Virginia Football 2020: Projecting The Newcomers

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Quarterback Keytaon Thompson, a graduate transfer from Mississippi State, is one of 17 new scholarship players in the Virginia football program. The former Louisiana prep star will compete with Brennan Armstrong for a starting job. ~ Photo credit: Kelly Donoho

The University of Virginia football program will feature 17 new scholarship players – 14 incoming freshmen and three transfers – on the team this fall. Which players will see significant roles for the reigning ACC Coastal Division champion Cavaliers?

QUARTERBACK

Returning Scholarship Players: Lindell Stone (R-Jr); Brennan Armstrong (R-Soph)

Newcomers: Keytaon Thompson (R-Jr); Ira Armstead (Fr)

Bryce Perkins’ outstanding two-year career in Charlottesville has come to an end, leaving the starting position up for grabs. Brennan Armstrong, Perkins’ primary backup each of the past two seasons, has been in the program since January of 2018. Given his experience in the program, knowledge of the system, and familiarity with personnel, the lefty redshirt sophomore likely has the inside track for the starting role. Thompson, a graduate transfer from Mississippi State with two years of eligibility remaining, will compete with Armstrong for the starting spot.

The 6’4”, 225-pound Thompson has the size advantage over Armstrong, who measures in at 6’2”, 220 pounds. Passing-wise, in a small sample size the edge goes to Armstrong, who completed 68% of his passes in 25 attempts while Thompson completed 47.6% of 105 passes attempted in 2017 and 2018 (he redshirted in 2019, playing only one game). If Thompson shows progress as a passer he could push for the starting role. If not, his size and rushing ability – Thompson totaled 672 yards rushing, averaging 6.8 yards per carry in two seasons – make him an excellent candidate for situational football, such as short yardage and goal line situations. I think there is a good chance Thompson has some role even if Armstrong wins the job.

Virginia’s true freshman newcomer is Ira Armstead, who enrolled on Grounds in January but missed out on a spring football experience because of the coronavirus. Armstead has good size (6’3”, 200 pounds) and speed, but like Thompson he has to prove himself in the passing game. I think he will need time to develop, which is why I expect him to redshirt this coming year.

Prediction: Thompson will play, while Armstead is headed for a redshirt.

RUNNING BACK

Returners: Jamari Peacock (Big Back, Sr); Wayne Taulapapa (Jr); Mike Hollins (Soph)

Newcomers: Ronnie Walker Jr. (Jr)

Virginia has two scholarship tailbacks in the program – junior Wayne Taulapapa, who earned the starting role last season and finished with 12 touchdowns, and sophomore Mike Hollins, a promising prospect from Louisiana who saw limited time as a true freshman last season. They are two good tailbacks, but depth at the position is a major concern. Ronnie Walker Jr. could be the solution; however, eligibility is a question.

The former Indiana Hoosier has applied to the NCAA for a waiver granting him immediate eligibility. If granted, Walker Jr. will be a part of the running back rotation in 2020. He has two years of major college experience, and while he did not churn out a ton of rushing yardage, he gained a reputation for being dependable as a pass blocker and receiver while in Bloomington. Given the need for playable depth, it is hard to envision a scenario where Walker Jr. does not carve out a significant role in the rotation if he gets the waiver.

Prediction: If the waiver is approved, look for Walker Jr. to play a significant role.

Graduate transfer Ra’Shaun Henry has the opportunity to be an impact player at wide receiver for Virginia football in 2020. ~ Photo courtesy of St. Francis (PA)

WIDE RECEIVER

Returners: Terrell Jana (Sr); Billy Kemp IV (Jr); Tavares Kelly Jr (Jr); Ugo Obasi (R-Soph); Dontayvion Wicks (Soph); Nathaniel Beal (R-Fr), Dorien Goddard (R-Fr), Luke Wentz (R-Fr)

Newcomers: Ra’Shaun Henry (R-Sr); Lavel Davis (Fr); Demick Starling (Fr)

Seeking to replace the production left behind by Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed, Virginia brought in graduate transfer Ra’Shaun Henry, who enjoyed a breakout campaign with FCS St. Francis (PA) last season. Terrell Jana headlines the returning group of Cavalier receivers, having enjoyed a breakout year of his own last season, and H-back Billy Kemp IV performed well in the latter half of UVA’s 2019 season. Tavares Kelly Jr. has made some plays but has yet to become a consistent, reliable playmaker for the Hoos.

Jana and Kemp IV appear primed to expand their roles, and players such as Kelly and sophomore Dontayvion Wicks headline the rest of the returning Hoos who certainly could emerge. Henry, who has good size at 6’3”, has every chance to be a difference-maker. He raised his game in a major way the last five games of 2019, totaling 53 receptions for 777 yards and seven touchdowns. How he’ll adjust to the FBS level remains to be seen, but again he’ll have every opportunity.

As for the incoming freshmen, Demick Starling, who is 6’0”, 170 pounds and starred in track and football in high school, could get a look in the return game because of his speed. Ultimately, though, look for him to redshirt. Lavel Davis could be a different story. Bronco Mendenhall likes to call receivers with size “always open.” At 6’7”, Davis certainly fits that bill. His size alone is unique and could get him on the field regardless of what happens with older, more experienced players. However, if older players fail to emerge, he could be a sleeper as a true freshman.

Prediction: Henry will be a rotational player with the chance to earn a starting role. Davis will play but could still redshirt if he plays four games or less, while Starling will redshirt.

TIGHT END

Returners: Grant Misch (R-Soph)

Newcomers: Joshua Rawlings (Fr)

Misch is expected to take the reigns as the starting tight end because last year’s starter, Tanner Cowley, has graduated. Recruited walk-on Mike Kosar, who is a redshirt freshman, is a non-scholarship player who has emerged as candidate for playing time according to Robert Anae. Still, there remains a serious lack of depth at the position, and for this reason true freshman Joshua Rawlings should receive consistent playing time throughout the year.

Prediction: Rawlings won’t redshirt.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Returners: Alex Gellerstedt (Sr), Chris Glaser (Sr), Dillon Reinkensmeyer (Sr), Tommy Christ (R-Jr), Tyler Fannin (R-Jr), Olusegun Oluwatimi (R-Jr), Ryan Swoboda (R-Jr), Gerrik Vollmer (R-Jr), Bobby Haskins (Jr), Ryan Nelson (Jr), Joe Bissinger (R-Soph), Derek Devine (R-Soph), Martin Weisz (R-Soph), Kariem Al Soufi (R-Fr), Jonathan Leech (R-Fr), Zachary Teter (R-Fr)

Newcomers: Jestus Johnson III

Virginia has good depth and talent in place for the next two seasons, enabling Mendenhall to redshirt Johnson III, a likely interior lineman out of Gonzaga (Washington, D.C.). UVA has redshirted eight of the last nine true freshman scholarship offensive lineman with Bobby Haskins being the only exception in 2018. Look for Johnson III to redshirt in 2020. Because of the depth, it is doubtful he’ll see any game action.

Prediction: A redshirt for Jestus Johnson III.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Returners: Mandy Alonso (R-Sr); Richard Burney (R-Sr); Aaron Faumui (Jr); Jordan Redmond (R-Soph); Samson Reed (R-Soph); Jowon Briggs (Soph); Ben Smiley III (R-Fr)

Newcomers: Su Agunloye, Jahmeer Carter, Nusi Malani

With two seniors on the roster and an eye towards establishing depth in 2021, there is a good chance an incoming freshman defensive lineman or two see some playing time in 2020. The health of the defensive line and readiness of Redmond, Reed, and/or Smiley III to contribute could determine how much playing time the true freshmen receive.

At 6’6”, 240 pounds, Su Agunloye looks to me like the ideal candidate to redshirt. You put him in the weight program for a year and begin playing him next season. He has a terrific frame. Carter and/or Malani could see snaps. Ideally, if health permits and the older players are ready to contribute, the staff could get those two on the field in a limited capacity while maintaining their redshirt status (playing four games or less).

Prediction: A redshirt for all three with Carter and/or Malani seeing some game action, but four games or less.

True freshman outside linebacker Jonathan Horton’s speed and athleticism will earn him playing time this season.

LINEBACKERS

Returners: Elliott Brown (Sr); Matt Gahm (Sr); Charles Snowden (Sr); Rob Snyder (Sr); Zane Zandier (Sr); Noah Taylor (Jr); TC Harrison (R-Soph); Nick Jackson (Soph); Jairus Satiu (Soph); Josh Ahern (R-Fr); D’Sean Perry (R-Fr); Hunter Stewart (R-Fr)

Newcomers Sam Brady, Jonathan Horton, Brandon Williams

Brady, who I’m projecting as an inside linebacker, needs a year to develop physically. The staff is high on his athleticism, but at this point I predict he will redshirt and probably not see the field. I say probably because his athleticism could come in handy on special teams. I see a redshirt in Brandon Williams’ future as well.

A true freshman linebacker I fully expect to play this season is dynamic outside linebacker Jonathan Horton. He may not see a ton of time – Virginia has an outstanding trio of outside linebackers, after all – but I think he could play a role like Charles Snowden played his freshman year. Snowden played in 10 of 13 games that season. The staff utilized his athleticism and length in situational football, adding an extra spark to the defense. I see Horton playing a similar role.

Prediction: Redshirts for Brady and Williams, while Horton plays.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Returners: Joey Blount (Sr); De’Vante Cross (Sr); Brenton Nelson (Sr); Nick Grant (Sr); Darrius Bratton (R-Jr); Darnell Pratt (R-Jr); Heskin Smith (R-Jr); Jaylon Baker (R-Soph); Joseph White (R-Soph); Antonio Clary (Soph); Tenyeh Dixon (Soph); Chayce Chalmers (R-Fr); Fentrell Cypress II (R-Fr);

Newcomers: Elijah Gaines, Dave Herard, Donovan Johnson

Count Dave Herard in the redshirt category. The former Stranahan (FL) star suffered a torn ACL and dislocated meniscus while playing in the basketball playoffs in late February. The goal will be to get him healthy and then into the weight training program with an eye towards 2021.

Barring injury, Virginia is set at safety this season. Blount, Cross and Nelson are all seniors, though, and so the coaches probably want to get next year’s safeties some playing time. Antonio Clary and Tenyeh Dixon played last season, but do not count out January enrollee Donovan Johnson. I like his talent and would not be surprised to see him play this season to prepare for next year.

Cornerback is the biggest concern, although Nick Grant and Darrius Bratton should be solid starters. There is definitely an opportunity for others to emerge, though. Johnson likely will stick at safety but he could get a look at corner. As could Elijah Gaines.

Prediction: A redshirt for Herard. Playing time for both Johnson and Gaines. I think Gaines will redshirt while Johnson does not.

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