By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – Starting with the first helmets-only session of training camp, the Virginia football team has practiced 20 times this month, sometimes at Lambeth Field, sometimes at Scott Stadium, sometimes on the fields next to the McCue Center.
My position with VirginiaSports.com affords me the opportunity to attend these practices, and I’ve been at all of them, in all kinds of weather.
There’s been a lot to take in. After two seasons with Kurt Benkert, a prototypical drop-back passer, taking snaps, Virginia has switched to an offense that features a quarterback, junior-college transfer Bryce Perkins, who adds a new dimension to the position with his athleticism.
UVA’s third season under head coach Bronco Mendenhall starts Saturday at 6 p.m. against Richmond, and fans at Scott Stadium can expect to see offensive wrinkles that weren’t evident in 2016 or ’17.
As the Wahoos prepare to host the Spiders, here are some of my observations from the first three weeks of preseason:
* This is Bronco Mendenhall’s team. The roster still includes players recruited by the previous coaching staff, but those upperclassmen have completely bought into Mendenhall’s philosophy, which has allowed the Cavaliers to progress more quickly this year. This was still a program in transition in 2016 and, to a lesser degree, last season.
* Virginia is not taking Richmond lightly. In Mendenhall’s first game as Virginia’s coach, the Spiders came into Scott Stadium and won 37-20 on Sept. 3, 2016. If the ‘Hoos didn’t fully appreciate then how dangerous a talented Football Championship Subdivision opponent could be, they do now. UR has Virginia’s complete attention.
* Injuries will be a storyline to follow. Although Virginia has excellent depth at several positions, quarterback, offensive line and defensive line are not among them. The Cavaliers have only three quarterbacks on scholarship, one of whom, Brennan Armstrong, is a true freshman.
Up front, UVA’s numbers are better, but most of the backup linemen are unseasoned. For much of training camp, injuries to projected starters Richard Burney and Mandy Alonso meant the D-line rotation included true freshmen Jordan Redmond, Aaron Faumui and Grant Misch and redshirt freshman Tommy Christ. The good news for the ‘Hoos: Mendenhall said after practice Saturday that the team’s projected two-deep should be available for the opener.
* Bryce Perkins is as dynamic as advertised. A 6-3, 210-pound junior who enrolled at UVA in January, Perkins is a dual-threat quarterback whose combination of speed, size and strength may be unmatched in Mendenhall’s program. The addition of Perkins, who began his college career at Arizona State, allows coordinator Robert Anae to run an offense similar to the one with which Mendenhall had great success at BYU.
* Tight end Evan Butts and wide receiver Hasise Dubois are likely to catch a lot of passes. Butts, a 6-4, 250-pound fifth-year senior, is coming off a season in which he had 32 receptions (for 266 yards and two touchdowns). Dubois, a 6-3, 215-pound junior, caught only 16 passes last season (for 120 yards and one TD), but he’s carved out a significant role in the passing game this summer.
Neither one is a considered a deep threat, but Butts and Dubois have sure hands and excel at finding holes in the defense. Moreover, each has developed good chemistry with Perkins this year.
* Tavares Kelly’s lack of size doesn’t deter him one bit. Nobody made more big plays during training camp than Kelly. A 5-8, 160-pound true freshman from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Kelly wears jersey No. 27 and figures to see significant playing time at wideout and as a return specialist. He’s been timed at 10.49 seconds in the 100 meters, and he’s absolutely fearless, with excellent hands.
* Richard Burney has great promise at defensive end. After playing tight end for three seasons, Burney moved to the other side of the ball before the Military Bowl last year. At 6-4, 280 pounds, Burney has excellent size for an end in a 3-4 defense, and director of football performance and development Shawn Griswold raves about his speed and agility. Burney is still learning his position but figures to steadily improve as he gains more experience on defense.
* The class that enrolled at UVA in 2017 has considerable talent. Players from that class who are expected to play important roles this fall include defensive lineman Mandy Alonso, linebackers Charles Snowden and Zane Zandier, defensive backs Brenton Nelson, Darrius Bratton, and Joey Blount, wide receiver Terrell Jana, running back PK Kier, offensive linemen Ryan Nelson and Chris Glaser, and kickers A.J. Mejia and Brian Delaney.
And that’s not to slight linebackers Matt Gahm and Elliott Brown, running backs Jamari Peacock and Lamont Atkins, quarterback Lindell Stone, defensive backs Germane Crowell and Heskin Smith, and offensive linemen Ryan Swoboda and Gerrik Vollmer, all of whom could crack the two-deep as well.
* Place-kicking remains a question mark. The Cavaliers have yet to make a field goal longer than 38 yards during Mendenhall’s tenure as their head coach.
A.J. Mejia, who handled extra points and field goals as a true freshman last season, has been made many kicks of 40-plus yards in practice this month, but he has yet to connect from long range in a game. Also in the mix is true freshman Hunter Pearson, who has a big leg. Mejia was 8 for 12 overall on field goals in 2017, with all of his misses from 41 yards or longer. Brian Delaney is expected to again handle kickoffs for the Cavaliers.
* The coaching staff has many good options at running back, linebacker and defensive back. Five of the Cavaliers’ top six running backs from 2017 returned this year, led by graduate student Jordan Ellis, the team’s leading rusher last year. Also back are junior Chris Sharp and sophomores PK Kier, Lamont Atkins and Jamari Peacock.
Linebacker is a featured position in Virginia’s 3-4 defense, and at the inside and outside spots are such players as Chris Peace, Jordan Mack, Charles Snowden, Malcolm Cook, Zane Zandier, Matt Gahm, Elliott Brown, Robert Snyder, Dominic Sheppard and true freshman Noah Taylor.
Peace led ACC linebackers in sacks last season, and Mack is heading into his third year as a starter.
The secondary is equally deep, with such players as Juan Thornhill, Bryce Hall, Brenton Nelson, Darrius Bratton, Joey Blount, Tim Harris, Chris Moore, Heskin Smith, Germane Crowell, Nick Grant and Myles Robinson.
The 6-0 Thornhill, who made the All-ACC third team at cornerback last year, has bulked up to 210 pounds and now lines up at safety. Nelson, a former walk-on, was named the ACC’s defensive rookie of the year as a redshirt freshman in 2017. He had four interceptions and broke up six passes.
* The roster is taking shape. At a press conference last fall, Mendenhall said the Cavaliers were “a long way away from the succession planning we need to have a stable program.” He was referring to the team’s lack of depth at quarterback, but that was also an issue at other positions.
Transfers and recruiting have bolstered the lines, but most of the newcomers are freshmen and thus have no college experience. (Graduate transfer Marcus Applefield, who won the starting job at right offensive tackle, is an exception.) Once the next recruiting class arrives in 2019, the ‘Hoos should have sufficient numbers in reserve at virtually every position, including quarterback.