By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When the Military Bowl ended on Dec. 28, a new chapter began for the University of Virginia football team: Life Without Micah.
As Virginia prepares for its third season under Mendenhall, junior Jordan Mack has moved from one inside linebacker spot, the Buck, to the Mike, where Kiser played. Shane Hunter, who coaches the Wahoos’ inside linebackers, said Mack has embraced a larger role on a defense that returns eight starters.
“He’s become a lot better leader, just in terms of being more vocal on the field,” Hunter said. “Last year he had Micah, and it’s easy to defer when you have somebody that’s been doing it for a long time and that’s very good at what he does. I think Jordan learned from it and he took that upon himself and said, `Hey, this is what I need to do to step up.’ ”
Mack, who weighed about 205 pounds when he arrived at UVA in the summer of 2016, was moved from safety to outside linebacker during training camp that year. He started nine games at that position as a true freshman before moving inside last year.
Now listed at 225 pounds, the 6-4 Mack has “gotten so much bigger and stronger, and he’s a great kid,” Hunter said. “He’s a good leader. You know what you’re going to get out of Jordan. He’s going to work hard. He’s not going to complain, he’s going to do his job, and he’s going to help others along the way.”
Malcolm Cook, who started six games at outside linebacker last season, is working at the Buck position this spring. The Cavaliers’ options at outside linebacker include Chris Peace, Charles Snowden, Elliott Brown, Matt Gahm, Gladimir Paul and Noah Taylor, a true freshman who enrolled at the University in January.
“For us it’s about trying to get the best four linebackers on the field, and it’s also about just seeing who can play where,” Hunter said. “And so we moved Malcolm in and said, `Hey, we’ll see how this goes.’ He’s done some really good things. He flies around. He’s a fun kid to have in the room, because he brings a different personality, just like each and every player does.”
Cook, who joined the program in the summer of 2013, has battled injuries and medical issues throughout his UVA career, but when healthy adds a big, physical presence to the defense. Also practicing at inside linebacker this spring are C.J. Stalker, Robert Snyder, Zane Zandier, Dominic Sheppard and Reed Kellam.
“What we’re trying to do, obviously, is maximize the skill set that a player has,” said Hunter, who played inside linebacker for Mendenhall at BYU. “If he’s a really good pass-rusher, he’s probably going to come in in pass-rush situations. If he’s a really good run-stopper, if it’s a bigger [offensive] set, he’ll be in there to stop the run.”
Snyder, who’ll be a redshirt sophomore in the fall, missed last season after tearing a pectoral muscle during training camp.
“It was disappointing, but we saw things from Rob [before the injury} that had us excited for when he came back,” Hunter said, “knowing that he’s a big guy, he’s physical, he plays downhill, he likes to smack [opposing players]. Those are things that we look for in an inside linebacker.”
Zandier, who like Mack played safety in high school, is a stellar athlete who played in 12 games as a true freshman last season, mostly on special teams. He practiced some at outside linebacker in 2017 before moving inside, where he’s still learning the position.
“Zane came a long way [last year],” Hunter said. “He still has a long way to go, but he’s fun to have in the room.”
As a group, Hunter said, the inside linebackers “want to take that next step. All of the sudden we lose a guy like Micah out of the room, and people have to step up, and I think the guys have taken that upon themselves, saying, `I gotta get stronger in the weight room, I gotta get more physical on the field, because Micah did a lot of different things. Maybe I can’t replace Micah, but I can replace this part and I can replace that part.’ ”
NEXT GENERATION: Spectators in the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility on Thursday morning included Kurt Benkert, the Cavaliers’ starting quarterback in 2016 and ’17.
Benkert was rooting, naturally, for the offense during 11-on-11 drills, and he applauded a fourth-down play on which Bryce Perkins rolled right and then threw back to tight end Evan Butts, who made the catch in the end zone.
A junior-college transfer who has two seasons of eligibility left, Perkins is one of UVA’s two new quarterbacks this spring, along with true freshman Brennan Armstrong. Both enrolled at the University in January, and they’ve impressed Benkert, who’s been training ahead of the NFL draft.
Perkins, who began his college career at Arizona State, has been working primarily with the first-team offense this spring. His arm isn’t as strong as Benkert’s — few are — but he’s a dangerous runner who fits the mold of the dual-threat quarterback Virginia wants to build its offense around.
“I like him a lot,” Benkert said. “Seems like he’s got his head on straight. He’s the type of guy we need here.”
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: After winning five of their first six games last season, the Cavaliers dropped six of their final seven. Among the reasons for UVA’s decline, Dillon Reinkensmeyer acknowledged this week, was the offensive line’s inability to consistently open holes for the running backs.
“In the beginning part of the year, when we went 5-1, I think we were doing some really good stuff, especially in the Boise State game,” Reinkensmeyer said, referring to Virginia’s resounding road win on Sept. 22.
“I think as the season wore down, we were having a lot of trouble running the ball, which definitely impacted our offense in a negative way.”
Among ACC teams, Virginia finished last in scoring offense and last in rushing offense last season. (The Cavaliers were fifth in passing offense.)
When a team can’t run the ball effectively, that “just shuts everything else down,” Reinkensmeyer said. “So that was biggest thing this offseason, just getting to work on the running game. All we want to do is go forward and just annihilate the guy in front of us.”
Reinkensmeyer, who redshirted in 2016, last year became the first freshman offensive lineman, redshirt or true, to start a season opener for the `Hoos since 2006. That start came at left tackle, but Reinkensmeyer spent most of his time at center last season, and that’s where he’s working this spring.
Garett Tujague, who coaches Virginia’s offensive linemen, likes players who are able to play multiple positions. This spring, however, “I think Coach Tujague just wants us to work on one position and master that one,” Reinkensmeyer said, “so tackles are playing tackle, guards are playing guard, and centers are playing center.”
As a redshirt freshman, Reinkensmeyer started two games at left tackle and nine at center. He said Tujague’s expectations for him have grown this spring.
“I showed some flashes last year of being able to do some pretty good stuff, and I think he wants me to perform at a high level all the time,” Reinkensmeyer said.
The offensive line, which struggled for most of the 2016 season, when the Cavaliers finished 2-10, improved last year. Reinkensmeyer expects more progress this season from a group that includes veterans Jake Fieler, Chris Glaser, Ben Knutson and R.J. Proctor and will add Marcus Applefield, a graduate transfer from Rutgers, this summer.
“It’s just a natural progression,” Reinkensmeyer said, “and Coach Tujague’s a fantastic coach, and the way he’s pushing us and coaching us, I think it’s definitely a huge possibility we take a lot more than one step forward. Maybe we start running. It just depends. We just gotta work as hard as we can and then go from there.”
Reinkensmeyer, who stands 6-4, weighs about 300 pounds. His weight hasn’t changed much from last season, he said, but he’s gotten stronger under the tutelage of Shawn Griswold, who took over in January as Virginia’s director of football development and performance. Frank Wintrich, who previously held that position, is now at UCLA.
“Coach Griz is definitely a really good coach,” Reinkensmeyer said. “No disrespect to Coach Wintrich, who’s also a fantastic coach, but they’re two different kind of styles … and I think a lot of the guys have really responded very positively to that change, and as a result our numbers are going up.”
Reinkensmeyer, who grew up in Colorado in the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch, played in the powerful football program at Valor Christian, which won three state titles during his high school career. His teammates there for two years included Christian McCaffrey, who went on to star at Stanford and now plays for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
OPEN-DOOR POLICY: For the football program, this is alumni weekend, and those former players include wide receiver Canaan Severin, who’s now with the New York Giants.
Severin’s final season at UVA was 2015. Marques Hagans, who was Severin’s position coach, still oversees the Cavaliers’ wide receivers, but most of Mendenhall’s other assistants came to Charlottesville with him from BYU in December 2015.
Even so, Severin said, the current staff has always made him feel welcome in the McCue Center.
“I think Coach Mendenhall is really big on having past players back and having alumni around,” Severin said. “That was really exemplified when I would just be walking to Coach Hagans’ office, and Coach Mendenhall would see me and say, `Come into the defensive staff meeting,’ or `Whenever you want to go into the offensive meeting, just go in.’
“He just welcomed me with open arms, and that may not happen at other places. It’s an open-door policy, and I definitely feel grateful for that.”
Severin’s close friends include his former teammate Jackson Matteo, who’s now a graduate assistant on Mendenhall’s staff.
“I’m definitely excited for him,” Severin said of Matteo, who played on the offensive line at UVA.
Matteo worked with UVA’s defense last season, and “being with Coach Mendenhall a lot, he really enjoyed that and really saw the philosophy from the top,” Severin said.