The calendar hit September so it’s nearly time for the Virginia football team’s return to the field. UVA begin its season against William & Mary on Saturday. That’s the first of two home games to open the schedule and the Cavaliers will try to keep their home magic going from recent seasons. They’re 17-2 in games at Scott Stadium the last three seasons.
Plenty of familiar faces are back for the 2021 Hoos. The list includes Super Seniors, multiple offensive linemen with starting experience, productive receivers, and secondary veterans. How will the games and statistics shake out when the dust settles at the end of the year? That’s the latest entry in the “50 Thoughts Before Virginia Football Kickoff” series – “Predicting 2021 Superlatives For Virginia.”
The upcoming season for Bronco Mendenhall’s team features home games with William & Mary, Illinois, Wake Forest, Duke, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, and Virginia Tech. The Wahoos hit the road to face North Carolina, Miami, Louisville, BYU, and Pittsburgh. With that slate of opponents in mind, it’s time to take some guesses at who the leaders for Virginia might be this season.
Most likely to lead the team in passing … Starting with possibly the easiest guess on the list, returning starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong will aim for back-to-back seasons with 2,000+ passing yards. He got there in 9 games last season and figures to be better in his second year as a starter. The big question: can he get there with a higher completion percentage? He completed just 58.6% of his passes in 2020.
Most likely to lead the team in passing touchdowns … Armstrong is again the easy choice. He threw 18 touchdown passes in 9 games for an average of 2 TD passes per game. He also threw 11 interceptions in his first season as a starter. Can he eclipse 25 touchdown passes thrown? Can he stay in single digits for interceptions? Those answers will tell us a lot about his year-to-year improvement for UVA.
Most likely to lead the team in receiving … Dividing this one up into categories, the likely leader in receptions will be Billy Kemp IV. He came close to doubling the next closest player in receptions last season when he had 67. Kemp is the target of a lot of the quick types of throws so he can pile up some numbers. For receiving yards, I think Dontayvion Wicks may be the top candidate. He’s more likely to catch a variety of passes in the short, intermediate, and long ranges and that can tally up yards quickly. The featured receivers for UVA have been in the 600 yards and up territory under this coaching staff. For yards per reception, I’m going with Ra’Shaun Henry as the pick. He led the team in that stat last year but wouldn’t have made a qualifying list with only 7 catches. This season, particularly as Virginia waits on the injury return of Lavel Davis Jr., he’s going to get more chances. Reports in the spring and fall say he’s been a deep ball threat in practice.
Most likely to lead the team in receiving touchdowns … This is one of the harder predictions on the list. The Hoos have generally spread the wealth with touchdown grabs in the Mendenhall era. The leaders each season usually stack closely together; in four of the five years, the leaders have been within 2 touchdowns of one another. That included last season when three players produced 4, 5, and 6 touchdowns respectively. The leader in that group was tight end Tony Poljan with 6, but that’s a big total for a tight end. Still, I think a repeat is possible in 2021 because Jelani Woods is a big target and we know UVA is willing to go to 50/50 balls with a 6’7″ option that can jump. If not Woods, I’d guess Wicks is the next choice.
Most likely to lead the team in rushing … The quarterbacks led the team in rushing yards in 2019 and 2020 so it’s tempting to assume Armstrong will be the leader here again, but a running back led the team in 2016, 2017, and 2018. The key to whether that will happen in 2021 is how you expect the coaches to use the running backs. Four are listed on the depth chart and it’s been a close camp competition. Does that mean a committee approach is more likely this season? If so, the backs may split some of their production and leave Armstrong in the leader spot by default. I’m going with Mike Hollins, though. He returned with a purpose after opting out in 2020 and he’s got the appearance of a productive running back. I don’t think we’re going to see a Jordan Ellis type workhorse season, but leading team in yards seems possible. For yards per carry average? I think the answer will be Keytaon Thompson among players with a high number of attempts.
Most likely to lead the team in rushing touchdowns … A running back has either led the team or tied for the team lead in each of the five seasons under Mendenhall to date and there’s not reason to think that trend crumbles this season. Wayne Taulapapa is good around the goal line and has led or tied for the lead in each of the last two years. He’ll be an effective goal line back again.
Most likely to lead the team in tackles … Switching to the defensive side of the ball, one of the middle linebacker spots usually leads the way in this category. Nick Jackson led the team in tackles by a lot last season with 105. He’ll lead the way again in 2021, especially if a 3-3-5 scheme is in play and he’s the main middle backer for those packages.
Most likely to lead the team in sacks … I want to pick Aaron Faumui here, but the Cavaliers usually have had a linebacker leading the category in this era. With that in mind, I’m going with Noah Taylor. He only had 3 sacks last season and it’s possible that his versatility moves all around the field again in 2021 and limits his total. However, he had 7 sacks in 2019 and it’s one of his strengths. I don’t think the Hoos will need as much help in coverage this year so I think he drops into coverage less, rushes more, and makes the most of those chances.
Most likely to lead the team in hurries … Since I couldn’t pick Faumui for the previous answer, this superlative gets plugged into the article so that I can answer with his name here. He was one of the top linemen in all of Power 5 when it came to hurries in 2019. After opting out in 2020, Faumui is back and he’s going to be on the field for a lot of snaps. His first step off the ball, his overall quickness, and his ability to fight off blocks with his hands make him a tough matchup on the D-Line so he’ll get into the backfield to bother some quarterbacks.
Most likely to lead the team in interceptions … The storyline for the Super Seniors this offseason has centered around the themes of ‘don’t come back unless you’re going to be better’ – the Mendenhall challenge – and ‘something to prove’ about the program. Joey Blount led the team in interceptions in 2019 and was just one off the team lead in 2020 despite missing 5 of the 10 games. Blount is the prediction for INTs.
Most likely to lead the team in pass break-ups … A lot of this has to do with targets and how often opponents go after a defender. It also has to do with being in position to make plays when those targets head your way. The likely choices here are Darrius Bratton and Anthony Johnson, who both have some decent history with PBUs. Bratton had 7 in 2018. Johnson had 15 in two years at Louisvlle before he transferred into UVA. I think Bratton will be the leader in the end.
Most likely to lead the team in positions played … Much like the Faumui item above, this one makes the list just so Keytaon Thompson can be the answer. He could line up at every skill position on offense by the end of the season. While he may not lead the team in any specific statistical category in terms of passing, rushing, or receiving, he could lead the team in the combination of runs-receptions-passes other than Armstrong. It’s not hard to picture a line of 40+ rushes, 30+ catches, and 6+ pass attempts.
Most likely to score a special teams touchdown … The answer here boils down to whether you think the return specialists can break one or if you think a blocked kick recovery is more likely or a fake comes into play. I’m not sure the return teams have the combo of blocking and break-through ability for the specialists to score one so I’ll go with a blocked kick recovery and score by a defensive back. Without knowing the depth chart for those units, let’s take a flier pick with Chayce Chalmers. He played 30 snaps on the punt return unit last fall and picked a jersey number early this fall.
Most likely to score a defensive touchdown … Fumble recovery or interception return? I’m going to go with Mandy Alonso on a fumble recovery.
Most likely to score the first touchdown of the season … I think it is one of two scenarios. Ra’Shaun Henry gives fans at Scott Stadium an early jolt with a deep touchdown catch to open the season’s scoring on one of the first two series of the game. Or, Mike Hollins provides early season excitement with a big game that starts with a touchdown carry. He did have a big game against W&M in 2019.
Most likely to score the most touchdowns … If it’s not a running back piling them up in goal-to-go situations, I think it could be Keytaon Thompson. He had 6 combined rushing and receiving scores a year ago. I think he ends up at 9 or 10 this season to lead the team.
Most likely to receive the highest Pro Football Focus grade on offense … Brennan Armstrong led the team last year and could come up with a better season in 2021. It could be challenging for anyone else to reach that 90.3 range where Armstrong landed last season. In other words, it could be hard for another player to unseat him, but my darkhorse pick is Dontayvion Wicks. He’s a solid run blocker in addition to being a potential breakout receiver, which could lead to a decent grade.
Most likely to receive the highest Pro Football Focus grade on defense … Noah Taylor is my pick here. He’s been in the team’s top 3 overall spots for the defensive grades the past two seasons. If he can stay healthy, I think Taylor could be in line for a big, big year with the Hoos.
Most likely to make the All-ACC offensive team … Chris Glaser. He earned an honorable mention spot last fall despite playing with a hip injury that needed surgery throughout the 10 games on the schedule. Back for an extra year on a line with a lot of experience and potential, Glaser has a good chance to repeat in 2021.
Most likely to make the All-ACC defensive team … Joey Blount and Nick Jackson have both received conference honors before and both could work their way on to the list again. Jackson is my pick because he’ll be on the media radar from start to finish in that high visibility, high production linebacker spot.