Virginia football added six graduate transfers to the program during the offseason, and those additions proved significant in the season opener versus Duke in terms of depth and production. All six players – dual-threat quarterback Keytaon Thompson, running back Shane Simpson, wide receiver Ra’Shaun Henry, tight end Tony Poljan, defensive lineman Adeeb Atariwa, and safety D’Angelo Amos – received playing time in the 38-20 win over the Blue Devils.
The 6’4”, 225-pound junior was utilized as a wide receiver, serving primarily as a blocker. He saw consistent playing time throughout in that role. Not surprisingly, Virginia did come up with a trick play with the former Mississippi State Bulldog, whose deep pass intended for Brennan Armstrong was incomplete.
Simpson, a sixth-year senior, showed well in his Cavalier debut, rushing eight times for 38 yards and hauling in two receptions for 11 yards. The former Towson star also served as Virginia’s primary kick returner after Tavares Kelly fumbled the opening kickoff. Simpson did not have any return yards, fielding all of the kicks in the end zone for touchbacks.
Overall, Simpson and junior Wayne Taulapapa played well as the Hoos racked up 188 yards rushing.
“Wayne ran really hard, really physical and really consistent,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said in his postgame press conference. “I think part of the reason he did that was he had Shane Simpson coming and sharing some of the load. You had both of them rolling at a high level. Wayne did an exceptional job. He was aided by our grad transfer Shane Simpson, who did a really nice job and I think that made Wayne even better.”
A concern with Simpson is health and how much of the load he can manage one year removed from a torn ACL. Taulapapa cemented his status as the no. 1 with a 16-carry, 95-yard, 2-touchdown performance, but as Coach Mendenhall mentioned, Simpson is a key part of the running game as well and Virginia needs him to stay healthy.
Ra’Shaun Henry earned a start following a productive preseason. The 6’3”, 185-pound senior did not make a catch in his Cavalier debut. He didn’t have many opportunities, though, as quarterback Brennan Armstrong’s primary receiver targets were Billy Kemp IV, Terrell Jana, and Lavel Davis Jr.
The transition of the 6’7”, 260-pound Central Michigan transfer appears to have been seamless. Poljan started at tight end and played all the way through, contributing four catches for 44 yards. If Saturday’s opener is any indication, look for Poljan to be a consistent target of Armstrong’s throughout the 2020 campaign.
Additionally, Poljan’s blocking, which was praised by Tight Ends Coach Ricky Brumfield in the preseason, looked good as well.
The JMU graduate transfer was credited with two tackles (1 solo, 1 assisted) as he provided depth on the defensive line.
Last but certainly not least, JMU graduate transfer D’Angelo Amos saw significant action throughout the game at safety, finishing with seven tackles (3 solo, 4 assisted) and a beautiful second quarter interception.
— ACC Football (@ACCFootball) September 27, 2020
Davis Jr. Highlights True Freshmen Contributions
Wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. was the big headliner of the true freshmen who played on Saturday, totaling over 100 yards receiving and two touchdowns in his collegiate debut. Two other first years saw the field against Duke.
Ira Armstead, an athletic 6’3”, 200-pound freshman, was recruited to play quarterback at Virginia. He played another position against Duke – wide receiver, where he made one catch for five yards.
In addition, Jahmeer Carter played significant snaps on the defensive line and finished with two assisted tackles and was part of a tackle for loss. Seniors Richard Burney and Mandy Alonso joined sophomore Jowon Briggs on Virginia’s starting defensive line, while Carter and the aforementioned Atariwa were part of the rotation as well.
It appears the Hoos escaped the season opener without significant injuries, although there were some scares.
Starting defenders Joey Blount (free safety) and Nick Jackson (Buck linebacker) had to be helped off the field, with Jackson exiting in the first half and Blount going down with just under five minutes left in the fourth quarter. Jackson missed a few series but returned and looked good the rest of the way. Redshirt freshman Josh Ahern played in his place.
Blount didn’t put any weight on an injured left leg. However, Coach Mendenhall noted postgame that Blount gave him a thumbs up while doing an interview, indicating to him that the senior was “all systems go.” Good thing because Blount enjoyed an outstanding game, racking up seven tackles with one tackle for loss, adding one forced fumble, an interception, and a pass breakup. He was one of the top playmakers on a UVA defense that forced seven Blue Devil turnovers.
Senior wide receiver Terrell Jana was assisted off the field early in the second half but returned to the game. Shane Simpson hobbled after being tackled on a reception in the second half. He didn’t need to be helped off and returned for one more carry late in the game, but with his injury background and the need for him and Taulapapa to stay healthy, any possible injury is significant news.
Worth Quoting: The Regular Season Is Underway!
In his opening statement to media, Coach Mendenhall expressed his emotions as UVA returned to the field for a regular season game.
“It was a pretty surreal experience,” he said. “There were so many times during the game I couldn’t believe we were playing and that it counted, and that it was for real. Unlike anything I’ve experienced before, I wanted so desperately for our players to have success on the field and have a tangible result to show for it because of just how diligent they have been in all the protocols. As you’ve seen, there’s different levels of discipline in relation to protocols. That’s just to this point and it could change for us tomorrow, but to this point, they’ve really done a nice job.
“I’m so happy for Brennan (Armstrong) in his first start and an ACC game to get a win,” Mendenhall continued. “It was fun to watch our team play football. Lots to learn and plenty of things to improve. But, they were resilient and they played through their mistakes and different miscues, and ultimately pulled away toward the end. I’m encouraged. Certainly, lots of work, but I’m encouraged.”
Associate Athletics Director For Sports Medicine Kelli Pugh had the honor of breaking the rock following the win.
It’s about Family..So thankful to be a part of something so special #GoHoos RT @VirginiaSports: She’s led our health and safety through all of this and now she gets to break the rock! #Wahoowa, Kelli Pugh!#GoHoos | #THEStandard 🔶🔷 pic.twitter.com/lOkRo2xfcS
— Clint Sintim (@CoachSintim) September 27, 2020
— Bronco Mendenhall (@UVACoachBronco) September 27, 2020
Worth Quoting II: The Run Game
Coach Mendenhall was looking for more rushing production from the running backs and that’s what he got in the season opener. Wayne Taulapapa and Simpson combined for 24 carries for 131 yards, an average of 5.45 yards per rush. Sophomore Perris Jones tacked on 11 yards on two carries.
Taulapapa, who rushed for two touchdowns, displayed determined running from start to finish. I liked the shiftiness (while continuing to move forward) and poise Simpson displayed in his running. An experienced offensive line deserves credit, opening holes up the middle for the backs as well as quarterback Brennan Armstrong. Much of UVA’s damage on the ground was up the middle.
Armstrong and Mendenhall were very pleased postgame.
“Wayne [Taulapapa] and Shane [Simpson] they carried the load,” Armstrong said. “I mean we were popping off like five yards a carry and when you can do that as an offense, there’s a lot of other stuff that we can do on top of that. I just give credit to the o-line, Wayne and Shane. It’s an experienced o-line, Wayne’s experienced, Shane’s experience just came from a different team, and now he’s in the mix. I mean they ran the ball well and I’m super proud of them.”
“It’s the deepest and most experienced offensive line we’ve had here at Virginia,” Mendenhall said. “Duke is very active and mobile up front, and very aggressive. It’s difficult to run the ball on them. I think our offensive line did a really nice job in their preparation for the game, but they are also seasoned and experienced, so that was something we haven’t had in our era here at UVA to this level. It’s a nice starting point to see where they’re took off from.”
Virginia played without junior tackle Bobby Haskins. As for the starters, juniors Ryan Swoboda (RT) and Ryan Nelson (LT) manned the tackle positions, seniors Dillon Reinkensmeyer (LG) and Chris Glaser (RG) handled the guard positions, and junior Olusegun Oluwatimi was the center. The Hoos stayed with this lineup much of the game.
– Virginia’s defense had some hiccups, especially with Duke going over the top of the linebackers over the middle for some big plays, but the unit rose to the occasion when needed. Holding Duke to a field goal following the fumbled opening kickoff was huge. Meanwhile, how is this for Duke’s final six possessions? Interception, interception, interception, fumble, turnover on downs, fumble.
Virginia’s upperclassmen leaders came through in a big way. Senior Zane Zandier led the team in tackles with 15, senior safeties Blount and Brenton Nelson (two INTs) had big days, senior captain Charles Snowden had six tackles and two pass breakups, and junior outside linebacker Noah Taylor had two tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Senior defensive lineman Richard Burney chipped in a tackle, while Matt Gahm had a fumble recovery. Young stalwarts such as Nick Jackson (12 tackles including five solo efforts, one tackle for loss) and Jowon Briggs (two tackles, one sack) stepped up as well.
The biggest question about this defense remains the cornerback play, but they will be tested in a major way next week against Clemson. Seniors Nick Grant and De’Vante Cross earned starting roles – Grant had an interception while Cross had three tackles and a pass breakup.
– Nick Jackson was in on two tackles as UVA held Duke to a field goal after the opening kickoff return fumble, but for me his “I’m here” moment came on Duke’s third drive of the game. The Blue Devils had 3rd and 5 at their own 32 and David Cutcliffe called a run play for running back Mataeo Durant. Durant seemed headed for a first down when, after three yards on an up-the-middle run, Jackson met him with a crushing hit. Durant went no further, and Duke was forced to punt. A big-time play from Jackson.
-Neither Jowon Briggs nor Jahmeer Carter were credited for the tackle, but I loved their hustle on Chase Brice’s 34-yard completion to Philyaw-Johnson in the second quarter (drive started at the 8:55 mark). Both defensive linemen sprinted down the field to come close to making the play. Great hustle, and Briggs in particular showed great speed.
– We only have a limited sample size, but the future at wide receiver looks very bright with Lavel Davis Jr. and sidelined sophomore Dontayvion Wicks leading the way. Wicks is out for the season with an injury, but if 100% healthy his athleticism and speed are clear. Additionally, true freshman Demick Starling impressed during fall camp but did not play against Duke.
Davis Jr.’s size alone makes him a tough matchup for defensive backs, but his fluid movements in and out of breaks impressed me as well. He’s more than just tall. He’s a good athlete with good feet, and as he gets stronger he’ll only get better.
– Zane Zandier’s career-best tackle performance came with nine family and friends in the stands cheering him on. They each had on orange shirts with “Zandier” and the number “0” on the back. It was clear the senior appreciated having his family there.
– Finally, just love the effort by Wayne Taulapapa. Here is a taste of it on the final score of the game.
Have we mentioned we love singing the Good Old Song?
Wayne Taulapapa with his 2⃣nd score of the day 🎥⤵️
— Virginia Cavaliers (@VirginiaSports) September 26, 2020