The countdown clock has dipped below two days as the Virginia football team kicks off its season in fewer than 48 hours at Pittsburgh. The season opener is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on the ACC Network.
The Cavaliers are coming off their first bowl win since 2005 and their first winning record since 2011. With many key players returning and growing depth around the roster, this season presents an opportunity to build on last season’s success. The last time UVA produced back-to-back winning seasons, for example, came in 2004 and 2005.
With the first game now so close, it’s a perfect time to look at some of the big themes ahead for the 2019 season. The “50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series winds down.
3 – The Big Themes
The Hoos finished 8-5 last season with a 28-0 shutout against South Carolina in the Belk Bowl. With the follow-up season to that showing now on deck, Bronco Mendenhall said this week that the team is prepared for the intensity of a conference game as the opener.
“A lot of knowns going into our opener, meaning the returning quarterback in a style of play that we established a year ago; many defenders returning in a style of play that’s been fairly established now going into our fourth year; and against an opponent that we haven’t yet been able to gain a victory over,” Mendenhall said. “So there is a lot of focus, a lot of urgency, and I would say a lot of intensity as to preparation. We know with ACC play right off the bat, again, against an opponent we haven’t beaten yet, there hasn’t been any need for a drop-off or complacency. Every day has been a solid workday to this point.”
Let’s look at some of the big themes for 2019.
One of the main preseason stories came out of the annual ACC Kickoff event. The ACC’s media voted Virginia the Coastal Division favorite. That marked the first time the media had picked UVA as the favorite since the conference went to divisions in 2005.
That label led to repeated questions for the team. Does being the favorite change anything? Does being the favorite add any pressure? Does it make opponents prepare harder for your team? And so on. The Cavaliers have said that while they have confidence in their ability to compete for the Coastal, they don’t pay attention to the hype.
It will be interesting to see how the Hoos handle 2019 and being the division favorite.
Defensive Line Reboot
A year ago, Virginia’s depth up front was compromised by injuries and inexperience. Richard Burney and Mandy Alonso were lost for the season, while several freshmen and sophomores got thrown into action situationally. UVA opted to play a 2-4-5 alignment a lot as a result.
Fast forward a year and that outlook has been flipped on its head. The Cavaliers have at least six to seven players they feel comfortable with giving playing time on the D-Line. Burney, Alonso, the always steady Eli Hanback, true freshman Jowon Briggs, sophomore Aaron Faumui, sophomore Jordan Redmond, and sophomore Tommy Christ all made the first depth chart. Those sophomores gained a lot of experience last season, while Alonso had really started to come on strong until getting injured in November.
If the defensive line does have more playable depth and that helps the defense slow down teams rushing attacks while also upping the sack total in passing situations, that could go a long way to making this a dominant D. No matter what happens, though, the defensive line’s reboot is a big storyline for the year.
Running Back Replacement(s)
With Jordan Ellis’ career complete, the Wahoos must figure out the running back position. Mendenhall has stated a preference for a ‘workhorse’ type back that handles most of the carries, but the competition through the offseason didn’t produce a clear frontrunner heading into game week. Instead, the depth chart is full of ‘or’ lines among the running backs.
Sophomore Wayne Taulapapa has been the most consistent according to Mendenhall and he’s listed first. He’ll likely get the start in the opener as one of the more versatile backs on the team. Still, PK Kier appeared to be the likely heir while backing up Ellis and he is sticking in the competition, while fellow junior Lamont Atkins received some recent praise for his consistency and versatility. Chris Sharp and Jamari Peacock will have roles for the offense much like they have the past two years. The wild card in the mix is true freshman Mike Hollins. A Louisiana recruit, he figured to throw his hat in the ring as soon as he arrived. He’s an ‘or’ on the depth chart right now, but he’s only had a month of practice so far to try to carve out a role.
Where does this position go over the course of the season? That’s a theme to watch.
The Cavaliers appear to have a lot of depth at safety with Brenton Nelson (started 25 of last 26 games), Joey Blount, Chris Moore, and De’Vante Cross all listed there with other options out there among the defensive backs. All four of those players have started at least one game at safety already. So the position is in a good place.
Still, there’s a little bit of concern with durability. Nelson has played hobbled at times, something that takes away one of his biggest assets – his speed. Blount missed two games last season and had offseason surgery. At 190 pounds, can he hold up in a run support role for the whole season? Moore missed all of last season with an injury suffered in the preseason. That’s enough of a history to have some concerns about the group’s health over a 12-game season.
Plus, UVA has had to replace Quin Blanding and Juan Thornhill in back-to-back seasons at safety. So the play of the unit will be scrutinized this season from that standpoint as well.
Receiver Consistency And Production
The Hoos lost a 1,000-yard rusher in the aforementioned Ellis and they lost a 1,000-yard receiver too in Olamide Zaccheaus. In fact, Zaccheaus finished his career as UVA’s all-time leader in receptions with 250 catches. Over the last two seasons, he put up 178 catches, 1,953 yards, and 14 touchdowns. In other words, the Cavaliers have a lot of production to replace at wideout.
A pair of seniors have logged a lot of experience already and served as the top two supporting receivers last year around Zaccheaus too. Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed combined for 1,043 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Mendenhall has said that both players made strides with improvement this offseason too.
Beyond that duo, however, the Hoos need more players to emerge as receiving threats. Terrell Jana made big progress this offseason and is expected to be one of the wideouts in line for more catches. Tavares Kelly and Billy Kemp are moving into the receiver slot vacated by Zaccheaus so they’ll get a chance to make an impact there. Both of those players have some quick-cutting ability with open field speed too so they have the potential to produce big plays.
Graduate transfers Terrell Chatman and Dejon Brissett could make an impact in their first season at UVA. In his last full season at Richmond in 2017, Brissett caught 63 passes for 896 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. That experience could be beneficial for the Hoos, but Brissett had to work through offseason surgery to get ready for a return to the field.
Throw in freshmen like Dorien Goddard and Dontayvion Wicks as well as returners like Chuck Davis and Ugo Obasi as possibilities during the season as well.
The Other Linebacker
Virginia features a lot of known producers at linebacker with Jordan Mack, Zane Zandier, and Rob Snyder as options on the inside and Charles Snowden as a legitimate All-ACC and more candidate on one side. The fourth linebacker slot in the 3-4 look, however, has been up for grabs with Chris Peace now in the NFL.
Noah Taylor and Matt Gahm are the leading candidates to fill into that spot and both will play. Taylor made major gains in the strength program in the offseason, while Gahm logged appearances in 20 games the last two seasons so he has some experience with the defense. Some freshmen could get into the conversation for situational snaps too.
Brian Delaney exited spring practice on top of the depth chart at all three kicking positions and remained in contention to handle all of the kicking duties at the end of the preseason. Delaney worked as the kickoff specialist already before taking over the placekicking duties in the Miami game for the rest of the season last year. With Lester Coleman’s eligibility complete, Delaney battled with Nash Griffin for the starting punter role too.
Griffin is listed first on the initial depth chart for the season so he might get the first crack at the punting job, but it is listed as an ‘or’ with Delaney. If there’s any dropoff on field goals or concerns with too much work for Delaney, true freshman Justin Duenkel is pushing Delaney in practice and he has deeper range on kicks.
Special Teams Improvements Needed
With the kicking game potentially stabilizing, the lens turns to the rest of special teams. Coordinator Ricky Brumfield called last season’s showing in kickoff coverage “sporadic” with the punt coverage being “pretty good” – in other words average. Punt returns have not produced much either. Plus, the Cavaliers are replacing their long snapper.
For UVA to contend for division and conference titles, the special teams units likely must be more consistent and more productive.
Offensive Line Development
The offensive line has shifted from a major concern with low numbers to a growing strength for the Hoos. Virginia has several experienced players in line for snaps on the depth chart. Dillon Reinkensmeyer leads the group as a Mr. Fix It option that can play any of the five positions. The biggest question mark is at center where Olusegun Oluwatimi, the projected starter, and Tyler Fannin, the listed backup, have yet to play in a college game.
Overall, however, the long term view for the offensive line is encouraging. There are no seniors up front and the unit should get better as the season goes along from a solid starting point already. Plus, the out years look promising as the depth fills in with succession planning already ongoing.
Bryce And Bryce
The Cavaliers named three captains for this season with quarterback Bryce Perkins, cornerback Bryce Hall, and linebacker Jordan Mack receiving that honor. Perkins and Hall have emerged as the faces of the program this offseason. They’re on the media fact book cover. They represented the team at the ACC Kickoff event. They’re already on the radar for pro scouts.
Both players are coming off strong seasons a year ago. Perkins set the single season program record with 3,603 yards of total offense last season. He was one of just two players in the nation with 2,600+ passing yards and 900+ rushing yards along with Heisman Trophy winner Kyle Murray. Hall, meanwhile, earned All-American recognition after he led the nation with 22 pass break-ups.
What’s the encore look like for the duo? That’s just one of the many themes to watch this season.
50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff
- 50 – Is Being Favored A Good Thing?
- 49 – What Is Bryce Hall’s Ceiling?
- 48 – What It Takes To Win The Coastal
- 47 – Will Tavares Kelly Have A Breakout Season?
- 46 – Defensive Line Reboot
- 45 – Secondary Contenders
- 44 – Stars & Sleepers
- 43 – One For All?
- 42 – Fan Interest Thermometer
- 41 – Workhorse Search
- 40 – More Points
- 39 – First Year Predictions
- 38 – Be Disruptive
- 37 – Ranking The 2019 Schedule
- 36 – Reducing Explosive Touchdowns
- 35 – Grant’s Growth
- 34 – Jana Making His Presence Known
- 33 – Beginning Believers
- 32 – Seizing The Opportunity
- 31 – Red Zone Offense Stalls Again
- 30 – Glaser Focused
- 29 – Secondary Depth Will Be Tested
- 28 – Red Zone Defense Drops But Gains
- 27 – A High Ceiling At Linebacker
- 26 – Will Briggs Make An Impact?
- 25 – Special Teams Headlines
- 24 – Jersey Selection Musings
- 23 – Penalties & Turnovers
- 22 – What Is Hasise Dubois’ Ceiling?
- 21 – The Comeback Kids
- 20 – Armstrong Provides Confidence At QB Beyond 2019
- 19 – Bronco The CEO
- 18 – Familiar Faces
- 17 – Earning Trust
- 16 – One Speed Reed
- 15 – Atkins Stays The Course
- 14 – Chris Sharp Helps Lead Hoos
- 13 – Third Down Comparison
- 12 – First-Year Class Meeting Expectations
- 11 – Depth Chart Breakdown
- 10 – The Unknowns
- 9 – Reinkensmeyer Helps Build Offensive Line
- 8 – The Kicking Game A Strength?
- 7 – What Does An Improved Bryce Perkins Look Like?
- 6 – What They’re Saying
- 5 – Top Five Preseason Stories
- 4 – Virginia Football on Solid Ground