday in February, but an additional signing period is under consideration for 2017-18.
Players who are ready to sign in mid December may be able to do so, and Mendenhall hopes the new legislation goes into effect.
Mendenhall said he estimates that “80 to 85 percent of my classes have always been committed before the season. That would allow them to choose or to make it official in December, which is just a relief for everyone, quite frankly, by then.”
By December, many recruits have already given non-binding commitments, but that doesn’t stop other schools from trying to lure them away.
“We are having to put more time and resources and [continue] visiting them to protect them and treat them like they are wanted, which they are, all the way through February,” Mendenhall said, “when it’s really not necessary. Most are ready to just move on with it.
“So I think fiscally it makes sense. I think maturity-wise it makes sense, and I don’t think it accelerates anything earlier than what’s already in place. That’s why I like that. And I think it would cut down on the drama for some schools. However, there are programs that thrive on the drama and love the reality [show] nature of what happens, and there will still be that element [in February].”
VALUABLE RESOURCE: UVA football fans who haven’t seen it already should check out VirginiaSportsTV.com’s Signing Day Special.
The show includes interviews that UVA’s play-by-play announcer, Dave Koehn, conducted with Mendenhall and several assistants, including outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga and secondary coach Nick Howell.
The recruiting class includes two tall players projected as outside linebackers in the Cavaliers’ 3-4 scheme: 6-6, 220-pound Elliott Brown and 6-7, 200-pound Charles Snowden. Both were standout wide receivers last season, too.
Brown, a postgraduate student at the Taft School in Connecticut, is “very long, very athletic,” Poppinga said.
“I just watched him play basketball a couple weeks ago and thought, `Man, I might tell Coach [Tony] Bennett about this guy, because he can really play.’ And we have two guys like that. Charles Snowden is like that as well.
“With Elliott, his biggest thing is just getting to be able to understand coverage drops, and it’ll be the same for Charles. They were more just straight-up, stand-up defensive end guys that were mainly rushing off the edge. They didn’t do much dropping. But then you could see true athleticism when the ball’s in their hand on offense.”
Snowden is a senior at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C.
PERFECT FIT: With such returning players as Kiser, Landan Word, C.J. Stalker, Dominic Sheppard and Jahvoni Simmons, the Cavaliers are well-stocked at inside linebacker. But incoming recruit Matt Gahm will be an intriguing addition at that position.
Gahm is a 6-3, 225-pound senior at Highland Park High in the Dallas area. Gahm helped lead the Scots to a Texas state title in the fall.
“I think what Virginia fans are going to find out really quick,” Poppinga said, “is he is one tough guy … He’s 6-3, can run, and he is a tough sucker. And physical, and that’s what you need in a 3-4 defense.
“Physically and mindset-wise, he is the exact guy we were looking for. We had great film of him his junior year, kind of had a good idea of what he could do, and then he shows up to camp [last summer] and totally blew me away. I don’t think I’d ever had a guy come to camp in my coaching career that worked as hard as him and was more impressive to me in just his demeanor and just the way he attacked every rep.
“I was blown away with him, and we had a meeting halfway through the camp and I came to Coach Mendenhall and I said, `We gotta offer this guy right now. He is our guy. He’s our type of guy.’ ”
LEGACY: Among the four players who enrolled at UVA last month was Germane Crowell, who graduated in December from Carver High School in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Crowell has outstanding bloodlines. His father, Germane Crowell Sr., starred at wideout for the Wahoos and finished his college career with 2,142 receiving yards. His uncle Angelo Crowell played linebacker for the `Hoos and ranks third in career tackles at his alma mater.
The younger Crowell, who’s listed at 6-3, 185 pounds, played quarterback and defensive back at Carver, where his father was head coach. Crowell is projected as a cornerback at UVA and is expected to play as a true freshman in the fall.
“I like, obviously, his athleticism,” Howell said. “He was another quarterback in high school, which is something that we value a lot, because of the decision-making, because of the ball-handling, the effect that they have on the game.
“His pedigree is great. He’s a very focused kid … Hopefully his athleticism, coupled with the right mindset, is going to get him helping us early.”