By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – He began last season as the kickoff specialist for Virginia’s football team, and after the fifth game he started handling field goals and extra points, too.
Brian Delaney’s role might grow again this year.
“As of today, he’s our kickoff kicker, he’s our field goal kicker, and he’s our punter, based on charting all of the things we did [in 15 spring practices],” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said Saturday afternoon after the Cavaliers’ spring game at Scott Stadium.
The battle between Delaney and Nash Griffin for the starting punter’s job remains close, Mendenhall said, but going “by the numbers – kicking is numbers-driven —
[Delaney is] the leader in all three. I do really like Nash, and I think he’s capable, [but] a couple bad kicks, a couple bad days, it doesn’t take much. So that’s ongoing.”
Delaney, a rising junior, led the Wahoos in scoring last season with 61 points. He was 12 for 16 on field goals and 25 for 25 on extra points. He was an all-state punter at Westfield High School and hopes to contribute in that phase of special teams for Virginia.
“That’s certainly the goal, and it’s definitely not going to be easy, but that’s what I’m preparing for,” Delaney said Saturday. “Obviously, when we get back in fall it’s going to be a whole new competition again. I’ve been practicing all three [and did so] all last season too.”
“They’re all three technically different swings. Field goal and kickoff are obviously a lot more similar. Kickoff you just get to be a little bit more aggressive with it. And then punt, it’s pretty different because you’re just trying to stay straighter with it, but it’s something I’ve done since I was in high school, so I’m used to it.”
The experience he gained last season in multiple roles “was crucial,” Delaney said. “It really helped me mentally, just being able to realize what’s at stake with every single rep. I’d say I’ve prepared completely differently this offseason and just gotten as many reps as I can, whether it be little drill work or things like that, just trying to put myself in the best situation for each rep.”
ON THE MEND: Twenty-five players sat out the spring game because of injuries or medical issues, including safeties Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson, linebacker Matt Gahm, defensive lineman Richard Burney, wide receivers Joe Reed and Ben Hogg, running back PK Kier and offensive linemen Chris Glaser, Bobby Haskins and Dillon Reinkensmeyer.
Mendenhall said he expects 24 of them – Hogg is the exception – to be ready for the start of training camp in August.
“That’s the best part,” Mendenhall said. “The next team that I get to coach is our full team.”
There were no injuries in the spring game, Mendenhall said, and the Wahoos ran a few more plays from scrimmage than he expected.
“I think we finished with 68 scrimmage plays,” he said. “I was looking for 65, which was about our offensive average [throughout the spring]. So we got a lot done and didn’t add to that group [of injured players]. And so now it’s just who do we get back, and when.
“There’s a group coming back in May. There’s another group coming back early June. There’s another group at the end of June, and there’s one group in July.”
The offensive line figures to look significantly different in the fall. Four players projected to be in the two-deep – Glaser, Haskins, Reinkensmeyer and Alex Gellerstedt – did not participate this spring.
Gellerstedt, a graduate transfer, isn’t in Charlottesville yet. At the end of this academic year, he will transfer from Penn State to UVA, where he’ll have two seasons of eligibility.
“They are needed,” Mendenhall said of the four O-linemen. “We still need a stronger presence with the offensive front in terms of movement at the point of attack when we’re running it, and more consistency in protection.”
Quarterback Bryce Perkins “takes a lot of pressure off of our front, because he is so mobile, but that’s still an area we need to improve in,” Mendenhall said.
MEN IN THE MIDDLE: Dillon Reinkensmeyer started 12 games at center last season, but he’s not the Cavaliers’ only option at that position. Victor Oluwatimi and Tyler Fannin each worked with the first-team offense this spring.
Fannin, who’ll be a redshirt sophomore in the fall, missed last season with an injury. Oluwatimi sat out last season after transferring from the U.S. Air Force Academy to UVA. Like Fannin, he has three seasons of eligibility remaining.
“It might be a spring photo finish with Vic a little bit ahead,” Mendenhall said, “but Vic also is playing well at guard. Being able to play two positions is better than one, which also puts Vic just slightly ahead.
“Tyler has played, actually, better than expected, just based on experience and coming back and the different roles that he’s had so far. I would say I’m more encouraged than what I was pre-spring after I’ve seen in the spring, with Vic with the slight lead.”
Reinkensmeyer, who’ll be a redshirt junior in the fall, can also play guard and tackle.
ON THE RISE: Wayne Taulapapa, who played solely on special teams as a true freshman last season, came out of spring ball as Virginia’s No. 1 running back, Mendenhall said.
PK Kier, a rising junior, entered the year as the front-runner to replace Jordan Ellis, Virginia’s leading rusher in 2017 and ’18. But Kier missed much of spring practice with a concussion, and “Wayne has been the most productive” of the other running backs, Mendenhall said.
“He will be our running back coming out of spring going into fall, with the competition re-opening again, with PK back” and incoming freshman Mike Hollins among the others also in the mix.
The 5-9, 210-pound Taulapapa, who rushed for two touchdowns Saturday, signed with Virginia in February 2016. That June, though, he left his native Hawaii for Nicaragua, where he spent two years on a mission trip with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He didn’t enroll at UVA until last summer.
ESSENTIAL PERSONNEL: Running back Chris Sharp had two touchdown catches last season but overall had a minor role on the offense. Even so, Mendenhall said, the decision to invite Sharp back for a fifth year was an easy one.
“Because of who he is,” said Mendenhall, who praised Sharp’s “positive attitude, complete unselfishness and willingness to do anything asked with a smile.”
Sharp provides “an example that I can point to and say, ‘OK, do it like him,’ ” Mendenhall said. “It carries so much weight, and it’s more impactful than my words, and we had to have him, by who he is.”
A graduate of the Hun School in New Jersey, Sharp had a 68-yard run Saturday. He’s talked to Mendenhall about having an “impact on the team, on and off the field, and being that guy that can get guys together and just be a positive influence in the culture that we’re building. That’s been my main push for this team,” Sharp said.
“I just want to contribute to the team in whatever way I can, whether that be a small or a big role. We definitely have a lot of talent at the running back position, and we’re going to piece it together.”
Sharp, who’ll graduate next month with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, hopes to start a master’s program in the Curry School of Education and Human Development this summer.
STEPPING UP: During a scrimmage in which the defense generally prevailed, standouts for the offense Saturday included wide receiver Terrell Jana, a graduate of nearby Woodberry Forest.
Late in the spring game, Jana caught a pass from No. 2 quarterback Brennan Armstrong and ran past the secondary for a 64-yard touchdown. That capped an outstanding spring for Jana, a rising junior who missed the Belk Bowl with a knee injury.
“Terrell Jana has been really valued by his peers in terms of leadership,” Mendenhall said, “[and] he’s probably been one of the bright spots of the spring from an offensive perspective, and we needed that at receiver. And so I’m excited about that.”
Bryce Perkins, UVA’s starting quarterback, said Jana has been “one of the big [stories] this spring on the offense. His leadership role has drastically increased. He’s kind of that leader of the receivers. He’s smart. He’s easy to work with. He has great speed, and he knows coverages, so we’re pretty much on the same page most of the time.”
HONING HIS CRAFT: All-America cornerback Bryce Hall, one of the team’s top NFL prospects, announced after UVA’s 28-0 win over South Carolina in the Belk Bowl that he planned to return for his fourth season.
In the spring game, Hall intercepted a Perkins pass on the first series.
“Bryce wants more for our program,” Mendenhall said. “He wants more for himself. He has very specific goals. He knows that he can improve, and he loves feedback, and he’s so conscientious. But he’s not satisfied yet with how he’s playing. He might have led the league in pass breakups [last season], but many of those could have been intercepted. He has plenty of work to do in run support and tackling and some of the different route concepts, and then leadership. His role now is a different role, and that’s a different level of development.”
Another rising senior, inside linebacker Jordan Mack, also picked off a Perkins pass Saturday, and he returned the interception for a touchdown.
LOOKING AHEAD: After finishing 2-10 in 2016, the Hoos improved to 6-7 in ’17 and to 8-5 last season.
Virginia’s fourth season under Mendenhall starts Aug. 31 at Pittsburgh. Pitt, one of UVA’s rivals in the ACC’s Coastal Division, has won the past four games in the series. The Cavaliers’ first five opponents also include Florida State and Notre Dame.
With spring practice behind them, Mendenhall said, the Hoos must continue to develop at “an accelerated pace, because of who we open with, where we open, and just the nature of our early season schedule … We’re racing against the clock to get ready for our opener.”