Prior to the season opener with William & Mary, Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall mentioned that after the first game of the season there are “always surprises.” He included “depth surprises” where an injury could change the outlook at certain positions.
UVA, of course, experienced that exact scenario in the game with the Tribe when senior Tim Harris went down with a wrist injury. The ramifications of that season-ending moment continued to show up during Monday’s weekly press conference. For the Indiana game, the Cavaliers moved Juan Thornhill from safety to cornerback where he played throughout 2016. Thornhill is now listed at corner on the depth chart, but the ‘depth surprise’ at that spot grabbed more attention.
Redshirt freshman De’Vante Cross is now listed as the backup to Bryce Hall at the other corner position. Cross, of course, opened the season listed as a receiver and he remains on the depth chart there as well. He’s played snaps at receiver in both games so far this season, but he’s yet to catch a pass while 11 different Cavaliers have.
The offense also includes specialty packages for him as a change-up at quarterback too if the coaches want to go that way, though they’ve yet to play those cards in a game.
“Going into the Indiana game, … we knew we needed Juan Thornhill at corner, but based on if they could run the ball, we needed him at safety, and then who else?” Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall said. ”Germane Crowell is battling to get one of those spots, and we had the idea, even from last year, that the length, size, speed, and ball skills of De’Vante might make him able to do that. He has a role offensively, but not a volume role that would prohibit him from playing more plays. He is doing a nice job on special teams as well. We played him in one-on-ones for four plays and everyone just stopped and said, ‘Okay, that looks really good.’ So, there is a great chance he will be playing for us both ways going forward. We don’t know yet what that will completely look like, but every player matters right now, and the more you can do, the more you can do.”
The double-listing on the depth chart as well as the musical chairs sort of approach with Cross seems to indicate that the coaches are looking for ways to get him on the field. At 6’2” and 200 pounds with some speed, he brings a different athletic element to the table.
UVA quarterback Kurt Benkert thinks that athleticism along with good ball skills gives Cross a lot of potential at corner after throwing against him in one-on-one drills in practices.
”He’s aggressive, he’s got good make-up speed,” Benkert said. ”He’s got good hands against the receiver. I think he looks really good at DB so I’m excited to see him get his chance.”
The Return Of The Tight End?
During the offseason, indications from both players and coaches gave hints that the tight end position might be more involved in the offense this season than last. So far, it’s played out that way on the field.
All three tight ends – Evan Butts, Richard Burney, and Tanner Cowley – are getting snaps throughout the game. Plus, the Hoos have thrown more times to the position as Butts has notched eight receptions for 63 yards through two games. That’s already more catches than he had all of last season when he posted seven. The whole position group ended up with just 12 receptions in 2016.
Butts is coming off a game against IU where he snared a career-high six catches for a career-high 54 yards. That represented the most catches by a tight end for UVA since Jake McGee grabbed eight at Maryland in 2013.
“He’s earned that role,” Mendenhall said. “Again, there is a connection between those two, but, man, we like completions and we like first downs, and we like the chains being moved and we like consistency. When you’re a program that’s trying to get consistent and trying to move the chains more frequently, I think it’s just natural where the quarterback starts looking for who he trusts. And Evan right now is producing really well, and he’s playing really well.”
Virginia Football Worth Noting & Quoting
- Mendenhall indicated that Tim Harris had successful surgery Monday morning after injuring his left wrist in the season opener: “I got a report that said it went exactly as planned. And that is a long recovery, so to return to I would say full action, that’s a six-month recovery. He is planning on coming back for a sixth season, and I’m excited about that. We’re also hopeful to get Myles Robinson back next year as well.”
- Linebacker Micah Kiser missed a play Saturday after he got shaken up, which he said after the game scared him a little bit in the moment as much as it being painful. Still, Kiser has been managing his left knee in practices and that will continue. “Yeah, he’s tough. I think he’ll be managing it the entire year,” Mendenhall said.
- On the fake field goal that failed Saturday, Mendenhall said the route they wanted was possibly coming open but that “they defended it better than we thought” in making the decision to go for it. ”It was coming. It wasn’t open,” he said. “t was my call. I think that fake is hard to defend. It’s worked against us before. … So, again, I thought it would work but it didn’t and it wasn’t Nash’s fault.”
- The Cavaliers committed no turnovers against Indiana – two close calls on an interception and a fumble return for touchdown were negated by IU penalties – and has no turnovers in the first two games of the season, the first time they’ve gone back-to-back games without turnovers since 2009.
- Virginia’s game with UConn this Saturday has been moved from ESPNU to ESPN2 for television viewers.
- Saturday also represents Youth Day at Scott Stadium and more than 100 prizes will be raffled off throughout the game for the youth in attendance.
- This is the third straight home game to open the season, which marks just the fourth time in the past 30 seasons that has happened (1988, 2012, 2014).