With Bryce Perkins leaving Virginia with a lot of production and records in tow, a lot of discussion for the UVA football team understandably has centered around the heir at the quarterback position. The Cavaliers know there is more to develop beyond that critical spot, though.
As a starting point, whoever wins out at quarterback between Brennan Armstrong and incoming transfer Keytaon Thompson should have an experienced offensive line to play behind. Olusegun Oluwatimi, Bobby Haskins, Ryan Nelson, Dillon Reinkensmeyer, and Chris Glaser started frequently in 2019, while players like Ryan Swoboda, Joe Bissinger, and Tyler Fannin picked up varying degrees of snaps. That’s quite a bit of experience.
Plus, Virginia finally expects to add in transfer Alex Gellerstedt. He came into the program last year, but a preseason injury cost him the season. Listed at 6’7” and 325 pounds, he appeared in eight games at Penn State as an undergraduate student. UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said losing Gellerstedt last year made a significant impact on the offensive line.
“I like his length, I like his size, and I like his experience,” Mendenhall said. “It was very difficult. We struggled for the first seven games with the offensive front, especially at one of the tackle positions trying to protect our quarterback. We solidified that entire front and performed and improvised kind of around it for the remainder of the season, the last seven games, and performed really well on offense. That stunted our growth and was our governor to begin the season. Alex really would have helped because we needed another offensive tackle, early on especially.”
With an experienced offensive line and a high-level receiver like Terrell Jana, that can take some pressure off of the quarterbacks. A running game from outside the quarterback position can help there too. While the scheme can emphasize QB runs, it may be hard to replicate what Perkins brought to the table there with 769 rushing yards with 11 touchdowns last season and 923 rushing yards with 9 touchdowns in 2018.
That’s where the running back position could take the lead in 2020. Wayne Taulapapa returns after leading the team in rushing touchdowns with 12 in 2019. He tallied 473 yards on 116 carries, good enough for 4.1 yards per carry. He’ll be challenged or at least complemented by Mike Hollins, who averaged 5.3 yards per carry in limited action as a true freshman (21 carries for 112 yards and 3 TDs). The Hoos hope that Indiana transfer Ronnie Walker Jr. receives a waiver to get into the mix as well since there is limited depth at the spot currently.
“Having another offensive weapon is always a better fit,” UVA quarterbacks coach Jason Beck said. “Our offense took another step forward when Jana emerged just because of that other option that it gives you. Having a tailback run game to hand it off and that be a threat to the defense is very beneficial. I think it will emerge as our O-Line continues to improve and a lot of those guys are returning. We’ve made noticeable improvement up front along those lines during the course of the season as well as the experience at the running back spot and the competition there.”
A Glimpse At Future OLB Candidates
Virginia enters the 2020 season in enviable position when it comes to the outside linebacker spot. The Cavaliers welcome back a trio of productive players there from a year ago.
Charles Snowden posted 72 tackles last season, good enough for third on the team, with 5 sacks, 9 quarterback hurries, and a fumble recovery as well. Noah Taylor led the team with 13.5 tackles for loss, which included 7 sacks a year ago. He had 57 tackles, 6 quarterback hurries, and 2 interceptions as well. Matt Gahm added 36 tackles with 1.5 sacks, 2 quarterback hurries, and an interception.
Snowden and Gahm are seniors, while Taylor is a junior though so the coaching staff hopes to work in some younger contributors if possible this year too. UVA co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga, who is in charge of the OLBs, said that is a priority.
“I think D’Sean Perry and Hunter Stewart, [Jairus] Satiu all have done a great job this offseason. Those are the next guys in line,” Poppinga said. “I think we have a great class coming in. Jonathan Horton will be a guy that everybody will love, great personality, and Brandon Williams, a smart, tough, physical guy as well. I think the future looks bright. Really bright. I think we have some really good committed guys right now as well that obviously I can’t talk about. The reason why we’re able to recruit well is because the guys have had success. Starting with Chris Peace and then they see the success of Charles and the success of Noah and guys want to be part of that. As guys continue to have success, I think we’ll continue to get a caliber of player that will help us continue to do better and better each year while we’re playing this defense.”
The outside linebacker group and the defense as a whole benefits from Snowden’s presence beyond his play on the field. As a productive senior with a magnetic personality, he’s become one of the most respected leaders on the team. He’s shown community awareness through social media and around Grounds too. Over three years, he’s posted 146 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss with 9 sacks, 15 passes defended with 2 interceptions, and 2 fumble recoveries.
Poppinga said Snowden comes into every team function with an energetic and ready to work personality that’s contagious.
“It’s something natural,” Poppinga said. “I can’t really explain great leaders. I think everybody has seen a great leader. One thing Charles has is great presence. You walk in a room and that guy fills up the room. His personality. His character. The presence that he has. The way he talks. He’s got a booming voice and it kind of carries. People listen to him when he talks. He’s made a lot of plays. That always gives you a little more tout – when you’re making more plays, people respect that more. As that’s happened over time, I think people have listened more and more to Charles.”
“He has a great presence,” Poppinga continued. “He never backs down from any workout. I think that’s the other thing that guys see is that this guy is never taking a day off. He goes into workouts with great energy every single day. I would say that’s one of the staples that Charles has. Talking to an NFL scout, I told him I don’t know if I’ve been around a player that has as much energy as Charles. Every single day, Charles shows up, pumping the arms up, hyped up – it doesn’t matter if it’s a run, if it’s a lift, if it’s a practice, Charles always is bringing that energy and trying to be contagious with it. Hopefully someone else picks up on that energy to bring to the team. I think that’s important. I’m anxious to see him. He’s done a great job in the Zoom calls. … If he leads rather than the coaches, that makes our team I think better.”
NFL Draft Reaction
In late April, Joe Reed and Bryce Hall were selected in the NFL Draft while Bryce Perkins and Jordan Mack signed on with teams shortly afterward as free agents. The Los Angeles Chargers picked Reed, while the New York Jets took Hall in the fifth round. Hall signed his rookie contract this week. Perkins landed with the Los Angeles Rams, while Mack joined the Carolina Panthers.
A pair of NFL hopefuls, Eli Hanback and Hasise Dubois, have not signed with teams at this stage as the league cancelled mini-camps due to the pandemic. Hanback finished off a strong career with UVA on the defensive line, while Dubois joined the 1,000-yard club as a senior receiver.
Mendenhall said that he though each of those players were undervalued by NFL teams.
“The virus hurt both Eli and Hasise maybe more than anyone because of the lack of mini-camps. I’m very confident both would, if given the opportunity, do very well,” Mendenhall said. “I think every other player from our program was undervalued in the draft. I think not only Bryce Hall, but Joe Reed and certainly Bryce Perkins and Jordan Mack, I think each was undervalued and I think each team that got them will be getting more than what they expected.”
Virginia Not Back Yet
The NCAA lifted the moratorium for on-campus activities due to the coronavirus pandemic, allowing programs to bring back players for summer workouts on a voluntary basis beginning June 1. Some ACC teams, including Virginia Tech, announced plans to start bringing back football players.
UVA remains closed at this time so it will not be joining that list initially, Coach Mendenhall confirmed with reporters in late May. Most of the state is expected to enter Phase 2 of reopening following coronavirus related shutdowns later this week and the University did announce its intentions to return to Grounds for classes this fall.
Poppinga doesn’t think missing voluntary workouts in early June puts the Cavaliers at a disadvantage necessarily, though.
“I told my players too. If it was a regular year, they wouldn’t be back anyway until mid-June if it was a regular year,” Poppinga said. “To me right now, there’s no rush. I think we have plenty of time. If we get to mid-July, things get a little more intense and you feel more pressed. I don’t feel pressed right now at all. I have trust that our guys are out there right now working. They’re working out. We’re doing film study every single morning – this is more than we’ve ever done in May and June. Usually when we get done with finals, we don’t talk to them for six weeks until they come back in mid-June for the summer semester. We’re getting more communication now than we have in the past. It’s just the lack of having spring ball so I feel like we’ll be fine. I feel, like Coach Mendenhall, it’s all about the players’ safety. Let’s make sure it’s safe for them to come back and when we get the go from the experts, we’ll be back and we’ll be rolling.”