CHARLOTTESVILLE – Training rarely stops for the University of Virginia football team, whose players lift weights and run throughout the year. Some occasions, though, have greater significance than others, and that was the case Friday evening.
“It all starts today,” Shawn Griswold, UVA’s director of football development and performance, told the players before they warmed up in the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility.
This is Bronco Mendenhall’s third season as the Cavaliers’ head coach, and Friday marked the first practice of training camp. Virginia opens the season Sept. 1 against Richmond at Scott Stadium.
“It’s good to be back with our team,” Mendenhall said Friday night. “That’s the best part. It was football practice, but I like my guys a lot. We’ve built great relationships, so it’s just fun.”
The Wahoos, 2-10 in 2016, are off coming off a season in which they finished 6-7 after playing in a bowl game for the first time in six years. From that team, which lost to Navy in the Military Bowl, such stalwarts as Micah Kiser, Quin Blanding, Kurt Benkert and Andre Levrone are gone. But numerous veterans return, especially on defense, and that’s helped accelerate the team’s progress.
“There isn’t this brand-new [feeling] when they come in the team meeting,” Mendenhall said. “There isn’t any wondering about what the routine is. They know what to expect, they know how to do it and they’re anxious to, they’re optimistic, and they believe in themselves.
“We’re just at a different level, maturity-wise, as a team. Certainly, qualifying for postseason a year ago gave them an idea what that looks like. And they also got an idea, once they’re there, what they need to do.”
The ‘Hoos usually practice in the mornings. Until the final session of summer school ends next Friday, however, they’ll practice in the evenings. Virginia’s first two games – Sept. 1 against UR and Sept. 8 at Indiana – will start at 6 and 7:30 p.m., respectively, so the evening practices during training camp will allow the team “to get a little bit of a start on what playing our first two games at night will look like,” Mendenhall said.
After completing Griswold’s summer conditioning program, UVA’s veterans are in excellent shape. Still, junior defensive end Richard Burney, there’s nothing quite like practice.
“Whew,” Burney said. “It’s been a while since spring ball, so it’s about getting my body right and getting back into the tempo with which we practice.”
The Cavaliers’ No. 1 quarterback in 2016 and ’17 was Benkert, a prototypical drop-back passer. His successor is Bryce Perkins, a 6-3, 210-pound junior who’s as dangerous with his legs as with his right arm.
Perkins, who began his college career at Arizona State, enrolled at UVA in January and went through spring practice with the Cavaliers. There’s a considerable gap, Mendenhall acknowledged, between Perkins and the candidates for the No. 2 job: sophomore Lindell Stone and true freshman Brennan Armstrong, another January enrollee.
“We’re a different team when [Perkins is] not our quarterback, and we’re all very well aware of that, as he is,” Mendenhall said.
Keeping Perkins healthy, then, is a major priority.
“The encouraging thing is, Bryce came in with practice habits of sliding and getting down,” Mendenhall said. “We’ve had quarterbacks [where it was] difficult to get them to do. He’s coming in knowing the value of that, in terms of practice management, so that’s a start.”
In 2017, UVA played 17 true freshmen, and many members of the latest first-year class are likely to see action this fall.
“I love playing players early, if they’re capable,” Mendenhall said.
Newcomers to watch include Tavares Kelly, a wide receiver and return specialist from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. At 5-9, 165 pounds, Kelly is not imposing physically, but he has game-breaking speed and a gift for making defenders miss.
“What I know already is he’s a dynamic punt-returner, so for no other reason that gives him a great chance,” Mendenhall said.
Among the true freshmen who distinguished themselves for Virginia last season were safety Joey Blount and outside linebacker Charles Snowden, both of whom are competing for starting jobs this summer.
Blount missed part of spring ball after breaking his collarbone, but he was cleared last week for contact.
“It could have been worse,” Blount said. “Luckily I didn’t need surgery. I came back in four months, which is phenomenal for recovery time. Right now, the [athletic] trainers and I are just working on building up the strength of the muscles around the collarbone.”
Blount, who stands 6-2, weighed 175 pounds when he arrived at UVA last summer. He’s now listed at 190. Snowden, who weighed about 200 pounds when he enrolled in 2017, is up to 225, with plenty of room on his 6-7 frame for more bulk.
“It’s hard to put on weight during camp,” Snowden said, “but I’m still trying to get as close to 230 as I can be September 1.”
As a true freshman, Snowden relied on his speed and athleticism to make an impact as a pass-rusher. “But on a lot of those plays I was just running around dudes,” he said Friday.
“So this year, starting in the spring and [continuing] into camp, it’s been about going through guys and being a lot more physical and playing Coach Mendenhall-style run defense.”
Mendenhall preaches the importance of running through – and not around – resistance.
“Any time I’d see a blocker coming, I used to tend to get around the guy to try to get to the ball-carrier,” Snowden said. “Sometimes it works, but most of the time it creates huge gaps. Just really running through the guy and owning my gap has been my biggest focus.”