Three-List Preview: Virginia Football Hosts William & Mary To Start 2021

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The University of Virginia football program begins year six of the Bronco Mendenhall era with a home matchup against in-state FCS foe William & Mary. UVA has won four straight season openers, the first of which came against the Tribe in Scott Stadium in 2017.

In Bronco Mendenhall’s first four seasons as head coach, the Cavaliers amassed a record of 25-27 but increased their win total every year following a 2-10 record in 2016. Virginia received bowl bids in three straight seasons from 2017-2019 – the Military Bowl, the Belk Bowl, and the 2020 Orange Bowl. The UVA program’s continued progression endured a setback in the coronavirus-impacted 2020 campaign, when the Hoos went 5-5. UVA avoided a losing season after a 1-4 start, capturing four straight wins before falling at arch-rival Virginia Tech in the season finale.

The 2021 Cavaliers are experienced, led by nine “super senior,” seniors who took advantage of the NCAA’s free year of eligibility because of COVID-19. Two super seniors are projected starters on offense, while six projected defensive starters fall into the super senior category. UVA features eight players on offense who have 10 or more starts, while the defense features six players with 20 or more starts.

Redshirt junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong figures to be a huge key to Virginia football’s success in 2021. ~ Photo courtesy Jim Daves/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

On offense, Virginia is counting on redshirt junior Brennan Armstrong to improve upon his 2020 season, his first as the full-time starter. The 6’2” lefty has an experienced, quality offensive line in front of him and a talented array of skill position players at his disposal, highlighted by up-and-coming wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks and all-purpose performer Keytaon Thompson. Armstrong had an up-and-down 2020 campaign, but he led UVA to four consecutive home wins, including victories over ACC rivals UNC, Louisville and Boston College, before the season finale at Tech.

Defensively, Virginia’s pass defense must improve after allowing an average of 304 passing yards per game and 15 yards per catch last season. The Cavalier D surrendered 29.6 points per game in 2020, second-most in the Mendenhall era behind the 2016 team. UVA’s 2021 defense features a good defensive line, 2021 Preseason All-ACC First Team linebacker Nick Jackson, and dynamic senior outside linebacker Noah Taylor in the front seven. The defensive backfield does have experience, including former All-ACC safety Joey Blount and three other senior starters.

UVA must replace multiyear starters at placekicker and punter. Coach Mendenhall brought in former Florida starter Jacob Finn at punter, and sophomore Justin Duenkel is set to handle placekicking and kickoff duties.

While Virginia was able to get in 10 games despite the coronavirus last season, William & Mary, which is led by Mendenhall’s Virginia predecessor, Mike London, postponed the season to the spring of 2021. The Tribe played only three games, compiling a 1-2 record that included a win over Elon and losses to Richmond and top-ranked JMU.

Coach London returns all offensive and defensive starters from the Spring 2021 squad, although only 11 players have double-digit collegiate starts. Four offensive linemen and starting quarterback Hollis Mathis have double-digit starts. Defensively, the Tribe returns experience on the line and at linebacker but will feature a youthful defensive backfield. William & Mary will have at least two key players sidelined on Saturday due to injury – talented redshirt freshman running back Malachi Imoh and team captain and linebacker Tyler Crist.

London, who guided William & Mary to a 5-7 record in his first season as Tribe head coach, will bring names and faces familiar to Virginia fans with him to Charlottesville. Vincent Brown, who coached at UVA during London’s tenure, is William & Mary’s Defensive Coordinator. Five former Virginia players serve under London, including Offensive Line Coach Gordon Sammis, QBs Coach Matt Johns, Defensive Line Coach Keenan Carter, DBs Coach Ras-I Dowling, and Outside Linebackers Coach Darryl Blackstock. In addition, former Cavalier wide receiver Cole Blackman is a now a receiver with the Tribe.

Essentials

Three Offensive Opponents To Watch

Hollis Mathis, Quarterback, #12

Cavalier fans may recall a then-true freshman Mathis playing against UVA in 2019. It was a rough outing for youngster, who was 0-of-4 passing with an interception. He was sacked five times and held to 10 yards rushing on 15 carries. Mathis rebounded to set William & Mary true freshman single-season records for total offense (1,522 yards), passing yards (976 yards), and rushing touchdowns (8). In two starts in the spring of 2021, the 6’2”, 170-pound quarterback completed 31-of-51 passes for 379 yards and two scores.

Mathis tops the William & Mary depth chart heading into 2021. However, Coach London says he is a “game-time” decision because of injury for the opener in Charlottesville. If the junior does not play, 6’3” true freshman Darius Wilson is listed as QB2.

Zach Burdick, Wide Receiver, #9

The senior captain averaged over 19 yards per catch and led William & Mary with 655 yards receiving in the 2019 season. He had two receptions for 65 yards against the Hoos. In one game against Richmond in the Spring 2021 season, the 6’1”, 200-pound Burdick totaled three catches for 48 yards. He and Blackman give the W&M quarterbacks experienced, sure-handed targets.

Kane Everson, Wide Receiver/Returner, #1

Phil Steele rated the 5’11”, 150-pound Everson as a Fourth-Team Freshman All-American in 2019. As a true freshman, Everson started in six of 12 games played and totaled 46 receptions for 585 yards and three touchdowns (including an 83-yard TD). He did not play in the 2021 Spring Season but figures to be one of the Tribe’s top playmakers in 2021. In addition to receiver, Everson is listed as the team’s punt returner.

With Imoh sidelined, William & Mary may turn to Everson as both a runner and receiver on Saturday.

Three Defensive Opponents To Watch

Will Kiely, Defensive End, #90

Mike London was a longtime defensive line coach, so it’s no surprise that William & Mary boasts quality performers on that front. All three projected starters – Kiely, senior nose tackle Zyquan Bessant, and senior defensive end Carl Fowler – are all good players, with Bessant and Fowler earning team captain status.

Kiely, who measures in at 6’4”, 275 pounds, has started every game the last three seasons. He was second on the Tribe in tackles for loss (10) and sacks (3) as a junior in 2019. Four of those tackles for loss came against top FCS program JMU. He totaled 14 tackles in three games this spring, earning All-CAA Second Team honors.

Trey Watkins, Inside Linebacker, #2

The 6’1”, 230-pound Watkins will look to pick up the slack on defense with Crist likely sidelined. He played in just one game in the spring, but he made it count with a 12-tackle (eight solo, one TFL) performance against Richmond. As a sophomore in 2019, Watkins racked up a team-best 83 tackles while starting all 12 games. He turned in a quality performance against Virginia, tallying 10 tackles including one tackle-for-loss, and a fumble recovery.

Ryan Poole, Cornerback, #6

The redshirt sophomore has 18 games of collegiate experience under his belt, including three starts in the Spring 2021 season. The 5’11”, 185-pound Poole has totaled 28 tackles, six pass breakups, a tackle-for-loss and a blocked punt with the Tribe, so he could be one to watch on defense and special teams.

Three Things For Virginia To Focus On

Start Fast

The last time these two teams faced off was 2019. The game was out of reach by halftime with the Hoos leading, 35-3, before marching on to a 52-17 victory. Virginia led 28-0 early in the second quarter.

William & Mary is down two key players already and may be without its starting quarterback. Still, the Tribe players would love to take down the in-state Cavaliers from the ACC, which is exactly what happened in 2009. Taking a big lead early is the best way to make sure the upset thoughts don’t seriously enter the minds of the Tribe.

Be Sound Defensively

The Virginia defense, particularly in the secondary, needs confidence. Blowing assignments and giving up big plays would not be a good start, especially in a game the Cavaliers should easily win. A sound defensive effort, one with very few big plays surrendered and no blown coverages, is the type of performance UVA needs this week before moving on to FBS competition.

Staying Healthy

Coach Mendenhall played it as safe as possible this Fall Camp in order to avoid injuries. His plan was successful in that regard, and he claims this could be the healthiest team he has ever had heading into a season. Should Virginia jump out to a big lead early, some of the veteran guys the Hoos are counting on long terms in 2021 should be able to watch from the sidelines and stay healthy.

Picks

Sabre Editor Kris Wright

A new season is upon us and it’s an important one for Virginia and the Bronco Mendenhall era. The Cavaliers showed consistent growth from 2017 through 2019, climbing all the way to the program’s first ACC Coastal Division title after that three-year rise. Then came the 2020 season and the chaos of that came with it. UVA stumbled out of the gates, recovered for a stretch, and then bowed out with another loss to Virginia Tech. The team opted out of postseason play.

The sum? A step-back season at 5-5 and no signature win to show the potential of better days ahead. In 2017, there was the bowl eligible win against Georgia Tech. In 2018, there was the Belk Bowl win. In 2019, there was the streak-busting win against the Hokies. All in all, 2020 proved to be a so-so campaign in an overall meh year.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t progress being made. Everyone likes to point out the George Welsh slip season before the run of consistency as a comparison. Plus, Virginia signed the highest rated recruiting class of the Mendenhall era in December. Still, the Hoos are squarely in the “sustainability window” where Mendenhall and company must prove that the program can win consistently year after year while a college roster naturally churns and that the Bryce Perkins acceleration years weren’t just lightning in a bottle.

The 2021 part of that challenge starts with William & Mary on Saturday. The opener won’t tell us much. If it does, that might be a concern. The Hoos roll. VIRGINIA 48, WILLIAM & MARY 13.

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne

Virginia has too much Brennan Armstrong and too many weapons on offense for William & Mary to be keep pace. William & Mary, even with an experienced offensive line returning, may not be able to mount much of an attack without its starting quarterback and top playmaker at running back. Even with Mathis in there, though, UVA will have too much offense and will dominate the 2021 season opener. VIRGINIA 44 WILLIAM & MARY 17

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