By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — This is a college town with countless charms, among them the University of Virginia, Monticello and the Downtown Mall. Even so, Charlottesville is not, most observers would agree, an especially big place.
“That’s what people say, but I thought it was pretty big when I got here,” Joe Reed said with a smile.
Reed, after all, grew up about 50 miles southeast of Lynchburg in Charlotte Court House, a town of approximately 500 residents. His family has pigs, chickens and “a bunch of dogs,” Reed said.
And so it was not surprising that Reed, after graduating from Randolph-Henry, one of the state’s smaller high schools, experienced some culture shock when he enrolled at UVA in the summer of 2016.
“When I first got here, it was tough,” Reed said, “but I’d say about a month in I got adjusted. It didn’t take long for me.”
His transition to college football went smoothly, too. As a true freshman in 2016, Reed ranked third among ACC players in kickoff returns (25.1-yard average), and at wide receiver he caught four passes for 77 yards.
In 2017, his impact on the team grew significantly. Reed set a UVA single-season record with two kickoff returns for touchdowns, the first a 92-yarder against Georgia Tech and the second a 98-yarder against Navy in the Military Bowl.
He finished the season as the ACC’s leader in kickoff returns (29.7-yard average). At wideout, he caught 23 passes for 244 yards and two touchdowns, and he rushed 21 times for 112 yards and another score. Now, as Reed heads into his third college season, the Cavaliers are looking to get the ball in his hands more often.
“That’s already in the works,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said in December after the Military Bowl.
Spring practice starts Tuesday morning for the Wahoos, who are in their third year under Mendenhall. It ends April 28 with the annual spring game at Scott Stadium.
All three, however, are expected back this summer. That’s not the case with wideouts Andre Levrone and Doni Dowling, who were seniors last season. Levrone caught 34 passes for 689 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns, and Dowling had 50 receptions for 647 yards and five TDs.
With Levrone and Dowling gone, involving the 6-1, 214-pound Reed more in the passing game “has to be a priority,” Mendenhall said last week.
“I’ll just frame it this way: We already know when the ball comes to him with space before defenders arrive, as [on kickoffs] that he’s very skilled. So we know what he’s capable of.”
The Cavaliers’ top returning receiver is Olamide Zaccheaus, a rising senior who had 85 receptions for 895 yards — both team highs — and five touchdowns last season.
“O, he’s really a veteran, and I’m getting to that point now, so I’m expecting to [get the ball] more,” said Reed, an American Studies major who lives with classmate Jordan Mack, one of the Cavaliers’ starting inside linebackers.
As eager as Reed is to take on a larger role in the offense, however, “I also want to keep rolling with special teams,” he said, “because I love special teams.”
Football Bowl Subdivision teams are now allowed to have 10 on-field assistant coaches, one more than in previous seasons, and Mendenhall beefed up his staff by hiring Ricky Brumfield as special teams coordinator.
Kelly Poppinga held that title last season, but he also coaches UVA’s outside linebackers. Brumfield’s sole focus will be special teams.
“We’ve had some conversations about kickoff return already,” Reed said. “I know it’ll be really cool to have a specific special teams coach.”
Robert Anae is back at offensive coordinator, but the `Hoos will look different when they have the ball this year. Kurt Benkert, a prototypical drop-back quarterback, is now training for a pro career after starting for UVA in 2016 and `17. His successor is likely to be dual-threat QB Bryce Perkins, a junior-college transfer who began his college career at Arizona State.
“From what I’ve seen, I really like him,” Reed said of Perkins. “He’s strong, and he’s fast. I’ll go ahead and say it: He’s the fastest skill guy we had this winter.”
Reed and Zaccheaus weren’t far behind. Still, Reed said, “whenever we’d do agility drills [as part of the winter conditioning program], we’d always be the first three to go, and Bryce would always win.”
Benkert, who transferred to UVA after graduating from East Carolina, did not join Mendenhall’s program until after the 2015-16 school year. Perkins enrolled at Virginia in January and has been working out with the team since then.
“It’s a huge advantage to be here for not only spring practice,” Mendenhall said, “but for the offseason, to be acclimated into the training, into the team, into the culture, [to] get the conditioning and have an early shot at what the install of the system might look like.
“It really accelerates, I think, the growth by an entire year, and I think the chance to be successful in Year 1 [for a new quarterback] is much more likely with a spring practice than without it.”
The Cavaliers put up 38 points against Connecticut, 42 against Boise State, and 40 against Georgia Tech, and Benkert had a record-breaking season at quarterback. Late in the year, though, the offense sputtered to a virtual stop.
In Virginia’s second-to-last regular-season game, against ACC foe Miami, Benkert threw a TD pass with 12:21 left in the third quarter. Those were the final points of the season for the Cavaliers’ offense.
The Hurricanes scored the game’s final 30 points in a 44-28 win over UVA, which then lost 10-0 to Virginia Tech in the regular-season finale. Navy held Virginia to a season-low 175 yards in the Military Bowl.
“It was really frustrating,” Reed said of the offense’s woes. “It was hard to see what we were doing beforehand and how we ended up at the end. It was tough. It is motivation, because that’s embarrassing.”
Reed returned the opening kickoff for a TD against Navy. From there, nothing went right for the Cavaliers, who lost 49-7.
“I’ve never had a swing as drastic as that one,” Reed said.
Still, 2017 brought progress for the program. The `Hoos, 2-10 in 2016, improved to 6-7 last season and advanced to a bowl game for the first time since 2011.
The next step, Reed said, is “winning in the postseason, because now that we’ve been there, we don’t think that just getting there is enough anymore. When we get there, it really shouldn’t be a surprise for us.”
This has been an eventful offseason for the Cavaliers. In January, Shawn Griswold — who, coincidentally, coached Perkins at Arizona State — took over as UVA’s director of football performance and development.
“I love Coach Griz and his staff,” Reed said. “Everything that we did [during the winter strength and conditioning program], it had a purpose. I can feel it. We all can feel it, and I’m excited to go into the summer with him as well.”
At Randolph-Henry, Reed played a variety of positions in football, including running back, wide receiver and quarterback. He also starred in baseball. A fleet center-fielder, he was named to the Virginia High School League’s 2A all-state first team three times.
His brother, C.J., a Ferrum College graduate, was a baseball standout. So was their father, Carlton, who played the sport at Ferrum.
“I think I was 4 years old when I started playing baseball,” Joe Reed said. “I started playing with my brother, and I was the youngest guy playing with older guys. I’ve always played. It’s been tough not playing [at UVA], to be honest with you.”
In addition to starring in baseball at Randolph-Henry, Reed played for a Richmond-based travel team, RBA West. His teammates included Blackman and current UVA baseball players Daniel Lynch, Will Allocca and Cayman Richardson.
“When I got here, it was almost like being in high school again, as far as sports went,” Reed said.
Another alumnus of the Richmond Baseball Academy is Hayden Mitchell, who’s now on the football team at UVA. Mitchell redshirted last season, but his teammates and coaches said his stint as a triple-option quarterback in practice helped Virginia defeat Georgia Tech.
“Throughout the winter, he’s looked really, really good,” Reed said of Mitchell. “The opportunity is there for him, and he knows it.”
The rest of the Cavaliers feel the same way. After a long, hard winter of running and lifting and pushing themselves under Griswold’s tutelage, they can’t wait for the start of spring practice.
“It’s really big for us, because we can just play ball now,” Reed said. “There’ll still be conditioning, but it’s going to be exciting to get the ball in our hands.”