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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Among the players the University of Virginia football team had to replace after the Belk Bowl in 2018 was wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, who as a senior that season caught a program-record 93 passes for 1,058 yards and nine touchdowns.
With Zaccheaus gone, Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois stepped forward as seniors last season, and between them they had 152 receptions for 1,741 yards and 13 TDs. That’s a significant amount of production lost, but Marques Hagans, who coaches the Cavaliers’ wideouts, has confidence in his group.
“I think that the guys that are up next, they’re willing and they’re eager to prove that they’re here for a reason, and they’re excited,” Hagans said. “I think we have enough guys in our group to get it done collectively. Every year there’s someone who surprises you, and I’m anxious to see who that person will be.”
UVA’s returning receivers include Terrell Jana, Billy Kemp IV, Tavares Kelly Jr., Dontayvion Wicks, Hayden Mitchell, Dorien Goddard and Ugo Obasi. In 2019, when the Wahoos won the ACC’s Coastal Division, Jana caught 75 passes for 886 yards and three touchdowns. Kemp, Kelly and Wicks had one TD reception each. Kemp caught 35 passes for 289 yards.
“I don’t know which individual is going to stand out and have the most productive season,” Hagans said. “I’m definitely thankful to have Jana coming back, not just as a player but as a leader. He really sets the example and holds the standard at a high level, which reflects through our room and our culture, and he’s able to hold the guys to a high standard as well.”
Obasi, who appeared in 10 games as a true freshman in 2018, battled injuries last season. He played in only three games and so was able to retain that year of eligibility. A graduate of Milford Mill Academy in Baltimore, the 6-0, 195-pound Obasi has yet to catch a pass as Cavalier, but he has the tools necessary to excel at wideout.
Hagans noted that several former standout receivers at UVA, including Darius Jennings, Canaan Severin and Andre Levrone, struggled with injuries early in their college careers.
“When it finally clicks, you’re like, ‘Wow, those are really good players,’ ” Hagans said. “I think Ugo’s the next in line. He’s a great athlete. I’ll say that without even blinking. He’s a really good basketball player. He has good speed, good size, good strength. You look at him, and he looks like what you want. Now it’s a matter of can he put all that together and have the success and consistency that we need him to have on the field.”
New wideouts in the program include Ra’Shaun Henry, a graduate transfer from St. Francis (Pa.), which competes in the Football Championship Subdivision. In 2019, when he was named to the All-Northeast Conference first team, the 6-3, 195-pound Henry caught 90 passes for 1,118 yards and nine touchdowns.
Henry’s attitude impressed Hagans immediately.
“Our first couple of conversations weren’t about what we could do for him,” Hagans said. “They were about what he could do for us, and I mean that work-wise, special teams-wise. He just wanted the opportunity to prove that he could play on a higher level. And so there’s a little chip on his shoulder to prove that he can play on this level, but also a willingness to do whatever the team needs. It wasn’t like, ‘I gotta get this, I gotta get that.’ It was like, ‘Coach, I just want to help. I want to contribute and prove that I can play on this level.’ “
With graduate transfers, talent is not the only consideration for UVA’s coaches, Hagans said. “You also don’t want to ruin the culture of what you’re building and what you’ve established. If you don’t bring in the right people, it puts you in a funny position with your [returning] players as far as trust, because if you’re working to build something to make it a certain thing and then you bring somebody in who doesn’t represent that or doesn’t mesh with that, you can always lose credibility with the players.”
NEW CHAPTER: The Orange Bowl marked the end of Bryce Perkins’ short but illustrious UVA career, and now other dual-threat quarterbacks are ready to compete for the starting job. Brennan Armstrong, Perkins’ understudy in 2018 and ’19, is back, and the Hoos added a graduate transfer this spring, Ketaoyn Thompson from Mississippi State, who has two years of eligibility left.
“We knew we needed another guy in the room for competition, for depth, and for the stability of our program,” Virginia quarterbacks coach Jason Beck said on a videoconference Thursday.
Thompson, who’s listed at 6-foot-4, 225-pounds, is from New Orleans, as is Ricky Brumfield, the Cavaliers’ special teams coordinator. As a senior at Landry-Walker High, Thompson was named Louisiana’s Gatorade player of the year in football and also starred in basketball.
“He’s a really good fit for what we do, both in terms of quality of player, but also quality of person,” Beck said. “Great reviews talking to previous coaches and people that know him, just about his work ethic, his leadership, the type of person he is. So he’s a great fit for us here at Virginia and will give us great competition between him and Brennan.”
Armstrong, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound redshirt sophomore, has been home in Ohio since the COVID-19 pandemic started.
“He’s a competitor, he’s confident, he’s been ready to play the last couple years, and he’s just making the most of this time and this opportunity to put himself in a position to be successful,” Beck said.
Perkins, who transferred to UVA from an Arizona junior college in January 2018, needed only two seasons to amass 7,910 career yards of total offense, a school record. He established a standard to which his successors in head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s program will aspire.
“Every year we want to have a passer who’s throwing it for 3,000 yards, and we want to have a guy who’s a threat in the run game, 500-plus yards in the run game,” Beck said.
CHEMISTRY CLASS: UVA’s entire starting offensive line from 2019 is back, as well as Jana, Kemp, Kelly, and running backs Wayne Taulapapa and Mike Hollins, among others. But the Cavaliers’ most dynamic players on offense last season––Perkins, Reed and Dubois––are gone. So is tight end Tanner Cowley, another productive part of the passing game.
“Without spring ball, we lost out on those 15 practices to develop chemistry and to foster that to get rolling through summer and into fall camp,” Beck said. “So we’re doing some new, innovative things to try to develop that chemistry amongst those guys, even at this time. Obviously, that’s through technology, through film, through conversation, but we want to encourage those guys to be connecting with each other and talking with each other, just as much as we as coaches are doing it with them, because we need that chemistry to build amongst those groups.”
HIGH PRAISE: On a videoconference Tuesday, co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga compared rising sophomore Nick Jackson to Micah Kiser, who earned All-America honors as an inside linebacker in UVA’s 3-4 scheme.
Jackson started two games, including the Orange Bowl, as a true freshman last season. He’s similar to Kiser “as far as being really smart and understanding the defense,” Poppinga said. 
“Now, he doesn’t have the vocal and the leadership and the presence that Micah has, but I’d like to see what Micah looked like coming out of his freshman year, what kind of presence and leadership he had. I think that’s going to be gained with Nick as he continues to get game experience, gains confidence and gains respect from the team.”
Jackson, who’s from Atlanta, was “thrown into the fire” last season when Jordan Mack wasn’t available, Poppinga said. “But all that has really prepared him for this season, and he’s had a great offseason. Players send us videos of different things that they’re doing, and he sent us a video the other day, and I was blown away. I was impressed. He looks great, he’s moving great. 
“He looks like a man on a mission right now, so I’m really excited to see him come back and see what he can do once we get the pads on.”
POSITION OF STRENGTH: Poppinga oversees Virginia’s outside linebackers, a group that has few peers in college football. Its leaders are Charles Snowden, Noah Taylor and Matt Gahm.
“I think they’re kind of the steady forces of our defense right now,” Poppinga said. “It doesn’t matter what combination of the three are on the field, we know when those outside ‘backers are on the field, they’re reliable, they’re going to make plays, and they’re going to help our team win.”
Taylor, who had a momentum-changing interception late in UVA’s comeback win over Virginia Tech last season, is a rising junior. He stands 6-foot-5 and hopes to play at about 230 pounds this season. He’s already one of the Cavaliers’ most versatile players.
“We have a saying here, ‘The more you can do, the more you can do, and the more you can do, the more valuable you are,’ ” Mendenhall said.
In 2019, Taylor led the Hoos with 13.5 tackles for loss, including seven sacks. He had two interceptions, broke up four passes, forced a fumble, and blocked a punt. At various times last year, UVA used Taylor at defensive end, outside linebacker, and safety.
“Obviously, as the season went on, it seemed like he was doing more and more things for us and making more and more plays,” Poppinga said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been around a kid that loves football as much as Noah. He loves, loves football. He’s always wanting to work out, he’s always wanting to watch film, he’s always wanting to talk football, he’s always texting me, calling me, wanting to do Zoom calls to watch film with him. That just shows the commitment that this kid has and the passion that he has for the game, which I love, and it shows on the field … He’s just a student of the game. We expect big things from him. He obviously expects bigger things from himself.”
SILVER LINING: Coaches have been stuck at home, with no on-campus visits allowed, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cavaliers’ staff has had to get creative in recruiting, with eye-catching results. UVA has received numerous commitments since the pandemic began.
“I think the main thing that we’ve taken away from this is we should have been using Zoom a long time ago, honestly,” Poppinga said. “We should have been using this technology with kids that maybe have not had the opportunity, or would not have the opportunity, to come out to Virginia. We could do a lot of things over Zoom calls, a lot of different things that we just never thought we could do. [That’s helped many players] make a decision without them ever being here.”
When the restrictions are lifted, UVA’s coaches will go back on the road, but they’ll also “continue to use these Zoom calls during recruiting to help players experience different things that they might not be able to experience until they get here,” Poppinga said.