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May 3, 2017

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — The NFL held its draft last week in Philadelphia, and University of Virginia linebacker Micah Kiser followed the proceedings from afar. But he didn’t waste time pondering what might have been.

Kiser, an All-American in 2016, could have passed up his final year of college elibility to pursue his NFL dream, but he opted to return for head coach Bronco Mendenhall‘s second season at UVA. All-America safety Quin Blanding made the same choice.

“Once I made that decision,” Kiser said Tuesday, “it was kind of out of my mind, and I was just worrying about this college season and just being the best I can be for this team.

“I didn’t watch the draft thinking, `Wow, that could have been me,’ because I’d already made that decision, and I was at peace with that decision.”

The Cavaliers’ 15th and final practice of the spring was Saturday at Scott Stadium, where fans saw the full-contact work that marked the team’s spring sessions.

“I think it went really well,” Kiser said of spring practice. “A lot of guys emerged and stepped up on the offensive side of the ball, especially at the running back position. And then on defense, I think we took a step forward, for sure.

“Last year it was pretty much just laying a foundation [on defense]. This year we really hit the ground running. I think our nickel package is a little stronger than our base package right now, but we’ll just keep working on that. A lot of young guys are stepping up.”

Apart from a 65-yard touchdown run by junior Jordan Ellis, most of the offense’s big plays Saturday came against the Wahoos’ second-team defense.

“Overall we played pretty well,” Kiser said of the first group. “We could have done a little bit better on first down, but we made strides with that first unit all spring. We’re playing together pretty well, and me and Quin are always on the same page, so keeping that together has been great for us.”

Kiser, who led the ACC in tackles last season, knows he can improve. His focus in his final year at UVA, he said, is “being able to take on blockers better and play in space better. And then knowing the defense a little bit better, so I can play faster. That’s kind of where I get my edge, because I’m not the biggest, strongest, most athletic freak out there, but I’m really smart. So if I can use that to my advantage, I can keep making more plays.”

Director of football performance Frank Wintrich’s summer program will start next month when the players, after some time at home, reconvene in Charlottesville. Kiser said the Cavaliers are much further along than at this time last year.

“We’re just more familiar with everything in the program, whether it be Coach Wintrich, Coach Mendenhall’s expectations, or our position coaches’ expectations,” Kiser said. “So you can hit the ground running. You don’t really need to think. You’re not as apprehensive about things. It’s just, `This is what we do and this is how we do it.’ “

SMOOTH TRANSITION: Jordan Mack started nine games at outside linebacker as a true freshman last fall, when he was listed at 205 pounds. The 6-4 Mack is now up to about 230 pounds, and he’s moved to inside linebacker, where he starts alongside Kiser in Virginia’s 3-4 defense.

“His transformation really started in the winter,” Kiser said. “Pound for pound, he’s probably our strongest linebacker right now.

“He’s just a very good athlete. He could play safety, he could play outside, he can play inside. Having him inside adds speed. His speed is unmatched by all of us in our [position] room. And then he’s just a really smart kid and he wants to learn. He’s just been a sponge asking questions.”

The most improved player on the defense this spring? Kiser cast his vote for rising junior Myles Robinson, who started three games at cornerback last fall before suffering a season-ending injury. Robinson has been moved to safety and had an interception Saturday at Scott Stadium.

“With the switch to safety, he’s coming down and he’s hitting people,” Kiser said. “It was a really good spring for him, and he’s really physical.”

HEAVY LOAD: Kurt Benkert took every snap at quarterback during the spring finale at Scott Stadium, after which he was asked if he needed to ice down his right arm.

“I need to ice down my whole body,” Benkert said, smiling.

After graduating from East Carolina in the spring of 2016, the right-handed Benkert transferred to UVA, where he won the starting job in training camp. He played much of the season with an injured left shoulder, and his performance was uneven.

Benkert completed 228 of 406 passes for 2,552 yards and 21 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions.

What’s different about Benkert this spring, Mendenhall said, are his “consistency, maturity and experience and poise, and health.

“We were just beginning a year ago. The decisions he makes are better, and the execution of our team in relation to a year ago at this same time is stronger significantly, but there’s still a lot of work to do. But he is — I would say like a lot of our team — more seasoned, more experienced and more capable in terms of consistency.”

The 6-4 Benkert has lost about 20 pounds since the end of last season, and he shed the brace that protected the knee in which he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in the summer of 2015.

Don’t expect Benkert to suddenly morph into a running quarterback, said his position coach, Jason Beck, “but it just gives him a little quicker step, so when needed he can move in the pocket a little better, extend plays on the edges a little better. With that better, leaner body, he’s just a little more explosive.”

Benkert completed numerous long passes last season. He also forced throws that were intercepted, mistakes that often doomed the ‘Hoos. For the team’s record to improve — Virginia finished 2-10 last season — Benkert must cut down on those errors.

“It comes down to that quarterback in that moment making the right decision,” Beck said, “and a lot of times a sack or a three-and-out is the best decision, because you can punt the ball and move on to the next series, and you don’t have that big negative play that hurts your team. And so as we address that whole big picture, really it comes down to a couple of those plays at the quarterback spot, and making the right decision [against] pressure.”

REINFORCEMENTS COMING: Virginia will have two more quarterbacks by the time training camp opens in August: incoming freshman Lindell Stone, who’s finishing his senior year at Woodberry Forest; and Marvin Zanders, a transfer from Missouri who has two seasons of eligibility left.

The 6-1, 200-pound Zanders, a dual-threat quarterback, will be immediately eligible at UVA.

“We really feel great about getting Marvin, a two-year player,” Beck said. “It gives us that depth, gives us that time to develop him, and now it’s just [a matter of] getting him up to speed as quick as possible.”

In 2016, Zanders completed 10 of 12 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown for Missouri. He ran 35 times for 198 yards and two TDs.

Zanders will graduate from Missouri this month and start summer school at UVA next month. He’s been studying film and learning the Cavaliers’ playbook.

“He has a pretty good [academic] load he’s taking to be able to graduate early, so it’s just balancing that,” Beck said. “Once he gets here in the summer, then it’ll really hit full speed ahead.”

De’Vante Cross, who redshirted as a freshman at UVA last fall, took some snaps at quarterback this spring, but he’s expected to work primarily at wide receiver in training camp.

“He’s a good athlete, and so he’s able to help our offense at other spots,” Beck said. “So we’ve been developing him to be able to play at those other spots and contribute to our offense.

“It’s just the idea of getting our best 22 guys on the field. He is athletically one of those guys.”

STEPPING UP: Jordan Ellis, who’ll be a redshirt junior in the fall, served notice this spring that he’s ready to take over as the Cavaliers’ primary ball-carrier.

Most of the carries last season went to Taquan Mizzell and Albert Reid, who were seniors.

“He’s very physical, he’s very consistent, and there’s no drama,” Mendenhall said of Ellis. “It’s all about work with him. He can run over you. He’s a single-cut back who runs with physical presence, and he’s just so consistent.”

Ellis rushed 14 times for 65 yards and one touchdown last season. Rising senior Daniel Hamm figures to have the ball in his hands a lot this fall, too. Asked about the offense’s standouts this spring, Kiser singled out Ellis and said Hamm “also did a really good job.”

The coaches “used [Hamm] in a lot of different ways,” Kiser said, “as a wide receiver taking end-around snaps, as a running back, as a quarterback in the wildcat look.”

HIGH PRAISE: Last season was Mendenhall’s first with Ruffin McNeill as a colleague, and it made an indelible impression on the Cavaliers’ head coach.

McNeill, who oversees Virginia’s defensive line, also has the title of assistant head coach. He spent six seasons as head coach at East Carolina before joining Mendenhall’s staff at UVA.

“Ruffin McNeill is possibly the best human being that I’ve ever been around in the world of coaching,” Mendenhall said. “He’s compassionate, he’s caring, he’s insightful, he’s wise, and he’s just genuine and authentic and has the players and the program and his colleagues’ best interest at heart.”

McNeill “has a way to connect with young people that’s unlike anything that I’ve seen,” Mendenhall said. “And he’s so much fun to be around. But he’s also so wise, and he has head coaching experience.

“He and I are different personalities but are united in purpose, so with Coach Ruff, I have the ability to cast a broader net across our team in connecting to players and having our message delivered just simply by unique personality differences between us, and I love that complement. I cherish every single day that I get to be with him. He’s an amazing person, and I couldn’t imagine actually coaching now without him.”

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