50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff: The Unknowns

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Ahead of his team’s season opening tilt at Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division foe Pittsburgh, Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall summed up season opener’s this way:

“Really in the opening game as much as we would like to say we know where we stand, you really don’t until you play,” he said. “That’s exactly where we’ll be. There are knowns. That doesn’t mean when you put your knowns versus the opponent’s knowns and that goes together, there is a combustible force in there. Sometimes that puts out unknowns. I’m sure that’s what happened in Miami and Florida (the Gators and Hurricanes combined for 23 penalties and seven turnovers) and will happen throughout the country this year in opening games. That’s part of the start of college football. When you put a conference game into that setting, that just is — man, that’s fuel to the fire.”

Coach Mendenhall was responding to a question about the sloppy play in season openers. He also mentioned the “knowns.” For Virginia, we know what Bryce Perkins is capable of at quarterback. We know the defensive front seven has a chance to be very special with the depth on the defensive line and at linebacker, and we know what cornerback Bryce Hall and safeties Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson can do in the secondary.

There are the “knowns,” but what about the unknowns? In this “50 Thoughts” piece let’s look at my biggest questions facing UVA heading into a season opener that has more implications than your typical season opener.

10 – The Unknowns

The Offensive Line

Returning starters Dillon Reinkensmeyer, Ryan Nelson and Chris Glaser provide plenty of experience for this year’s offensive line, which lost two starters – guard Jake Fieler and right tackle Marcus Applefield – and top reserve R.J. Proctor from last year’s unit. The versatile Reinkensmeyer, a redshirt junior who has started 24 games including 21 at center, two at left tackle, and last year’s Belk Bowl at right guard, begins 2019 as the Hoos’ starting right guard. Nelson is back at left tackle, where started all 13 games last season a redshirt freshman, and Glaser, a junior, gets the nod as the starting left guard, where he earned seven starts in 2018.

There are two new starters in 2019 – redshirt sophomore Olusegun Oluwatimi at center and redshirt sophomore Ryan Swoboda, whose amazing comeback story was revealed to the public this month, at right tackle. Oluwatimi has drawn positive buzz all offseason. His backup is redshirt sophomore center Tyler Fannin, who received positive buzz last summer before an injury derailed his 2018 season.

The 6’10” Swoboda worked his way onto the field to participate in all 13 games last season and has earned the starting right tackle position over sophomore Bobby Haskins in fall camp. The 6’7” Haskins gained experience last season, playing in all 13 games as a true freshman, including some time on the offensive line.

There is reason to be confident in this group. I like the new starters at center and right tackle (and their backups, for that matter). However, Coach Mendenhall noted last week that the unit was making step by step program but hasn’t progressed as fast and isn’t as ferocious as he wanted them to be. Mendenhall noted that Virginia needs to not only be physical against Pitt, but it needs to be more intense and consistent against a Panther team that has defeated the Cavaliers four straight times, partly because of dominance in the trenches. Pitt lost one of its best players in defensive end Rashad Weaver in the preseason, but Pat Narduzzi seems to have Mendenhall’s number so far. The play of Virginia’s offensive line will be vitally important in snapping the streak and getting the Hoos off to a great start in 2019.

Running Back

There is not much clarity at running back other than sophomore Wayne Taulapapa earned the starting role for week one at Pittsburgh. ~ Photo by Kris Wright

The question I have regarding the running backs following the release of the first depth chart, in which there are four “ors” combined at speed back and big back, is this: Are they close together because all of have been playing at a high level or are they close together because of mediocre play in fall camp?

Last season, for example, Coach Mendenhall praised the competition between Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson and Chris Moore for the starting safety spot beside Juan Thornhill. That was a high-level competition. Hopefully, it’s the same type of situation with running backs this year as the Hoos try and replace dependable 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Ellis.

As you surely know by now, I’m high on Mike Hollins and his upside. Coach Mendenhall praised him once again last week. That doesn’t mean I think the other backs are subpar. We just simply have not seen much in terms of practice, so it’s hard to get a true gauge on how good this group is right now.

Sophomore Wayne Taulapapa has demonstrated in the spring and in the summer that he is a big-time competitor and capable, and Coach Mendenhall says he has been the most consistent. Neither P.K. Kier nor Lamont Atkins has demonstrated a lot in a live game situation, but they are character kids who had big-time high school careers and now will have an opportunity to show what they can do.

So how good are these UVA running backs? Like the rest of us, Coach Mendenhall and company will find out once the regular season gets underway. Certainly, though, for the offense to click and Bryce Perkins to be his best, UVA will have to get consistent production – either by committee or through an individual – out of the running back position. Pittsburgh is a great test in week one.

Cornerback

Coach Mendenhall seems pleased with the depth at defensive back, but you can bet cornerback will be tested by opposing teams. More specifically, opposing teams will go after those corners not named Bryce Hall.

Junior Nick Grant has had a great offseason and has earned the starting cornerback spot opposite All-American Bryce Hall. Sophomore Heskin Smith and redshirt freshman Jaylon Baker had good camps as well. All three, though, have little to no regular season game experience on defense. UVA’s only other cornerback with live game starting experience heading into camp was Darrius Bratton. Unfortunately, the junior from Roanoke (VA) is sidelined for the season with a torn ACL.

Look for Pitt and others to challenge Grant, Smith, Baker, and whoever else emerges until those players prove Coach Mendenhall’s optimism to be right.

Long Snapper

Virginia will feature a new long snapper. Redshirt freshman Lee Dudley and true freshman Enzo Anthony are battling it out, so the Cavaliers will fill the role with a player who has no major college football experience. The good news is that both players were recognized as top long-snapping talents in high school.

My gut tells me the position will be fine. Both players are talented and, by all accounts, mature and ready for the role. We’ll find out for sure on Saturday.

50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff
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