Five Big Questions After Spring Practice For Virginia Football

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Virginia enters Bronco Mendenhall's third season.
PK Kier emerged as a likely contributor at running back during spring practice. ~ Kris Wright

The Virginia football team wrapped up spring practice late last month and UVA Graduation is just days away. That means the long wait through the summer months has arrived for football fans. The Cavaliers kick off their season against Richmond on Saturday, Sept. 1.

The big question for the season ahead: Can Bronco Mendenhall lead the Hoos to consistency with back-to-back bowl seasons or will 2017 simply be another postseason flash like 2007 and 2011? The challenge with rebuilding an inherited roster with holes and limited depth may be steeper this season with three key positions needing new producers with quarterback Kurt Benkert, middle linebacker Micah Kiser, and safety Quin Blanding all in NFL camps now. Still, Mendenhall’s staff has made headway with roster management and has some significant contributors returning. The third season of this era will be interesting to watch unfold.

With that in mind, what sort of storylines emerged for Virginia during the short spring practice period? Despite a fairly quiet spring in terms of information and official highlights, a few things surfaced that are good conversation starters. Let’s dive in.

5. Who Could Step Into Contributing Roles?

The top of this list is the obvious answer: Bryce Perkins. The Cavaliers named the transfer their starting quarterback at the end of spring practices as he tries to follow up Benkert’s two-year run. He’s going to play a lot of snaps and touch the ball frequently simply by nature of his position plus the Hoos are shaping the offensive system toward more mobility under center. Perkins, arguably, has been the lead topic all spring.

What about some other spots, though?

Offensively, Olamide Zaccheaus, Jordan Ellis, and Evan Butts figure to be reliable veterans and we’ve heard names like Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois for a couple of seasons now. In terms of players in bigger roles, sophomores PK Kier, Lamont Atkins, and Terrell Jana could factor into the offense. Kier received some praise from the coaches for a solid spring and a strong running style, while Atkins made an impression in the final open practice at Scott Stadium. UVA wants to find better balance with a better running game too so that means Ellis likely needs some firepower to join him in the backfield. Jana, meanwhile, flashed some skills early in spring practice and he got some run last year in a support role at receiver.

That last spot is an interesting position to forecast in general. Mendenhall mentioned at the end of spring practice that the Hoos would still be in the market for a grad transfer at receiver so it seems clear that Virginia wants more depth and competition there behind Zaccheaus and Reed. Some names that weren’t in spring practice could enter this race by the time kickoff arrives. De’Vante Cross is no longer expected to moonlight at three positions, but to stick at receiver so that’s one name to watch. Plus, incoming freshmen Tavares Kelly and Ugo Obasi could inject some needed speed into the discussion.

On the other side of the ball, the defense features a lot of returning contributors. Jordan Mack, Chris Peace, Eli Hanback, Juan Thornhill, and Bryce Hall are just some of the familiar names back in action this season. That makes certain spots more likely to feature new contributors. That discussion begins with the defensive line where depth is an issue so grad transfer Dylan Thompson and sophomore Mandy Alonso figure to be names to watch. Richard Burney should get a lot of snaps too after flipping over from tight end; Burney and the coaches like the move because there’s potential for him to break through as a good fit there.

Moving back in the defense, linebacker Charles Snowden came up with a few visible plays last season with some late-game pass-rushing flashes. He’s in line to be a starter as spring turns to summer. If he can turn those highlight clips into consistent down-to-down play, he’s definitely a potential breakthrough candidate. One step farther back in the defense is Joey Blount at safety. He made some noise early in spring before a collar bone injury ended his work, but he’ll be back in the fall. After a good freshman year on special teams and some significant snaps in injury relief duty on defense, Blount might be a bigger factor all around this season.

Speaking of Blount …

Virginia enters Bronco Mendenhall's third season.
Juan Thornhill brings versatility and experience to the table. ~ Kris Wright

4. What Will Happen With The Virginia Secondary?

The back side of UVA’s defense appears to be one of the deepest spots on the team so despite the loss of Quin Blanding’s production, this unit looks to be on solid ground. The versatility of Juan Thornhill is one reason for that optimistic outlook. Thornhill is slotted at safety, but he could flex into man coverage roles in many packages due to his experience at corner. In fact, Virginia could mix and match, disguise and develop things around that versatility.

The key to that approach could be health at cornerback, though. UVA originally planned for Thornhill to play safety last season, but an injury to Tim Harris in the opener changed things. By the release of week three’s depth chart, Thornhill had settled in at corner and Brenton Nelson became the SABRE safety alongside Blanding. Harris is back and expected to start at corner this season, but can he stay healthy this time around?

Other options at corner missed all or part of spring practice too, but Nick Grant and Germane Crowell are expected back by the season opener. Grant had minor surgery this spring and Crowell has faced nagging injuries since his arrival. Then there’s Shawn Smith, who moved over from receiver and is expected to stick at DB. Bryce Hall, of course, is locked in as a starter on the other side at corner.

That appears to be enough depth to keep Thornhill at safety, but that raises questions about his running mate there. Nelson held down the spot last season, but he missed the spring with an injury. Chris Moore filled a hybrid safety-linebacker type of role last season, but didn’t have a barnburner spring per Coach Mendenhall. Joey Blount, as mentioned above in a different question, had inserted his name in the mix early in spring practice but an injury cut that surge short. That’s four players, three that played a lot of snaps on defense last season, for two spots in the base defense.

That brings the discussion back to the beginning, though. Thornhill’s versatility is a nice tool to have in the shed because it allows for moving parts. The same could be said of Nelson and Moore (the former played some corner and the latter some linebacker) as well. The big question then might be whether the secondary’s ability to fill in spots could lead to more sub packages on defense that can cover for a lack of depth on the defensive line (more on that below). Virginiaplayed a lot of nickel style looks last season anyway so that isn’t a stretch.

Virginia enters Bronco Mendenhall's third season.
Chris Glaser is trying to lock in some playing time at tackle. ~ Kris Wright

3. Has The Offensive Line Turned A Corner?

Before we address the well-known elephant in the room in terms of defensive line depth, what about the other side of the trenches? One of the chief worries when Bronco Mendenhall took the helm at Virginia was building up offensive line numbers. The Cavaliers managed to get through the first two seasons of the Mendenhall era without much issue thanks to grad transfers, though Chris Glaser did have to take off his redshirt for the final five games last season.

At this point, the numbers on the offensive line still need another recruiting cycle, but things look more stable. There should be 16 to 17 players in the mix, pending a decision with Ryan Bischoff (he had on the defense’s jersey color at the final spring practice, but no word on whether he is flipping to the D-Line officially). The Hoos will feature just two seniors among this group in Jake Fieler and grad transfer Marcus Applefield; Steven Moss is no longer listed on the roster.

With Fieler and Applefield expected to play, the only other upperclassman in the mix is junior R.J. Proctor. That means the rest of the rotation will be made up of freshmen and sophomores.

Glaser and Dillon Reinkensmeyer are a good place to start that discussion since both played significant snaps last season. Glaser has trained at both tackle spots, settling more on the left side late in the spring, while Reinkensmeyer can fill into any spot up front. Among 11 starts last season, Reinkensmeyer started nine times at center. The coaches prefer a ‘best five’ approach on the offensive line, however, so where Reinkensmeyer ultimately goes could depend on redshirt freshman Tyler Fannin. He worked at center too this spring and that was the plan with his recruitment. Another redshirt freshman that got a long look this spring was Ryan Nelson, who picked up a lot of snaps at right tackle (he’s trained on both sides).

Throw in a pair of sophomores with Ben Knutson at guard and Ben Trent at tackle and you can see the coaches’ work with OL management clearly. That’s six players in the freshman and sophomore classes already in the competition for playing time at Virginia with six or seven more freshmen (true and redshirt) expected on the fall roster. Knutson, as a reminder, was listed as the starting left guard on the final three depth charts of 2017. He didn’t start those games, but did play in all three. That’s a name that doesn’t get a lot of message board mentions to keep an eye on this fall.

In summary, that looks like eight or nine players working for a shot in the rotation with several flexible parts from cross-training.

2. Will The Virginia Offense Be More Consistent?

The two biggest questions for the 2018 season didn’t gain much clarity. at least publicly, in the spring. The first one deals with coordinator Robert Anae’s offense. Over his first two seasons in Charlottesville, the Hoos have scored 25 or more points 11 times and 24 or fewer points 14 times. Both seasons followed a fast start, slow finish pattern too. Of those 11 games with 25 points or more, four came in the first six games of 2016 and four came in the first six games of 2017 – so eight of the 11 have come in the first half of a Virginia season. A year ago, UVA’s offense limped through the final three games without scoring a single point in the final 147 minutes of football (that’s nine full quarters and 12 minutes). If you’re curious, over Anae’s final three seasons at BYU, the Cougars scored 25 points or more in 28 of 39 games.

The up-and-down nature essentially led to a 40-40 split between 3-and-out drives and scoring drives last season. The Cavaliers scored on 43 drives last season on offense and ran just three plays on 43 drives last season. Beyond that, they also ended 19 drives with a turnover and one with a safety. Those numbers came from 165 total non-half-ending drives, leaving 59 drives of multiple plays that ended either in a punt or a turnover on downs. As Greg Waters noted many times in Greg’s Grades last season, a lot of drives stalled out after crossing midfield.

As the Hoos enter year three with Anae, the lego blocks of building are providing more stability. The offensive line, as mentioned above, has growing stability. There’s more depth at running back and some weapons at receiver. After two years with pocket-thrower Kurt Benkert, the move toward this coaching staff’s preferred dual threat quarterback system is taking shape with Bryce Perkins as the expected starter.

Will that shift toward familiarity help Anae’s offense be more consistent and score more points regularly? That’s the hope in Hooville.

Virginia enters Bronco Mendenhall's third season.
Mandy Alonso started four games last season. ~ Kris Wright

1. How Will Virginia Manage Defensive Line Depth?

Finally, let’s look at what may be THE question of not just the spring, but for the full 2018 season. The numbers situation on the Virginia defensive line is at a critical level. The Hoos listed just five players at the line spots for spring practices, though tight end Osiris Crutchfield moved back there during the spring as well and tackle Ryan Bischoff is at least getting some consideration there I think. Crutchfield injured his knee and is expected to miss the season, though, and Isaac Buell missed the spring as well. So, Eli Hanback, Mandy Alonso, Richard Burney, and Tommy Christ got a lot of reps.

The Cavaliers will add graduate transfer Dylan Thompson to the list for the upcoming season. If you assume all of those players are healthy and ready to go in the fall, that’s a six-man rotation for three defensive line spots. Or to put it another way: some incoming freshmen are going to play. Samson Reed, Jordan Redmond, and Aaron Faumui are the three incoming linemen that are definitely expected to be slotted on the DL. That’s a total of nine or 10 players (if Bischoff moves over) available, but players with injury concerns or true freshmen make a large chunk of it. Plus, you’ve got at least one position-switch player in the mix with Burney.

At this point, Hanback is the only player that has shown week to week consistency for more than half a season. Certainly, Alonso deserves credit for his rise to a four-game starter as a true freshman for the second half of last season as well. Beyond those known quantities, the rest will be a wait-and-see journey. Can Thompson stay healthy and make an impact? He played just two games while dealing with nagging injuries and competition at Ohio State. Can Burney pick up the details of D-Line quickly and become a consistent contributor? Can someone that’s yet to play a down in college among Christ, Buell, Faumui, Redmond, and Reed follow Alonso’s path to playing time?

Virginia’s depth at linebacker and defensive back could handle some of the challenges if packages can produce rushers on obvious passing downs, but the Hoos still need some block-eaters and tacklers up front to keep teams from just punishing the defense with running plays over and over. There are many questions within this unit to figure out as the summer and fall unfold in that sense.

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