A Busy Offseason For Virginia Football Has Begun

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Virginia football senior defensive back De’Vante Cross announced he is taking advantage of this season’s “free” year of eligibility and returning for one more season in Charlottesville. Bronco Mendenhall said more seniors are expected to return as well. ~ Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

The University of Virginia football program transitioned quickly into the offseason following its 2020 regular season finale versus Virginia Tech. Last Sunday (Dec. 12), the Cavaliers announced they would not participate in postseason play, and on Monday and Tuesday of this week head coach Bronco Mendenhall conducted meetings with current players and personnel while preparing for National Signing Day on Wednesday, December 16.

“So. Lots happening,” Mendenhall told Dave Koehn on the December 14 edition of ‘Coach’s Corner.’

UVA’s 24-member class of 2021 is the program’s most highly rated since Mendenhall was named head coach in December of 2015. From the group, quarterback Jacob Rodriguez, running back Amaad Foston, offensive tackle Logan Taylor, inside linebacker Langston Long, outside linebacker James Jackson and defensive back Javin Burke plan to enroll on Grounds in UVA’s spring 2021 semester, which begins on February 1. Mendenhall expects his team to begin training February 8.

With an impressive incoming freshmen class in the fold, the attention now turns to the transfer portal as well as which current players may act on a one-time opportunity given by the NCAA, which ruled that the 2020 season does not count towards the eligibility of any player because of the coronavirus.

“Players that have exhausted their eligibility are now given an extra year, and so players now on our team are choosing whether they are NFL ready and want to pursue that, whether they accept the job offers that they have graduated and have waiting for them, or if they want to return one more year,” Mendenhall said on ‘Coach’s Corner.’ “There are those three tracks and all of the choices are being made. There’s five or six or seven players right now that had exhausted their eligibility that have significant roles that are coming back to play. There are others that are going off into the job market and have amazing futures waiting for them there, and some are choosing to go on to the NFL. Two players invited to the Senior Bowl – Charles Snowden, who is hurt, but Tony Poljan our tight end. Then there’s other players, they’re going off, the agents are sending them to different training facilities and different places to train, and they’ll take the shot at the NFL, which, in this market, if you’re not drafted it’s tougher because of the free agent accessibility and workouts, etc., in COVID, as it was last year.”

During his December 16 Signing Day press conference, Mendenhall expounded upon the process of current players deciding whether or not to return next season. A specific date is in place for when a decision must be made.

“The returning players that are either fourth years or would be fifth years, we have exit interviews every year for those players,” Mendenhall said. “That has been happening Monday and Tuesday of this week, so those were the fourth years that are learning if they’ve earned their fifth year or not and what we think is best for them. Then there’s the fifth-year players, or it could have been the fourth years that have played four straight already that have exhausted their eligibility, but now because of COVID they have a chance to come back. So those conversations have happened Monday and Tuesday of this week, many decisions have already been made, but I gave them till [December] 21st, because that gave most of them a chance to go home, talk to their families and just let it sit for a minute. It’s a big decision. It gives us enough time and enough time based on the responses to then really reframe our focus on what our roster needs might be for possible transfers.”

Defensive back De’Vante Cross did not need to wait until December 21. The fifth-year senior has announced his intentions to return to UVA for one more year. Cross, who started at cornerback this season and earned starts at safety and cornerback in the 2019 campaign, provides valuable experience and depth in the defensive backfield, which has been hampered by injuries each of the last two seasons.

Graduate transfer running back Shane Simpson (NFL Draft) and true senior outside linebacker Matt Gahm (job) have already indicated they will not be returning. Tight end Tony Poljan is headed to the Senior Bowl and I don’t expect him to return, leaving the following scholarship seniors from last season as potential returnees:

QB – Lindell Stone.

Stone is listed as a senior on Virginia’s official roster, but he could be a redshirt junior eligibility-wise because he did not play at all in 2018. A valuable teammate and serviceable backup, Stone likely won’t be back unless it is as a graduate assistant coach.

WR – Ra’Shaun Henry.

Henry, a graduate transfer from St. Francis (PA) was a non-factor until the Miami game, when he hauled in one of UVA’s two touchdowns. His first four receptions all went for touchdowns. The final TD came against Boston College, which was his best game as a Cavalier (3 catches, 95 yards, 1 TD). Henry seemed open to returning based on comments late in the season.

OL – Chris Glaser, Dillon Reinkensmeyer.

Glaser, who never redshirted, has been a consistent, solid performer the past two seasons. His overall offense grade ticked up in 2020 according to Pro Football Focus (67.4, up from 66.4 in 2019), and his PFF pass blocking grade in 2020 was by far the best of his career (78, up from 71 his true freshman campaign). Mendenhall would love to have Glaser back, but it would be understandable to see him head to the NFL coming off a quality senior year. Reinkensmeyer, a fifth-year senior, missed the final three games of the season due to injury. He is a versatile player who has been a valuable contributor the past four years.

The Virginia defensive line could use Mandy Alonso back on the team next season, but will the true senior move on to try and make the NFL? ~ Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

DL – Mandy Alonso, Adeeb Atariwa, Richard Burney.

Alonso, like Glaser, has played since his true freshman campaign. He had a solid 2020 season and was the anchor of the line. Atariwa came to UVA in the summer as a graduate transfer and was a valuable contributor who took on a starting role late in the season. Burney, a sixth-year senior, was playing well before being sidelined with a medical condition following the Miami game. He has dealt with medical issues previously.

UVA could use all three back on what will otherwise be a young defensive line unit next season. For the record, I don’t expect that to happen. If none of the three return, adding a defensive lineman or two via transfer makes sense.

LB – ILBs Zane Zandier, Rob Snyder and OLBs Charles Snowden, Elliott Brown.

In all likelihood, Snowden is off to the NFL, although I wouldn’t call it exactly 100% yet. Brown has played a reserve role throughout his 4-year Cavalier career. He would be the most experienced outside linebacker in the program outside of Noah Taylor if he were to return, assuming Snowden leaves. On the inside, Snyder has battled injuries throughout his career. Zandier, who has played since his true freshman season in 2017, was a mainstay as a starter the past two seasons and started most of his sophomore year. He had a career-high five sacks in 2019, earning All-ACC Honorable Mention honors for his performance, but graded out better this year with a 67.6 overall mark per PFF. Zandier said that he was going to discuss his future with his parents once the season was over, indicating late in the year that he had not completely made up his mind.

Senior safety Joey Blount had an outstanding game against Duke to start 2020, but his season was derailed because of injury. ~ Photo by Kris Wright

DB – Nick Grant (CB), and safeties Joey Blount, Brenton Nelson and D’Angelo Amos.

Grant was thrust into a starting role in 2019 and started all 10 games this season. Blount and Nelson have shown to be impact players when healthy. For Nelson especially, his health could be a major consideration with regards to returning, as he has suffered season ending injuries the past two years. Amos, a grad-transfer from JMU, added depth while having to learn the UVA defense on the fly.

UVA could use the depth and experience at both defensive back positions. Whether it is through returning seniors or the transfer portal or both, look for UVA to further address this position this offseason.

Special Teams – Nash Griffin (P), Brian Delaney (PK).

If memory serves, Griffin was considering an internship or a job following last season before deciding to return. I’m guessing he is one of the players heading off to a job outside of football. Delaney could be one to watch. If he returns he could potentially handle both punting and placekicking duties.

In terms of transfers, Virginia signed six graduate transfers last offseason, and all six impacted the program in 2020. Because of a likely impending rule change, the Hoos will look to regular transfers as well as graduate transfers this offseason.

“I always like to save a few [scholarships],” Mendenhall said. “The transfer portal is open. Now there’s going to be a one-time transfer with no penalty. That’s going to pass, I believe, and so here comes another level of the free agency-ish market, and so there will be other roster additions I’m sure before we play.”

Players Who Opted Out

Running back Mike Hollins and defensive lineman Aaron Faumui were the most notable players to opt out of the 2020 season. There was no loss of scholarship for these players, a point Mendenhall made clear before the season. Virginia’s head coach provided the latest on those who opted out and remain listed on the official roster, such as Hollins, Faumui, offensive lineman Alex Gellerstedt, defensive back Tenyeh Dixon (these are the ones we know opted out).

“The optout players, they’ve been held to the same standards in our program so in terms of academic and class attendance and anything else other than just the daily practice,” Mendenhall said. “We’ve been in contact with them the entire season. The year-end kind of exit meeting where the trainers speak and the strength and conditioning, which is the meeting we have to prepare everyone for coming back. They were on that call and so when they come back it’s ready, set, go. They were promised their scholarships wouldn’t be affected, which they haven’t been. Their standing remains as it was. They had the choice based on health and safety and their families, many of the parents were the ones that influenced their sons heavily, which I understand that. So they get to just come back and start and reintegrate and move forward. That will happen on February 1st or January 30th, when they report back.”

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