Lavel Davis Jr.’s impact on the Virginia football program was immediate and important. The 6’7”, 200-pound true freshman hauled in back-to-back touchdowns as UVA surged to a 31-20 fourth-quarter lead in its season-opening win over Duke. He finished with four receptions for 101 yards and the two scores against the Blue Devils, the first time in school history a true freshman has achieved over 100 yards receiving in his college debut.
Davis Jr.’s physical gifts – size, overall athleticism and speed – have been evident from the start of 2020. The talented true freshman’s passion for football and desire to improve are things we are now getting a glimpse of as well.
“I think the main thing is his confidence keeps growing,” senior wide receiver Terrell Jana said, discussing Davis Jr.’s impact as a first-year. “Early on, as a first year, as a freshman, you’re just nervous and you don’t want to make mistakes. His ability to trust his own abilities and his confidence has grown immensely from day one. And just his development as a player. He has really bought into trying to get better. He’s always looking to get extra work in, whether that be with our backup quarterbacks, whether it be with other wide receivers. He’s eager to learn, eager to get better. I think that’s a great trait to have that early on. I didn’t have that my first fall. I learned that my first spring, maybe going into summertime. Him to have that right now is a huge asset. To back that up with the plays he’s making, his trajectory is going straight up. I’m excited to see where he ends up.”
In addition to Jana’s insights, there is this November 19 tweet from Virginia wide receivers coach Marques Hagans:
I took this pic last night. After we all put in a hard day of work @LDJxlll wanted to put in the extra time to be great; @JoeBee_2 was happy to extend a helping hand. Love these guys like my own. Each one teach one.This is FAMILY BUSINESS⚔️ pic.twitter.com/xJuOlwoGLx
— Marques Hagans (@coachmhagans) November 19, 2020
Davis Jr.’s debut was eye-opening. He added five more receptions for 109 yards against Clemson and NC State in ensuing weeks before being held to zero catches for the first time in his young career against Wake Forest.
After missing Virginia’s games against Miami and North Carolina, Davis Jr. returned to the field against Louisville. He returned with a vengeance, corralling four catches for 74 yards and a score in a crucial win over the Cardinals. He followed that performance with a 90-yard touchdown reception in last Saturday’s victory over Abilene Christian, which brought the Hoos to 4-4 on the season. The 90-yard catch is tied for fifth longest in school history.
“Really impressed,” Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall said of Davis Jr.’s performance against Louisville. “I thought Lavel played really well.”
“He’s improving and to have him back, our team is different,” Mendenhall continued. “We’re better downfield, we have more speed, length and we have an ability to stretch the field at a higher level. He’s another quality player to help us score points. I’m really impressed as a first-year player, just the trajectory he’s on to this point, which we’re still early.”
The future of the Virginia passing game is bright considering quarterback Brennan Armstrong, Davis Jr., dynamic 6’1” sophomore Dontayvion Wicks – Wicks is out for 2020 with a foot injury – and speedy true freshman Demick Starling, who caught his first touchdown last week, have multiple years of eligibility remaining. Not to mention the fact that UVA will return Billy Kemp IV and the versatile Keytaon Thompson in 2021.
“He has a very, very bright future,” Grant said of Davis Jr., who has totaled 14 receptions for 374 yards and five touchdowns this season. Davis Jr. is within striking distance of John Ford (545 yards) for the freshman school single season receiving yards mark. “I can say that in the least about him. He will be great as long as he keeps his mind straight and keeps just working. He has all the tools – height, speed, everything – to be a great player.”
Gahm Ready For Increased Role In Absence Of Snowden
For the first time since 2017, the Virginia football defense will not include outside linebacker Charles Snowden in the starting lineup. The 6’7”, 240-pound senior suffered a broken ankle in the victory over Abilene Christian, snapping a streak of 35 straight starts for the 2020 team captain and Senior Bowl selection.
Matt Gahm, who along with Noah Taylor and Snowden has formed a formidable three-man rotation at outside linebacker the past 2+ seasons, now finds himself starting opposite Taylor as the Hoos take on Florida State. This will be the 6’3”, 235-pound senior’s fifth start of his Cavalier career. However, he has played in 35 games the past three seasons after primarily playing special teams as a true freshman in 2017.
As you would expect from a veteran, Gahm does not seem nervous about his new role.
“I wouldn’t say my mentality’s changed at all,” Gahm said. “Just put your helmet on, go to work like you always do. It’s hard to see a teammate, especially one that I’ve been around so long, a good friend of mine, go down. We were all very sad to see that. After the game in the locker room, try to comfort him as much as possible. Praying for him. But now, I would say my mentality hasn’t changed at all. Just put my helmet on and go to work like I always do.”
“I’m happy to play as many snaps as they need me to play,” Gahm said. “I feel like I’m ready.”
Gahm is credited with 25 tackles and a career season-high three sacks so far in 2020. He is coming off an impressive performance against Abilene Christian, in which he totaled four tackles, two tackles for loss including one sack, and a pass breakup.
“Matt’s completely equipped and prepared,” Mendenhall said. “He plays really hard, he has all the skills, he’s experienced and he’s ready. The word seamless would be used just in terms of transfer from one to another, [Gahm and Snowden are] different and distinct in style and role. But between Matt Gahm and Elliott Brown, they have experience, they have maturity, they’re well-versed in our program. There is no replacing Charles but I’m thankful that those two are available.”
Gahm admits he will have extra motivation to play harder for Snowden and others who are sidelined with injuries.
“Going to work with that guy every day, it was hard to see that,” Gahm said, referring to Snowden. “But I know Charles. I know he’s a hard worker. I know he’s always faced adversity well. He’s always taken it in stride. I have every confidence he’ll be able to bounce back from as strong as before.”
“Seeing Charles go down. Seeing Burney, Brenton Nelson, seeing all those guys … it’s hard to see guys that worked so hard to come back from previous injury and guys that just work hard consistently throughout their career deal with adversity like that,” Gahm said. “I know a little bit what it feels like, hurting my knee last year, and having to play through injury is frustrating. Missing any sort of time is frustrating, so definitely want to go out there and play for those guys every Saturday because they don’t have the opportunity to be out there.”
The Extra Year Of Eligibility
As the season winds down, an emerging subject of interest is which seniors may return for an extra year in 2021. The NCAA has stated that this season will not count towards eligibility of any player. Hypothetically, with 2020 being a “free year,” any senior could return to Virginia next season.
Coach Mendenhall was asked about this issue during his November 23 press conference.
“I’ve chosen not to address it from the head coach’s seat, the eligibility of any of our players until after the year is over,” Mendenhall said. “They’re having conversations with their position coaches and that’s been happening, off and on probably for a while, as players are asking ‘what do you think about me coming back’, etc. So, I’ve left it at kind of position coach/player level, at this point, without formally addressing it. I like the focus being on here and now. Knowing that any distraction usually impedes performance, it doesn’t help. We’ll approach that after our last game with each and all of the players that have exhausted their eligibility. That’s the primary issue is the players that have exhausted eligibility, are they going to come back or not. And they won’t count, so it really doesn’t affect anyone else in terms of urgency or immediacy.”
Gahm and Jana were asked about the eligibility issue this week. Gahm’s mind is made up, while Jana was less clear about his intentions.
“My career is winding down. I have a job lined up for next year,” said Gahm, who specified that he has a consulting job in Washington D.C. waiting for him.
“Of course, I mean, just weigh your options out, just to see what you want to do, what you can do,” Jana said. “So much goes into it, my family and everything, and of course you get another year of school paid for, which is awesome. However, right now, it’s hard enough playing in a pandemic, so we’re just trying to get through the couple games, win out, and make this season as good as we can. Especially the injuries we had, seeing some of my guys go down, it’s unfortunate, so we’re just trying to do the best we can this year for them, for people before us. After all that is said and done and we have given everything we can, we can look at the next step. For now, beat Florida State.”