When it comes to quarterbacks, Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall believes in an old Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston song from the 1960’s. In his mind, “It Takes Two” to run a successful program in the ACC.
So when Bryce Perkins finished his Cavalier career after the Orange Bowl, the coaches knew they’d be in search of a new starting quarterback for 2020 and they knew they wanted to add more depth to that position too in order to provide injury insurance and to foster competition. Sophomore Brennan Armstrong worked as the backup quarterback the last two seasons so he immediately took the front-runner spot, but the Hoos also searched the transfer portal for depth options. They added Mississippi State graduate transfer Keytaon Thompson in early May to the roster as well.
“Brennan, he’s confident. That’s one of his greatest strengths,” Mendenhall said. “He loves competition. He really doesn’t acknowledge anyone else. He focuses on what he can control. Coach [Jason] Beck had a conversation with him prior to us adding Keytaon so he knew that was coming. The simple and matter of fact organization or business part of it is I simply don’t believe you can win the ACC Coastal or win the ACC or have a successful football program without two very good quarterbacks. I love the situation we had with Bryce and Brennan and now I really like the situation have now with Brennan and Keytaon.”
The addition of Thompson immediately addressed the depth and competition concerns. As a graduate transfer with immediate eligibility, it provided someone other than true freshman Ira Armstead to the lineup alongside emergency option Lindell Stone, who has spent much of his first three years as a de facto coaching assistant. Stone has appeared in just three games to date, but wears a headset and carries a clipboard on game days in a role not all that different than former UVA linebacker C.J. Stalker, who is now a graduate assistant with the Hoos. Beck said he prefers to have four to five scholarship quarterbacks on the roster in a given year.
Thompson will arrive in Charlottesville with three years of major college experience, including a bowl start where he put up 274 yards of offense in a Tax Slayer Bowl win in 2017. Overall, he appeared in 20 career games and was 2-0 as a starter. He posted 18 career touchdowns (10 rushing/8 passing).
Beck, the UVA quarterbacks coach, said Thursday that the coaches like what they’ve seen and heard from Thompson. He believes it added strength to the QB room..
“We knew we needed another guy in the room for competition, for depth, and for the stability of our program,” Beck said. “So we’d been looking and kind of scouring all those options even weighing the option of taking a transfer that with that possible rule they were talking about in April of a one-time transfer. … We were really excited with Keytaon when he came around. He’s a really good fit for what we do both in terms of quality of player but also quality of person. Great reviews in talking to previous coaches and people that know him, just about his work ethic, his leadership, the type of person he is. So he’s a great fit for us here at Virginia. He’ll give us great competition between him and Brennan. We’re really excited about Brennan and feel really good about him, but this will give us great competition there. Then Lindell is a perfect option for us as well because he knows the offense. He doesn’t have to take many reps and he’ll be able to go in there and execute and do really good stuff for us. He doesn’t quite have the skill set we want for the Thorterback so that’s what led us to wanting to bring in another guy to compete now as we develop the younger guys.”
Developing any of the quarterbacks became a bigger challenge this spring. Beck has been working on that from home offices without the benefit of spring practices, a reality that came into play with a pandemic that shut down sports around the world. The Cavaliers didn’t get any on-field work in before the University closed and moved to online classes.
Virginia adapted to online meetings with the players, which gets divided into overall team meetings, special teams meetings, and position meetings at varying times. Beck estimated that he conferences with the quarterbacks for about an hour and 15 minutes for each position meeting. Those take the form of white board discussions, film reviews, and quizzes on things like coverages. So far, once the adjustment period settled, Beck said he feels good about how that part of coaching is working. The downside, of course, is the inability to apply or test those things in practices or a live scrimmage environment.
Fortunately, Armstrong has taken some first-team reps throughout his career and even saw action in several games in situations where Perkins left temporarily for injury concerns. Thompson has not been able to join the video conferences yet according to Mendenhall because he has a class that finishes in June before he transfers in officially.
“You can do quite a bit in terms of drawing it up on a white board, watching film of it, talking through it, and even quizzing the guys,” Beck said. “Obviously, the limitations are you can’t get the on the field reps that we missed in spring ball so we’re not getting that learning, having it on the field but we’re getting a lot done that will help when camp starts. For this time of year, we’re probably doing more learning than we typically would with being out recruiting, the players would be home from break right now with no formal meetings so we’re getting a lot of work done under the circumstances.”
Beck said that Armstrong is putting in the work right now, which hasn’t been surprising. He came prepared as the backup quarterback the last two seasons and delivered in almost every game situation he entered. That included a big run against Louisville and a touchdown pass against Georgia Tech as a true freshman and completed a pass on a fake field goal to Tanner Cowley at North Carolina and threw a touchdown pass against Liberty for example as a redshirt freshman. In high school, he posted 1,933 yards and 30 touchdowns passing plus 1,105 yards and 22 touchdowns rushing as a senior.
“He is working hard. He is training physically,” Beck said. “He’s put more emphasis on nutrition. Studying film, throwing with his buddies. He’s really doing everything working hard. He’s a competitor, he’s confident, he’s been ready to play the last couple of years. He’s just making the most of this time and this opportunity to put himself in position to be successful.”
Armstead, a true freshman that enrolled in January only to be sent home with the rest of the students after spring break, can still benefit from his short time in the program and the Zoom meetings, Beck said. He threw for 1,078 yards and 7 touchdowns with 610 rushing yards and 9 touchdowns last fall as a high school senior.
“It’s too bad with him coming in early that he missed out on [the practice] part of it,” Beck said. “The benefit is he already knows what life is like as a student. So when we come back in fall camp, he’s been down that road. He’s comfortable, he’s familiar, he’s not adjusting to all those things. He’s known his teammates and worked with them. He knows what the program is like day to day and the work ethic and the expectations. When guys come in as first years, they have no idea what that is really like. He’s experienced all of that so now when he comes in for fall camp he’ll be much better prepared and ready to do all of that.”
While Thompson finishes up his coursework, Beck and the coaches can only evaluate on the film and scouting work they did in the transfer evaluation. He committed to MSU as a four-star recruit with 3,825 yards passing, 1,434 yards rushing, and 72 touchdowns (26 rushing/46 passing) in high school. He won three state championships in Louisiana for football and basketball. Coaching turnover with the Bulldogs, however, left Thompson in mostly a reserve role so he was seeking a fresh opportunity.
The high school resume, success in his chances at Mississippi State, and the ability to be a running threat in UVA’s preferred offensive scheme were attractive. Beck said he sits on the same end of the spectrum as dual threats like Perkins and Taysom Hill in this offense.
“There are some similarities [to Bryce] that are intriguing,” Beck said. “With Benkert coming in as a transfer, with Bryce coming in as a transfer, you have an idea based off film and based off conversations but you never quite know until they get here and things start working themselves out exactly what that skillset is like. We have an idea with Keytaon that we’re excited about, good size, athleticism, good arm, strong arm, very capable passer. So there’s a lot of things we’re excited about. Smart football IQ and has really won – in high school, he won in both football and basketball. So there’s a lot of things there that we love and we’re excited about, but until we get him here and start working with him for those first couple of weeks then we’ll have a much better idea feel for what his strengths are and what direction that will take us.”
By opening the door to depth and competition, the Cavaliers also opened the door to the possibilities of a quarterback controversy. Armstrong has an obvious leg up in the program experience category and people within the program repeatedly praise his moxie and feel for the game. He’s got the ability to run the ball too. Thompson clearly has a knack for running the ball and could be an enticing choice for the run-pass option concepts if he can improve on his MSU completion rate of 47.6% passing.
If Thompson comes in and wins the job, it would mark the third straight opening day starter that joined Virginia as a transfer quarterback. Benkert and Perkins, transfers from East Carolina and Arizona State respectively, have been the only full-time starters in the Mendenhall era to date. Beck said that breaking that cycle or using transfers can be good for the program.
“You’d love to recruit guys to come in as first years and work hard and develop like Brennan has and have a lot of success and have that cycle going year after year,” Beck said. “The way college football has gone, transfers happen a lot more than they used to. Whether that’s guys coming into your program or transferring out, it just happens a lot more than it ever has before so I think that’s kind of the new normal. We just want guys who fit perfect at UVA, who want to work hard, want to compete, and come in and compete and give their best and have the best player play whether that’s a kid we recruit out of high school or that’s a transfer.”
Having Benkert and Perkins star at quarterback as transfers hasn’t hurt the program on the recruiting trail, Beck said when asked if starting transfers consistently concerned him for future recruiting.
“I haven’t run into that,” Beck said. “In a weird way, to this point, different than the place previous to this, it seems like we’ve been able to get really good players through transfer. With high school recruiting, the first couple of years we were battling to recruit guys and they didn’t seem to have as much interest necessarily coming out of high school. With the success we’ve had at the quarterback spot, that’s really changed. There’s been a lot more interest among really good players. I think that will work itself out. … These kids don’t look back that far. When we got here, there wasn’t this great recent quarterback play where it was easy to get recruits. Over the last couple of years, that’s changed. It’s enabled us to recruit better players. Brennan was kind of one of the first of that mix.”
Regardless of who wins out as the eventual opening day starter, there’s also the inevitable question of a dual quarterback system vs. a dual threat quarterback. That hasn’t matched the pattern so far at Virginia where Benkert and Perkins took the lion’s share of the snaps even late in games that appeared to be decided and in many practice situations.
Beck said he has not been part of a two quarterback system as a coach at any of his stops as an assistant. That included stints at LSU, Weber State, Simon Fraser, and BYU prior to Virginia. He was the offensive coordinator at Simon Fraser.
“We’ll just let it play out as it goes,” Beck said. “Fortunately – or not I guess, I don’t know – everywhere I’ve been it’s emerged and it’s happened in the course of camp and progressing to the season where one guy has taken control and emerged above another guy. Usually, that’s the most preferable to have one leader that everyone is building and working around. Usually, it works itself out. I’ve never been in a thing where both guys are just neck and neck and there’s no real separation that you feel good about calling it and you go into a game or two and let that play out. I’ve seen that happen at other places, but I’ve never been part of it myself. We’ll just let it run its course, we’ll let guys compete, work hard, and see how it unfolds and who emerges through that process.”