Virginia football coach Tony Elliott hadn’t been on the job long when he started to talk about building a balanced offense. After the dizzying numbers that returning quarterback Brennan Armstrong put up in a pass-heavy approach last season, a lot of the outside reaction resembled something like Lee Corso on College GameDay – ‘not so fast my friend!’
Armstrong set school single-season records in 2021 with 4,449 passing yards, 4,700 total yards, 326 completions, and 31 touchdowns. He also set the career passing record for 300-yard passing games with 9 to surpass Matt Schaub, who he likely will overtake on many of the career charts this season. In one stretch last fall, he threw for 400+ yards in three straight games when no other Cavalier quarterback had ever eclipsed 300+ in three straight games.
Many of his top targets return with Dontayvion Wicks, Keytaon Thompson, and Billy Kemp IV all back in orange and blue. Wicks set the school single-season record with 1,203 receiving yards last fall, while Kemp is chasing his third straight season with 600+ yards and 60+ catches. Thompson led the team in receptions and nearly hit 1,000 yards himself with 990. Plus, Lavel Davis Jr. rejoins the Virginia receiving group after recovering from an ACL injury last year; he led the ACC at 25.75 yards per reception as a freshman.
So while balance – long a staple for Elliott as an offensive coordinator at Clemson – doesn’t necessarily mean an even ratio of runs and passes, but the ability to call on either approach when wanted, a whole lot of Hoo fans landed on the Corso sentiment. You’ve got weapons. Throw the ball.
There’s an interesting wrinkle in all of this, though. With a more threatening rushing attack, offenses can turn to more convincing play action concepts. Get the defense moving forward to stop the run and then throw it over or away from the now out of place defenders. Old school Virginia fans are already drifting back to a nostalgic Shawn Moore option fake bombs to Herman Moore at the thought of play action.
As good as the final Virginia passing numbers finished last season, a better running game could unleash Armstrong in a different way. That’s simply because he was elite in play action situations last season.
Armstrong led all Power 5 quarterbacks and ranked third overall nationally in play action passing grade according to Pro Football Focus (PFF) for quarterbacks taking at least 20% of the snaps. He tallied a 92.9 grade on play action passes, sitting behind only Houston’s Clayton Tune at 94.1 and Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall at 93.4. He ranked first in the ACC and 13th nationally in completion percentage on play action passes at 69.4%. With an average yards per attempt number of 11.3 on those plays, he again led the ACC and ranked sixth nationally.
That’s what it looked like in comparison to other quarterbacks, but what about compared to Armstrong himself? He actually posted better numbers for passing grade, completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown-interception ratio, sack-pressure percentage (pressure that turn into sacks), big time throw percentage (a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window), turnover-worthy play percentage (a pass that has a high percentage chance to be intercepted or a poor job of taking care of the ball and fumbling), and NFL passer rating with play action than without it.
Here is a closer look at those categories in the PFF data:
Brennan Armstrong Play Action Comparison
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