His team holding a comfortable 35-7 advantage early in the third quarter allowed Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall the opportunity to put some new faces on the field. Players who primarily play special teams, players who seldom play at all, and players who have not yet seen the field played in the University of Virginia football program’s 55-15 victory over Abilene Christian.
Mendenhall said it was “really gratifying” to see those players rewarded with playing time.
“It was just really gratifying to see smiles from so many players that hadn’t had a chance to play this year in a real game after they’ve been just practicing, laboring and working and trying to help their teammates and this program move forward,” Mendenhall said. “To be able to get so many of those guys in the game was the best part of the game for me – seeing so many smiles and smiles from so many different players that that I hadn’t seen out there playing and then I think just seeing their teammates that are starters or even the backups getting so much time. How they were cheering for the other guys, so that was a really gratifying.”
What are some stories behind the smiles? How about redshirt freshman D’Sean Perry, who not only made his collegiate debut but ended the game in memorable fashion.
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) November 22, 2020
“Honestly, it was surreal,” Perry said of his 84-yard interception return for a touchdown. “When I caught the ball, it didn’t feel real to be honest.”
“It was a surreal moment that I’ve been preparing for for a long time,” Perry said. “I’m super grateful. I thank God for that. Yeah, I’m just super grateful for that.”
Especially thrilled for Perry were starting inside linebacker Nick Jackson, who was Perry’s 2019 Fall Camp roommate, and starting fourth-year defensive end Mandy Alonso, who was a high school teammate of Perry’s at Gulliver Prep in Miami (FL).
“Watching D’Sean Perry score that touchdown made my whole day,” Jackson said. “That’s my guy. Last fall camp he was my roommate, so just the emotions of seeing him have that opportunity and that play was just awesome. You just feel for that guy and seeing him go all the way – he’s just a hard worker, comes in every day and he just works – and just to see that payoff for him is awesome.”
“It was awesome, especially with me playing with him in high school. That was just special,” Alonso said. “Seeing him break the rock, that was amazing. Seeing him go through the process of being an underclassman here at UVA, that was amazing for me to see him do that.”
Perry’s excitement carried into the locker room, as he was the choice to break the rock following the Abilene Christian win. The victory brought the Hoos to .500 in 2020 (4-4).
— Virginia Football (@UVAFootball) November 22, 2020
For true freshmen Su Agunloye (DL), Jonathan Horton (OLB) and Sackett Wood Jr. (TE), redshirt freshman Nathaniel Beal III (WR), redshirt sophomores Jack Keenan (OG) and Darren Klein (S), and fifth-year senior linebacker Dre Bryant, the smiles came by making their collegiate debuts. Bryant (Charlottesville H.S.) and Klein (Western Albemarle H.S.) are products of Charlottesville-area schools. Klein was credited with with four tackles and a pass breakup.
What are some other stories behind the “smiles” from the ACU win?
– Keenan, redshirt junior Tommy Christ, redshirt sophomore Derek Devine, redshirt freshman Jonathan Leech and true freshman Jestus Johnson III received significant time on the offensive line in the second half.
“So, Jack Keenan went out there, Jestus Johnson got out there, and Derek Devine … seeing those guys play and really just put their heart into it,” senior starting offensive guard Chris Glaser said. “Going into this game, when it was their turn, a lot of us told ‘em, ‘Just play how you play in practice. You’re good enough,’ and they stepped up to the plate and they did really good. I’m proud to see them play well.”
– The defensive line unit, which saw another important player – true freshman Nusi Malani – exit with an injury, saw the debut of Agunloye and the resurgence of redshirt sophomore Jordan Redmond. Redmond played three games as a true freshman in 2018, earning ESPN.com Midseason Freshman All-American honors, but did not play at all the entire 2019 season and the first seven games of 2020.
Redmond had two tackles (one solo) and Agunloye had four tackles (two solo) in Saturday’s victory.
“I thought Su and J-Red really stepped up,” Alonso said. “To see Jordan come back from not playing last year and the beginning of this year, coming back and making a big stride here late in the season, that was awesome to see. Me and him are tight, so that was amazing to see him make three or four tackles and have an impact on the game.”
– In addition to Perry’s touchdown, Jackson had more to celebrate, watching fellow inside linebackers Rob Snyder, Josh Ahern and Hunter Stewart see extensive playing time on defense. Snyder, whose career has been heavily impacted by injuries, had three solo tackles and one sack. Ahern saw some playing time as a true freshman last season but has primarily played special teams, while Stewart, who did not play as a true freshman in 2019, is primarily a special teams player as well.
“Those guys look good,” Jackson said. “Josh had a PBU [pass break-up], Hunter was making plays, Rob with the sack, those guys were playing around. It’s always fun to see your boys just fly around. I feel like we’re a really, really tight group in the inside linebacker room, and those are my guys. So, just watching them play and seeing them play, they played hard, they played fast and they played physical. I’m excited to see them keep on progressing.”
– True freshman wide receiver Demick Starling made the first catch of his collegiate career against Louisville. He had two catches against Abilene Christian, including the first touchdown of his college career.
– True freshman cornerback Elijah Gaines entered the game prior to Nick Howell making wholesale subs in the third quarter, so he saw some time with the first-team D. Gaines played with enthusiasm and would notch the first sack of his collegiate career.
– True freshman safety Donovan Johnson had two solo tackles. This was his second appearance in a Cavalier uniform. He also played against Miami.
– Walk-on safety Jake Dewease saw significant action on defense for the first time in his career. Dewease received a jersey number prior to the Clemson game and saw special teams action against the Tigers. He has now played in three games this season.
– Redshirt freshman Chayce Chalmers is one of UVA’s better special teams players. He earned time at safety late against Abilene Christian and was in on two tackles.