Virginia Football Spring Practice Notes: Focus On Full Contact

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The Virginia football team is practicing often in full contact 11 on 11 situations.
Jack Powers closes on the ball during practice. ~ Kris Wright

The Virginia football team continued its spring practice work on Thursday at the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility. Thunderstorms and heavy rains forced the entire session to be held inside the building.

With players decked out in full pads, the practice focused heavily on scrimmage situations. All of the live action scenarios came in 11 on 11 drills with no 7 on 7 drills. The Cavaliers tackled to the ground with the exception of any quarterbacks in orange and officials worked the practice like a game.

Full tackling in practice, particularly early in the spring, often gets pushed to the side by coaches. The risk of injury remains the reason why. Still, even with that risk-reward calculus in mind and a roster still in need of more depth, UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall believes the program needs this type of work right now to make progress.

”I think every coach looks at what their current team needs in relation to the current stage of the program,” Mendenhall said. ”You saw today’s practice looks quite different than a year ago. … While [the culture] is becoming, it hasn’t become yet, but it’s becoming stronger so the focus shifts to playing the game and putting the culture into context of the game at a higher level with outcomes because this is an outcome driven profession. Every play was scored and the outcome was scored. … That gives you a great chance to put performance, fundamentals, and culture in context of situational football, which I think is important moving forward.”

The players appeared to be OK with the approach, viewing it as a chance to play football and not just going through practice drills. There is also an emphasis on handling the full contact work correctly. In addition to not hitting the quarterback, there are no cut blocks allowed, no diving at legs on tackles, and that sort of thing.

Beyond that, it’s football and players are expected to treat it as such. That means competing at a high level on all the snaps. That could help the Hoos create and sustain a rhythm as the offseason months click away toward the fall.

”I really like tackling. Maybe not all the time, but I really like it,” UVA running back Daniel Hamm said. ”You’re definitely ready to take a hit and you’re ready to give a hit. Just bringing that mindset, you already have it going into the season. You don’t have to take a game or two or a quarter or whatever and get used to it. You can jump right in, you don’t have to stick your toe in the water.”

The Virginia football team is practicing often in full contact 11 on 11 situations.
Kurt Benkert uncorks a pass during UVA’s indoor practice. ~ Kris Wright

Offense Improving

In a practice featuring a lot of 11 on 11 work, the offense put together a solid day overall. Running back Jordan Ellis continues to look strong this spring with a little more burst, while Daniel Hamm, Lamont Atkins, and Jamari Peacock figure into the back rotation as well.

During the session, Hasise Dubois and Andre Levrone each had a touchdown catch from Kurt Benkert. Quarterback De’Vante Cross is playing the old role of Marques Hagans where he’s bouncing around everywhere on offense, including some work at receiver. Olamide Zaccheaus remains a multi-purpose threat as well.

Cole Blackman, Ben Hogg, and others pick up significant reps as well with Doni Dowling and Warren Craft among those not in action.

Overall, the offense seemed to be hitting its stride throughout much of practice by putting together drives and converting some third downs. Still, inconsistency popped up with a dropped pass in the red zone on one occasion and a flurry of penalties late in the session.

”We held together for a long time today, probably the longest yet in the five practices we’ve had,” Mendenhall said. ”When it came right to the very end, then our mental resiliency took a step back and we had three penalties in a row and that changed the situation of the drill to where the offense wasn’t successful on the last drive. Gaining ground. I think we’re gaining consistency, I think our execution is holding longer than it did a year ago already, but with room to improve and work to go.”

Jordan Ellis Not Worried About Repeating As No. 1 In Number Draft

A year ago when Bronco Mendenhall and his staff arrived in Charlottesville, they decided to strip the program of unnecessary elements in the spring. No logos. All black. No numbers. This spring, orange, blue, and white have returned to spring practice. Numbers have not.

Mendenhall liked the atmosphere and culture created by the ‘earned not given’ mantra, which he felt like a number selection draft captured before the season started. Ellis earned the No. 1 pick in that first-time draft and he took No. 10. That, of course, left the jersey No. 1 on the table and defensive tackle Donte Wilkins took that unusual single digit at nose tackle.

Ellis said after Thursday’s practice that he doesn’t see holding on to the top spot as the challenge this spring. He’s focused on bigger goals.

”I just come in every day and work hard, motivate my teammates,” Ellis said. ”That’s all I can do – just work hard and motivate my teammates. We have a team goal of winning the ACC so that’s all I’m worried about right now.”

Virginia Football Worth Noting

  • Juan Thornhill was out sick so Nick Grant got a lot of practice reps at safety.
  • Jordan Mack is playing inside linebacker instead of outside and has bulked up.
  • January enrollee Germane Crowell continues to impress the staff and likely will get a lot of chances at corner.
  • The staff is still deciding on the right spot for Riah (Zachariah) Burton, another mid-year enrollee, and he could end up at corner or safety.
  • Daniel Hamm will still get work at punt returner despite being more involved in the running back rotation.
  • Keeon Johnson and Matt Johns took in practice.
  • Doni Dowling remains out of practice but should be good to go by fall.
  • Warren Craft remains out of practice and his timetable remains unclear per Coach Mendenhall.
  • For practice photos, click here.
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