Virginia Must Fill In For Departures At Big Back, Tight End Positions

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Virginia features just two scholarship tight ends.
Grant Misch scored a touchdown at North Carolina last season. ~ Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

Evan Butts and Albert Reid. Tanner Cowley, Chris Sharp, Jamari Peacock. These are just a few names that Virginia football fans recognize even though their positions don’t always get the targets or carries of other spots.

The UVA offense uses less of a traditional fullback and prefers the term “big back” for the position. This big back is used primarily as a blocker in the offensive scheme and does not get many carries. Just as the big back has recently stayed out of the playmaking spotlight for Cavaliers, so has the tight end position. Neither position has put up flashy numbers over the past few seasons and have been doing more of the dirty work to open up lanes for others to make plays.

3-year production – fullbacks and tight ends

  • 2017: 11 carries, 40 rushing yards (3.6 YPC), 1 rushing touchdown, 37 receptions, 290 receiving yards, 3 receiving touchdowns
  • 2018: 3 carries, 10 rushing yards (3.3 YPC), 0 rushing touchdowns, 26 receptions, 261 receiving yards, 4 receiving touchdowns
  • 2019: 1 carry, 4 rushing yards (4.0 YPC), 0 rushing touchdowns, 33 receptions, 338 receiving yards, 3 receiving touchdowns
  • 3-year average: 5 carries, 18 rushing yards (3.6 YPC), 0.33 rushing touchdowns, 32 receptions, 296.3 receiving yards, 3.33 receiving touchdowns

Leading producers

  • 2017: Evan Butts, 32 receptions, 266 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns
  • 2018: Evan Butts, 16 receptions, 141 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns
  • 2019: Tanner Cowley, 28 receptions, 311 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown

Summary

The Heath Miller days of the tight end position being a staple of the Virginia passing game are clearly long gone. Bronco Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae have chosen to take a much different route with the position. They seem to view it as an athletic player that is bigger than a fullback or halfback who blocks but is still capable of catching defenses napping with big plays down the middle of the field.

Mendenhall and Anae seem more than comfortable to have these two position groups serve as the gritty pieces of the offensive puzzle. They may not always show up it the stat sheet, but they are crucial to the offense’s ability to move the ball down the field and score points.

2020 Virginia football look ahead

The Hoos are losing big back Chris Sharp and tight end Tanner Cowley to graduation. Both players played key roles at times for their respective positions last season so the Cavaliers have some holes to fill there.

With the big back spot, they will turn to senior Jamari Peacock. In his three seasons in Charlottesville, Peacock has appeared in every single one of Virginia’s games. With that being said, he has only totaled two rushes for six yards and one catch for 18 yards. Sharp was more of a threat out of the backfield in the passing game as he had 10 catches for 55 yards and three touchdowns in his Cavalier career, but he saw more limited snaps as his final season wound down.

This spot is a tricky one to forecast, though. Virginia often cross-lists players in the running back group as both a speed back and a big back. PK Kier and Lamont Atkins were listed as both at times for example. (Kier entered the transfer portal and Atkins reportedly is sitting out a year of football.) Mike Hollins was listed at big back on the final 2019 depth chart, but is projected to get more carries than other big backs in recent years. He’d be more like Albert Reid from this coaching staff’s first year in that sense. (You’ll note if you check the three-year stats above that we didn’t include Hollins, Atkins, or Kier in the stats.) For more insight on the difference between the two roles in UVA’s offense, check out this link from AFCA Insider.

In terms of the tight end position, Virginia will be forced to throw some unexperienced guys into the fire next season. There are currently only two scholarship tight ends on the roster in redshirt sophomore Grant Misch and freshman Joshua Rawlings. Misch has only caught one pass as a Hoo, but made the most of it as it was a six-yard touchdown catch against the Tar Heels last season. It would not be surprising to Anae feature the tight ends even less in the passing game next season, though.

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