The Virginia football team finally has entered game week mode here in the final week of September. After several schedule shifts, the Cavaliers open their season with Duke on Saturday at 4 p.m. at Scott Stadium. The Blue Devils have played twice already with a pair of losses out of the gates.
Of course, the first game week provides a little bit of insight on some names to know with the release of the season’s initial depth chart (see below). While the depth chart provides a surface look at the base system for offense, defense, and special teams and doesn’t paint a full picture due to the multiple schemes and alignments. Still, this first release plus knowledge of how the team deploys its personnel historically can be great for understanding the likely contributors in some key roles and it’s certainly a fun conversation creator.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look.
Virginia announced its starter several weeks ago so there was very little drama in that sense for week one. Brennan Armstrong is the pick there. The interesting part is that the depth chart lists the three backups all as “or” options. UVA coach bronco Mendenhall told the media Monday that any of them could see the field if Armstrong went down with game situations and opponent style among the considerations.
In reality, however, Keytaon Thompson would be the next man up and he likely will get some snaps of some sort in some role every week. Thompson played in 20 career games at Mississippi State, won both games he started, and put up 18 touchdowns (10 rushing, eight passing). While Lindell Stone knows the offense better and may be a more accurate passer, he would probably only be the back-up if Thompson couldn’t execute certain parts of the playbook or wasn’t available.
Wayne Taulapapa led the team last season with 12 rushing touchdowns and he’s the opening day starter. The only other scholarship player at that position right now is Towson graduate transfer Shane Simpson, who shared an “or” line with walk-on Perris Jones. The Cavaliers remain hopeful that Indiana transfer Ronnie Walker Jr. will receiver a waiver to play immediately, but he final round of appeals is still pending after two previous denials.
Coach Mendenhall said that the workhorse type back would probably still be in place if Taulapapa is able to be productive and durable. That doesn’t mean that the transfer Simpson will be out of sight, though. He’s someone that will likely bounce around to numerous spots in the mold of Olamide Zaccheaus and Joe Reed. So you could see him involved in multiple ways.
The other interesting part of the running back depth chart is that it is organized differently than before. The Hoos usually listed a SB – speed back – and a BB – big back – on the depth chart, but this season that position is TB – tailback. It’s hard to know if that change was made due to the lack of depth in the position group or because the offense has shifted a little bit or for other reasons (such as recruiting).
The Cavaliers list three receivers and an H-back position. There are no surprises at the top spots. Terrell Jana, Billy Kemp IV, Tavares Kelly Jr., and graduate transfer Ra’Shaun Henry are likely to be among the main guys throughout the season (not counting Simpson). With Dontayvion Wicks and Ugo Obasi injured early in the preseason (Wicks is out for the season), Nathaniel Beale III working his way back from injury in the preseason, Dorien Goddard opting out, and Luke Wentz arriving late in his return from Germany, the door opened up for some potentially unexpected names in backup roles.
Behind Jana, there’s true freshman Demick Starling, and behind Henry, there’s true freshman Lavel Davis Jr. Both of those players impressed early in training camp and have kept their names in the ring. With the elongated preseason stretching out to approximately 12 weeks, that duo received a longer preparation period than most true freshman in a normal season. Will that help them get a lot of snaps? We’ll see, but at 6’7”, Davis could fill into some of the spots left behind after Wicks’ injury. Two older players are listed as the backups behind Kemp and Kelly. Junior Hayden Mitchell, who earned a scholarship in the preseason, is behind Kemp and senior Jalen Harrison, who came over from the baseball team last season, is behind Kelly.
The depth chart at receiver also tells us that we’re likely to see Simpson and others (Thompson?) getting some snaps split out, which could include the tight ends. Tanner Cowley lined up in receiver spots frequently as a tight end, last season, for example. It’s also likely that you could see four receiver sets, but with someone like Kelly or Kemp in motion often. That’s always in the UVA playbook, but it seemed more frequent with Zaccheaus than last season. The frequency may increase again this year.
This one had no surprises. Cavalier offensive coordinator Robert Anae said during the preseason that both Tony Poljan and Grant Misch are considered starters, just with different skill sets. That duo shares the “or” designation on the depth chart and they’ll share the field quite a bit this season as well. Anae likes two tight end sets and Poljan’s skillset will allow the coaches to move him around as desired so be prepared to see him in the backfield, on the line, off the line in motion, and out wide this season.
The Cavaliers return five of their top six players on the offensive line from a year ago. With one of those still working back from injury – Bobby Haskins could be available for game two or later – the depth chart figured to include the other five. That’s exactly what happened with all listed as starters. The interesting part is that everyone stayed in the same spot as a year ago with the Ryan Swoboda, the backup tackle on both sides last season, plugging right into Haskins’ spot at left tackle. So looking at it left to right, you’ve got Swoboda, Ryan Nelson, Olusegun Oluwatimi, Chris Glaser, and Dillon Reinkensmeyer at the starter spots.
So while the Wahoos moved players around in training camp to some degree, they settled on the continuity of spots that seemed to build some momentum for the unit late last year. The biggest difference, of course, is that the Hoos are moving from right-handed starter Bryce Perkins to left-handed starter Brennan Armstrong at quarterback. That puts Reinkensmeyer on blind side duty after he struggled at times as a tackle a year ago while playing injured/recovering. Still, Reinkensmeyer has more experience than anyone up front (a fifth-year senior with 37 starts!), he’s healthy, and he’s versatile so you can easily see him rising to the occasion in his final season. Mendenhall said you could see Reinkensmeyer move around the line as well since he’s played and started at both tackle spots, center, and right guard in his career.
The depth chart features some young names in sophomores Joe Bissinger, a potential rising star up front, and Derek Devine at the guard spots plus redshirt freshman Jonathan Leech as the listed backup at both tackle spots. Leech is listed as an “or” option as the reserve right tackle alongside junior Tommy Christ. There’s also freshman Jestus Johnson III, who is listed as an “or” backup with junior Gerrik Vollmer at center.
Ultimately, any rotation up front will likely hinge on versatility more than youth for now. Nelson can play left tackle to provide a rotation at the tackle spots while Bissinger steps in at guard. Reinkensmeyer can sub in at any spot as well so it would be possible to give Glaser a breather with Swoboda at right tackle and Nelson at left tackle plus Bissinger and Reinkensmeyer at the guard spots. When Haskins is back, that’s another rotation player as well.
Looking up front first, the defensive line has a similar vibe to the receiving corps. Richard Burney, Mandy Alonso, and Jowon Briggs are known players with starts and snaps under their belts already. With Aaron Faumui opting out, those were the projected starters. The interesting part is on the back-up lines. Two freshmen and a senior are in those spots.
Behind Burney is redshirt freshman Ben Smiley III, who appeared in two games last season. He did not return to Charlottesville initially and was opting out at one point, but rejoined the team in September. He quickly got his name in the mix obviously. The other freshman is Jahmeer Carter, who is listed behind Briggs. Coming in at 6’2” and 305 pounds plus extensive strength training experience with his father, Carter is more physically prepared than some freshmen might be. Senior JMU transfer Adeeb Atariwa rounds out the depth chart in the spot behind Alonso. While Atariwa played at nose guard often with the Dukes, expect him to make his biggest impact in the defensive end rotation.
On a defense full of experience, the linebackers feature some of the most well-known names on the team. In other words, no surprises here. In fact, most of the depth chart is made up of upperclassmen.
Junior Noah Taylor is in the SAM spot with senior Elliott Brown behind him. Senior Charles Snowden is in the WILL spot with senior Matt Gahm behind him. Of interest: that’s a flip-flop of last year’s spots for Taylor and Snowden. Both are versatile enough to play either the SAM or WILL spot and you’ll see both moving around quite a bit this season at linebacker spots and beyond.
On the inside, Zane Zandier is listed as the MIKE starter with Josh Ahern or Hunter Stewart behind him. The BUCK spot is held by Nick Jackson with the backup being T.C. Harrison. Mendenhall said Monday that Rob Snyder, another senior, is working back from last season’s injury and could be available as soon as the second game of the year. Zandier was listed in the BUCK spots last year with Jackson backing up Mack at the MIKE. The interior spots can be interchangeable as well. Stewart is an interesting name here because Snowden mentioned him as a young player with potential and he moved inside. Keep an eye out for younger players getting snaps if possible because the Hoos could possibly lose three of the starters at season’s end pending Taylor’s NFL Draft possibilities.
All of that is a lot of talk for the 3-4 base defense, but the Hoos will be in varying looks all season long. That includes a heavy rotation of 2-4-5 looks that this coaching staff prefers. Snowden and Taylor make that look particularly hard to decipher at times because they could be rushing the pocket, holding the edge, or dropping in coverage on any given snap. It’s even possible for UVA to insert Gahm for Jackson and create a trio of linebackers with WILL coverage experience so while that may not be a common look, it’s symbolic of the versatility in the group.
This is the first spot where depth chart predictions were harder to make in the preseason. Yes, the field corner starter Nick grant was expected but who would line up on the other side of the field at boundary corner wasn’t as easy to pin down. On the opening depth chart, senior De’Vante Cross is listed as the starter. He’s played there and at safety (as well as on offense) previously, but he seemed better suited for safety with some strong performances there last season. He’s ahead of Darrius Bratton, a previous corner starter that is a year removed from an ACL tear, as well as junior Darnell Pratt and freshman Elijah Gaines. That trio shares an “or” designation.
It’s likely that Cross will move around into different spots for the defense, though. He’s practiced at various spots in the preseason and he could be the slot corner, a safety, or the boundary corner at any given time. Expect Bratton to get some snaps and if he shows that he’s back up to speed, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him eventually hold down that spot with Cross being a swiss army knife in sub packages like the 2-4-5 mentioned earlier or 3-3-5 and 2-4-6 looks potentially. More on that in a moment.
Behind Grant on the field side are two players that saw snaps last season after Bryce Hall went down with his injury. Heskin Smith and Jaylon Baker shared an “or” line there. Mendenhall said Monday that the backup battles are really ongoing so there’s not a set rotation right now at either corner spot and that there’s more playable depth in the group than a year ago.
The ability to move Cross around stems from the depth at safety where there are three other seniors. Virginia listed senior Joey Blount as the free safety starter with senior JMU transfer D’Angelo Amos as the backup. Senior Brenton Nelson is the starter at the SABRE safety spot with sophomores Coen King and Antonio Clary sharing an “or” line behind him. King earned a scholarship this preseason, while Clary was making his way into the conversation last fall before a knee injury ended his season. Clary returned to action midway through the extended preseason practices.
Where things get interesting are with sub packages like the aforementioned 2-4-5/3-3-5 and the possibility of a 2-3-6 look available. UVA could easily put all four safeties on the field in the 2-4-5 with Cross now listed at corner. That would have Cross at boundary corner, Nelson at slot corner, and Blount and Amos at the traditional safety spots. If the Hoos wanted to go to a look with six DBs, that’s possible (it probably wouldn’t be frequent) too. Imagine a lineup with Alonso, Briggs, Snowden, Taylor, Zandier, Grant, Bratton, Cross, Nelson, Blount, and Amos for example. In that type of look, the ability to play Cross and Blount in the box creates a situation where any combination of Snowden, Taylor, Cross, and Blount could be involved in coverage or a blitz. Told you depth chart conversations are fun.
On a roster with experience in a lot of places, Virginia boasts two seniors in the kicker and punter spots as well. Brian Delaney tops the depth chart at placekicker and kickoff specialist after he made 20 of 24 field goal attempts last season. The long-term health of that spot looks fine as well with underclassmen in the mix and redshirt freshman Justin Duenkel listed in the backup spot. Nash Griffin returns at punter for his senior year. While he shares an “or” with Delaney at that spot, he’ll likely hold on to that job because the competition is close and the coaches can preserve the work on Delaney’s leg. Griffin is also back as the holder on kicks.
The more interesting spot for specialists is at long snapper. The Cavaliers once again appear prepared to split the field goal and punting duties there even listing a LS – long snapper – and a SS – short snapper – spot on the depth chart. Enzo Anthony transferred out as the punting team long snapper so there’s a new starter there with Tucker Finkelston listed as the sophomore starter after he missed last season with an injury. Danny Caracciolo is listed as the backup there, but the senior Bryant transfer tops the chart for field goal snaps. He’s ahead of last year’s starter Lee Dudley on the depth chart.
For the return game, UVA has more options than some seasons in the Bronco Mendenhall era. Tavares Kelly Jr. and Shane Simpson are listed as 1-2 in the kickoff spot as the Hoos prepare to replace the program’s all-time leader Joe Reed there. Kelly has some experience after spelling Reed for a few kick returns, while Simpson had a strong career at Towson in that spot prior to his transfer. He had more than 2,000 kick return yards and two touchdowns for the Tigers, but the Cavaliers are limited with running back depth so that may influence his availability for returns.
At punt return, Billy Kemp IV kept his spot on top of the depth chart after handling that role a year ago. He’s ahead of Kelly and Simpson, who share an “or” designation in the backup spot. The interesting note for that spot: JMU transfer D’Angelo Amos is not listed after he had 5 punt return touchdowns for the Dukes.
The Cavaliers have depth and varying playmaker styles to choose from so they may not stick to a solo returner like last season in either spot. In all likelihood, you’ll see multiple players get shots at returns for both kickoffs and punts this year.