Questions abound for a Virginia offense that scored 20 points or less points in seven of 12 games last season and begins Spring Football 2017 looking to replace its two leading rushers and three starters on the offensive line. This Spring is important to the offense for many reasons, starting with the offensive line.
What to Watch for on Offense in Spring Football 2017
Center Jackson Matteo, right tackle Eric Smith and left guard Michael Mooney are gone, leaving the Cavaliers with right guard Jack McDonald and left tackle Jack English returning as starters from last year’s team. Jake Fieler, who saw extensive action in a reserve role at guard last season, has been tabbed as the starting center this spring, which is not a real surprise considering he played one series at center in 2016. Rising sophomore guard R.J. Proctor also saw significant playing time last season; unfortunately, he is sidelined this spring with an injury.
The rest of Virginia’s scholarship linemen are rising junior Steven Moss (guard) and rising sophomores Ryan Bischoff (tackle who is out for the spring), Osiris Crutchfield (former defensive end, now offensive tackle), Ben Knutson (tackle) and Dillon Reinkensmeyer (guard/center). Walk-ons Trenton Jenkins (guard) and Ben Trent (tackle) are in the mix as well. Of this group, only Moss has seen live game action. That was limited time in one game this past season.
Reinforcements are on the way this summer in the form of three graduate transfers and five incoming freshmen. For now, Virginia has nine players to work with this spring. The downside to this razor thin depth chart is that Coach Bronco Mendenhall may not be able to put his team through as many reps as he would like. A potential silver lining is that this group will get significant reps this spring, and the experience hopefully will pay off depth-wise this coming season.
Nothing is certain, but given their experience it’s likely that either Proctor or incoming grad transfer Colin McGovern will man one of the starting guard spots this coming season. Right tackle is up for grabs. Grad transfer Brandon Pertile has been told he will play that position, so he could be the future starter, but that starting spot is very much up for grabs. This spring will enable the staff to give Fieler, a versatile player who has seen action at every position on the line, a good, long look at center. If he’s able to play well, Virginia has an experienced player ready to take over for Matteo this coming season. Reinkensmeyer is in the mix and touted incoming freshman Tyler Fannin will be too, but if Fieler performs well the Cavaliers will not have to rush the latter’s development. So far, so good.
“I like way Fieler is developing,” Mendenhall said last Friday.
As he has stated many times, Mendenhall is looking to establish succession in his program … the offensive line is one of the top areas of need in this regard.
Mendenhall made it clear that Kurt Benkert is the starter now and the expected starter this fall. This spring offers the rising senior signal caller a chance to gain more chemistry with his receiving corps as well as with the offensive coaches. Since he transferred in from ECU last summer, Benkert did not have the extra practice under his belt before last season.
While getting reps and practices with his receivers is crucial, another obvious key this spring is keeping Benkert healthy. He missed the 2015 season, which was his final year at ECU, with a torn ACL and he suffered a shoulder injury in game three with the Cavaliers last season. Benkert gutted out the rest the season, but Mendenhall believes his play was affected.
Starters Taquan Mizzell, who was UVA’s top rusher and receiver in 2016, and Albert Reid are gone, leaving both running back spots open. Upperclassmen Daniel Hamm and Jordan Ellis are the favorites to fill these respective roles, so this spring will be important for them to get adjusted. Both were backups last season and neither played whole lot at running back.
Virginia also welcomes two highly touted true freshman running backs to the fold this spring in Lamont Atkins and Jamari Peacock. Atkins, a Speed Back, was Virginia’s Gatorade Football Player of the Year in 2016, while Peacock, a Big Back, produced big time rushing yards at Yulee High School in Florida. Spring Football will be important for both of these young players to learn the system, get stronger, and be ready to at least provide depth this coming season. They may even push for starting roles.
Wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus was second on the team last season with 51 receptions, 30 more catches than he had his true freshman year. To be clear, the speedy wideout had a good year in 2016. However, I think he was underutilized.
As a freshman Zaccheaus had 33 carries, caught 21 passes, and returned 28 kickoffs and five punt returns. As a sophomore he had the big receptions number but had only three carries and no returns. I see Zaccheaus and think he could and should be a featured player on this team, not just as a receiver but in all three areas. The more touches the 5’9” speedster gets, the better.
Mendenhall indicated to VirginiaSports.com’s Jeff White that an expanded role is likely in the cards.
Who else will step up at receiver?
Virginia had four players reach double-digit receptions last season — Mizzell (52 catches), Zaccheaus (51), Doni Dowling (50), and Keeon Johnson (49). Mizzell and Johnson are gone. Dowling, while effective on the field, has been injury prone. Virginia will need another wide receiver to step up this coming season, but who is ready?
A player I believe could emerge this spring is David Eldridge III. Eldridge III only had eight receptions last season but led the team in yards per catch with 22.1. He was a dynamic receiver and returner at Kettle Run High School in Virginia, and now could be the 6’1”, 185-pound junior’s time to shine on the major college level.
Outside of Eldridge III, I do like the promise of UVA’s rising sophomore wideouts. Especially Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois. Reed’s speed and big-play ability were mostly evident as a kick returner, while Dubois is a big, physical receiver with good hands.