April 20, 2018
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Four weeks into spring football practice at the University of Virginia, Bryce Perkins continues to take most of the snaps with the first-team offense.
Perkins, who enrolled at UVA in January, began his college career at Arizona State. He starred at Arizona Western Community College last season and has two years of eligibility left.
“Bryce is really developing and coming on,” said Jason Beck, who coaches the Cavaliers’ quarterbacks. “He’s picking up what his keys are, what his assignments, what his reads are. And so he’s sharpening those up each practice to get quicker and more decisive.”
The 6-3, 215-pound Perkins is a dual-threat quarterback, as is true freshman Brennan Armstrong, who also enrolled in January, and the Wahoos’ offense has been modified to capitalize on their talents. Lindell Stone, a rising sophomore who’s more of a drop-back quarterback, is competing with Armstrong for the No. 2 job.
“Lindell’s been sharp. He’s been playing really well,” Beck said. “He’s done a nice job adjusting to [the offensive changes] as well.
“Brennan is too. It’s been a lot for Brennan, because he’s adjusting to college as well as all this new stuff. He’s gotten better every practice. He’s really improved and learned. He does a great job of learning from his experiences. When something happens, he does a great job of learning from that and not making the same mistake.”
“We really just didn’t have any other options last year,” Beck said. “We’re now back to a more normal situations, where you have three quarterbacks that you’re training and developing.”
Virginia’s quarterbacks are off-limits to tacklers in practice, so it’s been hard to fully evaluate them as runners this spring. Even so, Perkins’ athleticism is apparent.
As for his passing, Perkins “can throw it,” Beck said. “He has good arm strength. Throws the ball well. We’re just working on consistency. Just being able to be consistent will improve his game. But he’s able to make all the throws and then be a threat with his legs.”
That Perkins and Armstrong will have had the benefit of spring practice when the team reconvenes this summer will help them tremendously, Beck said.
“The improvement they’ve made, the improvement they’ll continue to make this final week and a half [of spring ball], will just springboard them into the summer,” Beck said.
“So when we come back for fall camp, they’ll be starting fall camp at a significantly different spot than when they started the spring. I’m excited about their development.”
GRAND FINALE: The Cavaliers’ third spring under head coach Bronco Mendenhall concludes Saturday, April 28, at Scott Stadium. The practice, which starts at 2 p.m., is free and open to the public, and it’s part of the inaugural Wahoowa Weekend at UVA.
If enough players were available, Mendenhall would like to play a traditional spring game, in which the roster is split into two teams. A lack of depth at several positions makes that impractical this year.
“I’d prefer jobs to still be on the line in competition where the game had relevance,” Mendenhall said Thursday on the ACC coaches’ spring teleconference.
“I’d love for it to be the next step of assessing talent in a competitive setting and ongoing competitions to drive what our roster looks like going into the fall. We’re just currently not to that place … Really, what we’ve chosen to do is make sure it’s valuable to our program in terms of practice. I love that the fans are there and want them to have a great experience. The primary motive right now, though, is to develop our team. At some point a spring game will be in our future.”
In their first season under Mendenhall, the `Hoos finished 2-10. They improved to 6-7 last year and played in a bowl game for the first time since 2011.
His primary goal this spring, Mendenhall said, has been “pretty simple. We’re looking to become a stronger and more physical football team. Any format and measures that we can put in place that will promote it and measure it, that’s what we’re after. We think that that has to be addressed, especially in our fronts on both sides, for us to have the kind of team and sustainability that we want.”
PHILOSOPHICAL SHIFT: Shawn Griswold, who spent the previous six seasons at Arizona State, took over in January as Virginia’s director of football development and performance.
“We’re definitely getting pushed harder than we ever have before,” cornerback Bryce Hall said Thursday on the Virginia Athletics podcast. “It’s something that we need moving forward for this program to ultimately be the way we want it to be.
“Coach Griz and his staff are great. One of the biggest differences is they really push us more. We’re putting heavier weights on our backs and we’re lifting heavier overall. We’re really building our work capacity. We’re really just kind of trying to become more physical and a lot bigger overall.”
FULL STRENGTH AGAIN: Hall, a rising junior from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, played the final six games of the 2017 with a torn meniscus in his left knee.
“Mentally, that kind of messed with me a little bit,” he said. “I felt like I didn’t have the same spring to my step, and I felt like I was just [hitting] my stride [before the injury] … That was really a mental battle. I really had to be great at everything else, because I wasn’t going to have the same speed.”
Hall, who started all 13 games last season, finished with 47 tackles and one interception, which he returned 36 yards. After returning to Charlottesville from the Military Bowl, Hall had arthroscopic surgery on his knee, “and now I’m good as new and right back at it,” he said.
Hunter Pearson, a well-regarded kicker from South Carolina who signed with UVA in December, will join the program this summer.
In 2017, when he averaged 43.7 yards per punt, Coleman made the All-ACC second team, but UVA’s kicking game wasn’t nearly as impressive.
Mejia, who was a true freshman, was 0 for 4 on field-goal attempts of 41 yards or longer. He was 8 for 12 overall, connecting from 20, 22, 23, 27, 28, 33, 36 and 38 yards.
That represented modest progress from 2016, when the Cavaliers was 5 for 10 on field goals, but they’ve lagged far behind their ACC counterparts in that phase of the game. In two seasons under Mendenhall, the `Hoos have not made a field goal longer than 38 yards.
Graduate assistant Drew Meyer, a former All-Big 10 punter at Wisconsin, joined Mendenhall’s staff last June. Meyer works with UVA’s specialists: kickers, punters, holders and long-snappers.
Meyer said he approaches spring practice differently than training camp.
“I don’t view it as a straight competition during the spring,” Meyer said. “The spring, in my opinion, is the time we’re going to all improve and take steps toward improvement.
“Fall camp is more of the competition phase. That’s where we’re getting those juices going and figuring out what our roster is going to look like.”
As a true freshman last season, Delaney handled almost all of the kickoff duties for Virginia. His 56 kickoffs included 20 touchbacks.
“There’s always an adjustment phase for every specialist, every kicker and punter,” Meyer said. “I know my first year [at Wisconsin], I wasn’t ready to play. I needed a redshirt year. Brian was able to come in and make an impact right away on kickoffs, where with the punts maybe it’s going to take a year or two to get Brian where he needs to be.”
Meyer said Coleman is working to become more consistent.
“With our whole group, the specialists in general, that’s the No. 1 thing: Can we perform when we need to perform? Can we be accountable to our teammates to do our job?” Meyer said. “And so that’s the biggest thing: We don’t have to necessarily smash an A ball every time, but let’s hit that B-plus ball 95 percent of the time.
“So it’s about that consistency, but then also increasing the hang time. Lester has a huge leg, but if he can get those hang times a little higher, that’ll help put our coverage teams in better situations.”
Mejia’s range last season, depending on weather conditions, was around 42 yards, Meyer said. “We’re working on securing that again this spring, and then continuing to push that boundary. A.J.’s done a great job working hard, working on his mechanics, getting a little bit more height on the ball, too, having a little more consistent ball-foot contact, things like that, to get a little cleaner rotation.”
Meyer is optimistic that the Cavaliers’ kicking game will take another step forward this year.
“I’m excited for our guys, and I know that they’re working hard, and they take pride in it,” he said. “It means something to them, and they’re going to sit and watch film, and we’re going to sit through meetings, and we’re going to come out here, and if we have a bad snap or a bad hold or a bad kick, our guys feel bad about it, and they want to get better, because they understand their role on the team and how that impacts the outcome of the game.”