"My number one goal when I came here was getting that UVA degree … I came here with a lot of goals and I think all are achievable as long as I work!" – @malik_w2
— Virginia Cavaliers (@VirginiaSports) September 26, 2023
Cavaliers' Offensive Options Expected to Grow
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — He’s been back at practice for a couple of weeks, steadily increasing his workload, but University of Virginia quarterback Tony Muskett hasn’t played in a game since Sept. 2, when he injured his non-throwing shoulder early in the fourth quarter of the season opener against Tennessee.
Muskett, a transfer from Monmouth, is in his first season at Virginia. So is Anthony Colandrea, a true freshman who enrolled at the University in January.
In Muskett’s absence, Colandrea has taken command of the Cavaliers’ offense and ranks second among ACC quarterbacks in yards per completion (14.7) and third in yards per pass attempt (9.1). He’s completed 61.8 percent of his passes for 923 yards and five touchdowns, with six interceptions.
“I think we have a good sample size of what Colandrea can do,” UVA head coach Tony Elliott said Tuesday during his weekly news conference at John Paul Jones Arena.
Elliott pointed out that Muskett, who earned the starting job during training camp, has played barely three quarters as a Cavalier and “needs to be evaluated in the game as well.”
That might happen Saturday afternoon. In an ACC game to air on The CW, Virginia (0-4, 0-1) meets Boston College (1-3, 0-2) at 2 o’clock in Chestnut Hill, Mass.
“My philosophy is you don’t lose your starting job because of injury,” Elliot said. “Each week we go into it with Tony being the guy until we get to the game and we assess [Muskett’s health]. I think he’s much closer. I anticipate that Tony will be ready to play this week, and that’s how we’ll roll.”
If both quarterbacks are available, Elliott was asked, might the Wahoos use both in the same game? He didn’t rule out that possibility.
“Both of them have to be ready,” Elliott said. “I think that they have a really good relationship and I see them hanging out together. They push each other in practice. There is healthy competition. For me, it’s whatever gives us the best chance [to win]. I won’t know that until we get a good sample size on Tony in the game.”
The targets for Virginia’s quarterback, whether it’s Muskett or Colandrea, include two of the ACC’s top wide receivers. Malachi Fields has 22 catches for 267 yards this season, and Malik Washington, a graduate transfer from Northwestern, has caught 28 passes for 459 yards and three touchdowns.
Washington was honored Monday as ACC Wide Receiver of the Week for his performance Friday night against NC State. He recorded career highs in receptions (10), receiving yards (170) and TD receptions (two) and extended to 29 his streak of consecutive games with a catch.
“Malik is a dude,” Virginia offensive lineman Ugonna Nnanna said after practice Tuesday.
Against BC, Washington will try to become the first player in program history to post four straight games with at least 100 yards receiving.
“He’s a very organized, detailed young man,” Elliott said. “He came in obviously pretty polished [after] four years at Northwestern, so what he brings is just his skillset, leadership, attention to detail. He has a passion and desire to improve.
“I think he has some goals set for himself and he’s working every day. What I like about him, as I tell everybody on the team, is your commitment has to be greater than the goal. His commitment is at a high level, and that’s why he’s been able to be productive.”
MEDICAL REPORT: The list of the Cavaliers’ injured players remains lengthy. Among those already ruled out of the Boston College game, Elliott said, are defensive ends Kam Butler and Paul Akere and safeties Lex Long and Antonio Clary. Another defensive end, Ben Smiley III, is questionable, and linebacker Josh Ahern is probable.
Akere, Long, Clary, Smiley and Ahern missed the NC State game. Butler started against the Wolfpack but suffered an injury in the final minute of the first half, and his status for the rest of the season is uncertain.
“We got some guys down, but it’s next man up,” Elliott said. “Got to be ready to go.”
The rash of injuries has meant increased playing time for true freshmen Kam Robinson (linebacker), Dre Walker (cornerback) and Mekhi Buchanan (defensive end), as well junior defensive end Bryce Carter, who appeared in only four games last season.
“We’re really proud of him,” Elliott said of Carter, who’s from the Richmond area. “I think ability was never a question on Bryce. It was just the maturation process, and like some of the other young guys, it’s going to be accelerated for him now … He’s made plays for us, and he’s going to have to make a lot more plays. I think he’s ready to accept the challenge.”
With Ahern out, Robinson started at middle linebacker against NC State and led the Hoos with 11 tackles. He was considered the jewel of the recruiting class that enrolled at Virginia this year, and Robinson always was expected to earn a spot in the rotation at linebacker.
Robinson, who’s from Essex High, a small school near this state’s Northern Neck, chose UVA over such schools as Florida State and South Carolina.
“There at the end the secret kind of got out,” Elliott said, “and we were crossing our fingers … holding on, hoping that we could get him.”
Elliott said he sees Robinson as a “program-changer” for the Cavaliers.
“Here is a guy that was a three-sport athlete that wasn’t in the weight room and comes in at 220 pounds and looks like what a football player [is supposed to look] like,” Elliott said. “You watch him take off and run, he’s very explosive. He’s got good football instincts. He’s athletic. He can do things in pass coverage that you don’t typically see out of that position. Then when he diagnoses the play he arrives fast and he arrives violently.”
ROOM TO IMPROVE: Special teams breakdowns have plagued UVA this season, and they’re among the main reasons the team is still looking for its first victory.
To try to shore up those holes, Elliott said, in practice “we’re spending as much time as we can allot to special teams. You see some personnel changes. We’ve played some different personnel at positions just trying to figure out if certain individuals give us a better opportunity to be able to be successful.”
STAYING POSITIVE: This is the first time since 1982 that the Hoos have started a season 0-4. Elliott said he’s reminded his players that there are signs of progress, whether Virginia’s record reflects that or not.
In their Sept. 9 home opener, the Cavaliers built an 11-point fourth-quarter lead on James Madison, which stormed back to win 36-35.
Against unbeaten Maryland on Sept. 15, Virginia scored the game’s first 14 points. The Terrapins, playing at home, rallied to take the lead, but it was still a one-touchdown game early in the fourth quarter when the Cavaliers, in the red zone, committed the first of four straight turnovers. The Terps won going away, 42-14.
Against NC State, the Hoos rallied for a touchdown and two-point conversion in the final minute, tying the game at 21-21, only to self-destruct with multiple penalties. The Wolfpack won 24-21 on a 33-yard field goal.
Elliott said he’s tried to offer perspective to his players. “Everything they’ve had to do to get to where they are should be encouraging that we’re going in the right direction. Stay the course. Stay the course. So showing them the progress that’s being made, putting in context what they have accomplished despite what the record says.”
Nnanna, who’s started every game at right offensive tackle, said he and his teammates “all know that we’re getting closer and closer. As rough as it’s been, as much as we want to win every game, every game we’re getting closer and closer. Every game is an inch closer to where we want to be. So just making sure we keep that mindset, making sure that we keep trusting each other and leaning on each other, because we only have each other. As long as we trust each other and believe in each other, everything will come together.”
It’s not easy to start a new week of practice after a loss, Nnanna said, “but at the same time, we just all believe in each other. We know we’re playing for the guy next to us, and that makes us want to play even harder regardless of what the circumstances are. The outside noise doesn’t matter to us. Although we haven’t gotten the results we wanted, we know how hard we’ve worked, so we’re just looking to the future and what’s ahead of us.”
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