A position that was once one known for its stability for the Virginia football team has now become one filled with questions. At the beginning of the Bronco Mendenhall era, Jordan Ellis emerged as a reliable and constant fixture for the offense. Two years later, the Cavaliers have some depth concerns at the position for 2020.
It was no secret that after Ellis’ graduation following the 2018 season, the Hoos would have some questions to answer with their running backs. Ellis was an unquestioned leader on the team and a workhorse the Cavalier coaching staff knew they could always count on. There is a reason he was the first player to choose his jersey number in the program’s annual draft in his final two seasons.
Uncertainty regarding the successors began with the spring before the 2019 campaign, but in the fall the Hoos settled on one player once again getting most of the carries among the running backs. There was a notable difference in how many carries the running backs got as a whole, though.
3-year production – running backs
- 2017: 248 carries, 968 rushing yards (3.9 YPC), 7 rushing touchdowns, 45 receptions, 248 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns
- 2018: 245 carries, 1,139 rushing yards (4.6 YPC), 10 rushing touchdowns, 8 receptions, 70 receiving yards, 0 receiving touchdowns
- 2019: 184 carries, 832 rushing yards (4.5 YPC), 17 rushing touchdowns, 13 receptions, 84 receiving yards, 0 receiving touchdowns
- 3-year average: 226 carries, 980 rushing yards (4.3 YPC), 11 rushing touchdowns, 22 receptions, 134 receiving yards, 0.67 receiving touchdowns
- 2017: Jordan Ellis, 215 carries, 836 rushing yards (3.9 YPC), 6 rushing touchdowns, 22 receptions, 137 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown
- 2018: Jordan Ellis, 215 carries, 1,026 rushing yards (4.8 YPC), 10 rushing touchdowns, 7 receptions, 69 receiving yards, 0 receiving touchdowns
- 2019: Wayne Taulapapa, 116 carries, 473 rushing yards (4.1 YPC), 12 rushing touchdowns, 5 receptions, 23 receiving yards, 0 receiving touchdowns
The drop in carries this past season showed two things. First, keeping the ball in the hands of dynamic quarterback Bryce Perkins was a high priority. Two, the absence of Ellis’ steady presence in the backfield took time to sort out. As a result, the Cavaliers failed to establish the running backs in various contests this season. The inability to move the ball on the ground using someone other than Perkins caused problems for Virginia at times as opposing defenses were able to plan around the Hoos not handing the ball off to their tailbacks often.
Offensive coordinator Robert Anae had different primary roles for each of his running backs in terms of who were his blocking, receiving, and rushing backs. At times, substitutions involving these players seemed to tip the offense’s hand for upcoming play calls. With that said, the Cavaliers did carve out a decent yards per carry average with the backs and used them well in the red zone where rushing touchdowns from the running backs reached a three-year high.
2020 Virginia football look ahead
The most used running back in 2019 proved to be Wayne Taulapapa, who got the coaches attention in the spring and built from there. Taulapapa finished with 116 carries for 473 yards and 12 touchdowns. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry, the lowest among the running backs. No other running back got more than 32 carries and many of those came when Taulapapa sat out the William & Mary and Liberty games.
The lack of carries or in-game action may have contributed to a change in the running back list for the upcoming season. UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall announced recently that three players listed at running backs last season have left the program. Rising seniors PK Kier and Lamont Atkins are no longer on the roster; Kier is expected to transfer elsewhere once the academic year is completed, while Atkins has given up football for now and has an internship lined up in San Antonio. Redshirt freshman Seneca Milledge recently entered his name into the transfer portal as well.
With those three departures, the Hoos are left with just two scholarship running backs on the current roster. Taulapapa and sophomore Mike Hollins both saw time last season. As mentioned in the early article on big backs and tight ends, senior Jamari Peacock is also back as a fullback type. Mendenhall said that the Cavaliers will be active in the transfer market in search of a graduate transfer and that one might join the program before the fall season arrives. Ronnie Walker Jr., a product out of Hopewell High in Virginia, has announced he plans to transfer from Indiana, but he wouldn’t be immediately eligible without a waiver. The Hoos reportedly have interest.
For now, the depth chart situation likely means that Virginia will lean heavily on Taulapapa for production but are also expecting a big second season out of Hollins. Hollins appeared in 12 of UVA’s 14 games last season and led the team with 11 carries for 78 yards and two touchdowns against William & Mary while Taulapapa was out. His role was limited the rest of the season. He showed flashes of potential dominance using his strength to bulldoze Tribe defenders in that game, and the Hoos could need more hard-nosed running and running back balance with Perkins finished with his Cavalier career.