The Virginia football team closed its spring practice sessions Saturday with a crisp run through fundamental drills and scrimmage plays. By the end of the day and the 15th practice of the spring, the offense prevailed 75-63 in the every down scoring system, but more importantly some clear position leaders emerged as the Cavaliers head into the long summer months.
At the top of that list is the position everyone always obsesses over: the quarterback. UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said that Bryce Perkins, the junior college transfer that enrolled in January, exits spring practice as the starter and that it is his job to lose. Returning sophomore Lindell Stone owns a slight edge over true freshman Brennan Armstrong in the backup spot, but that competition could move back and forth.
“As of today, Bryce is our starter – I’m naming him as such,” Mendenhall said. “He’ll be our starter going into the summer, leading our team through that period, and starting coming into fall camp. At this point, it’s his job to lose. He has moved the team most effectively and I think not only does he have the coaches’ trust but he has the team’s trust.”
Perkins didn’t get to show off much of what makes him the clear front-runner for the Cavaliers, who ran mostly basic concepts and throws for the final practice and spent much of the day working on running plays for anyone but the quarterbacks. Still, on one of the few plays where Perkins was allowed to stretch his legs at full speed, he surged through a gap and ran past some defenders to draw an audible response from the fans at Scott Stadium. That would have been a touchdown run had the officials not blown the play dead a few yards short with the QBs wearing non-contact orange jerseys.
The Hoos have seen quite a few of those plays in practices behind closed doors this spring. Players say he’ll be a difference maker in the running game and a home run threat if he gets into space. Mendenhall simply said no one on the team has caught him this spring when he’s gotten to the secondary level at top speed. Offensive coordinator Robert Anae has been pleased with Perkins’ handle of the concepts this spring as well.
All of which has the Cavaliers excited about pairing him with some of the other clear leaders on the offense. That conversation starts with senior receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, who reportedly has pushed his play to a higher level this spring. The Wahoos plan to bounce him around the field in different positions and different roles to try to get him heavily involved with the attack.
Zaccheaus posted 895 receiving yards, 182 rushing yards, and six total touchdowns last season but everyone thinks there’s more to offer in his final campaign. He did not see action Saturday because the coaches did not want to risk anything in the final practice.
Some of the other skill position leaders in line for big roles include running back Jordan Ellis, receiver Joe Reed, and tight end Evan Butts along with running backs PK Kier and Lamont Atkins. UVA is looking for more consistency from receiver Hasise Dubois, who hauled in a decisive touchdown catch that gave the offense the win in Saturday’s scrimmage segment but then got flagged for some sort of unsportsmanlike conduct, and for more depth overall among the receiving corps. Riah Burton flipped over from cornerback and Mendenhall likes his potential there, for example, but Virginia will check out the graduate transfer market at wideout too.
On the offensive line, the work toward a first five is ongoing. Many of the decisions there could hinge on the center spot where Dillon Reinkensmeyer and Tyler Fannin seemed to split snaps fairly evenly Saturday. Reinkensmeyer started nine games there last fall, but he also picked up two starts at left tackle. In addition to Reinkensmeyer’s experience, senior Jake Fieler and junior R.J. Proctor return too and UVA will add graduate transfer Marcus Applefield, who started 10 games for Rutgers last fall, to the O-Line mix for the upcoming season as well. So that’s potentially four bodies that have seen college football action and growing depth with players like Chris Glaser and Ryan Nelson among the younger players like Fannin looking for roles.
“The most dynamic and productive player of the spring was Olamide,” Mendenhall said. “He really had a nice spring in terms of production and big plays and consistency. Bryce and Olamide I would say carried the majority of the yards and especially the big plays. Then Joe Reed would kind of be next, which is I think the emphasis on those players getting the ball. Then the combination of Jordan Ellis and PK Kier running the ball inside, that was a nice balance to it. Evan Butts is always open and always catches the ball so that’s a nice glue and consistency to our offense. Our offensive line is progressing – still a lot of work to do there.”
On the other side of the ball, the starting linebackers entering the summer months are Jordan Mack (MIKE), Malcolm Cook (BUCK), Charles Snowden (SAM), and Chris Peace (WILL). Mack and Peace represent the team’s top two returning tacklers behind long-time stalwarts Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding. Snowden snared an interception in Saturday’s scrimmage action, continuing his knack for making splash plays from his true freshman appearances last fall. Robert Snyder and Matt Gahm potentially could be the first reserves on the inside and outside.
In the secondary, senior Juan Thornhill and junior Bryce Hall could be the tone-setters. Thornhill steps into the Blanding ‘organizer’ spot at the back of the defense and offers the potential to disguise and rotate coverages thanks to his experience at corner. Senior Tim Harris is back at corner, which allowed Thornhill to move over to safety again.
Beyond that, the secondary has some ‘to be determined’ elements to it at the end of the spring. ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year Brenton Nelson missed the spring with an injury and hybrid safety/linebacker Chris Moore didn’t quite play up to the same level as last fall when he logged six starts and finished with 41 tackles. The Hoos expect Joey Blount and Germane Crowell back from an injury soon too and Nick Grant, who had surgery after playing through an injury last fall and for part of spring practice, should be healthy by the fall. Plus, in a companion move with Burton’s move to offense, fellow redshirt freshman Shawn Smith flipped to cornerback where Mendenhall sees him sticking.
That’s a lot of moving parts in the back.
“Brenton’s been hurt almost the entire spring,” Mendenhall said. “Chris Moore has been playing, just hasn’t been necessarily productive enough to draw attention. Joey Blount has been out as well. Our secondary could look pretty different. When you add Joey Blount back into the mix and Brenton Nelson back into the mix and then G Crowell comes off of an injury and then Chris Moore playing to his capability, that all the sudden becomes a lot deeper than what it looks like right now.”
There aren’t nearly as many parts to move up front. Eli Hanback, Mandy Alonso, and Richard Burney lead the way on the defensive line after the spring sessions. Burney, Mendenhall said again Saturday, probably made as much progress as anyone this spring after moving from tight end to defensive end before the bowl game in December. Tommy Christ is the next name in the mix, at least before Ohio State graduate transfer Dylan Thompson officially arrives to the program.
The depth challenges took two more hits as spring wound down; junior James Trucilla is done with football due to an undisclosed medical issue and sophomore Osiris Crutchfield suffered an apparent knee injury after moving back to his original D-Line home from tight end. Isaac Buell and former offensive tackle Ryan Bischoff both wore the defense’s white, but didn’t seem to get into the scrimmage action Saturday with rehab work on their menu instead.