Dontayvion Wicks started up field, planted, and turned toward the visiting sidelines where the student section sits. He stuck another step and immediately turned toward the hill. That double move lost his defender and quickly became a highlight of the Virginia football Spring Game when he calmly made the uncontested catch by the back pylon.
That touchdown didn’t surprise his teammates. It’s the type of skill he immediately put on display when he arrived at UVA in 2019. After an injury detour, Saturday’s scrimmage was just the first chance to remind observers of his potential.
“We always knew he was special,” Cavalier quarterback Brennan Armstrong said. “He got banged up and had to battle through some injuries. Now, it’s just him getting on the field and we keep continuing our chemistry. Obviously if anybody saw the Spring Game, he made a lot of good plays down the field and that’s exactly what we want. We both have places to improve and places to continue to have good chemistry with, but other than that you can just see his skill set for itself on the field.”
Armstrong and Wicks started to build that chemistry as reserves together in 2019. Bryce Perkins started at quarterback that season, while Joe Reed, Hasise Dubois, and others logged the majority of the snaps at receiver. In practices and workouts, however, the Armstrong-Wicks connection began to grow. Wicks appeared in 10 games that season as part of the long-term outlook at receiver and he grabbed his first collegiate touchdown against Liberty late in the year. On that TD catch, Wicks ran by the corner up the right sidelines and hauled in a 44-yarder from Armstrong.
In the final practice session of the spring, Armstrong and Wicks were at it again. In addition to the out-and-up touchdown, Wicks had several other routes that led to big gains or near catches after getting himself free from the secondary. He also had another touchdown reception during the 7 on 7 portion of practice.
The timing and delivery on those throws is what puts the QB-WR chemistry on display and while Wicks missed last season, he said that it didn’t take long to get back into the groove with Armstrong.
“First year, we developed a lot, developed a great amount of chemistry,” Wicks said. “Due to the injury, it didn’t really go nowhere – it didn’t stay the same, chemistry always gets better. Just coming back first day of spring, we had to work back into it. By the end, like [Saturday], it was a great amount of chemistry. It got way better.”
Wicks’ threat to stretch the field and work the intermediate areas could thrust him into a big role for the 2021 Cavaliers. At 6’1″, 210 pounds with solid speed, it’s a similar frame and look to Reed. He could grow into a similar role as well as a threat from various places around the formation. He has the ability to get downfield, but also just burst into space and then turn it into something more.
The Hoos are counting on Wicks to emerge among a diverse receiver group that includes Billy Kemp IV, Keytaon Thompson, Ra’Shaun Henry, and others. The list, of course, doesn’t include Lavel Davis Jr. The standout freshman from last fall with 20 catches for 515 yards and 5 touchdowns tore an ACL early in spring practice and likely won’t return until late in the season if at all. Wicks has a different frame and style, but the coaches think he can provide similar production.
Saturday’s Spring Game scrimmage purposefully aimed at that possibility, Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
“He received a lot of targets [Saturday] and that was intentional, especially when we didn’t have Billy Kemp in or Jelani Woods just to make sure he could have enough targets,” Mendenhall said. “One of our primary focuses [Saturday] was just to ensure that he got enough volume to continue to emerge knowing that Lavel had the entire season last year so we’re working to catch up Dontayvion as fast as we can. He’s an essential part, not just an optional part for our offense and for our receiving corps.”
That sort of plan was initially in place last fall before Davis even took the field. In the preseason, Wicks projected as a possible breakout candidate in 2020 as the Cavaliers needed replace their starting quarterback and multiple productive receivers. During practice, however, Wicks suffered a season-ending injury with his right foot that required surgery. He said it was a lisfranc ligament injury, which impacts weight bearing movement and gait.
Instead of working for that breakout year on the field, Wicks was suddenly thrust into a different pattern. Rehabilitation and returning to strength took months after the injury occurred in late August. He was finally fully cleared in February and participated at full speed during spring practice in April. The Louisiana native finished it off with Saturday’s showing on the first day of May.
While the process was hard, Wicks tried to put it in perspective. He said it made him realize the chance to play college football is a privilege and it boosted his work ethic even more. That’s something that could pay off as he gets a renewed chance in 2021 and beyond.
“Rehab was long and hard,” Wicks said. “Getting up every day and doing the same thing, it gave me a lot of time to think. Having to do the same thing over and over, it helped me with consistency and being that guy to do extra even when I’m hurt.”