When you have a program that has endured five straight losing seasons, including a 2-10 record in Bronco Mendenhall’s first season as Cavalier head coach, there are bound to be many questions. Here are my five most pressing questions as the Cavaliers enter fall camp number two in the Mendenhall era.
Will this year’s offensive line be an improvement over the 2016 unit?
Senior left tackle Jack English is, in my opinion, the only sure-fire returning starter from last year’s solid-but-not-spectacular offensive line, which lost three of five starters to graduation. In addition to senior Jack McDonald, who started at right guard all of last season, junior Jake Fieler (C/G/T), sophomore R.J. Proctor (G/C), graduate transfer seniors John Montelus (G) and Brandon Pertile (T/G), redshirt freshmen Dillon Reinkensmeyer (C/G) and Ben Knutson (G/T), and perhaps one or two players from a talented incoming freshmen group (Tyler Fannin (C) and Ryan Nelson (T) are the likeliest possibilities in my opinion) are the primary competitors for the remaining four starting positions.
Who will emerge? Will the offensive line gel? Can the line be better than last season? How much depth will there be? Lots of questions about this unit for sure. The good news is that early returns on graduate transfers Montelus and Pertile have been positive, and Benkert told WINA’s Jay James that the offensive line as a whole looks bigger and better after another offseason under Frank Wintrich. Fingers crossed it can all come together for the Hoos.
How good can quarterback Kurt Benkert be?
By all accounts, UVA’s senior quarterback is ready to take the next step and lead the Cavalier offense to consistency and his team to a successful 2017 season. Benkert seems confident. From a health standpoint, he is in great shape, healed from a left shoulder injury that hampered him for most of last year. And his explosiveness has returned almost two years removed from ACL surgery. Additionally, Benkert has improved timing with his receivers as a result of hard work put in this past offseason.
Assuming he can stay healthy, a suitable and formidable offensive line can form, and new running backs can step up, Benkert seems primed for a very good year. However, his 2016 campaign ended on a sour note, losing his starting job to Matt Johns the last two games and turning in a 9-for-26 performance in the season finale at Virginia Tech. Preseason camp should provide at least a glimpse into the mental makeup of Benkert and how far he and the rest of the offense have truly come this offseason.
Can Virginia replace Donte Wilkins?
With Andrew Brown and Eli Hanback returning, Virginia has two proven, very good defensive ends. The question lies with the interior defensive line and who will replace the departed Donte Wilkins, who started all 12 games at nose for the Hoos last season.
The frontrunner to replace Wilkins appears to be sophomore Juwan Moye, who entered UVA as a potential outside linebacker but played his true freshman campaign at defensive end. Moye has good potential and could well be the answer, but is he ready?
Sophomore James Trucilla played six games last season before his playing time dwindled as the season went on. Senior Jack Powers saw some action at nose this spring. Both could provide needed depth at the position, but I’m not sure either is starter-ready if necessary. Incoming freshman Mandy Alonso is among the true freshmen who could get an early look.
Bottom-line, the nose tackle spot is well worth watching this preseason. Moye’s development is key, and we’ll see if anyone else steps up and is ready to contribute this fall.
Will Virginia find answers at placekicker and punter?
Virginia placekickers combined to make only 5-of-10 field goals last season. None of the five makes came from 40 yards and out. Meanwhile, punter Nicholas Conte was outstanding, averaging 44.3 yards per punt on his way to a first-team all-ACC performance. With Conte gone, Virginia will need to find answers at both kicking positions this coming season.
Junior Lester Coleman and redshirt freshman Nash Griffin handled the punting and field goal kicking duties in the spring. Junior Andrew King, who was off the team last year, is back and competing at placekicker. Highly acclaimed true freshman Brian Delaney enters the mix as well and should get an opportunity at both punter and placekicker. His strength is as a punter, but he was also recognized for his promise on kickoffs and field goals coming out of Westfield High School in Chantilly, Virginia.
Virginia struggled mightily with field goals and needs to replace its big-time punter. At this point we still don’t know who will assume those roles.
Can Virginia establish a consistent running game?
The Cavaliers averaged 113.6 yards rushing per game and 3.5 yards per rush per game last season, the former finishing no. 121 among 128 Division 1 programs. A healthy Kurt Benkert and some promising weapons at wide receiver is nice. However, a productive run game, or at least a respected and capable running threat, will be essential to a balanced offensive attack.
The aforementioned offensive line will be key, but Virginia is also looking to replace 2016 leading rushers Taquan Mizzell and Albert Reid. The Hoos look to running backs Jordan Ellis, Daniel Hamm, sophomore Chris Sharp, and perhaps true freshmen Lamont Atkins and Jamari Peacock to carry the rushing load.