50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff: Preseason Predictions

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Jordan Mack and Bryce Hall hope to give Virginia football fans more reasons to celebrate in 2019. ~ Photo courtesy of Matt Riley

It’s an exciting time for University of Virginia football fans as head coach Bronco Mendenhall has the program positioned well to follow up last season’s success with even higher achievements.

The Hoos compiled an 8-5 record and won its first bowl game since 2005 in 2018. Winning the Coastal Division and beating Virginia Tech are two major goals the program did not achieve last season, although the Hoos were in great position to do so. Instead the Cavaliers fell short on both counts, losing all three ACC games last November including a heartbreaker in Blacksburg in overtime. Pitt, UVA’s 2019 season opening opponent, went on to take the division.

A blowout Belk Bowl win over South Carolina was a great springboard for UVA into the offseason. Led by quarterback Bryce Perkins and a talented returning defense that includes preseason All-American cornerback Bryce Hall, Virginia is well within reach of a division title and victory over the Hokies, and perhaps more, in 2019.

Our “50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series wraps up today and Kris Wright will have the final “Thoughts” feature. One day away from a tough, high-stakes regular season opener at Pittsburgh, here are my preseason predictions for this Cavalier team.

2 – Preseason Predictions

Offensive Player of the Year

Quarterback Bryce Perkins. As much as I love backup quarterback Brennan Armstrong, Perkins is the key to Virginia achieving Coastal Division glory in 2019. He’ll of course need the offensive line to become a force, more receiving targets to emerge, and quality play at the running back position, but I think a healthy Perkins is ready for another big-time season. The key is, will he be able to make the critical plays, lead Virginia on the big drives, when needed the most? I think the answer is yes.

Defensive Player of the Year

Cornerback Bryce Hall. Hall earned 2018 All-ACC First-Team honors and was named a preseason All-American this year for a reason. The question for Virginia is who steps up opposite him at the other cornerback position. Coach Mendenhall has been high on the depth at corner, but we’ll find out whether he’s right once the regular season arrives. Having Hall blanket one side of the field, though, is a huge advantage.

Offensive Breakout Player

Terrell Jana, pictured here heading into the end zone against Pitt last November, is looking to emerge as a third top option for Bryce Perkins.

Wide receiver Terrell Jana. Virginia needs a third consistent receiver to step forward, and by all accounts Jana is poised to do just that. The 6’0”, 190-pound junior has had a tremendous offseason and camp. The next step is transitioning his success to the field. I think the finish he had to last season – eight of his 11 receptions on the season came in November against Pitt, Georgia Tech & Virginia Tech – coupled with a tremendous offseason has given him the confidence to be a factor this season. And Perkins seems to be trusting him.

Honorable mentions: WR Dejon Brissett, WR Terrell Chatman, H-Back Tavares Kelly Jr., RB Mike Hollins

Defensive Breakout Player

Free safety Chris Moore. Moore, who is 6’0”, 205 pounds, is listed as a free safety but has the versatility to play safety or a hybrid linebacker/safety role. The redshirt junior missed all of last season because of an injury, but before the injury Coach Mendenhall had raved about his high level of play. He’ll be an important player on defense no matter where he lines up. He has the experience of playing in 23 games his first two seasons, and I think he’s ready to take another step forward for the Hoos.

Honorable mention: Defensive end Richard Burney. Burney missed the final 10 games last season due to health reasons. The 6’4”, 275-pound redshirt senior is back and according to Co-Defensive Coordinator Kelly Poppinga has improved significantly in terms of knowledge of the position. Burney has always had an intriguing combination of size and athleticism. If he stays healthy, he could become a force on an already talented and deep defensive line.

Offensive Rookie of the Year (True Freshmen)

I’ve been on the Mike Hollins bandwagon all preseason and I’m not about to get off now. Although sophomore Wayne Taulapapa gets the starting nod against Pitt, the 5’9”, 200-pound Hollins will have his chance, and again I think he has the potential to be a workhorse back and also a homerun threat in the run game.

Runner-up is wide receiver Dorien Goddard. While fellow true freshman Dontayvion Wicks is more explosive and could be a big-play threat for the Hoos, Goddard, who is 6’3”, 220 pounds, gives Bryce Perkins a big target in short to mid-range throws.

Defensive Rookie of the Year (True Freshmen)

Nose tackle Jowon Briggs. No surprise here as the 2019 Under Armour All-American has already earned the starting nose tackle spot. The depth on the defensive line will help keep the 6’1”, 295-pound true freshman fresh, allowing him to show off the significant strength and quickness Coach Mendenhall has raved about.

Runner-up is inside linebacker Nick Jackson. Virginia is stacked at inside linebacker with Jordan Mack, Rob Snyder, and Zane Zandier the primary rotation as of now, but Jackson has earned rave reviews and may be tough to keep off the field. Outside linebackers D’Sean Perry and Hunter Stewart are names to remember depending on how Noah Taylor and Matt Gahm respond to their increased roles.

Three Key Games

It’s all about the division this season, so Pitt, Miami and Virginia Tech will be vital to Virginia’s hopes of a Coastal Division title. The Hoos travel to Pitt and Miami and take on the Hokies in the regular season finale in Scott Stadium.

Virginia will need to solve its road struggles to take down the Panthers and Hurricanes. The Hoos have won four true road games the past three seasons. The good news is that UVA was close on the road in 2018, losing by only six at Indiana in a rain-soaked game and losing in overtime against both Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. The Cavaliers have shown they can be competitive on the road, so the next step is closing out games.

Tomorrow’s season-opener at Pitt is huge on several fronts, as UVA has a chance to pick up a road win over a division rival that has controlled the series recent years (Pitt has won the last four meetings). As for Miami, UVA gutted out a victory last season in Charlottesville. The Canes, who the media picked to finish second in the Coastal, feature a fast, tough defense, a promising freshman quarterback, and will be a challenge.

Virginia Tech owns a 15-game win streak over the Cavaliers. Regardless of division implications, as Coach Mendenhall has stated multiple times before, beating the Hokies consistently is paramount for this Virginia program. You have to win one before you can win consistently. The Hoos should have won last season. Let’s see if the harsh lesson learned pays off in 2019.

Potential Pitfalls

At no. 9 Notre Dame on September 28 will be a difficult test for the Hoos, who have never taken on the Irish in South Bend. Florida State at home on September 14 should be a challenge as well. FSU always has talent. If they find a quarterback, the Seminoles could be a tough one in Scott Stadium.

Truthfully, Virginia’s schedule seems highly favorable outside of the five challenges mentioned above. A surprise pitfall I can think of include would be an away matchup with North Carolina the first weekend in November, a month UVA is 2-10 in in the Mendenhall era. The Tar Heels have had a change in leadership, bringing former head coach Mack Brown back in the same role. If the Heels can gain traction in terms of on-field success, they could be a tougher road contest than we thought heading into the season. UNC, which lost five games last season by seven points or less, has talent.

Final Prediction

Bronco Mendenhall’s first BYU team went 6-6. The Cougars then managed to win 10 or more games in each of its next four seasons, including three 11-win campaigns. Could a similar run be in store for UVA?

Virginia surpassed expectations in 2019 with an 8-5 record in 2019 that included a Belk Bowl title, but for the program to rattle off success like the Cougars did is a lot to expect. The Cavaliers have reason to feel good about this year even though there are some questions, such as how good the offensive line and running backs are, how deep the secondary really is, and if the Hoos can close on the road.

The first half of the season is easily the more difficult, with road contests at Pitt, Notre Dame and Miami, and the home game against Florida State. If the Hoos can get through this half of the schedule in good shape, a special season could be in store. A thin margin for error remains for the Hoos. My head says Virginia finishes the regular season at 9-3, but my heart says everything falls into place and the Hoos achieve a 10-2 record and Coastal Division title. Let’s go with the latter for this year’s prediction. Go Hoos!

50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff
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