99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff

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Matt Johns is back at Virginia as a grad assistant.
Matt Johns throws in practice during his senior season. ~ Kris Wright

As Memorial Day weekend wraps up, Virginia football season creeps closer. In fact, I put up the Countdown Clock on TheSabre.com football message board Friday because kickoff for UVA is now only 96 days away!

With that in mind, we started a series on the site Friday that we’re calling “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff.” It’s not a list really. The goal is to provide a daily football update from now until kickoff to hopefully drive interest and message board conversation. The first three entries:

No. 99 – The importance of a fast start
No. 98 – The impact of early-ending careers
No. 97 – Jordan Mack’s role

On to the next one …

No. 96 – Welcome Back

When Bronco Mendenhall took over the reins at Virginia ahead of the 2016 season, two senior Cavaliers became very outspoken in support of the new coach’s vision for the program. Center Jackson Matteo and quarterback Matt Johns both repeatedly brough up in media sessions that Mendenhall’s plan for rebuilding UVA’s program was inspiring and that it would work over time. The Cavaliers, of course, returned to bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011 last season.

Matteo helped the Hoos return to that level with a spot on the coaching staff last season as a graduate assistant. He’ll be joined by Johns – as well as another recent Cavalier Kirk Garner – in that role this season. That news flashed across Twitter last Wednesday. Former All-Big Ten Wisconsin punter Drew Meyer is the fourth grad assistant.

I like this move by Mendenhall. As he continues the rebuilding effort at Virginia, it’s important to enlist alumni that believe in your vision for support. It’s smart to give two players that had a strong voice of leadership in recent years a role as graduate assistants to further that connection between the past and the present. They can remind current players where the program has been and how this new vision can lead to greater days ahead.

Matteo started 24 straight games for UVA at center and was on the Remington Trophy Watch List in 2016. He earned second-team all-state honors from the state’s voting SIDs (sports information directors). Matteo works with the defense as a graduate assistant. Here’s what Matteo had to say at the ACC Kickoff media event in the summer of 2016:

“It’s special, what’s going on in Charlottesville right now,” said Matteo. “Coach Mendenhall says this all the time. If you don’t embrace the ‘earned not given,’ ‘will before skill,’ then there is always a second option. And if it’s not for you then that’s okay. Because what we’re doing is hard. But doing hard things together will ultimately make you better at the end of the day.”

Johns, meanwhile, spent last season coaching in high school at Central Bucks High School South. Well liked by teammates and a fan favorite, Johns started 17 games at quarterback for Virginia. He’s an interesting choice for a graduate assistant due to the path he travelled during his playing career.

Never expected to be the starter, he won folks over when he threw a pair of touchdown bombs to Andre Levrone in a relief appearance back in 2014. He eventually started every game in 2015, but lost his job when Mendenhall arrived. Johns didn’t pout, but just embraced his role as a backup and as the holder on field goals once again, the job he held as a redshirt freshman in 2013. By the end of his senior season, Johns got the chance to start again against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech as Kurt Benkert nursed injuries. In the end, Johns finished at the time as No. 10 all-time at UVA with 4,233 career passing yards and No. 5 all-time with 30 career passing touchdowns.

So here’s a guy that accepted whatever role he was given at every stage of his career. He enthusiastically supported teammates from players that beat him out at quarterback like Greyson Lambert and Benkert to a favored receiving target like Canaan Severin to really anyone else wearing the same uniform. He held up the academic end of the bargain and earned the Cavalier Academic Achievement Award in 2014. He was a tremendous community service advocate as well. In other words, he fits the mold Mendenhall wants for players here. Having a guy like that back in the fold is a good thing.

Here’s what Johns had to say as he wrapped up his career for UVA as a starter one last time:

“It’s really about belief: When you buy into what the coaches are preaching, it’ll eventually pay off,” Johns said. “It might not be in football, but there’s going to be something in life where it will pay off. Fortunately for me, it was playing again. In my head, I knew that that wasn’t guaranteed. I was never guaranteed to play again. But it was a matter of sticking to what they’re preaching — they’re values that I believe in in life. It’s much bigger than football.”

Garner never got the spotlight that those two players did during his career. Injuries shortened his final two seasons, including a season-ending injury after just one appearance in 2017. Still, he played in 32 games as a Cavalier, mostly in a special teams role. UVA hired a new special teams coordinator in Ricky Brumfield this offseason with the additional staff position added by the NCAA. Having someone that played on those units that has a team-first mentality as a graduate assistant is a good move too.

If those three guys get to experience some success as coaches after limited team results during their playing careers, I think Virginia fans would be happy about that.

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