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By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– It seemed only fitting that Charles Snowden, perhaps the UVA football player most likely to be elected president of the United States one day, threw politics into the mix late Friday night.
“It might take the Electoral College to decide who breaks the rock,” Snowden, a junior linebacker, shouted with glee as he bounded into the home locker room at Scott Stadium.
Snowden and his fellow defenders lobbied for that honor to go to junior cornerback Nick Grant, who had an 85-yard interception return for a touchdown in Virginia’s 52-17 win over William & Mary.
Other Cavaliers supported the candidacy of senior Joe Reed, who scored two touchdowns: the first on a 40-yard reception, the second on a 100-yard kickoff return. Reed, for his part, thought running back Mike Hollins, a true freshman who rushed for two TDs, was most deserving.
In the end, head coach Bronco Mendenhall made the call.
“Joe Reed,” Mendenhall said, and so the sledgehammer went to No. 2, who smashed the ceremonial rock to signify another win for the Wahoos.
“It means a lot, because that’s what we work for every week,” said Reed, who also had the honor last season after a one-sided victory over Liberty. “Not only to break the rock, but just to win so that can happen.”
The 6-1, 215-pound Reed, the favorite son of tiny Charlotte Court House, came into the season with three career kickoff returns for touchdowns, a UVA record. His fourth came midway through the second quarter Friday night.
About 3 yards deep in the end zone, Reed fielded Kris Hooper’s kickoff, sprinted ahead for a moment and then cut to his left. Reed was barely touched en route to the north end zone, where the throng of fans who packed the hill cheered his arrival.
Reed could have taken the touchback, UVA special teams coordinator Ricky Brumfield said, but “I wanted him to return it, to be honest with you. I feel with Joe we have a better chance of getting it past the 25 than not. That’s the bonus of having somebody like Joe.”
This is Mendenhall’s fourth season at UVA and 15th overall as an FBS head coach.
“Joe is the best kick-returner that I’ve had a chance to coach,” Mendenhall said. “Man, he’s got amazing speed, and he just has a knack and great vision, and he’s very dynamic. I was surprised that the ball was kicked to him. We were hopeful that it would be.”
As a junior, Reed ranked ninth nationally with an average of 27.2 yards per kickoff return.
“He just has a knack for it, and he’s so strong,” said Brumfield, who’s in his second year at UVA. “He’s so physically gifted that he runs through arm tackles, so the first person doesn’t get him down, and typically kickoff coverage comes down to one-man tackles.
“I credit the back-end guys, too, really the whole kickoff-return unit. I think those guys did a good job of finishing their blocks, and I think Joe would say the same thing.”
As a true freshman in 2016, Reed averaged 25.1 yards per return, but his longest was only 50 yards. He finally broke through in 2017, setting a UVA single-season record with two kickoff returns for TDs. The first covered 92 yards and helped Virginia defeat Georgia Tech at Scott Stadium to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011.
“I think that was probably my biggest kickoff return,” Reed said.
Later that season, Reed supplied the Cavaliers’ only highlight in a 49-7 loss to Navy in the Military Bowl, returning the opening kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown. Against Liberty last year, Reed ran one back 90 yards for another TD.
In that game, he also had two touchdown receptions, and with Olamide Zaccheaus in Atlanta pursuing an NFL career, Reed has emerged as quarterback Bryce Perkins’ favorite target this season. Reed had four catches for 58 yards against the Tribe (1-1), and he leads the team with 11 receptions this season.
He’s one of eight Cavaliers with at least three catches.
“It’s almost unreal to me, how many different weapons we have,” Reed said, “and the coaches do such a great job of placing the right guys in the right positions. Anybody can make big plays in our offense.”
Reed’s return against W&M was the first 100-yarder by a Cavalier since Marquis Weeks went the length of the field against North Carolina in 2004. The Tribe didn’t make the same mistake twice. After Reed’s gem, W&M opted to send its kickoffs high and short.
“We talk about field position being one of the key factors for for us, and if they sky kick it, we’re going to get the ball to at least the 30,” Brumfield said. “It’s a win for us. Every time somebody sky kicks, it’s definitely a win for us.”
SHOW OF SUPPORT: An enthusiastic crowd of 45,250 turned out for the Cavaliers’ home opener, and that figure included 10,027 students. Not since Virginia hosted Southern California in 2008 had so many students attended a game at Scott Stadium.
“I saw the hill was filled before the game,” Reed said. “We appreciate that.”
Mendenhall said: “It was noticeable the support we had today. I liked the energy and the attendance I saw at Scott Stadium. I really noticed the student section, and I would love to continue to capitalize on that and play in a manner where our fans keep coming and were engaged at the level they were, especially the first half.”
TIES THAT BIND: William & Mary is in its first season under Mike London, Mendenhall’s predecessor at UVA. London has now been a head coach at Scott Stadium with three teams: Richmond, UVA and W&M.
The Tribe’s associate head coach, Vincent Brown, is a former UVA assistant, and London’s staff includes seven former UVA players: Matt Johns, Ras-I Dowling, Josh Zidenberg, Keenan Carter, Gordie Sammis, Darryl Blackstock and Almondo “Muffin” Curry, a volunteer assistant.
Johns was a graduate assistant on Mendenhall’s staff at Virginia in 2018.
Asked about his W&M counterpart, Mendenhall said, “I’m just impressed with Mike London as a person. I always have been. We had a really nice conversation before the game, and his values and my values align very well. I find a lot in common with him, and I respect the job he does, but I also just like who he is and I like his values. I would love to see him have success because of what he represents.”
GAME BALLS: Until Friday night, the Hoos hadn’t hit the 50-point mark since their 51-3 win over Temple in 2005. In addition to Reed, UVA’s standouts against William & Mary included:
• Nick Grant, a redshirt junior who’s in his first year as a starting cornerback. His 85-yard interception return was the third-longest in program history, and he also had four tackles, one of them for loss.
With a convoy of blockers in front him –– linebacker Charles Snowden, safety De’Vante Cross and lineman Richard Burney –– Grant raced down the right sideline and into the south end zone after picking off Hollis Mathis’ pass. To Grant’s right was the section from which, as a freshman in 2016, he watched home games.
“When I got in the end zone, I kind of got a little emotional,” said Grant, who’s from Spotsylvania. “I looked up to where I used to sit my first year in the stands. I was just like, ‘It’s been a long road.’ It was kind of ironic that I scored on that side, facing that part of the stands.”
* Hollins, a 5-9, 200-pound true freshman from Louisiana. In Virginia’s season-opening win at Pitt last weekend, Hollins played only on special teams. Against W&M, on his first carry as a Cavalier, Hollins took a handoff from Bryce Perkins and ran 9 yards for a TD.
He later had a 37-yard gain and then, with 9:06 remaining, scored Virginia’s final TD on a 1-yard run. Hollins finished with 11 carries for 78 yards, both game highs.
“Mike’s tough,” Reed said. “He’s going to be a great running back. He’s quiet. He soaks in information. He just comes to practice every day ready to work, so I’m excited to see what more he has to bring to the table.”
• Backup quarterback Brennan Armstrong, a redshirt freshman from Ohio who took over for Perkins with UVA leading 42-3 in the third quarter.
Armstrong’s first series ended with the Cavaliers’ third turnover. He was hammered by a blitzing Trey Watkins, which caused an interception that another Tribe linebacker, Arman Jones, returned 47 yards for a TD. But Armstrong completed all nine of his other passes, for 103 yards, and ran three times for 13 yards.
“We saw and had a chance to evaluate quite a few of our depth players,” Mendenhall said, “and to do well in our league, from beginning to end, they’re going to need to have a role. So I liked what I saw from Brennan Armstrong at quarterback. I liked what I saw from Mike Hollins at running back.”
• Billy Kemp IV, a 5-9, 175-pound sophomore from the Richmond area who was held out of the season opener for violating team rules. Against W&M, Kemp had three receptions for 34 yards and ran back four punts for 51 yards.
“I really like Billy Kemp at punt returner,” Mendenhall said.
So does the Cavaliers’ special teams coordinator.
“He’s honestly one of the most natural punt-returners that I’ve coached,” Brumfield said. “He catches the ball consistently, and he can get up the field. He’s electric. I think he’s going to break one before this year is over.”
• Wide receiver Terrell Chatman, a graduate transfer from Arizona State, where his teammates in 2015 and ’16 included Perkins. Against W&M, Chatman caught three passes for 44 yards, including a 15-yarder from Perkins for a second-quarter touchdown.
“Really, my biggest emphasis for this year is just having fun with the game,” said Chatman, who was a seldom-used reserve at Arizona State. “I’ve been playing it for a long time. That was the frustrating part, having to sit out for so long. I felt like I could have produced more, and now I’m just getting my chance, and I’m going to make the most of the opportunity.”
• Inside linebackers Zane Zandier and Jordan Mack. On a night when UVA held William & Mary to 193 yards of total offense, Zandier, a junior, had a team-high nine tackles, including two for loss. Mack, a senior, had 2.5 tackles for loss.
THEY SAID IT: UVA, which improved its all-time record against the Tribe to 30-6-1, is 2-0 for the first time since 2012. Among the postgame comments
• Mendenhall on the two interceptions Perkins threw, each on an ill-advised pass: “Uncharacteristically, Bryce had a couple of turnovers. If there is a time to have those, now is that time, prior to us getting into the rest of ACC play.”
• Grant on his first interception return for a TD since his days at Courtland High School: “You can ask all my friends. I told them my first career pick is going to the crib, it’s going to be a touchdown. I’ve been saying that since my first year of college, and it just so happened that it came in my fourth year.”
• Chatman on reaching the end zone for the first time as a Cavalier: “It felt good. It felt natural. I hope it’s not my last time.”
NEXT UP: Virginia, in the midst of three-game homestand, takes on ACC rival Florida State next Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Scott Stadium.
ACC Network will air the game, for which tickets are still available. This will be the first meeting between UVA and FSU since 2014.
The Seminoles lead the series 15-3. The Cavaliers defeated FSU in 1995 and 2005 in Charlottesville and in 2011 in Tallahassee.
FSU (0-1), which blew an 18-point lead last weekend in its season-opening loss to Boise State, hosts Louisiana Monroe (1-0) today at 5 p.m. at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee.