Virginia Football Running Back Race Remains Tight Heading Into Season Opener

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Virginia football released its first depth chart of the 2021 season on Monday. Finally, a pecking order at the running back position was in place.

Senior Wayne Taulapapa, who has 19 starts in the 22 games he has played at running back the past two seasons, was listed first. Sophomore Mike Hollins was the “RB2” with senior Ronnie Walker Jr. OR Harvard graduate transfer Devin Darrington behind him. So the running back position is finally clear, right? Not so fast.

“As of today, and, again, that’s as big a disclaimer and as big a letters as you can put, it’s the 1 2 and then the “or” is for 3 and 4,” Virginia football head coach Bronco Mendenhall answered when asked about the running back depth chart during his August 30 press conference. “Those are micro-differences between any of those numbers.”

“Really hard to say right now who and how many touches and what roles,” Mendenhall later added. “I mean, it’s a photo finish as of Monday going into getting to Saturday, so too early to say what the plan is.”

This race has been close throughout Fall Camp, and it may well be that UVA utilizes a committee-style approach at the position this season. In this “50 Thoughts Before Virginia Football Kickoff” report, though, I take a closer look at each of the four backs on the depth chart to see if there are any predictors in terms of who may step up and claim the job.

Wayne Taulapapa, 5’9″, 210 pounds, Senior

2020 Stats: 88 carries, 395 yards, five touchdowns; 12 catches, 65 yards
2019 Stats: 116 carries, 473 yards, 12 touchdowns; Five receptions, 23 yards
2018 Stats: None. Primarily a special teams player.

Bronco Mendenhall quote from August 30 Press Conference: “Wayne’s experience gives him a more every-play role in anything we’re doing because we’ve seen him do it all.”

Why he could win out

Reliability. Coaches have consistently noted Taulapapa’s depensability. In addition, he is a really good short yardage runner and goal line finisher.

Why he won’t

Solid, but not spectacular. Taulapapa may have started the majority of the games the past two seasons, but he still shared time and was never given the opportunity to be “the guy.” The coaches obviously like how dependable he is. He also deserves a role in short yardage. However, if another back who is in the same ballpark dependability-wise is a more dynamic runner, Taulapapa could ultimately get passed on the depth chart.

Mike Hollins, 5’9″, 210 pounds, Sophomore

2020 Stats: None. Opted out because of the coronavirus.
2019 Stats: 21 carries, 112 yards, three touchdowns

Bronco Mendenhall quote from August 30 Press Conference: “Mike Hollins adds a dynamic ball carrier emphasis that’s special.”

Why he could win out

He’s the dynamic running presense UVA has been looking for and will take the pressure to run off Brennan Armstrong. Coach Anae called Hollins a “breath of fresh air.”

Why he won’t

Fumbling. Lack of pass protection skills. It was said back in 2019 that Mike Hollins had a fumbling issue in practice. It surfaced in a bad spot in a close loss at Miami. Also, since he has not played many full regular season game, we don’t know how capable Hollins is in pass protection, as a receiver, etc.

Ronnie Walker Jr., 5’11”, 210 pounds, Senior

2020 Stats at Virginia: 23 carries, 66 yards
2019 Stats at Indiana: 27 carries, 80 yards. Added 12 receptions for 112 yards and one touchdown receiving. Hauled in a 64-yard reception.
2018 Stats at Indiana: 32 carries, 141 yards, long run of 30 yards

Bronco Mendenhall quote from August 30 press conference: “Ronnie, there is a speed and dynamic component that comes with that.”

Why he could win out

Recapturing the dominant form he showed in high school that made him one of UVA’s top targets in his class, and expanding his ability as a receiver.

Why he won’t

At Indiana, Walker Jr. was known for his all-around game as a blocker and receiver but never became the go-to back in terms of rushing. There is tough competition here in Virginia as well. If he can’t raise his rushing game, he may be in line for spot duty, sort of like the roles PK Kier and Lamont Atkins played.

Devin Darrington, 5’9″, 215 pounds, Senior

2019 Stats: 182 carries, 734 yards; Six receptions, 48 yards
2018 Stats: 70 rushes, 435 yards; Two receptions, 22 yards

Bronco Mendenhall quote from August 30 press conference: “Devin Darrington may have been the most effective runner through camp.”

Why he could win out

Of any of the running back candidates, Darrington has the most college experience as a workhorse type of back. His final year at Harvard, Darrington had five games in which he had 20 carries or more. By contrast, Wayne Taulapapa has not reached the 20-carry mark yet in his Cavalier career. In addition, Darrington showed consistent ability to break runs between the 20 to 40-yard range. In 19 games played in 2018 and 2019, Darrington had 11 games in which he produced a 20-yard run or longer.

Although he was listed tied for third on the depth chart with Walker Jr., Darrington was called perhaps the best runner in camp by Mendenhall. This performance, along with a good offseason and a Dirty Dozen award, could mean good things for Darrington, assuming he is well-versed in pass protection and the system.

Why he won’t

He does not get a firm grasp of the system. Darrington didn’t arrive on Grounds until this summer, so the other running back candidates listed above have the edge of experience in UVA’s system. He did graduate from Harvard, though, so I suspect he’ll pick things up rather quickly.

Lack of high-major college football experience is another potential pitfall for Darrington. Taulapapa, Hollins and Walker Jr. have Power 5 college football experience.

Wild Cards

– Like the other four, true freshman running back Amaad Foston has earned a jersey number heading into the season. He’s not on the depth chart, and if the staff is higher on the experienced guys right now, he seems like a good redshirt candidate. Foston did go through spring ball, though, so if the guys ahead of him falter he could potentially receive some PT.

– Don’t rule out either true freshman quarterback, Jay Woolfolk or Jacob Rodriguez, gettings snaps at running back. Woolfolk, who I think would fit the mold of an H-Back, would add a burst of speed. He could line up in the backfield and sprint out for flare passes and things like that. Rodriguez is a physical runner and could be a short yardage option, either as a running quarterback or perhaps even getting some handoffs.

– Also don’t forget about Keytaon Thompson. Virginia will move him around. I think his receiving numbers and targets will be higher, but he’ll still run the ball. He has shown he has the ability to break long touchdowns, something not many of the other backs have shown at this point.

Final Guess

In the first few games of 2021, I look for a running back-by-committee approach from the Virginia coaching staff. Production is the bottom line; however, I do think Coach Mendenhall would like for a primary runner to emerge, with the other backs still being used in smaller roles. Taulapapa is solid and Darrington is intruiging. We haven’t heard as much about Walker Jr., who is the primary kick returner as of now. I think Hollins, assuming he is reliable in other areas besides running and assuming he takes care of the football, has the best chance to emerge and be the primary guy for the coming seasons.

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