The Virginia football team has worked through two versions of its offense early in the Bronco Mendenhall era. The coaches started with a pass-oriented offense that featured the talents of Kurt Benkert and then shifted to the dual attack capabilities of Bryce Perkins next. That helped the program establish its footing while the rejuvenation efforts began.
With the program now coming off three straight bowl appearances, the majority of the roster is now armed with institutional knowledge. The players have developed in the same system and learned the expectations from their first moments in the program. They know the ins and outs of the varying concepts. That puts the Hoos in a place to modify and build on the offensive foundation without starting over with a new blueprint.
“There’s Bryce, there’s Has [Hasise Dubois], from the skills standpoint, and there’s Joe Reed. Dang, with that group you kind of lump in Olamide Zaccheaus so within the past two years that group is completely out the door. So what’s going to be different?” UVA offensive coordinator Robert Anae said. “The whole time those guys have been in place, we’ve also been training and developing players behind them. We have a pretty good idea of what guys now in the program can do that those guys could do, but nothing lines up exactly from top to bottom. Nothing will totally be exactly the same from top to bottom. But I will say there are things that the guys in the program have demonstrated pretty good competency in so there will be things that look a little different next year, but we’re not changing the offense from top to bottom. Similar, but not exactly the same.”
Perkins, who signed an undrafted free agent contract with the Los Angeles Rams, tallied a big portion of the carries in the running game the last two years. He recorded 439 carries in a Virginia uniform. For the 2019 season, Perkins’ 227 carries accounted for 51.4% of the team’s total. He produced with those carries, gaining 1,046 yards on the season – sacks and lost yardage left him with a net number of 769.
Regardless of who takes over after Perkins, the heir likely won’t pile up carries or yards in quite the same way even though running the quarterback position will remain a part of the system. That means those carries will shift somewhere else. The coaches have used handoffs with receivers periodically so far in their tenure, but the load will likely shift heavily to the running back position more than others.
Wayne Taulapapa picked up a lot of experience in a lead role last season with 116 carries, 473 yards, and 12 touchdowns. True freshman Mike Hollins got a taste of the college level last season and should be ready to step into a bigger role as well. Plus, Indiana transfer Ronnie Walker Jr. picked Virginia to get back closer to his Richmond home; he’s hopeful that an immediate waiver will be approved by the NCAA.
Beyond that, the multi-year building and development process on the offensive line has reached a more stable level as well.
The Cavaliers will have to put all that together without the benefit of spring practices, of course. The coronavirus pandemic eliminated that practice time.
“It’s tough. The run game is all about being physical and you’ve got to develop your pad level, you’ve got to be able to master your assignments for multiple things [like] movements, alignments and you need all of that to be better in the run game,” Anae said. “However, I will say this. Yes, we do need a better balanced run attack. I do believe that’s the direction we’re headed. That too has got to be something that’s earned. Just to run the ball is pointless unless it actually is contributing to the team. I will say this, we’ve spent four years recruiting and developing our offensive line and going into this season, we’re at the best spot in that regard. One, with depth. There’s going to be competition for the guys up front. Number two, for the most part, they now have a couple of years experience in doing what they’re doing. With those two things, the run game will have a bright prospect.”
The loss of spring practice also removed the opportunity for Virginia’s upcoming quarterbacks to accumulate reps. Brennan Armstrong, the backup the last two seasons, is projected at the top of the depth chart currently and he did get some extra time in bowl preparation plus some unexpected reps last August since Perkins was limited with an injury for part of the preseason. True freshman Ira Armstead, who enrolled early in January, doesn’t have that time in the system yet and he missed his first chance at it when colleges cancelled spring practice.
Anae said there is no substitute for live scrimmage situations when it comes to bringing a quarterback up to speed.
“There’s nothing we’ve done since the bowl game with the football with our players,” Anae said. “A quarterback does lots of things with the football. So have we been able to develop our quarterbacks since January? No, we haven’t. Usually, to develop your quarterback you have to do that in an 11 on 11 setting. That’s where the biggest growth takes place. There’s been none of that since the bowl game. Yes, it’s a challenge. I will say this Brennan Armstrong has not started his development in January. Brennan came early. He’s been in the program. He’s a program vet. If we can deliver on what we claim to be, which is a developmental program, then that applies to the quarterback. I just take a look at the huge questions when Kurt Benkert came into the program. What are we going to do? Can we manage that position? He developed. The same question was asked of Bryce Perkins. We have not named a starting quarterback. Obviously, Brennan is a prime candidate there. Whoever that quarterback will be when we play in Georgia, I’m confident he will be a player that represents the University and I think our fans will really look forward to breaking in this new group.”
Speaking Of Benkert …
Former Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert earned a spot on the Atlanta Falcons practice squad after he earned the starting job for two years at UVA. Benkert transferred in from East Carolina and posted strong numbers with the Hoos. He finished with 5,759 passing yards and 46 touchdowns vs. 20 interceptions. As a senior, he became the first Cavalier – since joined by Perkins – to reach the 3K plateau in passing yards with 3,207 on the season. He had 25 touchdowns and 9 interceptions.
Benkert posted on Twitter this week that coming to Virginia is a wise option for players looking to develop their skills.
If you have a choice to go to UVA and play under @UVACoachBronco & Co., don’t pass that up. Not many places you can get the whole package.. Why not give yourself a shot to be in the NFL, have a degree that is unmatched (connections), and set yourself up for life? Worked for me酪
— Kurt Benkert (@KurtBenkert) April 28, 2020
Options At Tight End
The tight end position is not nearly as visible as quarterback obviously, but Virginia must transition to the next player in line there this season as well. After Evan Butts held down the spot early in the Mendenhall era, Tanner Cowley stepped in the last two seasons.
Cowley didn’t put up gaudy numbers by any means, but he did start 11 of 14 games last season and made some timely grabs among his 28 catches. He finished with 28 receptions for 311 yards and a touchdown. Cowley had a much bigger role as a blocker in the running game, though.
Grant Misch took over the understudy role at tight end after switching to offense from defense. Misch played in one game as a true freshman in 2018 and retained his redshirt. He then played in every game of 2019. Misch had a touchdown catch at North Carolina.
“Grant Misch. We broke him in some last year,” Anae said. “There’s huge shoes to fill with Tanner Cowley and the role Tanner played. I’m not quite sure how it lines up for Grant, but he represents the mindset at the University of Virginia that we’re looking to recruit kids to and we’re looking to develop and train people with that type of mindset. Knowing the mindset with Grant Misch, I think you all can look forward to some really fun and exciting things that Grant has to offer the offense.”
Misch has a season’s worth of seasoning under his belt, but the rest of the tight end group is even younger. Redshirt freshman Mike Kosar and early enrollee Joshua Rawlings round out the depth chart. That also means that the group is not as far along the strength and conditioning development curve either. That might lead to some creative roster management for certain situations if needed.
“Competing with Grant there, we’ve got Kosar. He’s a tight end that has shown really good promise in the program after a year. We just had an addition of Josh Rawlings at the tight end spot. He’s a little ways behind that,” Anae said. “Between Misch and Kosar, we’ve got some really good tight end prospects and I’m going to try encourage our D to let us borrow guys like Richard Burney when we get in the goal line situation. The D was real good. They would spit Burney out to us for a few plays and then he’d run back over and do his stuff on D. I do think there are a couple of kids on D that can help us in those big package type of deals.”