50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff: Top Five Preseason Stories

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Virginia football right tackle Ryan Swoboda blocking in practice. This photo as well as the photo on the main page courtesy of Jim Daves/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

Fall camp came and went and here we are, just two days away from Virginia football’s 2019 season opener at Pittsburgh. As our “50 Thoughts” series winds down, I decided to reflect on my favorite stories from fall camp.

5 – Top Five Preseason Stories

1. Ryan Swoboda’s Comeback

The 6’10”, 305-pound redshirt sophomore will be Virginia’s starting right tackle when the Cavaliers meet Pittsburgh in the 2019 season opener. Swoboda’s climb to the top of the UVA depth chart is remarkable considering what he has gone through since arriving on Grounds in the summer of 2017.

Swoboda suffered a heat stroke during workouts that July, the summer before his true freshman campaign. The condition was life-threatening. He spent three weeks in the hospital and was put in a medically induced coma. Eventually he would get better and methodically he worked his way back onto the gridiron, participating in all 13 games for Virginia last season.

Virginia Sports Director of Content Jeff White chronicled Swoboda’s amazing story. If haven’t already, be sure to check out the article by clicking hereclicking hereclicking here.

2. UVA The Preseason Coastal Division Favorite

Virginia’s relevant again! Hopefully, this is something Cavalier nation be able to experience on a yearly basis.

I certainly understand the fans who continue to take a “wait-and-see” approach to Virginia football. After all, this is a program that has not had consecutive winning seasons since 2005 and lost eight or more games six times since 2009. But it’s worth highlighting how far the Virginia football program has come in just three years under head coach Bronco Mendenhall.

The Atlantic Coast Conference split into two divisions in 2005. UVA had never been tabbed by the media as the Coastal Division preseason favorite before this season, but there they were, Coach Mendenhall and players in fall camp addressing questions about being the being favored when for so long the program has been the underdog.

“It’s a nice acknowledgment that we’re relevant and in the conversation where we haven’t been,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said this past Monday. “That’s been three years’ worth of work. That’s really where it ends. Any time we carry that further at all, including this week or any minute this week, all that does is interfere. That gets in the way of something we should be doing to help us win this game.”

Preseason predictions don’t equate to anything in terms of on-field success. Mendenhall of course is 10% accurate in his statement. His players seem to know this as well, which is also important in keeping the proper mindset needed to ultimately accomplish the desired goals.

“The media kind of throwing that out there doesn’t really affect us that much because we haven’t earned anything yet,” linebacker Zane Zandier said in this article by the Virginian-Pilot. “It just doesn’t really change our mindset about anything.”

3. Reed Kellam Picks First

Reed Kellam running a drill in practice. ~ Photo courtesy Virginia Athletics Media Relations

Virginia began jersey selection in Mendenhall’s first year, and the process continues to grow in importance. Running back Jordan Ellis, who is now hoping to land a roster spot with the Cincinnati Bengals, was chosen by his teammates to be the first to pick a jersey in each of the past three years. The Georgia native may have been quiet and humble, but he set the standout in terms of work ethic. With Ellis gone, though, someone new would earn the first jersey selection. Would it be Jordan Mack? Maybe Bryce Perkins? How about Joe Reed?

The honor went to senior walk-on linebacker Reed Kellam.

“The players and the strength coaches have a nickname for Reed – they call him One Speed Reed,” Mendenhall said. “He is just always trying as hard as he can try. It’s not just one dimension in his life. He’s exemplary in every way. If you’re saying what kind of future? It’s a privilege to be around him every day. He is a walk-on player and to get the distinction from a team to be the first selection, that’s pretty remarkable and it speaks volumes about him. He was touched in a way that I think will impact his life forever.”

I love stories like these, about players who may not be stars on the field but truly appreciate the opportunity, work hard and contribute any way they can. Well done to his teammates for recognizing his effort, and well done, One Speed Reed! (BTW, Kris Wright has a terrific story on Kellam that you can read by clicking here.)

4. Hard Work Pays Off For Grant, Jana, Griffin

It was disappointing to see junior cornerback Darrius Bratton go down with a season-ending knee injury in fall camp. The Roanoke (VA) native worked his way into the cornerback rotation last season, earning five starts, and likely would have been starting opposite Bryce Hall against Pittsburgh on Saturday.

Standing ready to help fill the void left by Bratton is junior Nick Grant, who will start against the Panthers. Grant has done everything asked of him this offseason, earning a the “Dirty Dozen” honor as one of the team’s best conditioned players following summer workouts. He also had one of the first jersey selections, going with no. 1, the number previously held by Jordan Ellis.

“Nick is somebody who has been so faithful in the long run and when you talk about a guy whose just put his head down and worked and been through the whole process of being on scout team, then getting [a jersey number] at the end of his first year, then being somebody who contributed on special teams the following year – he’s just really been through a lot and he’s been faithful through it all, faithful in the little things,” Bryce Hall said. “He’s a smart dude. He works hard and tries hard. It’s really like all coming forth to where he’s getting his opportunity this year to really show what he can do. I’m excited for him. He’s earned it, where he’s at right now. With all that he’s been through, I couldn’t be happier for somebody like him to be in his position right now.”

“Yeah, so Nick is a relentless worker,” Mendenhall said. “Just simply wouldn’t relinquish the spot. He’s the most conditioned player I would say on our team, he’s the most consistent worker currently on our team, and he’s made the most plays at corner. Whoever we throw in the mix to stack against him, he just seems to outperform them over and over and over again. Then he’s running down on kicks and running down on punts and he’s not tired and he’s back competing at corner again. So he’s just doing more, better than anyone else. That competition will go on I think probably throughout the entire year. To this point, he’s earned the chance to be the starter through his relentless work and production.”

Nash Griffin, a junior, also earned a spot on the “Dirty Dozen” for his offseason work. He was the only kicking specialist to take part in the first round of jersey selection. Since the Indianapolis (IN) native selected his jersey, he has also received something else courtesy of Coach Mendenhall.

“Nash was awarded a scholarship,” Mendenhall revealed this past Monday. “He was not a scholarship player but was awarded a scholarship on Saturday night by what he’s done in camp, so that kind of lets you know what I think of him and what I expect from him.”

Griffin is Virginia’s holder on field goals and extra points, but his main goal this offseason was to earn the starting punter position. He is listed first at punter on UVA’s depth chart, and although there is an “or” between him and Brian Delaney, it appears he’ll get the first chance to punt on Saturday.

Last but not least is Jana, who has become a leader off the field this offseason and appears to be on the verge of having a breakout season on it. The 6’0”, 190-pound junior is first on the depth chart at one of the wide receiver positions.

“He’s probably one of the biggest emergers on the offense, just with his leadership role,” Perkins said of Jana during the spring. “He’s kind of the leader of the receivers. He’s smart, he’s easy to work with, and he has great speed. He knows coverages, so we’re pretty much on the same page most of the time.”

Jana’s best game of his college career came against Pitt last season. He had three receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown.

5. Virginia’s 2019 Class Showing Well

Heralded recruit Jowon Briggs has impressed coaches and teammates since arriving on Grounds, and now he is poised to make the first start of his collegiate career against Pittsburgh. ~ Photo courtesy of Matt Riley

Virginia landed its most highly rated class in the Bronco Mendenhall era in 2019. So far, the group is living up to expectations, boding well for the present and the future.

“I really like this first-year class from top to bottom,” Mendenhall said. “We did a nice job on the selection process of this class. They’re all performing well.”

Cavalier fans will get to see one first year starting at nose tackle on Saturday. He is Jowon Briggs, an Under Armour All-American who is the first consensus 4-star to sign with UVA in Mendenhall’s first three full recruiting classes. Mike Hollins (RB), Ja’Quay Hubbard (RG), Dorien Goddard (WR), Nick Jackson (MLB), Justin Duenkel (PK) and Enzo Anthony (LS) are true first years listed on the depth chart along with Briggs, while R.J. Harvey (QB/ATH) and Dontayvion Wicks (WR) are others that could see some playing time versus Pittsburgh.

50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff
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