By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — For the University of Virginia football team, spring practice concludes Saturday afternoon with the Blue-White game at Scott Stadium, where fans will note that many of the players expected to take on leading roles in the fall are sitting out the scrimmage.

Injuries and offseason rehabilitation are part of the sport, unfortunately, and they pose challenges for coaching staffs. The Cavaliers would prefer to have had a full complement of players available this spring, but the setbacks experienced by some players have created opportunities for others.

On offense, returning players include six linemen who started at least five games apiece for the Wahoos in 2023. Of those six, however, only Blake Steen and Ugonna Nnanna have been full participants this spring. Brian Stevens, McKale Boley, Ty Furnish and Noah Josey are recovering from injuries.

That’s meant extra work for Noah Hartsoe, Jack Witmer, Houston Curry and Charlie Patterson, among other linemen. The experience they’ve gained “hopefully builds enough confidence for those kids that are competing right now in the spring and confidence in us as coaches that they can go out there and play for us and we won’t skip a beat,” offensive coordinator Des Kitchings said. “There’s been flashes of that that’s been really good consistently, and then there’s been some times where it hasn’t been as good, so those guys have still got to take another step in order to really put themselves in that mix come the fall.”

The Hoos also have been shorthanded at running back and tight end. Tailbacks Kobe Pace, Noah Vaughn and Donte Hawthorne have taken most of the carries this spring, Xavier Brown and Jack Griese should be cleared before training camp starts in August.

The Cavaliers’ top two tight ends last season, Grant Misch and Sackett Wood, were seniors. Virginia has added two transfers at that position—Sage Ennis and Tyler Neville—but Ennis (Clemson) is recovering from a knee injury, and Neville won’t arrive in Charlottesville until he graduates from Harvard this spring.

“They’ve going to get every opportunity in fall camp,” said Kitchings, who oversees the tight ends. In the meantime, though, spring practice has been a chance for Karson Gay, TeKai Kirby, Henry Duke, Hayden Rollison and Dakota Twitty, a converted wide receiver, to prove that they can contribute at tight end, Kitchings said.

Virginia has had considerably more options at wideout this spring. Chris Tyree, a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, has been slowed recently by a minor injury, but others at that position, including Malachi Fields, JR Wilson, Suderian Harrison, Ethan Davies and transfers Andre Greene Jr. (North Carolina) and Trell Harris (Kent State), have caught scores of passes.

Of the Hoos’ returning wide receivers, Fields was the only one to make a significant contribution last year. He caught 58 passes for 811 yards and five touchdowns, and he’s now the “alpha” in that position group, quarterback Tony Muskett said.

“He checks every box,” Muskett said of the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Fields, a rising senior. Much less of a proven commodity is Wilson, but No. 17 impressed his coaches and teammates this spring after a disappointing 2023 season in which he caught only 10 passes.

“I like this 2024 J.R. Wilson,” Kitchings said, “and he needs to continue on that climb that he’s been on. Now we’ve created some really good quality depth in that room, which we’re going to need.”

Wilson, a 6-foot-4, 219-pound rising junior, has matured and become more consistent, Kitchings said, and that’s crucial, “because he’s always had the skill.”

The most productive Cavalier last season, on either side of the ball, was record-setting wideout Malik Washington, who caught 110 passes for 1,426 and nine touchdowns.

“I don’t know if anybody’s gonna produce another year like Malik,” Kitchings said, “but if we could collectively put up those numbers and translate it into wins, we’re all be happy.”

JR Wilson

Two quarterbacks started for UVA last season—Muskett and Anthony Colandrea—and both are back this season. Muskett had offseason surgery on his non-throwing shoulder, but “he killed the the rehab process to get back for [spring practice],” quarterbacks coach Taylor Lamb said, and that’s benefited the offense.

The coaching staff is in no rush to name a starting quarterback, and Muskett and Colandrea have split time with the first- and second-team offenses this spring.

“They’re pushing each other, which is great,” Lamb said.

Before spring practice began, Muskett said, he and Colandrea met with head coach Tony Elliott, who “was just very open about it. He said, ‘In the spring, we’re not going to really focus on that. We just want to see you guys go out and play football.’ And so that’s kind of been my mindset, whether I’m taking reps with the first team, second team or all freshmen out there.”

Colandrea said: “We’re both just coming in and competing, and that’s the same thing that happened last year. We just both came to work and competed. And we’ve really never just thought about who’s going to start, this and that. It’s just both of us competing, doing our job, and just helping this offense go win games.”

Muskett was twice sidelined by injuries last season, and Colandrea, a true freshman, ended up starting six games. His playmaking ability was clear, but he also made his share of ill-advised decisions.

High-risk, high-reward throws are part of Colandrea’s game, and Elliott doesn’t want to turn No. 10 into a robot on the field. Elliott has reminded him, Colandrea said, that “you also have to know when to calm down, know when to go to your checkdown [option]. But at the end of the day, Coach, he just wants me to go out there and play football and just play how I play.”

Colandrea enrolled at UVA in January 2023 and went through spring ball with the team last spring. He didn’t know what to expect in the Blue-White game or in the fall, but “this year, I kind of know what’s going to happen, know how the offense is,” Colandrea said. “So I feel I definitely feel more developed into this system, and I definitely know what’s going on now.”

In 2023, when they finished 3-9 overall, the Cavaliers ranked 12th among ACC teams in scoring offense (23.3 ppg) and last in scoring defense (33.8 ppg). Both units expect to be improved this season.

Des Kitchings (left) with quarterback Anthony Colandrea

Injuries ravaged UVA’s defense last season, forcing the coaching staff to thrust inexperienced players into key roles.

“We had 1,400 snaps that true freshmen played last season, which I think in my coaching career, that’s the most I’ve seen for a defensive unit,” defensive coordinator John Rudzinski said.

Those first-years included end Mekhi Buchanan, tackles Jason Hammond and Anthony Britton, linebacker Kam Robinson, cornerback Dre Walker and safety Caleb Hardy, and it was a tremendous “growth opportunity for those guys,” Rudzinski said. “Now, experience ends up being a great catalyst for guys understanding what the preparation looks like on a game week. Also, they have a better understanding as far as how fast, how aggressive the game is, and I hope that that those snaps end up translating for us continuing to have great training cycles.”

The defense’s focus this spring, Rudzinski said, has been on being “fast, intelligent and tough. I know that that’s Coach Elliot’s mission here for what he wants his football team to look like. It’s the same thing we want our defense to look like … I think guys have competed at a really high level, and I’m excited about all the progress that we’ve made.”

Returning veterans abound on the defense, including ends Kam Butler, Chico Bennett Jr. and Ben Smiley III, tackles Jahmeer Carter and Michael Diatta, linebacker James Jackson, cornerback Malcolm Greene, and safeties Jonas Sanker and Antonio Clary. Sanker led the team in tackles last season and was named to the All-ACC first team.

Clary missed all of last season with an ankle injury, and Butler suffered a season-ending injury in their fourth game last year. Bennett, who led the team in sacks in 2022, played in 11 games last year, but a preseason knee injury kept him from regaining his form from the previous season. Like Clary, Bennett is healthy and has been a standout this spring.

“Fired up,” Rudzinski said Wednesday when asked how he felt about his group. “We’ve got a ton of experience. We’ve got a ton of college football snaps, collectively, and frankly, it starts with our front seven. You’ve got to be really, really good up front. We’ve talked about it all spring long. Our front seven, they’ve got to earn the right to rush the passer, which starts with us being great against the run, and that’ll end up translating for us to play really good defense.”

The defense learned hard lessons last season, Rudzinski acknowledged, and they helped “kind of propel us into spring practice and also serve as great motivation for the work that we do as a staff, and I know for our players as well.”

Four transfers have joined the defense since the end of last season: Corey Thomas Jr. (Akron), Jam Jackson (Robert Morris), Kendren Smith (Penn) and Kempton Shine (Eastern Michigan).

Thomas’s attributes include his versatility.

“We’re looking for guys that have played a ton of football, that have great football IQ, and love the game,” Rudzinski said. “He matches all three of those, and we’re blessed that he’s a 6-4, 215-pound safety-linebacker. Goodness, he could rush the passer for us. So there’s a lot of different things that he could do schematically, and what’s great about him is he loves to work. And you see it as far as his preparation for meetings, his preparation in the weight room and what he’s doing nutritionally, and then also his recovery.”

Virginia recorded only 11 sacks last season, tying BYU for the fewest by an FBS team. Rudzinski knows the Hoos must improve in that area, and that starts, he said, by doing a “great job versus the run. And what that does is, that translates to your ability to be able to rush the passer. You earn that right to rush the passer, and if we’re not great first against the run, it’s tough to think that you can pin your ears back and go after that quarterback.”

The Blue-White game will start at 2 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free for fans.

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