The Virginia football team wrapped up spring practice with a practice-style Spring Game on Saturday that featured the offense vs. defense. The offense arguably put together the better day with Brennan Armstrong going the whole way, but the format choice focused on what’s been the theme of the spring for the Cavaliers: deliberate development.
UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said he did not want to sacrifice a practice day after the pandemic forced the 2020 spring season to be scrapped and modifications during the actual season last fall as well.
“We worked so hard on the protocols a year ago with player safety being No. 1, there was a compromise of our culture and just how hard we tried and how physical we were and how competitive we were and how we could practice and how we wanted to practice and develop our team,” Mendenhall said. “The reason the format was like you saw today where it was more practice-ish than a true game is we haven’t arrived yet, but I do like what we’ve accomplished, I do like our mindset, I do like the returning culture.”
The offense showed off some of its potential weapons Saturday despite the loss of Lavel Davis Jr. to an ACL tear last month and limited targets for Billy Kemp IV and Jelani Woods in the 11 on 11 portion of practice. Both of those players got a lot of work in during the 7 on 7 competition, including a nice inside corner route touchdown for Woods, but during the full scrimmage situations later in the afternoon a lot of targets shifted to Dontayvion Wicks, Keytaon Thompson, Nathaniel Beal III, and others. Wicks drew some attention with some downfield catches and a nice double move touchdown play inside the 30. Thompson displayed the versatility he’s known for and looked more polished as a receiver vs. as simply a gadget guy. Beal had several solid grabs too. Ra’Shaun Henry did not participate in 11 on 11, but Mendenhall said he had been one of the best receivers this spring.
Though limited in reps and in scope – Armstrong wasn’t involved in any way other than a couple of safe scrambles – the running game did have some bright spots. That included big gainers for Mike Hollins and Ronnie Walker Jr., a touchdown catch out of the backfield for Amaad Foston, and some tough running in general. Wayne Taulapapa did not participate in 11 on 11 in order to get more reps to the other backs.
Overall, the offense looks like it could present some problems for defenses this fall simply due to the variety of options. Armstrong said he believes the offense can be the best in the ACC. The key in chasing that goal will be consistency, turnovers, and health. There were two interceptions during the 7 on 7 portion of practice, including one at the goal line from Armstrong. Receivers did drop several catchable throws during the competitive part of practice too and the defense broke through to get to the quarterback or stuff runs a couple of times despite rotating heavily and limiting reps for some of the top of the depth chart linemen.
“I think the offense is electric,” Jackson said. “All spring, they’ve been giving us fits. I think with Jelani [Woods] he’s a matchup problem. Dontayvion is just an electric player who is always making crazy catches, crazy plays. You’ve got guys on that side of the ball who are just playmakers. You already known B-A is going to make plays all around the field. Those guys are just really good. Going up against them every single day is just fun and it’s good for the defense.”
One big question that didn’t get answered Saturday: the backup quarterback race. Ira Armstead participated in 7 on 7 with some flashes on some throws, but some inconsistency as well. He was not cleared for 11 on 11 play. Jacob Rodriguez, the true freshman that enrolled at the start of the semester, did not participate with a mild hamstring issue.
“I’m not willing to say that [Armstead is the clear No. 2],” Mendenhall said. “Jacob and Ira I would list side by side coming into the fall. And while Ira has been here longer, Jacob took way more reps this spring, was healthier, and probably is farther along in the mastery of the offensive content. That is to his credit. Ira and Jacob going into the fall and then Jay Woolfolk arrives as well and both Ira and Jacob, they both were injured and playing quarterback you have to be a durable player. Brennan took five gazillion reps and he was struggling at the end with his arm and different body injuries. So we’re anxious for Jay to come as well. I’d put him right side by side with the other two. We need a productive, durable player that can step in and be the No. 2. I’m not really willing to name it yet because it’s too close to call.”
On the other side of the ball, the defense did not force any turnovers other than the two interceptions during the 7 on 7 portion of practice. There were flashes of the ‘havoc’ style disruption that is the goal of the coaches with some tackles for loss, plays similar to one where it looked like Aaron Faumui got through to force a throw-away from Armstrong, Louisville transfer Anthony Johnson with some physical play, and defensive backs driving hard against short throws to prevent catches.
There were also some breakdowns. The Wicks’ double move touchdown was the big eye catcher, but several other downfield throws connected or just missed during the hour plus of scrimmage action. On one of the big running back gains, the hole that opened on the right side led to a clear lane and the back wasn’t touched until more than 20 yards downfield. On one of Kemp’s few plays from scrimmage in the 11 on 11 action, he scored easily inside the red zone on a third down play where the simply ran underneath of two downfield stalk blocking routes and made the uncontested catch.
Still, the Cavaliers believe they made clear progress in resetting things this spring with more work ahead in the coming months.
“Today, I think the defense performed well. I think that we took strides today, had a lot of people playing,” Jackson said. “I think we were deliberate. This whole spring, that’s a big thing we were focusing on, just being deliberate every day and trying to get better every single today. So today I think we took strides to getting better.”
“We’ve got a lot of good guys out there right now,” Armstrong said of the UVA secondary. “They push me to be better. Sometimes, I’m picking and choosing who I want to attack and who I don’t want to attack. Sometimes those guys are pushing me away from their side because they’re so good. I think our whole team got a lot better this spring ball and that’s exactly what we want.”
Outside of the practice action, the players were surrounded by an unusually normal site: fans in the stands. Spectators were spaced out around the lower bowl, but you could hear their reactions and approval on plays whether that was the interception at the goal line or the deep throw connections. Fans also applauded at the end of practice. Jackson, who was all smiles when asked about the fans, called it “awesome” and Wicks noted that the Hoos hadn’t really had fans in the stands since the end of the 2019 season.
The Hoos said having fans back in Scott Stadium boosted the final spring practice.
“It was nice going out there and just seeing anybody there,” Armstrong said. “I know our family was there. Some students and fans were there too. It’s just nice seeing people there. You still hear the crowd a little bit. Just having people there watching you just brings a little bit more oomph to your game. We’re excited to have hopefully a lot more people there this season.”
“It does make a difference in terms of the energy,” Mendenhall said. “It does make a difference in terms of other people seeing you and kind of holding you accountable for your preparation. That makes a difference. Then, it’s just more fun. I would love to say it’s the same with or without – it’s not even close. It’s way more fun when we have a Scott Stadium environment and a true 4th side. I was just really thankful that those who could come made it today.”