By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– On the first day of the spring semester, the University of Virginia’s 2020 football team gathered at the McCue Center for its first meeting of the new year.
Before addressing the tasks that lie ahead for the Cavaliers, head coach Bronco Mendenhall saluted the past Monday morning. The team was shown “pictures today of every player that was leaving, and that was hard,” Mendenhall said later that morning in his office.
Departing Cavaliers include quarterback Bryce Perkins, wide receivers Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed, defensive lineman Eli Hanback, linebacker Jordan Mack and cornerback Bryce Hall.
“They’ve been the pillars of this era of the program,” Mendenhall said, “and they’re amazing kids and really good football players who gave so much. So it was a little somber after we showed that. But then I showed the pictures of all the returning players, and you could feel the mood in the room [brighten].”
The Wahoos’ fourth season under Mendenhall ended late last month with the program’s first appearance in the Orange Bowl. UVA lost 36-28 to No. 9 Florida at Hard Rock Stadium to finish with a 9-5 record. Three of those losses were by eight points or fewer.
“I’m really pleased with the trajectory and the metrics that we’ve hit in four straight years to build and become what I would consider a top-25 football program,” Mendenhall said. “Whether we finish there or not, I don’t know, but that’s where I consider us.”
Virginia’s worst performance of the season––a 62-17 loss to No. 3 Clemson––came in the ACC championship game, but that experience provided Mendenhall with important information, as did the Orange Bowl.
The Cavaliers put themselves in position to upset the Gators, and Mendenhall said he came away from that game disappointed, “but encouraged to move forward. So it was another program accelerator, as far as I’m concerned.”
The matchups against Clemson and Florida gave him a better understanding of what UVA needs to compete against the nation’s elite, Mendenhall said, “and I’m clearer now about what disparities or differences have to be addressed.”
The final two games were reminders that defensive backs, like quarterbacks, are disproportionately valuable in today’s game, Mendenhall said. Perkins sparkled late in the season, most memorably in the Nov. 29 victory over Virginia Tech that returned the Commonwealth Cup to Charlottesville, and Clemson and Florida torched UVA’s injury-ravaged secondary.
The Cavaliers, who clinched their first Coastal Division title in November, should be deep and talented in the secondary next season. None of the defensive backs who played against Florida was a senior, and cornerback Darrius Bratton and safeties Brenton Nelson and Antonio Clary will be back after suffering season-ending injuries in 2019.
Hall and Mack missed the Orange Bowl with injuries. In the front seven, Hanback was the only senior who played against the Gators.
There were no seniors on the offensive line last season, and none of the running backs who played regularly was a senior. But with Perkins, Reed, Dubois and tight end Tanner Cowley gone, the offense will have significant changes.
“I thought the receiver group was the strongest position group on the team last year, excluding Bryce Perkins,” Mendenhall said.
At quarterback, Brennan Armstrong has been Perkins’ understudy for the past two seasons, and the rising sophomore is expected to run the first-team offense when spring practice starts in late March.
Behind Armstrong, for now, are RJ Harvey, who redshirted as a freshman last season; Ira Armstead, a true freshman who enrolled at UVA this month; and Lindell Stone, a veteran who’s a pro-style quarterback in an offense designed to feature mobile quarterbacks.
In only two seasons, Perkins set the program record for career total offense. Still, the Cavaliers’ quarterback situation was precarious at times in 2019. Perkins suffered a knee injury during training camp that limited his mobility for much of the season, and Armstrong missed four regular-season games with turf toe.
“I learned this year that we need two, not one,” Mendenhall said. “So we’ll find out how close RJ and Ira are. We need quarterback clarity. We already know what Lindell can do and what his role is, but we’ll have to solidify two very good players at quarterback, knowing I’m very excited about Brennan.”
If, at the end of spring practice, the coaching staff decides another quarterback is needed, adding a graduate transfer would be an option, Mendenhall said, ideally one with two years of eligibility. “And that will not signify that we don’t have trust in Brennan. What that will signify is we know we need two.”
At tight end, Grant Misch takes over for Cowley, who caught 28 passes for 311 yards and one touchdown in 2019. At wide receiver, the holes are larger. Reed and Dubois combined to catch 152 passes for 1,741 yards and 13 TDs.
Among the wideouts returning are Terrell Jana, who caught 74 passes for 886 yards and three TDs last season; Billy Kemp IV (35 receptions for 289 yards and one TD); Tavares Kelly Jr. (14 catches for 152 yards and one TD); and Dontayvion Wicks, (three catches for 61 yards and one TD). That’s a solid core, “but we’ll need another three [productive] receivers,” Mendenhall said.
Some of those receivers may be in the program already, and Lavel Davis, a 6-7, 205-pound wideout, signed with UVA last month and will join the team in July. Moreover, Mendenhall said, the Cavaliers will probably add a graduate transfer at that position.
Virginia is close to the NCAA limit of 85 scholarship players, but Mendenhall won’t be surprised if several projected backups choose to enter the transfer portal.
“[Attrition] really will determine if there is a numbers crunch,” Mendenhall said. “Right now there is, but we’re recruiting as if there isn’t, just because of volatility.”
Three true freshmen joined the program this month: Armstead, tight end Joshua Rawlings, and defensive back Donovan Johnson. Mendenhall’s message to the newcomers and his returning players Monday morning?
“It pretty simple,” he said, “that this is The Standard. It means more wins. It means bowl games that are later in the year, and then it means repeating that.”
Virginia opens the season Sept. 7 against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
“It’s awesome,” Mendenhall said of the opportunity.
Like Florida, Georgia is a perennial power from the Southeastern Conference, and Virginia’s players are eager to test themselves on a big stage again. “Even though we did not win the [Orange Bowl] or play well enough to win, they absolutely know they’re capable,” Mendenhall said.
The Cavaliers’ winter strength and conditioning program, supervised by director of football development and performance Shawn Griswold, begins Tuesday morning.
UP IN THE AIR: Mendenhall said he’s not sure if punter Nash Griffin will return for a fifth year. Griffin, a fourth-year student in the McIntire School of Commerce, has a job offer but is interested in playing for the Cavaliers in 2020, if he’s on scholarship.
Brian Delaney, who handles UVA’s kicking duties, is also a talented punter, and Mendenhall won’t know until the end of the spring, or perhaps summer, if a scholarship will be available for Griffin.
“I would love to have Nash stay,” Mendenhall said, “but whether he chooses to stay with the team, kind of in limbo, without knowing for sure if he’ll have aid or not, he’s wrestling with that. Which is normal.”
STAFF CHANGES: Three of Mendenhall’s four graduate assistants––Jackson Matteo, Kirk Garner and Andrew Meyer–– completed their terms in 2019. Their replacements are Donte Wilkins, Joe Spaziani and Charles Mack.
Like Matteo and Garner, Wilkins and Spaziani are former UVA players. Mack, who played at Richmond, is Jordan Mack’s brother.
Charles Mack and Wilkins were among the Cavaliers’ regional recruiting scouts in 2019, and Spaziani played in the Canadian Football League.
“Jackson, Kirk and Drew, they had as much to do with our success as anyone,” Mendenhall said, “and the graduate assistant role is so critical to how we function. And so much like I presented to the team, these three new GAs are responsible for another tier of unbroken growth.
“With each successive climb or step in the program, there’s less air to squeeze out. But every team that we’ve had so far has done that.”
Mendenhall said Wilkins and Mack will be replaced on the recruiting staff as soon as possible.
YOUNG GUNS: Of Virginia’s true freshmen in 2019, seven played in more than four games and thus used a year of eligibility: Wicks, Clary, nose tackle Jowon Briggs, running back Mike Hollins, safety Tenyeh Dixon, and linebackers Nick Jackson and Jairus Satiu.
Of that group, Briggs, Jackson and Wicks played the most, and “they were very capable,” Mendenhall said. “I feel that way about basically that whole class.”
Of the newcomers who retained a year of eligibility, among those who have impressed Mendenhall are cornerbacks Major Williams and Fentrell Cypress II, defensive end Ben Smiley III, linebacker Josh Ahern, wideout Dorien Goddard and offensive lineman Ja’Quay Hubbard.