50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff: Stars & Sleepers

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Senior cornerback Bryce Hall is one of the stars of this 2019 Virginia football team. ~ Photo by Kris Wright

Preseason practice 2019 has arrived for Virginia football, which is looking to build off a successful 2018 campaign that included an 8-5 record and the program’s first bowl victory since 2005. The Cavaliers, the media’s pick to capture the Coastal Division this season, return major pieces from last year’s squad.

In this “50 Thoughts” series feature, let’s look at those “major pieces” – the “stars” at each position – as well as those players who could emerge to become significant contributors in head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s fourth season at UVA.

44 – Stars & Sleepers

QUARTERBACK

Star: Bryce Perkins (Sr)

Coach Mendenhall put a lot on Perkins’ shoulders ahead of last season, openly stating how the team’s success would depend on his performance. The Arizona native responded by exceeding expectations as he was one of two Division 1 quarterbacks to pass for over 2,600 yards and rush for over 900 yards. He earned the respect of his teammates, not only with his play but also with his work ethic and toughness while playing through an injured finger on his throwing hand. Perkins capped off a tremendous season with a terrific performance in the 2018 Belk Bowl, when he threw for 208 yards and three scores and rushed for 81 yards as the Hoos crushed South Carolina, 28-0.

Armstrong’s strong, albeit brief, performances in two key ACC games last season provides confidence in case star starter Bryce Perkins goes down. ~ Photo by Kris Wright

Sleeper: Brennan Armstrong (R-Fr)

With Virginia holding a slight 3-0 advantage over Louisville in the second quarter, Armstrong replaced a banged-up Perkins, entering on a 3rd-and-2 at the Cardinal 45 yard-line. He took the snap and rushed 34 yards to the 11. Virginia would add a field goal to extend its lead to 6-0. In a huge late-season game at Georgia Tech, Armstrong once again took the field to replace an injured Perkins, but this time the Hoos trailed 13-7 on the road in the first quarter. Armstrong converted two third downs on the drive – an 11-yard rush converted a 3rd-and-9, and on 3rd-and-3 the Ohio native connected with Joe Reed for a 56-yard touchdown pass. The 6’2” lefty signal caller’s numbers were modest – 2-of-5 passing for 62 yards and a touchdown, and nine rushes for 74 yards – but what struck me the most was his poised, confident response in those two ACC games. Should Perkins go down, Armstrong seems well prepared.

RUNNING BACK

Star: To Be Determined

There no clear favorite to replace last year’s 1,000-yard rusher workhorse Jordan Ellis. Junior PK Kier has good size (6’0”, 230 pounds) and has shown some quality running in limited opportunities. Sophomore Wayne Taulapapa emerged this past spring as a serious contender. Junior Lamont Atkins is talented as a runner and receiver, and true freshman Mike Hollins has received praise from Mendenhall on a few occasions this offseason. There are options for sure, but as of now there appears to be no separation. Virginia could wind up using a committee approach, at least for the early part of the season.

Sleeper: Hollins (Fr)

Virginia football recruiting fans should know Hollins, who starred at one of the top high school football programs in the nation in University Lab (Baton Rouge, LA). The 5’9”, 200-pound true freshman may become familiar to the rest of Cavalier nation soon, though, with his blend of power, balance and speed. Coach Mendenhall told Jeff White how good Hollins looks physically, so it appears the talented prospect is ready to compete for a significant role right away.

WIDE RECEIVER

Star: Joe Reed (Sr)

Reed had career-highs in receptions (25), receiving yards (465) and 8 touchdowns (7 receiving, 1 kick return) as a junior last season. He was outstanding in Virginia’s final three regular season games, totaling three touchdowns – two receiving, one kick return – in a win over Liberty, a touchdown reception versus Georgia Tech, and two receiving touchdowns versus Virginia Tech. Coach Mendenhall has indicated Reed could be the primary beneficiary in terms of touches with Olamide Zaccheaus gone. An honorable mention goes to senior Hasise Dubios, who developed a nice chemistry with Perkins in 2018. Dubois enjoyed a productive junior campaign, finishing with 52 catches for 578 yards and five scores, and appears to be favorite of Perkins’ in key situations.

Sleepers: Terrell Jana (Jr)

Terrell Jana had 11 catches, 151 yards and a touchdown last season. Although he missed the bowl game with an injury, he finished the regular season in solid fashion, boasting multiple-catch games in three of Virginia’s four games in November. The 6’0”, 190-pound Jana has taken a significant leadership role on the team this offseason, a sign he may be ready to assume a larger role on the field as well. He also appears to be healthy. The speedy Tavares Kelly (Soph) is another one to watch, as he could benefit from Zaccheaus’ absence, and transfer Dejon Brissett could wind up being a major factor when he gets healthy.

TIGHT END

Star: Tanner Cowley (Sr)

The 6’4”, 240-pound Cowley returns as Virginia’s lone experienced tight end. Blocking is his strong suit, although he has made some plays as a receiver and he should have more opportunities as a receiver in his final year.

Sleeper: Grant Misch (R-Fr)

Misch started off at linebacker last summer before moving to defensive end during the regular season and switching to tight end this offseason. He played tight end in high school and has potential as both a blocker and receiver. I like his size and physicality. Mendenhall seems pleased with his transition so far, and with the lack of tight end depth the 6’4”, 250-pound second year will get an opportunity to play.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Star: Dillon Reinkensmeyer (Jr)

Reinkensmeyer has played in 26 games the past two seasons, earning 24 starts. Center, where he has started 21 games, has been his primary position, but he has shown the ability to be effective at tackle or guard. Just as Eli Hanback has been on the defensive line, Reinkensmeyer has been durable and reliable no matter the position.

Sleeper: Olusegun Oluwatimi (Soph)/Tyler Fannin (Soph)

Kind of cheating here with two possible sleepers. Fannin drew praise last preseason before an injury put him on the sidelines. Oluwatimi gets his chance to see the field after sitting out last season as a transfer. He has received some buzz for his play this offseason as well. Both players can play center or guard.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Star: Eli Hanback (Sr)

Thirty-eight games played, 36 starts over the last three seasons. Quietly one of the best defensive linemen in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Hanback provides quality play consistently for the Hoos. His quality play and durability have been paramount as the Cavalier program has grown the past three years, and we get a chance to appreciate it one last go around.

Sleeper: Richard Burney (Sr)

It’s not often you have a senior “sleeper,” but in this case I think it’s warranted. Burney moved from tight end to defensive end as a sophomore late in 2017, seeing most of his action in the 2017 Military Bowl against Navy. A medical issue sidelined Burney for the final nine games of last season. The 6’4”, 275-pound senior has size, quickness and athleticism on the defensive line, and he has flashed nice potential. If he’s healthy he could emerge as an important piece in Charlottesville this year.

LINEBACKER

Stars: Jordan Mack (Sr, ILB), Charles Snowden (Jr, OLB)

Mack is back and healthy after missing four games in the middle of last season. The speedy senior should be poised to make his last season as a Cavalier his best. Snowden broke out in a big way last season as a sophomore, leading all Division 1 linebackers in pass breakups with 11 while racking up over 60 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. Another strong season and we may see the 6’7” Snowden’s name popping up on 2020 NFL Draft lists. Both Snowden and Mack will be two of the strong leaders and playmakers on defense this season.

Sleepers: Noah Taylor (R-Fr, OLB)

Taylor has outstanding speed and acceleration on the outside. Strength and battling against major D1 linemen, tight ends and backs, is an area of concern, although in the spring he looked stronger and said he felt stronger as well. With Chris Peace gone, someone will have to step forward, and Taylor may have the highest ceiling of anyone at the position.

As for the inside, you’ll notice I didn’t name a sleeper. If Mack, Zane Zandier and Rob Snyder stay healthy, it’ll be tough for anyone to crack that rotation. Highly regarded true freshmen Nick Jackson and Hunter Stewart could be ones to watch, though.

SAFETY

A healthy Joey Blount will be key for a strong but possibly thin defensive back unit. ~ Photo by Kris Wright

Star: Joey Blount (Jr)

Just as they battled for the starting position beside Juan Thornhill last season, it was a close call between Blount and Brenton Nelson for the “star” pick here at safety. Regardless, both are proven playmakers who should help Virginia continue the stellar safety play it has enjoyed the past few years. Health, as Kris Wright noted, is a concern, as Nelson (ankle) and Blount (collarbone) have had their share of injuries at UVA. Virginia needs the duo to stay fully healthy in 2019. The savvy Blount is a terrific all-around safety who will be counted upon to take another step forward as the Hoos try and replace Juan Thornhill.

Sleeper: Antonio Clary (Fr)

Redshirt freshman Joseph White of Virginia Beach certainly merits consideration here and possibly at cornerback, because of his talent as well as having a year in a college system under his belt. But Clary, a prospect out of Jacksonville, Florida, is a strong player with good football instincts, and I like what he could bring to safety. The true freshman was able to go through spring practice as a January enrollee, setting himself up to be more prepared physically than a typical true freshman.

Juniors Chris Moore and De’Vante Cross should be in the safety rotation to start the season, but if you’re looking for a sleeper I’ll go with Clary.

CORNERBACK

Star: Bryce Hall (Sr)

Not much needs to be said here. The All-ACC performer is a leader off the field and has shown to be a stalwart corner on it.

Sleeper: Jaylon Baker (R-Fr)

Opposite Hall likely will be Darrius Bratton, who worked his way into a starting role last season. He’s solid. However, who will play behind those two? That’s a tough question to answer. Junior Germane Crowell’s career has been plagued by injury. If healthy, he has the talent to make the rotation and possibly even start. Junior Nick Grant has seen spot duty in his career. Junior Myles Robinson has been hampered by injuries as well. Some talented redshirt freshmen and true freshmen have the opportunity to make an impact, but I’ll go with Baker, a player I liked a lot out of high school who has the size (6’2”) the coaches like at corner. Admittedly this is kind of a shot in the dark, but given the injury history of Crowell/Robinson, frankly it’s a crowded backup cornerback field without much separation. Anyone could emerge between now and Pittsburgh.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Star: Brian Delaney (Jr, PK/KO/P)

Delaney earned field goal duties last season and finished the year making all 25 extra points and 12-of-16 field goals. He also served as the kickoff specialist, the role he held as a true freshman in 2017. Delaney should be the field goal kicker once again this season, and depending who does (or doesn’t) step forward, he could wind up handling all three kicking duties (FG, kickoff, punting) in 2019. I don’t think that’s the ideal, but it certainly could happen.

Kemp on the first day of preseason practice 2019. ~ Photo by Kris Wright

Sleeper: Billy Kemp (Soph, PR)

There are a few options at punt returner, including the dynamic Tavares Kelly Jr., but I really liked what Kemp showed as a punt returner against South Carolina. He returned three punts for 31 yards with a long of 11. Not mind-blowing numbers, but he made some difficult catches in the face of an SEC opponent in a big game. I like that confidence, and he also showed good instincts as a catcher and returner. I think Kelly is the more dynamic player in terms of big plays, but Kemp could be more consistent in terms of catching and getting good yards each return.

50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff
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