Virginia football starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong’s status remains in question, but the Cavalier offense did receive some welcome news ahead of this Saturday’s matchup with Wake Forest. The NCAA has approved running back Ronnie Walker Jr. for immediate eligibility, and he is available to play against the Demon Deacons.
“We are excited for Ronnie that his request for a waiver to play this season was approved and we look forward to having him compete starting this weekend,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said in this official release from Virginia Athletics.
Walker Jr., a 5’11”, 210-pound running back, amassed 221 yards rushing, 112 yards receiving, and three touchdowns (two rush, one receiving) in two seasons at Indiana University. He was a dependable player in pass protection as well, earning a 74.3 grade in pass blocking from Pro Football Focus in 2019.
After spending two years in Bloomington, Walker Jr. transferred to UVA this past summer. He applied for immediate eligibility, but his waiver application was initially denied. A reconsideration appeal was approved today. Despite not being able to play in games, Walker Jr. has been practicing with the team, including seeing time with the first unit during fall camp.
What makes this news so good for UVA?
The addition of Walker Jr. bolsters a razor thin running back position. Junior Wayne Taulapapa and graduate transfer senior Shane Simpson have been the only scholarship players available through three games, with walk-on sophomore Perris Jones earning some time as well. Taulapapa has 41 carries for 177 yards and two touchdowns, Simpson has 18 carries for 84 yards, and Jones rushed twice for 11 yards in the season opener against Duke. Solid performances, but there is a question of stamina over the course of the entire season. Particularly with Simpson, who suffered a torn ACL in September of 2019.
“We did a lot of research and we wanted it to be a great experience for him and us,” Coach Mendenhall said when asked about Simpson’s injury and the research done before bringing him in as a grad-transfer. “Which means when you’re considering a graduate transfer, they need to be needed, meaning you need to have a need for them to play. And that’s fulfilling to not only the team but the individual. But that also has to be researched thoroughly as to fit and performance and health. And so we did a lot of work on that and to this point he’s done really well. Early in the week, he is stiff and sore and as the week goes on he becomes more fresh and healthy. And so we’re learning to manage just what that’s like for him, coming off the injury and getting ready for each week. And then still trying to find the right amount of volume and the right complement, for him and Wayne (Taulapapa) as we’re still early in the season.”
Another Viable Option If UVA Leans On Traditional Run Game
Walker Jr.’s availability comes at just the right time, as Virginia may turn to the running back position for more production in the ground game if Armstrong is sidelined Saturday because of a concussion. Armstrong is second on the team with 130 yards rushing, while backup signal caller Lindell Stone, who will be the starter if Armstrong is out, falls into the “pocket passer” category.
Even when Armstrong returns, the Hoos may look to the running backs more in the ground game to try and avoid future injuries to its quarterback. Walker Jr. received just 59 carries at Indiana, but he was a player the Virginia coaches recruited heavily out of Hopewell High School (VA) – he totaled 3,355 yards rushing his final two seasons there – and when he decided to transfer. A fresh start could be just what he needs to jumpstart his collegiate career, and he will have opportunities as he competes for time alongside Taulapapa and Simpson.
Taulapapa had 35 yards on 12 carries (2.92 per carry average) against NC State. Simpson was more productive, rushing for 37 yards on seven carries, but he had a third quarter fumble.
“In the first couple games [the run game] really helped us move the ball and score points,” Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae said. “In this game (NC State) that did not work. Then we got to a point where we no longer could run the ball to get back into the game, especially with it not working.”
Shane Simpson, UVA Proving To Be A Good Match
Shane Simpson has acclimated himself well to the University of Virginia. He enrolled on Grounds in August, soon after his former school, Towson, announced it would not play football this fall. So far he has shown to be a nice fit in Coach Anae’s offense, averaging 4.7 yards per carry while also bringing in four catches for 24 yards. Simpson is also UVA’s primary kick returner, though he only has one return for 18 yards.
“Like I told Tony (Poljan), it feels like we’ve been here for like four to five years instead of three months, just because of the bond that we’ve built with everybody and going through this unprecedented time with this COVID stuff,” Simpson said. “It felt real normal to be out there, especially me not being out there for a whole year. No second guessing. Really just playing football.”
More Virginia Football Notes & Quotes
Stone Still The Starter If Armstrong Is Out
Robert Anae reported that redshirt junior Lindell Stone received the first-team work and the coaching in Wednesday’s (October 14) practice, further solidifying that he will be UVA’s starting signal caller against Wake Forest if Armstrong is out due to injury. Coach Anae indicated that a player in Armstrong’s position could be ready for gameday if they return to practice by Thursday, but as of now it looks like Stone is the best bet to run the offense in Winston-Salem.
Despite zero work with the first-team offense in practice in the week leading up, Stone performed admirably in two-plus quarters of action in last Saturday’s loss to NC State. He completed 30-of-54 passes for 240 yards with three touchdowns and an interception against the Wolfpack.
“Lindell got cold called, jumped in there, getting hit and having to deliver the ball,” Anae said. “I thought, for the most part, he was able to do what we were asking and what the team needed him to do, just not quite at the level we were hoping for.”
What can we expect UVA’s offense to look like with Stone as the starter?
“A lot of that that we saw with Lindell (against NC State) was situational,” Anae said. “Now that he’s our starting quarterback, we also believe there are things that he does well, so we want to start there, and we also believe there are things we can do running the football, and we want to start there.”
More from Coach Anae on Stone …
“He’s got a real solid football IQ,” Anae said. “He was able to go in and with only about 7-percent of the reps during the week and now he goes in and takes the majority of the snaps. He’s a vet, he knows exactly where to make the reads, and he’s got the ability to get the ball there. He’s a Division 1 quarterback and we look for him to be at his best when his best is needed. This week, that’s what’s on the table.”
“The biggest thing, Lindell, when he’s on the sideline, he sees things on the field and that feedback with Coach Beck was really helpful in Bryce and now in developing Brennan,” Anae said.
Virginia Seeks Breakout Performance From Snowden
Outside linebacker and team captain Charles Snowden is currently sixth on Virginia’s defense in total tackles with 14. The 6’7”, 240-pound senior has one tackle-for-loss, two pass breakups, and two quarterback hurries, but has not been the impactful player many expected in the first three games.
Snowden saw only 38 snaps against NC State according to Pro Football Focus, but Coach Mendenhall said this week that the lower snap count was to keep him fresh rather than because of injury. Defensive coordinator Nick Howell discussed the standout senior’s performance so far and how both sides – the coaches and the player – can improve in the weeks ahead.
“We need to look and see what we’re doing,” Howell said. “Are we asking him to do the right things? Are we putting him in the position to do the right things? And then, is he putting himself in position? Is he doing what he is being asked to do within the scheme? Those are the two things we are looking at: Are we asking him to do the right things, and then is he playing to his potential? If those two things are on, then I think production will increase. If those two things are off, well then something’s off, and so those are the things that we have evaluated.”
“It’s a matter of if we need to tweak just a little bit of what we’re doing and then he needs to continue to work as hard as he can to play the best he possibly can,” Howell later said.
Blount’s Return A Boost
Coach Mendenhall said on Monday that he expects starting free safety Joey Blount to return to the field after missing the NC State game. The senior was one of, if not the best player on the Virginia defense in the first two weeks of the season. He had seven tackles, one tackle-for-loss, one interception, one forced fumble, and one pass breakup against Duke. Against Clemson, Blount totaled nine tackles (all solo) with one sack.
Through the first two weeks of the season, Blount was UVA’s highest graded defensive player according to Pro Football Focus.
“We definitely missed him (against NC State),” Virginia inside linebacker Zane Zandier said of Blount. “I think he’s always a force coming downhill from the safety position. He’s a good communication guy, so he’s always leading. I can always hear him behind me being a leader with that group and the entire defense. We definitely missed him, coming downhill and making plays, and making plays over the top as well.”
“I think he’s one of the best, if not the best safety in the ACC,” Zandier added. “I think he’s such a great player and can’t wait to have him back.”
“Consistency” is what Coach Howell said UVA misses most when Blount is not on the field.
“Joey’s a playmaker,” Howell said. “That’s just who he is. He’s very instinctive and is always around the ball, and so you miss that ball production. Every game he’s played in, many tackles, he’s always going to be 10-plus tackles, he’s always going to be around the ball. You can send some pressures with him and he gets in passing windows. The consistency of production is what we’ve missed when he wasn’t in there.”