We have examined the potential sleepers of the 2021 Virginia football team. Now it’s time to pick the stars of this team. Let’s start with the offense.
Redshirt junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong has one full starting season under his belt. The ability of the lefty signal caller to build off of that experience and turn in consistent, quality performances will play a large role in just how good this Virginia offense can be in 2021.
In his debut as the Cavaliers’ full-time starter, Armstrong played in eight games versus ACC competition. He completed 141-of-245 passes for 1,734 yards with 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Six of the interceptions came in UVA’s first three games, with two more coming in a loss at Virginia Tech in the season finale. Armstrong added 500 yards rushing (4.2 YPC) and five touchdowns against ACC teams.
Armstrong rebounded after a rough start to 2020. He threw two interceptions in each of UVA’s first three games and suffered a concussion in Week 3 versus NC State. After sitting out the Week 4 loss at Wake Forest, Armstrong tossed seven touchdowns and had three picks combined against Miami, UNC, Louisville and Boston College. He completed over 60% of his passes in a Week 7 win over Louisville and completed over 70% in a Week 9 blowout victory over Boston College before concluding 2020 on a sour note with a rough performance (two interceptions, 54.3% completion percentage) in a loss at Virginia Tech.
The Virginia Tech loss aside, Armstrong’s resilience and improved decision-making after the shaky start were positive developments. He’ll need to maintain and build upon the steady play while improving his accuracy – Armstrong completed less than 56% of his passes in five of nine outings. Like Virginia Tech did, teams will look to take away Armstrong’s significant rushing ability and make him win through the air. If the left signal caller is up to the task, that really opens up what has the potential to be a balanced offensive attack with an experienced offensive line in place.
A quality traditional rushing attack, something Mendenhall has discussed since the end of last year, should also help give Armstrong more time and rhythm in the pocket. Who will be the “star” to make this happen is the question.
Wayne Taulapapa seemed to be the early frontrunner to be Virginia’s starting running back, as Coach Mendenhall said in his first Fall Camp press conference that he “wouldn’t bet against” the senior. More recently, though, Coach Mendenhall described the running back race as headed toward a “photo finish” with all five backs – Taulapapa, grad-transfer Devin Darrington, senior Ronnie Walker Jr., sophomore Mike Hollins and true freshman Amaad Foston – in contention.
Establishing the traditional run-game has been a priority for UVA this offseason. The 2018 season was the last time a running back led the team in rushing yards, with Jordan Ellis racking up 1,026 yards to quarterback Bryce Perkins’ 923. Ellis also led the team in carries that year. Perkins and Brennan Armstrong have led the team in carries by a sizable margin each of the past two seasons.
Will there be a workhorse that emerges? Might UVA’s traditional run attack be more committee-oriented? Whatever the case, Mendenhall wants to see production, and this competition seems likely to carry into the season until one back emerges with a defining performance. Devin Darrington is my “sleeper” pick. I still love Mike Hollins’ potential, but I wonder how much catching up he has to do after opting out of last season. The safe pick to start the season is Taulapapa.
In addition to being reliable in terms of the knowing the offense and knowing his assignments, the coaches have been able to count on Taulapapa in short-yardage, goal line situations (he has 17 TDs the past two seasons). Whether he is the “workhorse” or not, I still see Taulapapa playing an important role in short yardage and pass blocking. Having averaged 4.48 yards per carry last season and 4.01 the year before, Taulapapa showed some improvement in the production area. He may not have the potential game-breaking ability I think Hollins could have, but I could see Taulapapa developing into a steady, consistent performer in the run-game. This may be all the UVA offense needs to be successful.
Senior Billy Kemp IV deserves recognition here. All he seems to do is step up to whatever role is needed. The 5’9” H-Back improved his reception total by almost double (35 to 67) from his sophomore year to his junior year, becoming Armstrong’s most trusted target in 2020. Kemp IV was targeted 97 times by UVA quarterbacks last season, 33 more than the next highest receiver (Terrell Jana). I expect he’ll be high on the target list once again for the Hoos this season, but the star of this UVA receiving corps needs to be sophomore Dontayvion Wicks.
Wicks has the physical tools – a 6’1”, 215-pound frame with terrific speed and the hands/body control to make tough catches – to be special. He has earned the reputation in practice. The next step is doing it on the field. Wicks missed the opportunity last season after suffering a foot injury in spring of 2020. Sizable sophomore Lavel Davis Jr. emerged as a potential star in his place, but could miss the entire 2021 campaign with a knee injury (a return has not been ruled out). This leaves Wicks as the leading candidate to be the big-play, dynamic wideout star for the Hoos. Also remember that Armstrong and Wicks had developed great chemistry before Wicks’ foot injury. If they can recapture the chemistry, Wicks could be fun to watch.
6’7”, 280-pound Jelani Woods takes over Tony Poljan’s role as Brennan Armstrong’s top receiving tight end. Per Pro Football Focus, he was targeted only 36 times the past two seasons at Oklahoma State compared to Poljan’s 61 targets in UVA’s offense last season. Virginia is Woods’ opportunity to showcase his receiving talents, and to this point it appears he is meeting the challenge.
Woods’ receiving will get the most attention, but don’t underestimate his blocking ability as well. Having a tight end with that frame to go along with a good returning offensive line should make it easier for the Hoos to establish that traditional run game. Woods notched the best PFF run-blocking grade of his collegiate career last year, coming in at 72.2.
A new offensive category made especially for Keytaon Thompson. The 6’4”, 205-pound Thompson looks to continue his Swiss Army Knife-role for the Hoos this season. With a year of experience playing this role and an offseason to improve his receiving skills and more, Thompson is expected to take a starring role in the Cavalier offense.
As a runner, Thompson has shown the ability to break big plays. He averaged six yards per carry, scored three touchdowns, and totaled 234 yards on the ground in 2020. Thompson added a modest seven catches for 98 yards and three scores for the Hoos in 2020. Given Mendenhall’s recent praise, though, look for the former Mississippi State Bulldog to play a much more significant role as a receiver in 2021.
Armstrong, Wicks and Thompson will be an exciting trio to watch.
Virginia returns a veteran, quality offensive line group, one that figures to be one of the strongest units on the team. Finding the lone “star” from tackles Ryan Nelson and Ryan Swoboda, guard Chris Glaser, and center Olusegun Oluwatimi was a challenge. All four have been in the program a long time, and all four performed well in 2020, earning overall blocking grades of 67.4 or better according to Pro Football Focus. Losing any of these four players would be a blow the line, but I think Oluwatimi would be the most difficult to replace.
Olusegun Oluwatimi has been rock-solid since taking over as UVA’s starting center in 2019, starting 23 games the past two seasons. His 71.1 overall offensive blocking grade from PFF last year was the highest of any of UVA’s most-played offensive linemen, and his 77.1 run-blocking grade in 2020 was a team best. Pass-blocking (54.1 grade in 2020) needs improvement; however, Oluwatimi just feels like the quiet leader of this offensive line unit. Without him, it’s hard to see the line staying at the same level.