The Virginia football team wrapped up spring practice with an offense vs. defense spring scrimmage Saturday at Scott Stadium with the defense winning the scoring system 78-69. The defense jumped out early with an interception on the first series and withstood a late flurry from the offense to get the victory.
The defense picked up 6 points for a turnover, 3 points for a sack, 3 points for a 3rd or 4th down stop, 2 points for a tackle for loss, and 1 point for causing an inefficient offensive play. The offense received 6 points for a touchdown, 3 points for a field goal, 3 points for a big play, 2 points for a first down, and 1 point for an efficient offensive play. The team ran approximately 68 plays for the day.
UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said that the pattern of the day looked like a microcosm for much of the spring. The defense is ahead of the offense heading into the summer months with the offense often starting slowly. The Cavalier defense produced two interceptions and a fumble as highlights during Saturday’s action.
“The defense played stronger and with more intent and culture and passion than our offense did today and more physical,” Mendenhall said. “The take-aways were forced. Offensively, we responded late but too late and not enough. So we started slow and this spring, in general, when we begin scrimmage or competitive work, our defense is usually starting faster than our offense and that manifested again today even though we’ve been addressing it. So that’s something we’re going certainly have to address and symbolically for the season as well. We don’t have time to warm up. You’ve got to start playing. It took us longer than expected offensively to do that today.”
The quick start for the defense began with a Bryce Hall interception on the opening series. Quarterback Bryce Perkins through a jumpball deep pass against one on one coverage, but Hall came back to the underthrown pass for the interception in front of Dorein Goddard. Later, redshirt freshman corner Mark Chichester came out of a pile with a fumble recovery. Finally, Jordan Mack returned an interception for a touchdown to put the exclamation point up for the defense.
Perkins said he got hit slightly as he threw and the pass sailed wide. Mack credited a good coverage call for putting in the right place as he scored his first touchdown since high school. On the second interception, Perkins said he has “got to be better” and that the offense has to improve on its turnovers overall too. He said the turnovers decreased as the spring progressed with more in early practices than later, but there still have been stretches of issues.
Mendenhall and Perkins each indicated that the upcoming offseason months are critical for Perkins and the offense after he missed some of the winter workouts while recovering from pinky surgery. Perkins continues to rehab the range of motion in that right pinky, which will have a slight bend in it moving forward. He missed some open receivers, particularly on longer throws Saturday and he said the QBs and receivers would try to improve that during individual workouts.
“We have a chart of plays and concepts that we feel our guys need to work on,” Perkins said of building timing and chemistry with the receivers. “It’s going to start next week. We get a couple of guys individually more so than a big group so it’s more concentrated and more reps so we can translate it to fall. This offseason is going to be big from May to June to July. Each month we’re going to increase the workload and increase routes and increase awareness so guys can see it on the practice field first before we go into the team setting again.”
Elsewhere on offense, Mendenhall noted the need for continued improvement on the offensive line. The Cavaliers expect to get three to four offensive linemen, including Dillon Reinkensmeyer and Chris Glaser that missed the spring after surgery, back for the fall. Mendenhall said the Hoos “still need a stronger presence with the offensive front in terms of movement at the point of attack when we’re running it and more consistency in protection” but that there will be 17 linemen on scholarship this fall, a sign of growing depth and a healthier roster.
At center, Victor Oluwatimi exits the spring with a slight lead over Tyler Fannin, in part because he’s played well at guard too. Mendenhall called that race a “photo finish” at the end of the spring. At running back, Wayne Taulapapa is the leader after the spring as the Wahoos prepare to replace Jordan Ellis in the lineup. PK Kier missed time with a concussion and did not participate Saturday. Those two along with Lamont Atkins, Chris Sharp (who had a big run on Saturday), and incoming freshman Mike Hollins are the chief contenders for carries in the backfield.
“Coach [Mark] Atuaia always preaches the world is ours and there’s five of us really competing to fill in the void for JE,” Taulapapa said. “As long as I continue to work hard and keep my head down as well as the other guys, as long as we continue to compete, we’ll all get better and push the limits.”
At receiver, Perkins said that Terrell Jana has been one of the emerging players this spring. Jana missed the bowl game after tweaking his knee and eased into practices this spring, but he has been regularly called out as a consistent performer by the Hoos. He caught a pass over the middle from Brennan Armstrong that turned into a touchdown late during Saturday’s scrimmage. Hasise Dubois and Tavares Kelly also turned in long receptions during the day and that group should get Joe Reed back too after he sat out the spring with an injury.
Jana was happy to end the spring sessions with a positive play after missing the winter workouts.
“It was a struggle this whole winter missing some of the workouts with the guys so I’m glad I’m able to contribute to the offense and make plays for them,” Jana said. “It’s a nice recovery from the injury and it felt good.”
Over on defense, Mack has returned to the BUCK inside linebacker role after moving from there as a sophomore to play the MIKE spot as as junior. That will leave the MIKE spot up for grabs between players like Robert Snyder and Zane Zandier. Charles Snowden will be in one spot on the outside, while Elliott Brown (he had a sack Saturday), Matt Gahm, and Noah Taylor will be in the mix on the other side.
The defensive line will be getting some reinforcements from the injury list too, but steady Eli Hanback returns along with improved players like Tommy Christ, Isaac Buell, and others. The secondary will need to replace NFL Draft picks Juan Thornhill and Tim Harris, but with Hall back for another year to lead the way and experienced players like Chris Moore and Joey Blount in the mix, that unit has options.
On special teams, the kicking competition features a leader across the board and that’s Brian Delaney. He took over the placekicker job against Miami midway through last season and for now he’s been the most productive in all the kicking spots this spring.
“As of today, he’s our kickoff kicker, he’s our field goal kicker, and he’s our punter,” Mendenhall said. “I really like Nash Griffin through the spring, but if you went just off the numbers, we have one player in Brian Delaney, who currently going into the fall is all of that.”
Mendenhall said the mood leaving the spring needs to be one of urgency across the board. The Cavaliers are coming off a bowl win for the first time since 2005, but the season starts with a tough road test at Pittsburgh on August 31. In other words, there’s not a lot of time between Saturday’s spring game and that ACC opener. That’s just 18 weeks away. The Hoos also face Florida State and Notre Dame during the season’s first five games.
“Overall, I’m encouraged from what I saw through whatever spring this was for us,” Mendenhall said. “It will have to be an accelerated pace because of who we open with, where we open, and just the nature of our early season schedule.”