99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff

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Virginia opens football season in fewer than 75 days.
De’Vante Cross started his career at quarterback for UVA. ~ Kris Wright

When writing about Jordan Mack or Jordan Ellis or Olamide Zaccheaus for the “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series, it’s fairly easy to trace their development path and project the possibilities for the upcoming season. That’s what triggered Tuesday’s article around Zaccheaus and the chase for a 1,000-yard receiver in a single season.

In other cases, however, it’s not such a simple task. That’s where this entry in the “99 Thoughts” series is heading.

No. 73 – Cross Out Cross-Training For Cross

As part of the article focused on Olamide Zaccheaus from Tuesday noted, one of the challenges of chasing 1,000 receiving yards in a single season along with trying to match last season’s program record 85 catches is attached to the surrounding personnel. Zaccheaus won’t have two-year starter Kurt Benkert at quarterback and he won’t have a pair of 600-yard receivers at his side with seniors Doni Dowling and Andre Levrone both gone.

That means some other players will need to step up to fill into those slots. That includes quarterback Bryce Perkins, who the coaches pointed out along with Zaccheaus as the starting points for an offensive reboot this coming season. The coaches pointed to Joe Reed as someone they want to get more involved too. He’s logged 27 receptions for 321 yards and two touchdowns over his first two seasons with the Hoos.

In response to a message board thread with the Zaccheaus article, I mentioned several possibilities of players that could be in the mix around Zaccheaus. Click here for the thread, but here’s what I wrote:

“Will need some folks to step forward on a consistent basis, but there are some options there that will get the opportunity. Lamont Atkins is intriguing as someone that’s being treated like OZ and being bounced to different spots to take advantage of skills. Evan Butts as a senior possibly could get a lot of targets, particularly early on to help get Bryce Perkins comfortable. Butts is super reliable with his routes and making the catch around his frame.

Terrell Jana got a lot of snaps on offense last year in order to prep him for a bigger role possibly. Hasise Dubois, if he can become consistent, could fill into Doni Dowling’s spot. De’Vante Cross stops moonlighting all around and gets to focus on receiver.”

Here’s the thing. I nearly forgot to put De’Vante Cross in there at all. Why? It’s not real clear from the outside perspective what the Cavaliers have with Cross at this point.

The Pennsylvania recruit redshirted his first season at Virginia in 2016. The coaching staff searched for ways to use him last season, starting with cross-training at quarterback and receiver as far back as spring practice and then adding him to the defensive back depth chart when Tim Harris went down in the opener. Cross spent the season bouncing from one spot to another and drew limited attention when he got into games.

Then, Cross missed this spring with an ankle injury. UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said before those practices started that the heavy cross-training days for Cross have ended (a little QB training is still in play) and that he’ll focus on receiver moving forward. Still, without the benefit of spring practices for evaluation, it’s unclear where he fits into the picture at receiver.

Cross certainly seems to have the tools to be a bigger contributor at wideout, though. First, the ability to pick up three different positions, even in part, already is impressive. Plus, while cross-training at quarterback, he flashed some strong running skills in practices and in a brief stint in relief at Boise State where he rushed three times for 14 yards. Cross appears to have good burst when seeking an opening and some ability to avoid hits in the open field.

That ability is what first drew the Virginia staff to Cross when he became the first recruit to commit to Mendenhall and company in January of 2016. He was named the Pennsylvania 2015 Player of the Year out of Parkland High School where he finished the season with 2,947 passing yards and 26 touchdowns to go with 1,385 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns.

Those athletic skills should translate into a potential weapon at wideout. Last season, the Hoos tried to connect with him on deeper and intermediate routes in an effort to use his speed. He ended up with one catch for eight yards. With Andre Levrone gone, Cross – and potentially Zaccheaus and incoming freshman Tavares Kelly – could get a look in roles to try to stretch the defense vertically at times again this season.

It will be interesting to see with Cross now focusing more on receiver, however, if that will expand his potential patterns on offense for Virginia. For example, if he’s the target on a quick bubble screen out in space with blockers, then he can then try to use his running ability to make a play. At 6’2” and 200 pounds, he could also be a bigger target on quick-hitters from inside routes or quick outs. At that size, he could be an effective edge blocker in the running game similar to Reed at 6’1” and 215 pounds.

Regardless, we know Mendenhall’s directive to receivers like Levrone last season still applies. Be durable, be consistent, and be productive. If Cross can step up to meet that challenge, there’s playing time available around Zaccheaus and company.

The “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series has discussed much more. The previous articles are below. Click away.

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