Watching one of Virginia’s first fall camp practices last year, it was evident Kurt Benkert had an attractive set of skills. Benkert, who graduated from East Carolina in the spring of 2016 before arriving on Grounds, impressed with his size (6’4″, 220 pounds), a live arm, and some highlight-reel touchdown passes.
The Cape Coral (FL) native’s physical skills and leadership capabilities were evident to Cavalier head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who named him the team’s starting quarterback in August of 2016.
“When I first saw him, even though he had his knee brace on and he came in for fall camp, instantly there was a presence and the ability to make every throw,” Bronco Mendenhall said of Benkert, who beat out incumbent starter Matt Johns and senior Connor Brewer for the starting role in 2016. “Those are the two things I noticed first. What was also clear at that time is his mobility was not back, and his understanding in a brand new system was going to take time. So all those things were apparent at the beginning.”
In the summer of 2015, shortly after winning East Carolina’s starting quarterback spot, Benkert suffered a torn ACL. Subsequent surgery put him on the sideline for the 2015 season. As Mendenhall mentioned, Benkert was not 100-percent recovered from the injury as he entered his first year at UVA. Still, he did some good things for the Cavaliers, setting the UVA single game record for passing yards with 421 in a win over Central Michigan. His 21 touchdown passes tied Shawn Moore and Bobby Goodman for second-most in a single season in UVA history.
To be sure, Benkert endured struggles in his first year as a major college starter. He dealt with consistency issues and lost his starting spot the final two games of the season. What we didn’t know until this spring is that Benkert was injured most of the season.
“What we held pretty close to the vest a year ago is the hit he took in the UConn game, which was early in the year, had a significant impact on what we could do with him and what we did do with him and what we chose to do with him,” Mendenhall said. “And I think he handled that really, really well, fighting through a lot of adversity.”
UConn was Virginia’s third opponent of the 2016 regular season. A hit in this game resulted in what was later revealed to be a Grade 3 separation of the AC Joint in Benkert’s left shoulder. Despite this, he would start Virginia’s next seven games. Overall, Benkert started 10 of Virginia’s 12 games last season and played in 11 of 12.
“I think playing through that difficulty really kind of showed me who I was and what I could take as a player and kind of helped push me to my limits,” Benkert said. “I’m really looking forward to playing and starting the season healthy and getting through it that way. It was something that was difficult, but I got through it, and I was really happy I was able to do that.”
Benkert has fully recovered from the shoulder injury. And at the ACC Kickoff event, he said he has his explosiveness back in his legs as it has been almost two years since knee surgery.
Additionally, a season in the Virginia program provided Benkert with much needed starting experience as well as a familiarity with the coaches and players. Having a full grasp of the system and the players surrounding him, Benkert is confident as he heads into his senior year as Virginia’s unquestioned starter.
“Spring was really big for us, but I think the biggest part is just understanding who’s in the offense, who I’m throwing the ball to, who’s in front of me, what the running backs can do, and just really understanding personnel, and that just takes time and it takes a lot of extra time outside of the two hours here and there that we’re required to be there,” said Benkert, who didn’t have a chance to participate in UVA spring ball in 2016 because he was finishing up at ECU. “There’s been a lot of extra work put in behind the scenes, so we’re looking forward to it paying off.”
A seasoned and healthy Benkert is critically important for this Virginia program, Mendenhall said.
“What I see at this point — and I’m now taking and moving back to spring practice — he’s more mobile, he’s more accurate, he’s more confident, he’s certainly healthier, and will need to remain so for us to continue to move the program forward, at least in year two the way we would hope. He’s critical to that,” Mendenhall said. “And so that’s a unique challenge now as the head coach is to design systems to make sure he can remain healthy, confident, and capable in practice and in the games but still have the aggressive edge in terms of play calling and utilizing him that allow us to have the advantage we need competitively.”
Although rising redshirt freshman De’Vante Cross was listed as the backup quarterback, Benkert took virtually all of the offensive snaps in the 2017 Spring Game. Perhaps that was because former Missouri quarterback Marvin Zanders was expected to enroll as a graduate transfer this summer. Had that happened, Zanders, who would have been immediately eligible and would have had two years of eligibility remaining, would have given the Hoos an experienced backup behind Benkert.
On June 9, however, Virginia announced that Zanders would not enroll. Coach Mendenhall told reporters today that he was denied admission into Virginia and is expected to head to Vanderbilt. With Zanders out and 2016 recruit Sonny Abramson no longer with the program, only two scholarship quarterbacks are behind Benkert this season: Cross and true freshman Lindell Stone.
Daily Press reporter David Teel tweeted who Mendenhall says is the likely backup now.
— David Teel (@DavidTeelatDP) July 14, 2017
Cross was used as a multi-positional player this spring, seeing time at quarterback and wide receiver. Look for him to continue operating in this role, while Stone, a heralded incoming freshman out of Woodberry Forest (VA), appears to be the primary backup.