Virginia Football Notes: Cavaliers Seek Improvement In The Passing Game

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Virginia needs an efficient passing attack to go along with a solid running game. ~ Photo courtesy Jim Daves/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

The University of Virginia football offense has shown the ability to run the football in 2020. Through five games, the Hoos are averaging 164 yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry. UVA rushed for 218 yards and 185 yards, respectively, in the last two outings against Wake Forest and Miami, and on Saturday take on a UNC team that is allowing over four yards per carry.

Virginia’s ground game has been the most consistent part of its offense this season. It’ll be important Halloween night against a Tar Heel squad (4-1) that features a high-octane offense. For the offense to start to reach its potential and put up points, at some point – ideally beginning with UNC – the Hoos will have to get more consistency and playmaking out of its passing game.

Bryce Perkins completed 64.5% of his passes for the Cavaliers last season. In 3+ games as this year’s starter, sophomore Brennan Armstrong has completed just 55.1% of his throws while tossing six interceptions. Backup Lindell Stone, who played the majority of the NC State game and the entire Wake Forest game in place of an injured Armstrong, has completed 56.7% of his passes.

“We are not the throw-and-catch team we were a year ago,” Virginia football offensive coordinator Robert Anae said in a Zoom interview with reporters on October 28. “Yeah, some of that’s on Brennan, but the majority of that is on the guys that are running out there getting open. That’s the growth I have for the offense. I’d like to be in the upper 60s in that throw completion type thing. A real good offense is in that 70 percentile, so we’ve got room – a lot of room to grow in that regard.”

The numbers back up Anae’s sentiment with respect to the receivers. In 2019, Virginia’s top four receivers were seniors Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed, junior Terrell Jana, and sophomore Billy Kemp IV. Not only did they produce numbers – Dubois, Reed, and Jana had over 70 catches apiece – but they were efficient. According to Pro Football Focus, Dubois had zero drops in 102 targets, Jana had one drop in 102 targets, Reed had two drops in 110 targets, and Kemp IV had two drops in 47 targets. Their PFF receiving grades were 79.7 (Dubois), 75.9 (Jana), 75.9 (Reed, who is now with the Los Angeles Chargers), and 71.5 (Kemp IV).

Virginia’s top four receivers this season are Kemp IV, Jana, graduate transfer tight end Tony Poljan, and true freshman wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. The quartet has combined for 14 drops this season according to PFF. Kemp IV has five drops in 63 targets, while Jana has four in 50, Poljan has three in 37, and Davis Jr. has two in 21. Kemp IV is the only player with a receiving grade of 70 or more (70). Jana (62.8), Poljan (61.4), and Davis Jr. (59.9) are below 63.

Righting the proverbial ship receiving-wise could be difficult against UNC, as Davis Jr., who by a large margin has been Virginia’s primary deep threat, is doubtful to play according to Bronco Mendenhall. Davis Jr. is averaging 23.3 yards per catch and has three of UVA’s 10 receiving scores this season.

“Yeah Lavel wasn’t available for the last game and really not at liberty to say how come, and most likely not available for this one as well,” Mendenhall said during his October 26 press conference. “It’s nothing punitive. That’s why he was not involved this past week.”

“Yeah, it’s a factor because we really like, as you saw our ability to stretch the field vertically, he’s been the most effective player for us doing that,” Mendenhall said of what the loss of Davis Jr. means. “Ra’Shaun Henry stepped up and did a nice job a couple of times for us, and kind of filling in for Lavel. It did affect us for sure.”

If Davis Jr. is not on the field against the Tar Heels, the receiver unit still must improve in the efficiency category to provide some balance to the rushing attack. In terms of going down the field, the Hoos may look to a graduate transfer other than Poljan to fill that role.

Graduate transfer Ra’Shaun Henry made his first catch as a Virginia Cavalier last week against Miami. The Hoos hope to see his contributions grow. ~ Photo courtesy Jim Daves/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

Ra’Shaun Henry, a 6’3”, 185-pound graduate transfer receiver, hauled in 90 receptions and over 1,000 yards at St. Francis (PA) last season. He hauled in a 35-yard touchdown – his first catch of the year – in the fourth quarter against Miami, cutting the Canes’ lead to 19-14. A second quarter touchdown catch was called back because of a penalty.

Henry was touted as a potential go-to player in the passing game for the Hoos this season, but before the Miami game he was hardly noticed on the field. The coaches hope to change that in the weeks ahead, beginning with UNC.

“I think, more than anything, the transition to our culture,” Anae said, discussing why Henry has not been as effective as desired this season. “We’re a process driven team and an effort driven team. Man, that applies especially to offensive skill. It’s how you do it. That part of the culture I will say has been a part of his process, and we’re still in the process of grasping all of what that means. But man I’m really pleased that he’s in the mix and I do believe that he has things to contribute.”

New Players Emerge In The Defensive Backfield

With starters Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson on the sideline, Virginia turned to sophomore Antonio Clary and graduate transfer D’Angelo Amos as its starting safeties against Miami. Redshirt sophomore Coen King, a former walk-on who earned a scholarship in fall camp, was leaned on at the nickel corner position and saw 39 defensive snaps, by far the most of his collegiate career.

Sophomore Antonio Clary received the first start of his Virginia football career last week against Miami. ~ Photo courtesy Jim Daves/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

Clary (seven tackles with a half a sack) performed well in the pass rush and tackling categories while struggling in pass coverage with a 41 grade from Pro Football Focus. Amos, receiving the second start of his UVA career, had three tackles with a half a tackle-for-loss and had one pass breakup and one blocked field goal, while King had one tackle.

Slowing down quarterback Sam Howell and the UNC passing game will be a challenge for a Cavalier secondary without Blount and Nelson, but Virginia defensive coordinator Nick Howell was encouraged by the performances of Clary, Amos, King and others against Miami.

“I was pleased,” Howell said of the performance of some of the new faces at defensive back. “I think each one of those kids did some good stuff man, and I’m excited about the more game repetitions that those guys can get. I thought D’Angelo … he’s starting to get comfortable. I thought his performance improved and I think that is just due to time. You think about it, he was somewhere else a couple months ago and now he jumps in and he is thrown in the fire. So I thought he played more comfortable and confident. Antonio, that was his first shot, and I like his mindset a lot, the way he runs around. He’s aggressive. I thought Coen did well. He made a couple of mistakes, but those are game reps that you have to get to figure that out. And then I thought getting Darrius (Bratton) back in more for an extended period of time, he did some good stuff too. So all those guys I was really happy with. I thought they played hard, they tried to do their assignments, and then lessons learned from things they can improve upon.”

Bratton, a redshirt junior cornerback who missed the entire 2019 campaign because of a torn ACL, has played defensive snaps against Duke, Wake Forest and Miami in 2020 according to Pro Football Focus. Miami was the most work he has gotten on defense, receiving 24 snaps.

True freshman Donovan Johnson received playing time on defense against Miami as well, playing most of a series with Amos sidelined. Cornerback Redshirt freshman Fentrell Cypress II played the previous week against Wake Forest but did not play against Miami. Johnson and Cypress II are young players to watch for as the season goes on.

Worth Quoting

Senior offensive guard Chris Glaser Jr. on the mindset of the Virginia football team heading into UNC: “Urgency. Losing four in a row is very uncharacteristic of us. Penalties is very uncharacteristic of us. Really, just cutting down on those costly mistakes in crunch time is really going to help us succeed and win the game at the end.”

Sophomore inside linebacker Nick Jackson, who Bronco Mendenhall says is currently the best play on defense, on his improvement from his true freshman campaign to this year: “I think just the experience last year helps for this year. And just knowing what I was going to expect – the physicality and the speed of the game and all that. So in my training this offseason, I was able to prepare myself better because I had seen what was going to happen.”

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