For the third time in the Bronco Mendenhall era, the Virginia football coaching staff needed to sort through a quarterback competition to pick a new starter.
When the coaches first arrived ahead of the 2016 season, they needed to decide between Kurt Benkert, Matt Johns, and Conner Brewer. After going primarily with Benkert for two seasons, the choices came down to Bryce Perkins, Lindell Stone, and Brennan Armstrong. Now with the two-year run with Perkins complete, the race came down between Armstrong and Mississippi State Keytaon Thompson with Armstrong being named the starter recently.
Offensive coordinator Robert Anae and quarterbacks coach Jason Beck provided a little insight during the preseason for what goes into the decision-making process. First, the Hoos want to try to create a pool of candidates through recruiting and then design a tough set of tests for evaluation.
“The last couple of years in the program, the biggest thing is to treat one position a certain way and that’s the quarterback position,” Anae said. “Our method is first and foremost to find out who the best quarterback is on your team and hopefully you’ve recruited and it’s something difficult as a process to go through.”
Once the Cavaliers arrive at a decision, they want to delve deeper into that player’s tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses. As Mendenhall noted recently, the Hoos chart everything. For example, that could be things like second down throws, run calls to the right, or scramble play results. As they sift through the data, the staff then tries to tailor the offense toward the quarterbacks’ strengths.
For the move from the first two starters, Benkert and Perkins, the transition had a little more contrast. With Benkert, the offense featured more direct run and pass plays, while the Hoos shifted to more run-pass option plays the past two seasons with Perkins. Anae said that the staff also encouraged Perkins to be comfortable with scramble plays if he didn’t like the read he was seeing because that played into his natural athletic ability.
The move to Armstrong will keep much of the transition intact. He’s prepared as the back-up quarterback the past two seasons, has running ability as well, and can make numerous throws within the system. The process is ongoing to figure out what that means within similar schemes.
“Find your the best quarterback on your team and then once you’ve found that out, now you highlight what he does well and that’s your starting point,” Anae said. “For us, we went through that with Kurt Benkert, we went through that with Bryce Perkins, and now we’re in the beginning process of doing that with Brennan Armstrong. Right now, he is the best quarterback in our program.”
“We want to build around the strengths of the quarterback first and then within that build around the strengths of the other guys on the field,” Beck said. “Coach Anae has been instrumental in that development of the quarterbacks. Identifying what they do and heading in those directions to bring out their strengths and let them play fast and to the best of their ability. We really do try to focus around what they do best so they can think less, play faster, and feel comfortable and get in a rhythm.”
More On QB Double Duty
Armstrong is in as the starter, but he Cavaliers feel as comfortable with the overall depth of the quarterback position as at any point in the Mendenhall era to date. The reasons for that are Mississippi State transfer Keytaon Thompson gives UVA a dynamic athlete with experience as the second option and true freshman Ira Armstead has come in at a high level too. With player-coach Lindell Stone now an upperclassman too as a junior, there’s the belief that multiple players could handle the offense if needed.
With that added comfort level comes options, which could be particularly beneficial in a year where the coronavirus pandemic has led to 10 conference games and potentially roster management challenges. When asked if it is possible for Virginia to train someone like Thompson for multiple roles due to his athletic ability, Mendenhall didn’t hesitate – “sure, he and Ira both,” he said – and Anae added that it “would not be a good idea if one of our better athletes was standing next to me with a clipboard so we’re looking for opportunities to get him on the field and to get him involved.”
Thompson pledged to the Hoos late in the spring and then joined the program when everyone returned to Charlottesville in person in early July. He brought with him significant experience at the college level with 20 career appearances and 18 touchdowns (10 rushing, 8 passing) from his time with the Bulldogs. In early practices with Virginia, his speed and running ability were immediately noticeable.
Throw in the fact that Armstrong said that Armstead, the true freshman, has “some wheels” too and you’ve got at least the possibility of some specific packages to take advantage of those two quarterbacks’ skills. There’s also the opportunity to line them up with Armstrong in the backfield or split them out wide at receiver with plans to somehow get them the ball in space.
“With that kind of quarterback – like with Taysom Hill we had at BYU, he’s doing that kind of stuff in the NFL – when you’re a pretty good athlete, it just enables you to do other things on the field,” Beck said of the possibilities. “The biggest projection is what happens if there’s a few issues with the contact tracing or positive tests with the coronavirus and any of that and how could that affect our depth. We’ve done a few things to over prepare with depth with possible situations and how they could play out, having people prepared and ready as needed.”
Virginia Tech’s New Coordinator
For the first time this century, Virginia will face a Virginia Tech team without defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who retired after last season. Foster engineered VT’s defense from 1996-2019 as defensive coordinator and during that time he gave UVA teams fits. The Cavaliers, of course, broke a 15-year losing streak to the Hokies last fall.
Stepping into Foster’s place as Tech’s DC is Justin Hamilton, a former player for the Hokies that returned to the school in 2018. Hamilton made a rapid rise to his new position. His only previous stop as a defensive coordinator came at UVA-Wise during his first two years of coaching and he made short stop at VMI on the FCS level before returning to Blacksburg in 2018 as the Director of Player Development – Defense. Last season is his only season as a position coach at the Power 5 level as he took over the safeties, a position he played as a senior, for VT.
Preparing for a new coordinator can present challenges, but Anae expects the defense to carry similar traits as before since the Hokies had success with it under Foster’s guidance.
“I think I’m safe to assume that what they’re doing there has deep roots defensively,” Anae said. “I think I’m safe to assume that they’re confident that those coaching structures, defensive alignments and assignments are sound. I do not think that they entered this thing thinking oh this thing is broken and we need to fix it. From an old coach perspective, that would be the worse thing they could do is to junk what they’re doing on defense. I’m leaning on seasoned expertise over the years that they know what they’re doing and they’re going to keep what they know and keep how they know to do stuff.”
For much of of the Mendenhall era to date at UVA, the offense has leaned toward a single running back getting the bulk of the carries for that position. The Hoos, however, also moved to a quarterback-heavy run game the past two seasons with Perkins. A reporter asked Anae about the need or desire to have a feature running back in an offense if possible and he provided a little bit of his view of the Virginia offense in his response.
Anae said: “The whole idea of the offense is to do stuff that your guys do well. So when you say a feature back, the first thing I think of is a first or second round draft pick type of kid. If I thought we had one of those, then yes we would be lining that kid up and just handing him the ball from left to right. Florida State had that tailback, that first or second round tailback, and that didn’t serve them all that well last year. You’ve got to have that guy and if you do, yes you should feature him but at the same time those guys around him, especially up front, are going to have to pull their weight for it to come to fruition as well. For us, we think the strength of our unit is 11 guys working together and for me as a coordinator and us as coaches to put them in positions that they have a chance to be successful. That’s our brand of football so to speak. It is a collective. It’s a unified, hard-working, team effort.”