Since Bronco Mendenhall became head coach, the University of Virginia football program has made consistent use of the graduate transfer. Mendenhall has made it clear: UVA is taking graduate transfers with the mindset that they are coming in to compete for a major role and, in most cases, a starting position.
2020 grad-transfers Keytaon Thompson (WR/ATH), Ra’Shaun Henry (WR) and Adeeb Atariwa (DL), and traditional transfer Ronnie Walker Jr. (RB) return to the Cavaliers in 2021. They’ll be joined by six new graduate transfer players, as well as one traditional transfer. The latter is linebacker Chico Bennett IV, a transfer from Georgia Tech who enrolled on Grounds this past January. Bennett represents the potential future of transfers, as Division 1 players are now allowed a one-time transfer without having to redshirt and the ACC has allowed penalty-free transfers within the conference. However, the former Yellow Jacket suffered a torn ACL in spring practice and his status for 2021 is in question.
As Fall Camp gets underway, Jelani Woods is the headliner of this new graduate transfer class (read an in-depth feature on Woods by Kris Wright by clicking here). Blending an impressive combination of size (6’7”, 280 pounds!) and athleticism, the former Oklahoma State Cowboy has a chance to shine in Charlottesville. He is expected to be Virginia’s starting tight end, a featured position in the receiving game in 2020 with Tony Poljan – also a grad-transfer – hauling in 38 receptions, the most by a Virginia tight end in a single season in the Mendenhall era.
Woods, who enrolled on Grounds for the 2021 spring semester and has two seasons of eligibility remaining, impressed this spring.
“Jelani Woods is probably the brightest spot that I’ve seen in our program this spring,” Mendenhall said. “He is big and he’s fast and he’s physical and he catches the ball well and he’s a great blocker, and man is he thankful to be here. He’s a welcome addition to our program at a position of need. Coming off Tony’s performance, this would be the next Tony, except with two years, with similar if not increased capability.
“I’m so thankful he’s here. What a great young man. It is a perfect fit for us and him.”
Woods, who was recruited to Oklahoma State as a quarterback, moved to tight end as a redshirt freshman in 2018. He is coming off a redshirt junior campaign in which he received a career-best 72.2 Pro Football focus grade in run-blocking. Woods was not a major part of the Cowboys passing attack. As a sophomore he was targeted 20 times according to Pro Football Focus, hauling in 16 receptions for 112 yards and a touchdown. Last season, he was targeted 16 times and finished with eight catches for 129 yards and a score. Virginia represents an opportunity for the athletic Woods to showcase his receiving and blocking skills. Meanwhile, UVA gets an experienced, athletic tight end prospect with impressive size and two years of eligibility. A great fit and potential homerun for the staff.
Where might the rest of the grad-transfer group fit in? Coach Mendenhall has seen a positive impact from day one of Fall Camp 2021.
“Really, maybe not so much I’ve noticed from the new faces, but the effect of new faces is competition and urgency from existing players at that spot,” Mendenhall said during day one of Fall Camp 2021. “There’s a pretty standard old saying, right, that competition makes us better coaches, and that’s what I saw today. There was more urgency and a higher level of concentration and production at the positions where there’s transfers that came in.”
Defensive Backfield Upgrade
Virginia’s pass defense has been exploited the past season-and-a-half. Some promising up-and-comers are in the program, but clearly Bronco Mendenhall wasn’t satisfied with the state of the defensive backs, specifically at corner, heading into 2021. UVA added two graduate transfers to the fold this offseason, including former Louisville Cardinal Anthony Johnson, who has two years of eligibility remaining, and former North Dakota State star Josh Hayes.
Hayes and Johnson are competing with returning Cavaliers Nick Grant and Darrius Bratton for the starting cornerback positions. Hayes played in 52 games with the Bison, earning 22 straight starts spanning the 2019 and 2020/2021 seasons. As a junior in 2019, the 5’11”, 185-pound standout totaled 59 tackles, 10 pass breakups, and two interceptions on his way to earning All-Missouri Valley Conference Second-Team honors. As a senior, Hayes had 30 tackles (13 solo) and three pass breakups in six games (one last fall and five this spring).
Hayes had high ratings at NDSU according to Pro Football Focus, including an 80.5 overall defense grade in 2019 and a 78.6 overall defense mark in 2020. His tackling ability seems impressive and could allow him to play safety (think Brenton Nelson) should he miss out on one of the starting corner spots. Hayes received a 92.3 rush defense grade and an 87.3 tackling mark from PFF in 2020. Coverage-wise, his highest grade was 80.6, which came in 2019. He received a 73.0 mark in 2020.
“It is as fierce a competition as we can develop to put the best five football players on the field,” Mendenhall said. “If that ends up being five corners, that’s five corners. If it’s one safety and four corners, that’s what it is. In the game of college football now, there’s so much RPO, so much covering the slot, and so much tackling, the best five cover and tackle players will be on the field for us regardless of position.”
Meanwhile, Johnson, who measures in at 6’1”, 205 pounds, received a 73.3 coverage grade in 2019 and a 67.2 coverage grade in 2020 from Pro Football Focus. Despite his impressive size, Johnson received low tackling marks while at Louisville, but his lowest coverage mark is still higher than Nick Grant’s highest coverage mark of 63 this past season. Bratton’s best season came in 2018, when he graded out at 73.5 overall, 71.3 against the run, and 73.7 coverage. A torn ACL caused him to miss 2019 and he seemed slowed by the injury in 2020, although a good spring 2021 is a hopeful sign heading into his final season in Charlottesville.
How the cornerback race shakes out is one of the biggest questions heading into 2021. From the sound of it, the newcomers are pushing, which should be a positive as Mendenhall looks for improved play from the DBs.
Darrington Vying For Playing Time In Deep Offensive Backfield
Bronco Mendenhall called running back “probably our deepest position” heading into Fall Camp.
“Lots and lots of competition at the running back spot,” Mendenhall said.
The competition includes senior Wayne Taulapapa, who has started each of the past two seasons, as well as new graduate transfer Devin Darrington, senior Ronnie Walker Jr., sophomore Mike Hollins and first year Amaad Foston. Darrington brings experience as a grad-transfer but is the newest member of the Cavalier program, having arrived this summer. The Harvard graduate has made a positive impression since arriving, prompting Mendenhall to say he “had a really strong summer.”
In his final season (2019) with the Crimson, Darrington finished with 734 yards rushing, a number that was good for fifth in the Ivy League. The 5’9”, 205-pound junior averaged 4.03 yards per carry and totaled seven touchdowns. Darrington had three 100-yard rushing efforts in 2019, including 115 yards and three touchdowns against Howard, 109 yards and a score against Holy Cross, and 102 yards against Dartmouth.
Darrington is not proven as a receiver or returner the way last year’s grad-transfer tailback, Shane Simpson, was. Still, all five tailbacks have an opportunity to become UVA’s primary ballcarrier, although Taulapapa is looking good early.
“[Running back] probably our deepest position, but really, good luck beating out Wayne,” Mendenhall said during his Fall Camp presser. “He just seems to win every drill anytime they’re competing, and he’s demonstrated that, so, yeah, I like his chances.”
UVA Boosts Receiving Corps With Davis Jr. Out
UVA endured a key injury in the spring, when rising second year wideout Lavel Davis Jr. went down with a torn ACL. The 6’7” rising star could return late in the 2021 regular season, but for now he is sidelined.
Reliable senior H-Back Billy Kemp IV and dynamic redshirt sophomore Dontayvion Wicks, who missed all of last season with an injury, are expected to be the top options for quarterback Brennan Armstrong. Ra’Shaun Henry, a 2020 graduate transfer who is taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility because of COVID-19, was praised by Armstrong during ACC Media Day for his strong performance this spring. The wide receiver unit also features young talent such as Nathaniel Beal and Demick Starling, among others, but Marshall graduate transfer Artie Henry could prove to be a significant addition.
Henry had solid production (22 catches, 308 yards, three touchdowns in 2020) and demonstrated big-play ability during his time with the Thundering Herd. At 6’1”, he has good size, and he has experience. He has good speed and could work well on the outside and from the slot.
Did UVA Find Its 2021 Starting Punter?
Virginia’s top two punting options from last year – starter Nash Griffin and placekicker Brian Delaney – are gone, leaving the Hoos without an experienced returning punter … until Jacob Finn came on board, that is. There is always competition at the kicking spots, but Finn seems a solid bet as the frontrunner to replace Griffin with sophomore Brendan Farrell also in the mix for the Hoos.
Finn, who measures in at 6’4”, 197 pounds, played in five games his first four seasons at the University of Florida before becoming the Gators’ starting punter as a redshirt senior. He performed well, averaging 46.3 yards per punt in 26 tries. Fourteen of those punts pinned the opponent inside the 20. Six went for 50 or more yards, including a 67-yard effort against LSU.