University of Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall praised the play of juniors Tavares Kelly Jr. and Billy Kemp IV during fall camp, encouraging news for a Cavalier team in search of players to replace the production left behind by 2019 stars Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois.
“They are the most consistent, durable and productive players of the receiver group so far,” Mendenhall said during camp in August. “They’ve taken a really, really nice step forward that I’m so thankful for. It’s clearly noticeable that they’re a stage further than where they were a year ago, which is needed.”
Kemp IV has carried his positive preseason performance over into the regular season. The 5’9”, 170-pound third year leads UVA in receptions (36) and receiving yards (316) while serving as a reliable punt returner (four returns for 24 yards). He is averaging nine catches per game, which ranks fifth in the nation among all FBS players.
Kelly Jr.’s start to the season took a decidedly different path. The 5’8”, 160-pound speedster fumbled the opening kickoff of the season, earning him a spot on the sideline for kickoff returns the remainder of the Duke game. He would play receiver against the Blue Devils but finished with one catch for -1 yard. Kelly Jr. missed the Clemson and NC State games with what appeared to be an ankle injury.
Kelly Jr. returned to the Cavalier lineup this past Saturday against Wake Forest.
“I felt really great about it cause I sat out some time, had time to really think and get my thoughts together, work on the little things I was missing out on,” said Kelly Jr., who indicated he was less than 100% healthy heading into the season. “I was kind of anxious to get back out there and play with the team. It was a great feeling.”
From a physical standpoint, Kelly Jr. says he is “feeling great. It feels great to be back out there. I sat out as long as I needed to to come back. Came back healthy, ready, thanks to God. Ready to go.”
6’7” true freshman Lavel Davis Jr. has established himself as a big-play threat for Virginia. However, on offense and in the return game the Hoos are lacking speedy players who have the ability to break explosive plays. Kelly Jr. has the speed and quickness to fill that role. He had a 32-yard reception and a 43-yard punt return as a true freshman in 2018. As a sophomore last season, Kelly Jr. had a long reception of 35 yards, a long kick return of 40 yards, and he added five carries for 43 yards.
If the Wake Forest game is any indication, the Virginia coaches hope to carve out a consistent role for Kelly Jr. He was targeted eight times by UVA quarterbacks this past Saturday, resulting in five catches for 27 yards. Kelly Jr. had two kick returns against the Demon Deacons. The first went for 32 yards to the Virginia 36, while the second went for 33 yards and, coupled with a Wake Forest personal foul, gave the Hoos possession at the Virginia 48.
Kelly Jr.’s big-play potential is something Virginia needs. Facing the prospect of a 1-4 start to the season, Virginia would love to see a breakout performance from the Miami (FL) native against the Miami Hurricanes Saturday night. Kelly Jr. is excited to return to his hometown, where he will take on a 4-1 Miami squad that features three of his former high school teammates – wide receiver Mike Harley, cornerback Al Blades Jr., and linebacker Avery Huff.
“It’s always a great feeling to go back home and play with my guys,” Kelly Jr. said of playing Miami. Last season, he had two catches for 35 yards in a 17-9 loss to the Canes. “It’s going to be a lot of smack talk. I know a lot of guys on [Miami]. We’ve prepared ourselves for that. I’ve prepared myself for that, but at the end of the day we’re all having fun, just playing football. The plan is to go out there and win with my guys here.”
Making Saturday even more important for Kelly Jr. is that it is his mother’s birthday. He expects his family to come out to Hard Rock Stadium to watch him play in person.
“Big day for me,” Kelly Jr. said. “Big day for the team to win.”
True freshman center Jestus Johnson III, who appeared on Virginia football’s depth chart for the season opener against Duke, earned his jersey number this week.
— Virginia Football (@UVAFootball) October 22, 2020
Johnson III becomes the 12th true freshman to earn his jersey in 2020, joining quarterback Iraken Armstead (#98), wide receivers Lavel Davis Jr. (#81) and Demick Starling (#82), tight end Joshua Rawlings (#89), defensive lineman Olasunkonmi Agunloye (#71), defensive lineman Jahmeer Carter (#90), defensive lineman Nusi Malani (#45), linebacker Sam Brady (#58), outside linebacker Jonathan Horton (#93), and defensive backs Elijah Gaines (#38) and Donovan Johnson (#34).
Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall has a greater appreciation for his players in light of all they have gone through since last the 2019 Orange Bowl.
“Our players are, right, so they’re not having the typical or ideal college experience right now,” Mendenhall said. “Not only ours but anyone. And they literally, for those programs that are following protocols, right, and staying masked and socially distanced and limiting their contact with other people, it’s a pretty lonely existence. So there’s heavy issues with the social injustices that are happening. Then there’s just the reality of the pandemic and then there’s the protocols within an organization. And then there’s this team setting where they really want to be with each other, but they can’t. They miss the camaraderie, they miss just being together, where they’re not in a team meeting or a position meeting or playing the game, right, they’re craving these moments to be together. We go on road games, and the meals are grab-and-go, and no one’s allowed in the room, and they’re following these things and our numbers reflect it from a COVID standpoint, but holy smokes are they missing, you can just see they want to linger, they want to be, they want to just have a college experience. So you have heavy issues weighing, with protocols kind of forcing a little bit of an isolation approach, and then sometimes there’s distortion that happens with that. And then, get ready to play a football game. And I know the world wants just to look at the outcome of the game. But to me, I just, I want them to have success on the field. I’m also working really hard to try to acknowledge what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling and how they might make a difference. And there’s a lot to that, right, and what that truly looks like, and it just, our world shifts really fast to score once you play games, and I totally understand that. Every team wants to win, we do more as much as anyone, but I have more empathy, maybe than I’ve ever had in my life for our players, as I watch them just day-to-day stay to the protocols and remain diligent and be disciplined. I admire them, they’re handling it so well. I really would like to have them have success on the field, just as another reward, right, it’s just for all the other things they’re doing and acknowledging at a really high level. So they have a lot on their plate, and it’s not just our team, it’s all the teams. And I think empathy is the way that it’s manifest most in me. I find myself thinking more about individuals and texting kids at night because they like texting better than phone calls, which is, that’s not my generation, but just thinking about them. I just find myself with names pop into my head and I text him and I name pops into my head and I text him and there’s more of a parental kind of ownership, rather than a business ownership that, I’ve kind of moved that way through all this is would be maybe the main takeaway.”