Looking to talk about something other than Corona Spring, Hoos Place is happy to answer some of your questions on a number of fronts as regards Virginia’s sports programs. As always, I am joined by Seattle Hoo, St Lou Hoo, Karl Hess, Robert Elder, Maize and Blue Wahoo and Hooamp as we dive into football, baseball, men’s basketball and women’s soccer.
Our first question is from @phoenix: “UVA baseball has fallen off somewhat recently. What would y’all say are the reasons for the decline? Is it perhaps time to move on from Brian O’Connor if the situation doesn’t improve soon?”
Karl Hess: In a word, no. In two words, hell no. O’Connor (Oak) is a hall of fame level college baseball coach.
Consider that in 2001, the Callahan Report suggested a tiering of sports at UVA in which each tier stipulated the financial support the program would receive from the athletic department. Baseball was proposed in the lowest tier which would have stripped its ability to offer athletic scholarships. The program’s survival was at a crossroads. It had no resources, subpar facilities, an Astroturf infield handed down from the football program, no history of sustained winning, and was close to demotion to essentially club level status.
The Callahan Report options were not adopted and the athletic department undertook vast fundraising efforts to improve the health of its programs instead. Baseball benefited with a stadium renovation, the installation of lights at the field, and improvements to the playing surface itself.
When Coach Dennis Womack retired following the 2003 season, Brian O’Connor entered the job at the helm of a program that was coming off a 29-25 record, its first winning season since 1998 (28-26-1). The program’s prior NCAA Tournament appearance in 1996 was its only since 1985.
Since then, all Oak did was reach the NCAA Tournament in his first 14 seasons in charge (it was the 3rd longest active streak in D1 baseball at the time behind FSU and Fullerton when it ended following the 2018 season), never have a losing season in his tenure at UVA, win 65.6% of his games overall (714-292-2), win 61.6% of his ACC games (290-180-1), reach the NCAA Super Regionals six times, reach the College World Series four times, achieve national runner up once (2014), and win one national title (2015).
UVA fans who only consider the college baseball universe post Oak don’t realize how difficult it is to win in the sport, especially at the heightened levels achieved at UVA under Oak. The run that UVA had in O’Connor’s first 14 seasons, the run Vanderbilt is currently having, the run at FSU under Mike Martin, and previous sustained runs found at schools like Rice, Fullerton, and Miami are anomalies. They are not typical and easily repeatable season over season without the occasional miss here or there.
If the Hoos were to move on from O’Connor because of two winning seasons that did not earn NCAA Tournament bids, the college baseball world would rightly ridicule UVA. The chances of replacing Oak with a successor with any sort of intriguing resume, in my opinion, would be scant because of the apparent insane expectations demonstrated by the athletic department, boosters, and fans.
To answer the first part of the question, I’ve written about what I see as the issues before. It’s a simple combination of talent and the pitching approach became stale. The latter was corrected by virtue of UVA’s only pitching coach under Oak (Karl Kuhn) leaving in the summer of 2019 to be the head man at Radford. UVA replaced Kuhn with former Illinois pitching coach Drew Dickinson. Dickinson is considered a rising star in the profession and brings a fresh approach to the program (different strategies, training methods, drills, personality, etc.).
The talent issue is tricky because college baseball recruiting is unique. Baseball has roster constraints (35 player roster, 11.7 scholarships across the team, no more than 27 players receiving scholarship money, and a minimum of 0.25 scholarship for any player receiving money), the MLB draft to deal with roughly six months after a recruiting class signs, and a recruiting cycle that has developed into something that’s best described as crazy.
College baseball classes begin to fill as early as when a recruit is in the 8th grade. They’re often full by the summer before a recruit starts his junior year of high school. Late bloomers committing to power programs are not unheard of but it’s rare. Consider that UVA’s 2020 class enters school this fall (hopefully). It’s 2021 class has 13 players committed already per PerfectGame.org. The 2022 class has 13 members already per Perfect Game. And the 2023 class already has 5 members already. Thankfully, UVA does not have any 2024 commitments reported yet but it won’t be long before that happens.
Because of the young age that programs take commitments from recruits in baseball, it’s very easy to miss on evaluations if players don’t show continued development, put in the work required to achieve their potential, or sustain injuries that blunt their career prospects. And if a coaching staff nails their evaluations, they run the real risk of losing their best recruits to the professional ranks before they ever enroll in school (see UVA’s 2016 class that lost Joey Wentz, Nolan Jones, and Max Kranick). UVA has a reputation for being hard to sign recruits away from but no school is immune to this phenomenon. North Carolina, a program with similar recent success to UVA minus the national championship, hit a similar lull when too many players opted for the professional ranks instead of school.
The good news is that the program feels to have turned a corner with the 2020 team. They were 14-4 when the season ended having just taken two of three games from 7th ranked NC State in Charlottesville. The team had won 10 of 11 games and appeared to be improving week over week. The Hoos had one of the best offenses in D1 and certainly its best since the 2017 team that was anchored by first round picks Adam Haseley and Pavin Smith. I’m not sure this team topped out as a College World Series squad but if the improvement curve maintained anything close to the course at the season’s end, it was going to be a dangerous team in the postseason.
St Lou: Definitely not time to move on from Oak. First of all, I want to see what the change in pitching coach brings with Kuhn’s departure (now the head coach at Radford) and new hire Drew Dickinson now in charge of the pitching staff. Kuhn deserves credit for the work he did during the hey day of the program, but there was smoke in recent years he wasn’t doing as good a job. Otherwise, O’Connor has had to learn how to manage success with the MLB draft picking off both current players with remaining eligibility and signed high school prospects alike. There was optimism going into this year based on early positive returns, and given what a weird year next season will be with an entire extra class of players (due to the current senior class getting an exemption for an extra year), really it’ll be 2022 before we’re really in a position to judge him any better. Given that he also runs a squeaky clean program, hard to see anyone losing patience with him for a while.
Hooamp: As I understand it, the main issue has been pitching, but I’ll let Karl Hess expand on that. Is it time to move on? No, not yet. O’Connor has earned himself at least another couple of years, in my estimation, before we would begin thinking about firing him because he won a national championship in 2015 and because he made the postseason every year from 2004 to 2017. He’s earned a chance to get a few years to turn things around. I believe it is fair to say UVa basketball experienced more success pre-Tony Bennett than UVa baseball did pre-O’Connor. The program was on the chopping block in the early 2000s. A few years later, it was one of the nation’s premier programs. O’Connor made the NCAA tournament in his first season, while it took Bennett till Year 3 to get there. I think all of us agree Bennett can stay at UVa for life for what he’s done for the basketball program. O’Connor, who doesn’t even coach a revenue sport, should get sort of the same consideration, really, because of what he’s done for baseball and how far he has brought the program.
There was a little improvement from 2018 to 2019. The team was a little closer to the bubble last year. This season, there were even more signs things were improving. It was the first year with a promising new pitching coach, Drew Dickinson. The team was 14-4, took two of three from a top-10 N.C. State team, and had won 10 of 11. There was a long way to go, but I think the team was going back to the NCAA tournament. The NCAA’s decision to grant an extra year of eligibility to athletes because of the lost season will really shuffle things around, and who knows what the roster will look next year as players decide if they want to use that extra year, but I’m pretty confident O’Connor can return UVa to the elite.
Thoughts about us being the favorite coming into next year? (Bovada I believe relased something)
— Peter Heller (@Pistol495) March 19, 2020
Seattle: It is reasonable to expect the Hoos to be greatly improved next season despite losing Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key. The roster will be fortified with reinforcements that address the limiting factors of the 2019-20 team and bring back many of the features that made 2018-19 the greatest team in Virginia Basketball history. The defensive foundation will be strong, maybe not as strong as this past season, but plenty strong. With Jay Huff the defense retains elite rim protection, and if Kadin Shedrick earns minutes, he will bring another elite rim protector. Key was an elite rebounder and talented glue guy, but Kihei Clark and Casey Morsell return to give the team two elite perimeter defenders.
The offense should be much better. Sam Hauser will move directly into the starting lineup and immediately give the offense a bona fide star. He is also a very strong rebounder, so we might not miss much from Key to Hauser on the boards. Hauser might be an even better shooter than Kyle Guy. Carson McCorkle also might be even better than Guy – when his senior season was shut down by injury he was hitting over 60% of his threes. Jabri Abdur-Rahim and Reece Beekman are scorers more than shooters, players who bring diverse offensive games with good long-range shooting. The three freshmen are on the same level as the Hunter-Jerome-Guy trio.
These four A-level offensive talents join Huff, who diversified his game and remained highly efficient with greatly increased minutes. He appears poised for a huge senior season. Kihei Clark proved himself as a creator for others with a 6-assists-per-game average despite having inconsistent-at-best targets. He won’t be called upon to create in crisis nearly as much next year and as the triggerman of an offense with the weapons we have, it is not unfair to expect him to be one of the best point guards in the country. Tomas and Casey, Kody and Francisco should all be improved. Tomas and Casey both showed signs late in the season. If teams devote the attention to Tomas they did in the last few games, the other players are going to go off. Let up on Tomas and it’s dagger time.
All of this guided by the best coach in the country? Virginia SHOULD be favored next year.
Maize and Blue: It’s a well-deserved sign of respect for Tony Bennett, much the same as the thinking that made UVA a top-ten team going into this season despite losing such incredible amounts of talent. It also reflects the fact that the world realized that this UVA roster was a pale shadow of last year’s, not nearly as talented – and yet played its way into legitimate ACC contention and even dark-horse (very dark) national contention. Had Selection Sunday gone as planned, some reasonably high seed was going to look at a potential Saturday or Sunday matchup with UVA and found themselves in a cold sweat. Nobody wants to face this defense.
Next year, even with the loss of Mamadi and Braxton, the roster gets a talent increase overall, even if it’ll be a little light on experience. Giving Tony Bennett a talent boost scares people. And even though Duke has its usual loaded recruiting class coming in, oddsmakers are clearly souring on the idea that assembling one-year all-star teams is a surefire path to success anymore.
St Lou: Premature to call us THE favorite. Rosters for both us and many other contenders can and will change greatly between now and this summer with transfers, late-cycle recruiting, and other curve balls due to the COVID crisis and potential major NCAA rule changes (like instant-eligibility for all transfers). So who knows if Duke or Kansas or whoever will take their roster to the next level with additional future pros between now and November; I’d wager one or two programs will.
But are we A favorite? Absolutely. Kihei Clark, Jay Huff, and Sam Hauser give us three all-ACC level players to build around. McKoy, Shedrick, and Caffaro are excellent depth in the post. Virginia’s ceiling is going to be dictated by (obviously in addition to good health) the emergence of a consistent scoring presence on the wing, preferably two. Hopefully Woldetensae can become more consistent with another offseason and now up to speed in the ACC, or Kody or Morsell take a big step forward, or some of our elite freshmen (4-stars Reece Beekman, Jabri Abdur-Rahim, and Carson McCorkle) break out. That’s six guys who are either steady veterans or high-upside underclassmen competing in the backcourt, and hard not to foresee at least one or two of them shining, meaning we’ve got that sought-after combination of proven program veterans and talented youth under a future-HOF coach that 9 times out of 10 is a sure-fire recipe for a national contender.
Robert: I think that’s a fair guess in the always-uncertain college hoops landscape given with Virginia, there is a fairly large degree of certainty. The team will lose Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key but gain Sam Hauser and bring in the current 12th-ranked recruiting class, per 247Sports. That said, while it is likely still too early to get a confident feel for the rest of the men’s hoops landscape, we can begin to breakdown Virginia’s roster and expectations.
Assuming no additional attrition, Virginia is losing from this season’s roster Diakite and Key’s combined 23.6 points per game. Between the addition of Hauser and improvement from the returning roster, that point production replacement is manageable, especially considering Virginia lost 44.2 points per game alone from the Hunter-Guy-Jerome combo heading into this year. However, where I think we need to adjust expectations is the incoming freshman class. While star-studded and easily the type of class that could give the program another championship run in a year or two, we need to consider that few freshmen have come into Tony Bennett’s system and dramatically altered that team’s trajectory in Year 1. London Perrantes was savvy but largely critical in that he allowed Malcolm Brodgon to play off the ball, and aside from the Villanova game his first year, Ty Jerome was largely hit or miss. I think this freshman class can be special, but they will likely experience growing pains this coming season. We also need to consider that with the returning roster, there is certainly a possibility for someone to redshirt if playing time is not immediately available (by my count, Virginia has redshirted at least one freshman every season since 2013-2014).
All of that to say, let’s see how this offseason unfolds. I think top-10 expectations are very realistic, especially with a shooter like Sam Hauser taking the floor for Virginia. But I think this team will need a very real jump from Casey Morsell and legitimate contributions from the freshmen class before considering this team the championship favorite.
Val: My thought is that it is way to early to think about such things. We don’t even know if transfers-without-sitting are going to be allowed or not. But since we are living in a sports wasteland right now, I can see why thoughts of next year are springing to mind.
There are a couple of different metrics to use when gauging defensive prowess, whether it is points allowed per game or KenPom’s defensive efficiency, and whichever you prefer, we’ve been the best defense in the country for 5 of the past 6 years. And the one year we weren’t, we finished second. We know that Bennett knows how to coach defense, that we’re going to work on it 90% of the time, and that the players buy in 110% to Bennett’s defense-first orientation.
When you play half of the game at an elite level, you can suck at the other half and still be really good. Which we were this past season.
As Robert says, these too-early prognostications rest on predictability. Our defense is going to be great. We have one of the very best coaches in the game. Everything else is small potatoes.
Hooamp: A year ago, when Sam Hauser transferred to Virginia, I pinpointed the 2020-21 season as the next time I could see UVa making a run at the Final Four. Nothing I saw in 2019-20 changed that opinion. THE title favorite? That might be a bit strong, but certainly, the team is a Final Four contender, and it is no stretch to be in the top-five betting favorites to take home the championship. Now, as we know, things have to fall into place to make a title run, and a little luck is involved, too. Jay needs to be Completely Unleashed Jay Huff. Kihei needs to be steadier, and he was making great strides in that direction in this season’s closing run while also developing a clutch shot. Casey needs to make a pretty big jump offensively. Tomas needs to develop consistency in his shot. Hopefully we can get a sizable contribution out of at least one of Francisco, Justin, or Kadin. And then there is the star-studded freshman group of Jabri Abdur-Rahim, Reece Beekman, and Carson McCorkle. As Robert pointed out, it isn’t easy to make your mark as a true freshman in Bennett’s system. One of those guys may be a somewhat significant contributor, and the others will probably show flashes of potential but struggle at times.
But let’s just look at it this way. Going into this season, the Wahoos had lost the Big Three. They still went 23-7, finishing the season on an eight-game winning streak and victories in 11 of their last 12 contests. I love Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key. They made big contributions to the title team and are forever national champions. But we lost more coming into this season than we will next season. We add an All-American who has some size and can shoot. We bring back significant players, and Bennett’s track record shows most of them will improve. If we can get the freshmen to fill in as complementary pieces … *daydreams* … By the end of the year, the 2019-20 team had me envisioning a run to the Elite Eight was not impossible. So yes, the 2020-21 edition of the Cavaliers can absolutely make a run to the Final Four and possibly beyond.
What’s the prognosis for UVA men’s and women’s soccer for the fall?
— Devon's Shoe (@DevonsShoe) March 19, 2020
Val: To recapitulate last year’s women’s season: it was the best of times (we were ranked #1 in the country for 8 consecutive weeks), it was the worst of times (we lost in the freakin’ second round of the NCAA tourney). The women have been the highest scoring team in the nation since the 2011 season, and yet it was our defense that really fueled the run to #1.
The women have lost a lot: leading scorer Meg McCool and three quarters of our defensive back line: Courtney Petersen, Zoe Morse, and Phoebe McClernon. It’s not just losing 4 starters; I considered that quartet to be amongst our 8 best players, so that’s a lot of cream off the top.
Two seasons ago coach Steve Swanson rotated 7 players through the four defender positions. Last year he only had five defenders, and when Petersen was felled for 4 games, Swanson had to change formation and/or play our best attacking player (Alexa Spaanstra) as a fullback. This year? There are only 3 returning defenders. Spring training and pre-season are, of course, the times to address positional depth issues, except that we’re not getting spring training and who knows what the summer will bring?
This team has plenty of firepower: Spaanstra, Becca Jarrett and Diana Ordonez offer wildly complimentary skill sets and our midfield is solid. The season will depend on who Coach Swanson unearths as his fourth defender. We do have Purdue midfielder/defender Sarah Parker coming in, so that may help.
Who do you expect to make a bigger leap next season, Kihei or Jay? What about Tomas or Casey?
— Marcus Leibowitz (@mleibro) March 20, 2020
Maize and Blue: Kihei doesn’t have a lot of room left. Unless he develops a killer shooting stroke, he’s about at his ceiling. He took a big leap this year with newfound ability to be very dangerous on drives to the rim. But, any further improvement will be largely invisible to outside observers. Huff, though, is still on a trajectory. Earlier in the season I wrote that he was still working on balancing on the razor’s edge between too aggressive and too passive. He has been finding that balance as time goes on. I think next year it comes together even more for him.
As for Tomas or Casey, easy: Casey. Tomas is more limited athletically and is older. Morsell didn’t show very much offensively this season, but that’s understandable as he was a freshman, and working hard on Tony’s defensive demands. Next year his defensive roles will be more of a second nature and his offensive game should flourish.
Robert: I think the easy answer is to go with Casey over Tomas, largely just due Morsell’s room to grow. While I expect a noticeable leap from Woldetensae in terms of hitting his shot more consistently, I just can’t help but to think Morsell’s growth is going to be the story of the offseason. There is a reason he started 13 games last season, including the season opener, despite scoring just 4 points per game and shooting 17.6% from three — he is really good defensively. He was a top high school recruit for a reason, and surrounded by one of the best coaching staffs in college basketball, I expect him to clear the mental hurdle when it comes to his shot next season. While the Malcolm Brogdon comparisons were unfair for his freshman season, he certainly has a talent level and ceiling I am excited to watch develop.
For the second decision, I will go Jay Huff over Kihei Clark, mainly due to the ceiling we all still see with Huff. Clark improved dramatically over the course of the season and provided desperately-needed late-game heroics in several instances down the stretch. But with Huff, we really did not see him play at a high level until the second half of the season when he finally became a mainstay in the starting lineup, largely due to his defensive consistency. He started the season’s final 10 games and began to show the that he could be an elite rim protector in Tony Bennett’s system. Offensively, I’d expect his interior presence to continue to improve, and with Hauser spacing the floor next season, I think Huff sinks more than the 19 three-pointers he made this season. It’s taken a while for Jay Huff to get to this point, but I think his senior season will finally be the one we’ve been hoping for since he arrived on grounds.
Val: Kihei is going to make the bigger leap next year, just because he made a bigger leap in the past year than Jay has made in three. Jay’s success comes the more the game is simplified for him whereas Kihei had to learn how to be the most ball-dominant guard in the ACC, and be the guy to make the buzzer beater shot. Every Cavalier fantasizes about Huff’s ceiling, only he’s never reached it. Clark has burst through his ceiling two years running. I’m going to be ride the trend: Kihei will exceed our expectations for a third straight year.
As for Woldetensae v Morsell, Casey may make the bigger leap just because he’s starting so far below expectations this time around. Morsell was so bad that I do not think of him as anything more than a role player at this point. He was profiled coming out of high school as a scorer and slasher more than a shooter and we saw that he couldn’t shoot. But he also couldn’t slash. And I don’t think his defense was ACC – caliber — his D suffered once we got done with the creampuffs in the America East.
Tomas, on the other hand, had to overcome an offseason hand injury, and he had to learn just how hard he had to run off screens to get off his shot, but once he did that, 7 – 14, 7 – 10, and 6 – 10 nights from 3 happened. The man can shoot the ball and with Sam Hauser coming, (and maybe Carson McCorkle) we should have much better shooters to surround Woldetensae with, and he will have more time and space to shoot. I think this is more predictable breakout path than Casey having to forget the trainwreck that was last season.
Hooamp: Interesting question and tough call on the first for me. Also interesting how Robert and Val answered, given that Kihei’s leap was probably bigger this season, but Jay’s potential is still greater. I am going to go with Jay. Both will benefit from having an All-American on the floor, Tomas being more consistent, and so forth. Potentially more weapons will lift both. But I think with Kihei, he is closer to reaching his full potential than Jay, and I think Jay has more to gain with someone on the floor like Sam. So Jay has the chance to make the bigger leap. Also, with hopefully more offensive weapons, Kihei may be able to focus on facilitating more and being less ball-dominant, a la Joe Harris not having to score as much his senior year and sharing the wealth with Malcolm, Anthony, etc., and London when he rose to prominence his freshman year (both on that 2013-14 team). That is to say, if both make a leap, Jay’s will be louder and more noticeable, while Kihei’s will be less noticeable as he possibly shoots less, distributes more, and focuses on taking care of the ball.
For the other, it has to be Casey. Like the others are saying, he fell below expectations this season, though his shot did begin to improve a little. He hit 4 of his 8 3s over a four-game span Feb.11-22 before going quiet again. I think we know what we can get out of Tomas. He needs to be more consistent with his shot, but he is definitely capable of hitting 40 percent of his 3s. His defense seemed to improve as the year went on. I noticed he had a knack for getting steals. But Casey is a four-star recruit, one of Bennett’s most heralded players to enter the program. His defense is already very good, I think (one sequence against Louisville on senior day led to a shot-clock violation and was a thing of beauty). I’ll count on him to be better on offense and make a significant leap.
Seattle: In terms of scoring output, Jay. In terms of overall game, Kihei.
One of Tomas and Casey is likely to start and the other to come off the bench as a 7th or 8th man. How it shakes out will depend on the development of the three freshmen. Huff, Hauser and Clark will be the three stalwarts in the lineup with the rest built around them. Tomas and Casey should both be greatly improved – Tony’s perimeter players usually play much better in their second seasons on the floor – but how that manifests in their role depends a lot on how ready the three new players are, because the incoming freshmen are probably more complete offensive players and have higher ceilings.
St Lou: Jay. I think Kihei is about maxed out on his assist and scoring numbers, and his third-year improvement is going to be cutting down on turnovers and maybe getting his 2P% up. But Jay’s going to do what Mamadi did last year, going from a third-option type to a featured, all-ACC performer. Casey and Tomas are hard ones to project; I’m going to go with Tomas because he showed me more consistent potential this past year. I need Casey to show me more before I truly believe.
Are there any rumors as to why Ja'quay Hubbard, Lamont Atkins, PK, Seneca, Major, and Harvey all transferred? Was it due to competition or simply wanting more playing time? How is UVA Football shaping up to be for the fall?
— Campbell (@BASKIN_myglory) March 21, 2020
St Lou: Rumors? Sure. Bottom line is different guys are leaving for different reasons. Upperclassmen leaving are usually some combination of playing time (not wanting to spend their final season on the bench) or accumulated injuries. Underclassmen are more often about fits in the locker room / with the coaches. You hate to see any of it, it’d be nice if every kid we recruit turns into an eventual contributor, but unfortunately it happens everywhere, some offseasons just a little, other years a lot. Nature of the beast.
Robert: Mendenhall stated that Lamont Atkins is graduating in May to pursue a job opportunity and that PK Kier is retiring to focus on academics. I won’t speculate on the other guys mentioned, although they appear to fall into two distinct groups — Seneca Milledge and Major Williams (who are cousins) are entering the transfer portal, while Ja’Quay Hubbard and RJ Harvey are going the JUCO route.
Defensively, I think the 2020 team will be very good, especially in the front-seven. However, I am admittedly a little worried about next year’s offense, especially without the benefit of spring practice to groom Brennan Armstrong. There are just so many questions and key skill-position contributors to replace, namely Bryce Perkins, Joe Reed, and Hasise Dubois. We know the offense will have to adjust to Armstrong’s skill set as a runner, which Mendenhall described as elusive but not dynamic. So the run game that essentially ran through Bryce Perkins last season will certainly change, likely to include more of the power draws for Armstrong that Taysom Hill ran so effectively at BYU. That said, Armstrong does not have Hill’s speed or explosiveness, so this offense will need to add that somewhere else in the backfield, hopefully via Ronnie Walker’s pending transfer and immediate eligibility. Then at receiver, we mentioned Reed and Dubois’ departures, but I also think we need to mention tight end Tanner Cowley’s, who was on the field for the majority of snaps a season ago. This offense could really benefit from a Terrell Jana-type of leap from Dontayvion Wicks or Billy Kemp next season. The one silver lining is that the offensive line should be improved and deeper next season.
So there are a lot of questions, most of which now won’t be answered until fall camp, if we’re lucky enough to have one.
Maize and Blue: I don’t know any more about the transfers than what’s already been said. As far as how we look for the fall, well – I think about 75% of that question rests on Brennan Armstrong’s shoulders. Oh, there’ll be competition, but in some respects it’ll be in name only. This feels like a lazy answer, but Bronco has gotten just about to the point where you can just assume his defense will be a minimum level of good, because he’s consistently shown an ability to take no-names and turn them into stars. To what extent the football world doesn’t yet know who Charles Snowden and Zane Zandier are, they’ll learn in a big way come fall. But we’re also going to have some fun watching some new breakout stars too – think Nick Jackson or Jowon Briggs. The secondary will be lockdown, and Bronco, like Al Groh, knows what to do with linebackers.
Hooamp: I’ll just tackle the last question. Certainly it sucks to lose spring football and the development that it was going to bring, especially since we will presumably be starting Brennan Armstrong at QB, and he needs time to get his timing down with his receivers, and they need work, too, because guys like Billy Kemp, Dontayvion Wicks, and Dorien Goddard will need to step up in the absence of Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed. But bringing back Terrell Jana is a huge help. He was nearly operating as a No. 1 by the end of the season. The offensive line should be the best of the Bronco era, though I know that isn’t saying a lot. But I believe every starter is back. At RB, Wayne Taulapapa could’ve gotten more carries in 2019, I think, and done well with them, so I’m excited for him to be back, and Mike Hollins is a promising talent. And landing Ronnie Walker via transfer would be nice with the losses of PK, Lamont, and the lack of an incoming freshman RB. The defense should be solid once again. The only major losses are Eli Hanback on the line, Jordan Mack at LB (and he dealt with injuries his final two seasons), and Bryce Hall at CB, and UVa had to get used to life without Hall in the second half of the season anyway. On the line, Richard Burney is expected back, and Aaron Faumui and Mandy Alonso return. Jowon Briggs is back with a year under his belt. At LB, Charles Snowden, Zane Zandier, and Noah Taylor return. In the secondary, Brenton Nelson, Darrius Bratton, Nick Grant, Joey Blount, De’Vante Cross, Heskin Smith, Jaylon Baker — all back. That’s a lot of veteran leadership and experience across the board. And there are some promising recruits coming in on both sides of the ball, such as DE Jonathan Horton, LB Brandon Williams, and WR Lavel Davis.
A couple of other things about missing spring practice — it is happening to every team, so it’s not like it is a disadvantage on that front. And if there’s a coach I have confidence in being able to guide us through such an odd circumstance, it is Bronco. You know he has plans and contingency plans in place depending on whenever things sort of get back to normal. I am not worried about the organization at all. Bronco is on top of it. The schedule is sort of tough, but only in that Clemson is in place of Florida State. Think of Georgia as a replacement for Notre Dame; not really like we are losing a sure-fire win by playing UGA instead of ND. The defense will be ahead of the offense for sure, but I think the offense holds potential, and I think Armstrong is more than capable of leading this team to several wins. I think competing for the Coastal again isn’t out of the question — but we won’t be favored again — and I’d at least expect another bowl game to be on tap.