By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — So elusive was Marques Hagans at quarterback that in 2005, after Virginia upset fourth-ranked Florida State at Scott Stadium, the Seminoles’ Hall of Fame coach, Bobby Bowden, exclaimed, “We couldn’t stop that dadgum No. 18!”
Hagans, of course, is now the Cavaliers’ wide receivers coach. Since Hagans exhausted his eligibility as a college player, a succession of pro-style quarterbacks has taken snaps at UVA, often with poor results. But changes are coming in head coach Bronco Mendenhall‘s program.
“That’s the direction we want to head,” said Jason Beck, who coaches the Wahoos’ QBs.
Perkins, a junior-college transfer with two years of eligibility left, and Armstrong, an incoming freshman, will enroll at the University next month. Kurt Benkert‘s two-year run as the Cavaliers’ No. 1 quarterback ends next week in Annapolis, Maryland, and Perkins and Armstrong will compete for the starting job in the spring.
“We feel that gives us the best chance for our team,” Beck said. “We’re bringing in two young guys and getting to work installing kind of a new offense that way.”
This is an offense, though, with which the coaching staff is familiar. Mendenhall came to UVA from BYU after the 2015 season, and most of his assistants, including Beck, offensive coordinator Robert Anae and offensive line coach Garett Tujague, followed him to Charlottesville.
Late in Mendenhall’s tenure in Provo, Utah, the Cougars had an exceptional dual-threat quarterback in Taysom Hill, now an NFL rookie. The Cavaliers’ coaches showed videotape of Hill to Perkins and Armstrong during the recruiting process.
“We would rather play that style, and we know how to do it and had success with it with Taysom Hill at BYU,” Mendenhall said Wednesday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.
Not long after taking over at UVA, Mendenhall made it clear that he eventually wanted to build his offense around a quarterback who was an accomplished runner and passer. But sometimes “the preferred style and the roster you have and the possible solutions that are available, those don’t all match,” Mendenhall said Wednesday.
“I think the really skilled coaches are the ones that, while they’re building programs, they make the most of the resources they have. And the best way that I framed that, or at least the way that makes sense to me, is sometimes you do what you have to do on the way to what you want to do.”
Benkert, who transferred to UVA from East Carolina after the 2015-16 academic year, is a prototypical drop-back quarterback who makes plays with his right arm much more often than with his legs. He’s completed 282 of 473 passes for a school-record 3,062 yards and 25 touchdowns this season, helping the `Hoos advance to a bowl for the first time since 2011.
Virginia (6-6) meets Navy (6-6) in the Military Bowl, Dec. 28 in Annapolis.
Dual-threat quarterbacks are common in college football. What makes them so appealing, Beck said, is “the threat they give defenses, both in the run game and in the scramble game [when pass plays break down].”
Perkins, who’s listed at 6-3, 215 pounds, is from Queen Creek, Arizona. He began his college career at Arizona State, where he redshirted in 2015. He missed all of the 2016 season with an injury, after which he transferred to Arizona Western Community College.
This fall, he led the Matadors to the National Junior College Athletic Association championship game. Perkins passed for 1,311 yards and seven touchdowns and rushed for another 353 yards and four TDs.
Perkins’ brother, Paul, is a running back with the New York Giants, and their father and uncle are former NFL players.
“Bryce, obviously, has a great, great bloodline,” Tujague said.
“We can do a lot of good stuff with those guys,” Tujague said. “That’s going to be a sweet competition in the spring. Big, big stuff we’re expecting out of both of those guys.”
Against a quarterback who’s a threat to run, pass-rushers “are very worried about containment,” Tujague said. “When you have a quarterback that’s just a great pocket passer, then now those rush lanes can melt down and guys can take what we call `risks.’ They just roll the dice and shoot inside. Well, you do that to Bryce, you’re going to pay. You’re going to pay dearly.”
“As an offensive line coach, you love a guy that can extend the play with his legs, still get out of the pocket and look downfield and make those throws, and Bryce has done an amazing job at that. The guy looks like a tailback that can fling the ball.”
Armstrong, a 6-2, 210-pound left-hander, is from Shelby, Ohio. A three-sport standout, he guided Shelby High to the state semifinals in this fall. In 11 games, he passed for 1,933 yards and 30 touchdowns and rushed for 1,105 yards and 22 TDs.
In addition to being a terrific athlete, Tujague said, Armstrong is “very smart” with “great leadership skills.” Armstrong also excelled on defense and isn’t afraid of contact.
“It’ll be a big benefit,” Beck said, “just in terms of them learning everything, but also with coaches and teammates learning about the new players. It gives you that extra time, especially in spring ball, to start that learning curve. We’ve got a lot of work cut out for us, and it gives us a little more time and preparation to get ready for it.”
Benkert’s backup this season has been true freshman Lindell Stone, another pro-style quarterback. How Stone, who’s appeared in one game, performs during spring practice will help determine where he ends up on the depth chart next season.
“He has competition now,” Mendenhall said. “The other two are coming in, and so we’ll let that manifest through the offseason and spring practice.”
Also in the mix will be De’Vante Cross, who as a redshirt freshman has been used at three positions — quarterback, wideout and cornerback — as well as on special teams. Cross has yet to throw a pass this season, but he’s rushed five times for 27 yards.
“Every day, it’s a mystery,” Cross said Wednesday, smiling. “So you just come in, and whatever they ask me to do, I just go it the best I can do. It’s been real interesting.”
His role figures to be more clearly defined in 2018. “He’ll be on the offensive side, but his home room won’t be at quarterback,” Mendenhall said. “His home room will be at receiver, and he’ll be being cross-trained [at QB].”
The 6-2, 200-pound Cross is an explosive athlete, and “we need him to be an impact player for us,” Beck said.
In an intrasquad scrimmage featuring many of the less-experienced Cavaliers last weekend, Cross played quarterback and had two long runs, one of which went for a touchdown.
“It’s good to open up and run a little bit,” Cross said after practice Wednesday. “It was fun.”
At Parkland High School in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Cross was a dual-threat quarterback for most of his career. He appreciates the challenge such a player can pose for opponents.
“It’s one more thing the defense has to worry about, and that opens up passing lanes and opens up running lanes,” Cross said. “So it just helps the offense altogether.”