Virginia Football Preseason Questions? We’ve Got Answers!

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Virginia opens its season Saturday.
The roundtable panel answers Virginia football questions on the secondary and more. ~ Kris Wright

The wait for the start of Virginia football season is almost over. The Cavaliers open the 2021 schedule on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. against William & Mary at Scott Stadium. The program is chasing its fourth straight season without a losing record and the fourth bowl appearance under coach Bronco Mendenhall.

Before the UVA hits the field, TheSabre.com rounded up some questions from EDGE subscribers and rounded up some media members to answer what’s on the mind for fans of the Hoos. That’s the latest installment of the “50 Thoughts Before Virginia Football Kickoff” article.

Each panel member tackled a question so check out the thoughts from Ahmad Hawkins (host of The Ballhawk Show Podcast and co-host of The Lockdown Podcast – listen to those podcasts here and here), Luke Neer (here or Listen Live here), Mike Barber (check out Barber’s work at the RTD here), Preston Willett (- check out CBS 19 here), Jerry Ratcliffe (check out the website here), Frank Maloney (check out Hoos Talking here or Listen Live here on Monday nights), Bennett Conlin (check out Conlin’s work at The Daily Progress here), Greg Waters (check out the Greg’s Grades here), Chris Horne (check out recruiting news here), and Kris Wright (check out more Sabre articles here) and make sure to check out their work through the various links. If you click on their name in this paragraph, it jumps straight to their answer below .

1. Has UVA done enough to fix it’s weakness in the secondary? ~ SW_CTHoo

Ahmad Hawkins, host of The Ballhawk Show Podcast and co-host of The Lockdown Podcast – listen to those podcasts here and here

In order for me to appropriately answer this question, I have to provide two different viewpoints. The first viewpoint is on paper. When we look at the transactions that took place following the 2020 season, the coaching staff gained two transfer players to help bolster the competition at cornerback (Anthony Johnson from Louisville and Josh Hayes from North Dakota State). Darrius Bratton is healthy once again and each time he has been healthy, he has pushed for the starting nod at one of the corner positions. Let’s not forget that Bratton started five games in front of former Wahoo and NFL Cornerback Tim Harris, before ultimately losing the starting spot in 2018. Bratton is a very good cover corner and has the fluid hips you like to see in a starting cornerback. Then we have De’Vante Cross moving back to the safety position (which I’ve always felt was his best defensive position) to allow him cover space and play the ball more vs. using him in a lot of man-to-man situations.

I could go on and on about each individual that plays in the defensive secondary and describe how they have improved but I won’t make you read that much at this time. So from this viewpoint, I would say that we have in fact fixed our weakness in the secondary with three additions (counting Bratton’s return to healthy) and improvement.

Now the second viewpoint – I will say that the answer to this question is still pending because we really won’t truly know until they actually play the games. As much as each individual performs well in practice, we are still just talking about practice (in my Allen Iverson voice) and not an actual game. Improved secondary play will definitely benefit from a much improved pass rush (Aaron Faumui is back this season) and I expect the coaches to unleash Noah Taylor on opposing QBs often during the games. The difference between this season and last is that the Hoos have legit depth in the secondary.

Anthony Johnson will play a lot of snaps and will show why I was high on him at the conclusion of Spring Camp. Antonio Clary is very capable and should play a lot of snaps and the same with Coen King. We just have to see how these young men will play as a collective group and it all comes down to the health of the most important player on defense – that is Joey Blount. When Joey is on the field, the secondary plays with better confidence and understands each coverage vs. various offensive formations. He is the quarterback of the defense and it’s night and day when this young man lines up in the defensive backfield.

With all the information I just shared, the secondary play has to be better than it was last season. There isn’t any sugar coating around that statement. They know they have to play better as a unit. They know they have to tackle better. They know they have to cover better. They most importantly know that they have to WIN ON 3RD DOWNS and GET OFF THE FIELD! Oh and turn their heads around to create interceptions. We all would rather have interceptions versus just pass break-ups, if we had a choice.

2. What position or position group do you expect to demonstrate the biggest year-over-year improvement in terms of overall graded-out performance? (Barring injuries, of course.) And why? ~ ChattaHOOga

Luke Neer, host of The Best Seat in the House on WINA AM 1070 – check out the show here or Listen Live here

Not going out on a limb on this one, but I’ll dub the secondary as the position group who shows the most improvement in 2021. It’s hard to imagine it could get any worse after conceding the most passing yards in the ACC last year at 304 yards per game while coming in at 115th in the country in defensive passing EPA (expected points added).

Before getting into personnel, my primary theory for secondary improvement begins with the coaching staff. Bronco Mendenhall specifically addressed the subject at ACC Kickoff (Media Days) and in ACC Network availability. He said: “We’ve learned wow, that in college football, the secondary manages points, points control outcome.” Judging from such language and the position coach carousel shifting Shane Hunter and Ricky Brumfield to the secondary, I don’t think it’s a leap by any means to say the unit was the most scrutinized in the offseason.

Scheme change is something else I’m banking on for improvement. Nick Howell has been incredibly coy when addressing what the overall defense and specifically the secondary has been installing this August. This makes me believe we’ll see new coverage packages and looks to help bolster overall play.

Now for the personnel …

Despite a familiar crew returning at three of the four positions, I’m expecting a healthy Darius Bratton to provide a boost on one side of the field and there’s slight potential for Nick Grant to finally put the pieces together much like Tim Harris when something clicked in his final season at UVA. According to Mendenhall, Grant would not have been able to return as a Super Senior unless he demonstrated offseason improvement and desire, both of which have been on display in spring and fall camp.

In case such improvement doesn’t come to fruition at corner, UVA has options. Louisville transfer Anthony Johnson was high up on the jersey selection totem pole, which is a good sign. He’ll be waiting in the wings at field corner, while Elijah Gaines is also on the depth chart at boundary corner in case of injury or continued poor overall corner play. At safety, I’m still very much a Joey Blount believer but remain a De’Vante Cross skeptic. I’m banking on depth and health at the position to raise the bar much like the situation at corner.

Overall I’m not expecting shutdown status from the secondary this fall, but raising the quality merely to “solid” will be a drastic improvement, making them my position group who “leaps” the most in 2021..

Virginia opens its season Saturday.
Nick Jackson returns in the middle for Virginia. ~ Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

3. How will the young but talented linebackers transition into their roles, and is there enough depth at the position? ~ TheTruth09

Mike Barber, Richmond Times-Dispatch – check out Barber’s work at the RTD here

In Zane Zandier, Virginia lost a starting inside linebacker who brought a fiery physicality to the defense. In Charles Snowden, the unit lost its most dynamic edge rusher and playmaker. With Nick Jackson inside and Noah Taylor outside, the Cavaliers should have high-impact stars still in its linebacking corps. But filling the other two starting spots has been one of the challenges this preseason.

Basing out of a 3-4, Bronco Mendenhall and his staff have been recruiting versatile linebackers for years, players who can work inside or out. Taylor fits that mold, as do senior Elliott Brown, junior T.C. Harrison, sophomores Hunter Stewart and D’Sean Perry, redshirt freshman Sam Brady, freshman James Jackson, and others.

Brown and Stewart have worked the most with the first-team defense so far this fall, though sophomore Josh Ahern could be a factor inside, as well. Brown said he’s focused on taking on some of Zandier’s emotional leadership responsibilities. Matchups could dictate who plays where in a given week, as well. Both Taylor and Brown expect to move inside and out during games and even during series, depending on formations and down and distance.

UVA is confident it will have a startling lineup that can excel at the ACC level, but the staff needs to continue developing the younger backups – especially Brady and James Jackson – to give the unit the depth it will need to navigate a full season. Nick Jackson and Taylor have played a role there, working with the younger backers to get them up to speed. co-Defensive Coordinator Kelly Poppinga even dubbed Jackson “big brother” to freshman Weeks, who has impressed at times this fall, as have fellow freshmen Mike Green and Josh McCarron.

4. Who are the most likely breakout players on both offense and defense? ~ hoosnick

Preston Willett, CBS 19 Sports – check out CBS 19 here

The first name on any breakout list for Virginia this year is wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks. The sophomore entered last season primed for a breakout after learning behind Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed, but a foot injury ended his season before it even started. Now healthy again, coaches believe Wicks can be the big play threat the now-injured Lavel Davis Jr. was last year for the Cavaliers with Bronco Mendenhall calling it a “trade” on the roster.

Fans at Virginia’s Spring Game already caught a glimpse of what Wicks can do after the Louisiana native brought in a couple highlight reel grabs, including a toe-tap touchdown in the corner of the end zone. At 6’1”, 205 pounds, Wicks brings great strength and athleticism with the ability to stretch the defense. Receivers coach Marques Hagans believes Wicks has All-ACC potential and he’s expected to get the opportunity to prove it this year.

Another name to watch on offense is fellow Louisiana native Mike Hollins, who is back after opting out of last season. Offensive Coordinator Robert Anae says Hollins is a “breath of fresh air” in the UVA running back group and could see an expanded role as the season progresses.

On defense, linebacker is one of the few positions looking for new starters this season and the time has come for senior Elliott Brown to stake his claim. Brown earned playing time early in his career, but was stuck behind players like Chris Peace and Charles Snowden. Defensive Coordinator Nick Howell says Brown has seized his long-awaited opportunity this fall as Virginia has used the 6’5” linebacker both inside and out. Even though Brown is entering his fifth year in the program, it’s never too late for a breakout.

Despite four seniors back in the secondary, keep an eye on Louisville transfer Anthony Johnson at cornerback too. Mendenhall likes the physicality Johnson adds to the secondary at 6’1”, 195 pounds and he brings a “full throttle” personality leading to big plays in fall camp. With Virginia poised to use more nickel packages or five defensive back sets this year, Johnson provides another strong option with starting experience.

Virginia opens its season Saturday.
Jelani Woods could cause match-up problems for Virginia opponents. ~ Photo courtesy Jim Daves/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

5. With all the preseason praise for Jelani Woods, do you expect his usage in the passing game to be like Tony Poljan was used or can we expect to see expanded TE involvement? If expanded, what might that look like? ~ suttonhoo

Jerry Ratcliffe, Editor of JerryRatcliffe.com – check out the website here

This is a very intriguing question for multiple reasons. What verifies the Jelani Woods’ preseason hype is the very fact that Bronco Mendenhall told us at the ACC Kickoff in Charlotte that Woods is probably the best player on the team. That comment alone leads us to believe that Woods will be a big part of the game plan. Woods showed us glimpses during the Spring Game that he is a capable receiver, even though Oklahoma State didn’t throw the ball to the tight end very often.

I believe Woods will expand the tight end role this year, even though last year’s tight end, Tony Poljan, was Virginia’s second-leading receiver with 38 receptions for 411 yards and an eye-popping 6 touchdowns (that’s as many TD catches in one season as the great Heath Miller had during his best campaign at UVA in 2003!). Speaking of Miller, he shared something with both Poljan and Woods. All three were quarterbacks (Miller in high school; Poljan and Woods started their collegiate careers at QB before moving to tight end). What that means is that they can read defenses and see the same things that QB Brennan Armstrong sees during his pre-snap routine.

While Poljan had a productive year in 2020 (only 10 games), he wasn’t considered a strong route runner, lacked quickness, and was used in a more traditional TE role in that most of the time he lined up at the line of scrimmage or very close by, rarely splitting out to the the slot or numbers except in obvious passing situations or when he had a mismatch outside the numbers, where he could use his 6’7” size to overpower smaller defensive backs for jump balls. Woods is 6’7” too, but much quicker, has better hands (one defensive back told me he didn’t remember Woods dropping a ball the entire camp), is a better athlete, better route runner, and versatile enough to line up outside the slot. That alone makes me believe Mendenhall and Robert Anae will find ways to expand the tight end role this season. Expanded simply means more targets, likely more yardage, and more production. Woods has the ability for yards after catch because of his speed and athleticism, and as Bronco likes to joke, if you’re 6’7”, you’re always open.

All that said, keep two things in mind. One, in most cases, tight ends are only going to catch but so many passes. Poljan had 38 – a number that probably would have been 5 to 7 higher had UVA played 12 games or more (the most receptions he had in one game was 7, and twice had 5 ). Jake McGee, UVA’s athletic tight end in 2013, had 43 catches. Heath Miller had 41 in 2004, which was well below his stunning season before when he hauled in 70 passes in 2003. That leaves one to wonder how many more opportunities will Woods get, although he may well benefit from Virginia’s ability to use play-action this season, something the Cavaliers couldn’t do in 2020 without a reliable running game to freeze linebackers or defensive backs. Two, the number of opportunities could be limited too only because Woods will be surrounded by a plethora of other weapons in Keytaon Thompson, Billy Kemp IV, Dontayvion Wicks, Ra’Shaun Henry, and others. There’s only one football to go around and with a projected stronger running game, there may be fewer pass attempts than in recent years.

Still, all things considered, Woods is dangerous and should be a reliable target when UVA needs him.

6. Who, including the quarterback position, will lead the team in rushing yards this season? And why? ~ 29

Frank Maloney, host of Hoos Talking airing in Richmond (910 AM) and Charlottesville (107.5 FM) – check out Hoos Talking here or Listen Live here on Monday nights

The Cavalier rushing game has depended greatly in recent years on the abilities of the quarterback. In 2019 and 2020, Bryce Perkins basically did it all. Perkins rushed for 1,692 yards in only two seasons as a starter. Simply amazing to think he surpassed the great Shawn Moore in that category. Perkins also accounted for 6,218 passing yards. No wonder the Cavs won the ACC Coastal in 2019. And last season, Brennan Armstrong did his best to match the standard set by Bryce Perkins. He rushed for 552 yards, scored 5 rushing TDs and generated 2,669 total yards in only nine games to lead the Cavs. Wayne Taulapapa contributed 395 rushing yards and 5 TDs on 88 attempts. WR/QB Keytaon Thompson added 236 yards and 3 TDs on 39 attempts. UVA started the season slowly and finished the season with a respectable 5-5 record. However, the UVA offense is imbalanced and simply too dependent on one player. Why place such a burden on Armstrong’s arm and legs?

I fully expect Offensive Coordinator Robert Anae to change the mix of plays and ball carriers significantly this season. Anae has returning starters at numerous skill positions. These players can handle a deeper playbook and more complex weekly game plans. In addition, the Cavs have a big, experienced offensive line and several large tight ends in Jelani Woods, Grant Misch, and Sackett Wood Jr. So, Coach Anae should be using all his weapons and not relying on Armstrong to carry such a huge load. Opposing defenses will be looking for Armstrong to run and throw on almost every down.

I expect Anae to rotate his backs so Taulapapa is fresh in the fourth quarter of games. It should be noted that this is the deepest stable of running backs since Coach Mendenhall arrived at UVA six years ago. Mike Hollins offers shifty moves and breakaway speed. He’s a good complement to Taulapapa. Hollins should be in great shape and ready to emerge after taking last season off. Grad transfer Devin Darrington, Ronnie Walker, Jr., and highly touted freshman Amaad Foston are pushing for carries. By all accounts, the competition behind Taulapapa is fierce. Healthy competition usually results in better production!

So looking into the crystal ball, I expect to see more carries for Taulapapa and the other backs, maybe as many as 140 to 150 this season. Taulapapa had a strong spring and is in great shape based on all reports. In fact, Coach Mendenhall declared early in fall camp that “Wayne wins all the contests among the backs” and he’s the listed the starter on 2021’s first depth chart. For the season, it seems logical to expect Taulapapa to lead the Cavs in rushing yardage. This team expects him to deliver. And the other tailbacks will be contributing nice yardage. Armstrong will take more carries against the better teams such as UNC, Miami, Notre Dame, Pitt, and VPI. So for the season, Armstrong should generate 450 yards. Thompson will produce 350 yards playing some QB/wildcat formations, jet sweeps, and counter plays. Thompson must stay healthy because his performance is crucial to the success of the team this season. He’s the “X” factor. If any of the other tailbacks emerge as a solid, productive No. 2 ball carrier … that tailback should generate 250 yards.

This new balanced offense should take pressure off Armstrong and help reduce his exposure to injuries. The big question: will the Virginia offensive line get the necessary push and create more seams in the early downs for the backs to make solid gains? My expectation is yes this will happen.

It all starts with two important home games. I expect Virginia to run the ball often against W&M and Illinois. Coach Mendenhall would like to dictate the tempo and control the clock, reminiscent of legendary coach George Welsh’s better teams. In the first game, Virginia should drive the field often and control the clock. Expect to see a lot of running plays and possibly a hundred yards and 2 TDs for Wayne Taulapapa. The rest of the backs will generate significant yardage as well. I will be surprised to see more than a few carries by Armstrong in the first game. Also, I do not expect to see any slash or counter plays from Keytaon Thompson until the UNC game when Anae uses his entire playbook. I believe UVA has a good shot at winning the ACC Coastal again if the running backs deliver the goods!

Virginia opens its season Saturday.
Keytaon Thompson will line up in many spots for Virginia. ~ Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

7. Assuming no new injuries and the uncertain timetable for a possible Lavel Davis Jr. return, what will be the split of receptions? ~ ChathamHoo

Bennett Conlin, The Daily Progress – check out Conlin’s work at The Daily Progress here

Brennan Armstrong has no shortage of options to throw the ball to this fall, even with Lavel Davis Jr. banged up. Billy Kemp IV works well in the slot, which makes him a strong candidate to lead the team in receptions. He snagged a team-high 67 receptions a season ago. Dontayvion Wicks figures to be a big-play target down the field, as does Ra’Shaun Henry.

The wild cards in the passing game are Keytaon Thompson and Jelani Woods. UVA lists Thompson as a “football player” rather than a wide receiver on its depth chart. The designation essentially means Thompson will line up all over the offense, potentially playing wide receiver, tight end, running back, and quarterback. He only caught 7 passes a season ago, but I’d be shocked if he doesn’t catch the ball 40 times or more.

Woods, a tight end, possesses many of the same skills as Tony Poljan. He’s a big body with good hands and an ability to score touchdowns in the red zone. I expect the Oklahoma State transfer to be an asset to the offense, and he should match or exceed Poljan’s 38 receptions from a season ago with a full season of work.

Virginia’s passing offense should be dynamic. The offense will likely spread the wealth to a variety of players. In 2019, three UVA players caught the ball at least 74 times. A fourth caught 35 passes. A similar level of production wouldn’t surprise me.

I look for Kemp IV and Thompson to lead the team in receptions. Wicks and Henry may have fewer receptions than those two, but both guys have the ability to average 15-20 yards per catch. Woods’ size makes him a candidate to lead Virginia in touchdowns.

8. What phases of the starting QB’s game are the staff working on hardest? And, correlatively, where can we expect the most improvement in Armstrong’s performances? ~ Deja Hoo

Does less running by Armstrong = better completions & more yards per catch? ~ SW_CTHoo

Greg Waters, author of Greg’s Grades at TheSabre.com – check out the grades here

Brennan Armstrong has some high-level talent and physical gifts. His downfield vision is elite, he’s athletic and elusive with quick legs, and he has a cannon arm. From a talent and confidence standpoint he’s set, and we saw a lot of maturation late in the 2020 season.

I see the staff’s next developmental phases for Armstrong to be on the cerebral side in terms of reading defenses and becoming a more sophisticated decision maker at quarterback. The lack of spring ball in 2020 hurt players on every team but for UVA, it may have impacted Armstrong the most. The good news is we are repeatedly hearing Armstrong is more confident and comfortable; plus, reports of the chemistry with the rest of the offense is very promising.

I expect you’ll find that he’s more patient this season and may not take off running as early, giving plays and routes more time to develop, hopefully leading to more explosive plays. I think that will also lead to more vertical passing plays, which I don’t think we’ve yet seen what exactly Armstrong can do consistently downfield. Finally, from the run-pass option component of the offense, as his comfort level with the offense grows and the football intellect further develops, I think Robert Anae will be able to expand and accelerate implementation of the more intricate parts of the offense, which should make the Hoos more difficult to defend.

In regards to Armstrong running less and that leading to better completions and more yards per catch, I think the opposite is more likely. High football IQ quarterbacks that can run and see the field well are dangerous. As he becomes more comfortable and efficient in the offense, the run threat that Armstrong possesses can create havoc in a secondary when coverage breaks down to defend the runner and the receiver is left wide open. If the protection and the wide receivers can meet some lofty expectations this season, the offense could be one of best in Charlottesville in a very long time.

Virginia opens its season Saturday.
Brennan Armstrong and the Hoos hope to improve on the five wins of 2020. ~ Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

9. What does a full Scott Stadium do for the players & coaches on game day? ~ Wahootie

How many road wins for UVA this year? ~ Slider

What record do we need to achieve for you to declare it a successful season? ~ BuckHoo

Chris Horne, Associate Editor of The Sabre.com – check out recruiting news here

I remember last basketball season, when Virginia was on the road, the players commenting about the energy of playing in front of fans. Even playing on the road, just playing in front of fans was important and noticed. After playing in an almost empty Scott Stadium all of last season, the returning Cavalier football players probably have a renewed sense of appreciation for what Saturday will feel like.

Since Bronco Mendenhall became head coach, Virginia football has had a resurgence, and fans were taking notice. The 2019 season started to feel like the Scott Stadium atmosphere of old, one that existed consistently in the George Welsh era. The atmosphere in the win over Virginia Tech was tremendous, one of the most memorable in school history in my opinion. As fans started to return to Scott consistently, the program’s home success improved. UVA boasts a 17-2 record at home since 2018. Playing at Scott Stadium has given the players confidence and energy the past several seasons. A return to something similar this season should be a big boost for a program looking to get back to conference title competition.

While Virginia has played very well at home, the same can’t be said for true road games, The Hoos are just 6-19 in such games in the Mendenhall era, including an 0-4 record last season. True road victories have been hard to come by for the Hoos; however, UVA played pretty well on the road in 2018 and 2019. The Hoos went 1-4 in 2018, but three of those defeats – Indiana by four, Georgia Tech by three, and Virginia Tech by three – were by a combined 10 points. Virginia began 2019 with a big-time win at Pittsburgh and later captured a big win at UNC that sparked a perfect month of November and a Coastal Division title. The 2018 and 2019 road performances shows that UVA is capable on the road. The Hoos had a chance to win at Miami last season too.

The question this season is if the team good enough to score a few road victories against a challenging schedule. It will be a real challenge to win in Chapel Hill. The Cavalier offense has been effectively stuck in neutral the past two visits to Miami, managing just nine points in 2019 and scoring only 14 points last season. Virginia stands a better chance against its final three road opponents. A winning road record in 2021 does not seem likely, although that changes if UVA can pull the upset in Chapel Hill in the first month of the season. If not, notching two road wins somewhere on the schedule is doable.

That adds up to what would make 2021 successful? I think the Cavalier players have their eyes set on beating Virginia Tech and winning the Coastal, and anything less than that would be deemed a non-successful season in their eyes. For me, I start with accomplishing a winning regular season record, even if the Hoos don’t capture the division. A 7-win regular season should mean the Hoos are at least in contention for the division title – and being in competition for the ACC Coastal title is important to show the program is back on the track of yearly title contention.

My bottom line for a successful season is a 7-win season that includes a a win over Virginia Tech. If the Hoos fall at home to Tech, an 8-win season that includes a bowl win would still be a success in my view. I think the team would have been in contention for the Coastal in that scenario, and ending the season with a bowl win is a nice springboard towards 2022.

10. Top to bottom is this team better than 2019? ~ Hoobedoobedoo

Kris Wright, Editor of TheSabre.com – check out more Sabre articles here

I like that this question makes the reference point the season before and not just last season. The 2020 campaign was so odd in so many ways and it came mostly against ACC teams so that makes it a hard year to compare to. Plus, I think this team looks positioned on paper to easily surpass last year’s team in wins and production. There’s more experience, more potential out-of-conference win chances, and the possibility of an explosive offense.

Comparing it to 2019, though, makes it interesting. That year’s team won the ACC Coastal Division for the first time and got to 9 wins. That’s a high bar and matching either feat – the division title or the win total – would require the program to take a big step forward in road games and/or sweep the home slate with Notre Dame and nemesis Virginia Tech as part of the Scott Stadium docket. The 2019 team did that as part of its success, running the table at home.

For the 2021 team to do something comparable to or better than that, I think the path might be similar. By that I mean, the offense might be what leads the way to big results. The 2019 team scored 30 or more points in eight of the nine wins. I think Bryce Perkins still gives that team the edge at quarterback and he had dynamic targets in the receiving game too, but I think the 2021 team could have the edge at running back, offensive line, and tight end plus it has the added element of Keytaon Thompson to replicate some of what Perkins did.

The second half of that 2019 season, the UVA defense struggled as it gave up 27 or more points in the final eight games. Injuries contributed to that and there wasn’t enough depth to make up for it. The 2021 team, meanwhile, is made up in part by a lot of experienced players that were part of that 2019 team and then stumbled regularly in 2020. So if the last 17 games with those players have been a roller coaster, what’s going to make it better all of the sudden? The answer might be added depth – Anthony Johnson, Josh Hayes, Adeeb Atariwa, etc. – and the right younger players – Noah Taylor, Nick Jackson, Aaron Faumui, etc. – growing into bigger roles now.

The more likely answer is this. Coach Mendenhall is a defensive guy and I think he took what happened to the defense the last year and a half personally. I think that led to added scrutiny and attention on how to fix it, thus the coaching staff shuffle, added transfers, and murmurs of new wrinkles. When Mendenhall lasers focus toward something, it’s meant to yield results. That’s the whole foundation of what he believes in as a coaching philosophy – you get what you design for. If that’s true and he pushed everything on the table to figure it out, it could create a turnaround similar to 2016 into 2018. Remember, UVA jumped from 99th in scoring defense in year one to 21st in year three. If that or even half of that happens on a one-year timeline, then the 2021 has a really good chance of being better than 2019 simply because there will be a better defense to pair with a comparable offense. (This ignores the special teams part of the answer – this year, new specialists must provide similar consistency to 2019 and more depth could translate on coverage/return units.)

Ultimately, that makes this question a dual one when considering “better top to bottom” as the lens. 1) Better in terms of depth, potential, experience, and stats? I think that’s possible. Some of the players are the same as 2019, but older and with motivation to bounce back from 2020.

2) Better in terms of results, wins and losses, and a division title? In early September, I’m not ready to make that leap. Perkins was a special player and rose to the occasion time after time in big spots in 2019. Armstrong will have to prove that he can do the same. But mainly, there’s the road cloud. The “defense travels” thing isn’t true for the Virginia football program yet – UVA has allowed 31.2 points per game or more on the road in four of the five Mendenhall seasons. The 2019 was one of those, but overcame it with two road wins thanks to an opening victory with 14 points allowed at Pitt before the defense collapsed. The 2021 team has to pull off the turnaround from a winless road season in 2020 quickly with 3 of the first 4 ACC games on the road. To win a division title again, you have to win at least one road game and likely at least two road games in league play. The same is true to match the 9 wins of 2019. I think the over/under for season wins is 7.5, which assumes 6-1 or 7-0 at home based on recent home success. To get past 7.5, that means one or two road wins too. The Hoos will have to prove it on the field.

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