By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE– He’s a player without a jersey number, and walk-on quarterback DaJuan Moore usually operates in the background at University of Virginia football practices.
Not this week. Moore, a 6-0, 245-pound freshman, ran the triple option at Waynesboro High School, and that makes him enormously valuable as UVA (7-3 overall, 4-2 ACC) prepares to meet Coastal Division foe Georgia Tech (6-4, 4-3) in Atlanta at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
Moore, a cousin of former Virginia great Shawn Moore, averaged 6.2 yards per carry last season for Waynesboro. Most weeks this season, the Cavaliers’ scout-team quarterback has been sophomore Lindell Stone or true freshman Brennan Armstrong. Moore and redshirt freshman Hayden Mitchell have shared that role this week.
“DaJuan is really good with the mesh” – when an option quarterback extends the ball to the running back – “and the pitch and getting in the spaces he needs to,” Virginia graduate assistant Matt Johns said.
A former UVA quarterback, Johns oversees the scout-team offense this fall. His close friend Jackson Matteo, who’s a defensive GA this season, had that job last year. At the 11thhour, Matteo chose Mitchell, a walk-on wide receiver, to play quarterback on the scout team ahead of the Cavaliers’ game with the Yellow Jackets at Scott Stadium.
“It was literally the day before we started running the offense,” recalled Mitchell, who was exclusively a wideout on offense at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond.
“Jackson Matteo came up and told me I was going to run the quarterback. So I got with him and we watched as much film as possible before we started [practice] the next day, and we went over all the cards that the coaches drew up, just trying to get familiar with all the plays before we started going through it.”
They saw their efforts rewarded. The Wahoos rallied to beat Georgia Tech 40-36, a victory that made them bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011. Afterward, head coach Bronco Mendenhall and UVA defensive leaders praised Mitchell’s contribution to the win.
Mitchell didn’t play against the Jackets, but in practice he “did an awesome job, and without his extra work we don’t even have a chance to prepare,” Mendenhall said.
“Big props to him,” linebacker Chris Peace said, “because he definitely prepared us.”
Asked Thursday about the postgame comments, Mitchell said, “That was definitely cool, especially being a walk-on as a first-year. You don’t really know your place right away. And standing on the sideline watching every single play during that game, knowing exactly what they were doing, and then at the end, when people like Chris Peace and Micah Kiser, are actually saying your name, it’s pretty cool. And it just goes to show how important preparation is for these types of games.”
The 6-0, 190-pound Mitchell is wearing jersey No. 83 for the second straight year. He’s been starting on three special-teams units this week — kickoff, kickoff return and punt return — but that’s not all.
Instead of working with the wideouts, as usual, he’s been back at quarterback, splitting reps with Moore. “As soon as they told me to hop in, I was champing at the bit,” Mitchell said. “I was excited to go back [to quarterback].”
Mitchell is faster than Moore, Johns said, “and he gives us a good perimeter look.”
Also in prominent roles this week are scout-team running backs Justin Zollar and Perris Jones, two of the fastest Cavaliers.
“They give us the look that we need,” Johns said.
A strong week from the scout team is essential if a defense is to slow an option attack on game day. “The better look they give us, the better our chances to defend it,” UVA inside linebacker Jordan Mack said.
Georgia Tech, which has won five of its past six games, is the only ACC team that runs the triple option. Trying to prepare a scout team on short notice to simulate head coach Paul Johnson’s trademark offense, of which cut-blocking is a major component, is difficult for a rival coaching staff.
“You’re trying to teach new stuff that you haven’t taught before, and [the players are] doing things that they haven’t done before, really,” Johns said. “It’s really about firing off and getting the guys in the right spots so that we can have the right alley runners.”
Mitchell said: “The coaches do a great job of letting us know what to do and when to do it. So really it’s all about just following their directions as closely as possible.”
The Yellow Jackets (362.4 yards per game) lead the ACC in rushing offense, in part because they rarely throw the ball. Georgia Tech has attempted 92 passes this season. Every other team in the ACC has attempted at least 217.
“It’s unique,” Mack, one of several UVA players from the Atlanta area, said of the challenge presented by the Jackets’ offense. “You don’t see it week in and week out. It’s one week, and you’ve got to abandon everything you know essentially and just focus in on the offense.”
Virginia had mixed results against the option in 2017. UVA defeated Georgia Tech during the regular season but lost 49-7 to Navy in the Military Bowl. On a frigid day in Annapolis, Md., Navy attempted only one pass – it was incomplete – but rushed for 452 yards.
The Midshipmen’s head coach, Ken Niumatalolo, is one of Johnson’s protégés, but their versions of the triple option are not identical, as the Cavaliers learned. As painful as the loss was for his team, Mendenhall said, the “Navy game helped us in so many ways.”
As a head coach, Mendenhall is 8-3 against option teams. At BYU, he regularly faced Air Force and twice defeated Georgia Tech. He relishes these match-ups.
“The way I frame it to my team,” Mendenhall said, “it’s an occasion to rise to. It’s a challenge. It stresses you in about every way. That’s where growth happens, not only for individuals but teams.”
It’s almost impossible for a scout-team offense to replicate in practice what the defense will face in a game from an option attack, Mendenhall acknowledged. “But some years it’s better than others,” he said.
“We’ll do the best we can to simulate that look through kind of the tried and proven methods over time with the existing resources we have.”
Attrition has depleted the Cavaliers’ defensive line this year. Virginia’s rotation up front includes true freshmen Aaron Faumui and Jordan Redmond and redshirt freshman Tommy Christ. The only veteran on the D-line who’ll be available Saturday is redshirt junior Eli Hanback, a three-year starter.
Having faced option teams three times as a Cavalier – Georgia Tech twice and Navy once – Hanback knows what’s coming Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
“It’s fast,” Hanback said. “It hits fast. Those O-linemen are expert cut-blockers and if you’re off just a little bit they can score on any play.”
Among ACC teams, Georgia Tech ranks third in scoring offense (37.6 points per game). UVA ranks 11th (28.4 ppg). If the ‘Hoos are to win Saturday, Mendenhall said, their defense can’t be the only unit that plays well.
“When and if you’re going to beat an option football team, the complementary nature of how you play the game has to be in place,” Mendenhall said. “It can’t just be one side or the other. In [the Military Bowl] we didn’t have a strong showing from any of our sides.”