The University of Virginia football program has released its first depth chart of the 2021 season. There are few surprises for the most part, but there are some interesting items of note, highlighted by the fact that seven true freshmen are on the two or three-deep.
That’s the topic for the latest “50 Thoughts Before Virginia Kickoff” article – “Virginia Releases Its First Depth Chart Of 2021.”
QB1 – Brennan Armstrong, Jr.
QB2 – Ira Armstead, R-Fr.
QB3 – Jay Woolfolk, Fr
No surprises here with Armstrong the clear starter. Armstead, a redshirt freshman who played in four games last season, beat out two true freshmen for the backup spot. Jacob Rodriguez had the experience advantage over fellow first year Jay Woolfolk by enrolling midyear and going through spring football; however, when QBs coach Jason Beck noted how well Woolfolk was adapting to college football and head coach Bronco Mendenhall praised him as well, it became apparent the Benedictine (Richmond, VA) was a serious contender.
Should Armstrong go down with an injury for any extended period of time, Armstead would get the first opportunity. If he struggles, though, I don’t think the staff would have reservations turning to one of the true freshmen. This won’t be an issue with a healthy Armstrong, though. Don’t be surprised to see Armstead, Woolfolk and/or Rodriguez on the field at other positions because they have cross-trained.
RB1 – Wayne Taulapapa, Sr.
RB2 – Mike Hollins, So.
RB3 – Ronnie Walker Jr., Sr. OR Devin Darrington, Gr.
While the depth chart is up, the running back competition seems far from settled.
“I mean, it is so close,” Mendenhall said. “Wayne’s experience gives him a more every-play role in anything we’re doing because we’ve seen him do it all. Mike Hollins adds a dynamic ball carrier emphasis that’s special. And Ronnie, there is a speed and dynamic component that comes with that. And Devin Darrington my been the most effective runner through camp. Really hard to say right now who and how many touches and what roles. I mean, it’s a photo finish as of Monday going into getting to Saturday, so too early to say what the plan is.”
With the three upperclassmen and Hollins playing well, true freshman Amaad Foston is probably going to redshirt.
WR1 – Dontayvion Wicks, So.; Billy Kemp IV, Sr.; Ra’Shaun Henry, Sr.
WR2 – Artie Henry, Sr.; Hayden Mitchell, Sr.; Demick Starling, So.
Again, no surprises here as Wicks, Kemp IV, and Ra’Shaun Henry were thought to be the clear frontrunners at receiver. Artie Henry, the transfer from Marshall, should see a decent amount of playing time, and it will be interesting to see how much of a leap forward the speedy Starling can take. Mitchell probably will make a bigger impact as a special teams specialist than wide receiver, but you’ll see him get some snaps. more of special teams specialist.
As the season moves on, we all will be watching to see if/when Lavel Davis Jr. makes an appearance. The 6’7”, 220-pound sophomore is making good progress on his recovery from a torn ACL suffered in the spring. Also keep an eye out for true freshman local star Malachi Fields. Meanwhile, Nathaniel Beal III unfortunately suffered a second torn ACL since arriving at Virginia. The 6’4” redshirt sophomore was on my radar as a potential sleeper, as he would have been two years removed from the first ACL injury he suffered.
FBP1 – Keytaon Thompson, Sr.
A new position on the depth chart. It’s fitting for the do-everything Thompson, who rushes, catches, and sometimes passes within Robert Anae’s offense. The coaches are expanding upon Thompson’s role from last season, so it’ll be interesting to see just how much is on his plate.
Backup quarterbacks Armstead, Woolfolk and Rodriguez are cross-training at other positions, so could we see a FBP2 or FBP3 emerge this season?
TE1 – Jelani Woods, Gr.
TE2 – Grant Misch, Jr.
Woods should get the lion’s share of the snaps, but Misch is a valuable blocker and will receive significant playing time as well. Virginia hasn’t played three tight ends double-digit snaps since 2017, when Tanner Cowley, Evan Butts, and Richard Burney were at the position. I don’t see that changing this season unless there is an injury, in which case the newest UVA tight end on scholarship, Sackett Wood Jr., could be next in line with redshirt freshman Joshua Rawlings recovering from injury.
LT1 – Ryan Nelson, Sr.
LT2 – Bobby Haskins, Sr.
LG1 – Joe Bissinger, Jr.
LG2 – Logan Taylor, Fr.
C1 – Olusegun Oluwatimi, Sr.
C2 – Jestus Johnson III, R-Fr. OR Ty Furnish, Fr.
RG1 – Chris Glaser, Sr.
RG2 – Noah Josey, Jr.
RT1 – Ryan Swoboda, Sr.
RT2 – Jonathan Leech, So.
The OL1 is as expected, but the backups are interesting. Virginia signed a talented group of offensive linemen in the class of 2021. That shows in this initial depth chart, with Noah Josey and Logan Taylor each a backup at offensive guard and Ty Furnish cracking the depth chart at center. If this is an indication of their potential, the future of the Cavalier O-line should be promising.
Coach Mendenhall said Bobby Haskins, who is currently listed as the backup left tackle to Ryan Nelson, is pushing for a starting role. Haskins was recovering from an injury heading into 2020, and I don’t think he was ever 100%. If the senior is fully healthy and able to capture a starting job, what happens then? Does Nelson move inside? Either way, Mendenhall said he likes having six starting-caliber players to choose from.
“It’s that’s close between [Haskins] and the other five, which is a great position to be in as a coach,” Mendenhall said. “I’d feel even greater if there were seven rather than six, right?”
It’s good to see Leech on the two-deep. The redshirt sophomore saw the field each of his first two seasons, albeit sparingly. Coach Mendenhall said Leech was injured earlier this year, but his presence on the two-deep indicates that he has returned. As he is entering his third year in the program, it would be reassuring to see him take another step forward before potentially competing for a starting role next season.
LE1 – Adeeb Atariwa, Sr.
LE2 – Ben Smiley III, So. OR Su Agunloye, R-Fr.
NT1 – Jahmeer Carter, So. OR Aaron Faumui, Jr.
RE1 – Mandy Alonso, Sr.
RE2 – Nusi Malani, So.
It was mentioned during the preseason that Aaron Faumui was working some inside, which is why he is listed along with Jahmeer Carter at the nose. Faumui, Mandy Alonso, and even Adeeb Atariwa have the versatility to play on the end or inside. Wherever they line up, the Hoos boast a rock solid four-man rotation of Alonso, Atariwa, Carter and Faumui, with some exciting talent behind them.
Smiley III, Agunloye, and Malani are all big, athletic defensive linemen. Smiley III measures in at 6’4” while the other two are even taller, coming in at 6’6” and 6’5”, respectively. All three have obvious physical talents and bring extra size to the position. It will be important for all three of them not just to provide depth, but to be impactful with their time on the field. They will be competing for starting spots in 2022. For Smiley III, the 2021 season will be his third year in the program, but he has only played four games. Is he ready to make an impact?
SAM1 – Noah Taylor, Sr.
SAM2 – James Jackson, Fr.
BUCK1 – Nick Jackson, Jr.
BUCK2 – West Weeks, Fr.
MIKE1 – Hunter Stewart, So.
MIKE2 – Josh Ahern, So.
WILL1 – Elliott Brown, Sr.
WILL2 – Mike Green, Fr.
Three true freshmen make the two-deep. West Weeks’ spot feels an awful lot like the role Zane Zandier had his true freshman season, when Zandier was the backup to Micah Kiser. Zandier didn’t play a lot of defensive snaps that year, but he learned from one of the top linebackers in Cavalier history.
Noah Taylor and Nick Jackson are locks to stay in their starting roles, assuming they stay healthy of course. The Mike and Will positions could be more volatile with players who haven’t played major roles at the top. Stewart and Brown could nail down their starting spots. They could also switch positions, or they may be pushed by other young talents. How stable the Hoos are at those positions could be a major factor when thinking about the upside of this defense.
SABRE1 – De’Vante Cross, Sr.
SABRE2 – Antonio Clary, Jr.
FS1 – Joey Blount, Sr.
FS2 – Coen King, Jr.
A lot of experience here at safety, a position that could surprise some folks by season’s end.
Joey Blount has All-ACC ability if he can stay healthy. Former walk-on Coen King is his backup, and while there are other more heralded prospects behind him, the fact is King performed solidly when thrust into action last season. I felt he played better as the season wore on. He has good speed, and it will be interesting to see if he can become a difference maker after last season’s experience.
De’Vante Cross has returned to the position where he seems more comfortable. What is his upside, though? I think it’s pretty good at this spot. Antonio Clary is a physical safety who has worked hard to improve his pass defense this offseason. He’s also two years removed from a knee injury, so he could be primed for a breakout year.
FC1 – Nick Grant, Sr.
FC2 – Anthony Johnson, Jr.
BC1 – Darrius Bratton, Sr.
BC2 – Elijah Gaines, R-Fr.
North Dakota State graduate transfer Josh Hayes is not listed, presumably because he’s still recovering from an injury suffered during camp. If he gets healthy, look for him to grab a spot on the two-deep. My guess was for Nick Grant and Anthony Johnson to hold down the starting cornerback spots, but I’m not surprised to see Bratton earn a starting role. He is two years removed from a torn ACL and seems to have recaptured the form he had prior to the injury.
Though Johnson is listed as second string, I expect he’ll play a significant amount as UVA’s fifth defensive back.
Gaines saw some playing time last season as a true freshman. He is one of several up-and-coming players (Fentrell Cypress II is another) who UVA needs to step forward in the coming year or two, once these seniors move on.
P1 – Jacob Finn, Gr.
P2 – Brendan Farrell, So.
PK1 – Justin Duenkel, So.
PK2 – Brendan Farrell, So.
KO1 – Justin Duenkel, So.
KO2 – Brendan Farrell, So.
HOLD1 – Jared Rayman, So.
HOLD2 – Jacob Finn, Gr.
LS1 – Tucker Finkelston, Jr.
LS2 – Danny Caracciolo, Sr.
SS1 – Danny Caracciolo, Sr.
SS2 – Lee Dudley, Jr.
PR1 – Billy Kemp IV, Sr.
PR2 – Antonio Clary, Jr.
KOR1 – Ronnie Walker Jr., Sr.
KOR2 – Mike Hollins, So.
Two running backs are listed at kick returner. I still think Mendenhall is searching for the right answer there, so you may see some shuffling until a top kick returner emerges.
The biggest surprise on this two-deep is Brendan Farrell, who is listed as the top backup at punter, placekicker and kickoff. We knew the sophomore walk-on was competing with Jacob Finn at punter, but, by all accounts, junior Hunter Pearson was the primary competitor to Justin Duenkel for the starting placekicker role. Farrell did handle punting and placekicking at Marist School, earning Dekalb County Kicker of the year in 2017 and 2018 and all-state honors as a placekicker, so he has done both before.