Oct. 7, 2017

by Jim Daves

Ask Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert to describe himself in one word and he’ll pick boring.

That’s a bit ironic considering he has quickly established himself as one of the ACC’s most exciting players thanks to his ability to execute arguably the most energizing play in college football.

Call it the Long Ball, the Deep Pass, the Go Route or the Bomb. They all mean the same thing.

Throwing the ball to a wide receiver running at full speed brings a college football crowd to its feet. For the players involved, it features an interesting set of dynamics. UVA wide receivers coach Marques Hagans certainly knows. As a standout wide receiver and quarterback during his college career, he has experienced both ends of the play.

“It is a great feeling,” Hagans said. “It is almost like the ball slows up when it is in the air. It is like time slows down. Everybody is watching, watching, watching and then it comes down and you catch it and it’s like AHHHH and everybody goes crazy and it all speeds back up again.

“As a kid, you always did that; throw the deep ball and catch it. To do it in front of a crowd is a cool feeling. It is one of the coolest plays in college football.”

Like Hagans, Benkert grew up as one of those kind of kids.

“I was always ahead of everybody else throwing the ball deep and how hard I threw the ball,” Benkert said. “I was always trying to be the one to throw the furthest and throw the hardest. When I was in elementary school, during recess, everyone just tried to run as fast as they could, and I’d throw it as far as I could.”

Benkert’s favorite memory of throwing the ball deep came back in a sixth-grade Pop Warner game. On the final play, he hurled a long pass to a teammate from his own 13-yard line for the game-winning score.

“They had already doused their coach on the other sideline, because they were going to go to the playoffs since they were winning,” Benkert said. “Then, we knocked them off that game, and they ended up not going to the playoffs. Their coach had to go home wet and not in the playoffs. That was my favorite part about that.

“I think it was my first touchdown where it was a perfect throw and somebody was covered pretty well.”

He has certainly added to his resume of long throws since then.

In just 15 games at UVA, he has completed six passes of 50-or-more yards. He heads into the Duke match-up with at least one scoring throw in his last eight games and he has passed for at least three touchdowns three times this year. He has 31 passing scores during his career.

The choreography of the long ball starts at practice and in the meeting room.

“He is very meticulous,” says senior wide receiver Andre Levrone. “He puts in the time in the film room. He hones in on his skills. He listens to his coaches. He listens to our opinions as receivers so that we can be on the same page. It’s not all about him. He wants the team to win. He is a selfless guy and he is looking for victories.”

Benkert says the 64-yard toss he threw to Levrone in UVA’s win at Boise State was a defining moment in his career.

“That was probably the best pass I’ve ever thrown, as far as distance and hitting someone in stride, because it was in the air for a long time,” Benkert said. “It’s different because, you can hit someone in stride 30-40 yards down the field, but to be able to hit someone in stride 65 yards is pretty crazy.”

Levrone has a great appreciation for his role in the play.

“It’s about the most five exhilarating seconds in my life,” Levrone said. “He has a cannon for an arm. It’s a beautiful thing to see. Every receiver would love to have a quarterback who can throw the ball as far as he can and as accurately as he can.”

In addition to being able to generate quick scoring strikes, Benkert’s deep-ball skills aid UVA’s overall offensive scheme.

“He keeps the defense honest,” Hagans said. “If you can get the one-on-one matchups you’re looking for, it allows you to move the ball in chunks. It keeps those safeties honest so they can’t fit into the run game. It’s huge to the offense to have a deep threat.”

Facing Benkert on the practice field every day, UVA All-American safety Quin Blanding agrees.

“It puts a lot of pressure on you, especially with the weapons he has at wide receiver,” Blanding said. “You have to have good eye control and get some good depth because he is going to air it out and you have to play your cards right.”

Benkert enjoys the game of cat-and-mouse he plays with defenders.

“It’s like a chess match,” Benkert said. “You’re in a back-and-forth with the safeties. The defensive backs, they’re going to get beat eventually, and really the only people that can stop that (long throw) are the safeties. So, if the safeties come up and are playing the run, if we’re running the ball well, it gives us more opportunities to go over the top.”

While a lot of execution between quarterback, receiver and an offensive line that needs to maintain its blocks, is involved in the deep throw, Benkert admits there is also an element of luck.

“Don’t try to make the perfect pass, just throw it,” he said. “If you try to think too much when you’re throwing it, the ball can go anywhere. It’s more of a feel thing. Just of feel it out, you look at him (receiver) and throw it, honestly that is how I do it. It’s definitely an art not a science.”