Welcome back to our 2020 Football Season Preview. To view our preview table of contents and read already-completed pieces, click here or on the Series button above.
Virginia’s offense last year had its highs and its lows, but ultimately the highs won out as Bryce Perkins and company won a number of shootouts down the stretch to lift the Hoos into the ACC Championship Game and ultimately the Orange Bowl. But the media, with the departures of standouts Perkins, Joe Reed, and Hasise Dubois, are skeptical the Hoos will rebound effectively. And that’s how the national pundits work; returning statistics speak volumes, and they look warily on any team having to replace a ton of stats, especially at QB. UVA is just not proven enough a program to earn the benefit of the doubt with a new signal caller under center. And that’s fine, better to be under the radar, right?
We’ve looked at each position group one-by-one so far. Now let’s put the pieces together on the offensive side of the ball to see just how much confidence, and worry, is warranted.
Robert Anae – VirginiaSports.com Bio
2019 Conference Games Production (ACC Rank)
Yards/Gm: 125.4 (11th)
Yards/Att: 4.0 (6th)
Yards/Gm: 261.0 (5th)
Yards/Att: 6.9 (9th)
Yards/Gm: 386.4 (8th)
Yards/Att: 5.6 (7th)
Points/Gm: 29.6 ppg (5th)
Red Zone Scoring
Trips/Gm: 4.8 (2nd)
Score Rate: 88.4 (5th)
TD Rate: 60.5% (5th)
Sacks/Gm: 2.8 (8th)
Third Down Conv: 47.1% (1st)
Turnovers/Gm: 1.2 (T-6th)
Position Group Summaries
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The Offensive Line – Well this is something it’s been years since we’ve been able to say. Due to the London staff underrecruiting the Offensive Line between the 2014 and 2016 classes, Tujague spent years recruiting and rebuilding the position, weathering injuries, and often relying on underclassmen (including sometimes true freshmen) and band-aid-quality grad transfers (not all, but some) to man the line. Last season we saw progress, with injuries and some in-season lineup tweaking early eventually giving way to good health, stability, and solid performance down the stretch. But this… this is the season we’ve been building to, with a 2-deep populated almost entirely by system veterans in their 3rd-to-5th years in the program. There’s size, athleticism, experience, versatility, and depth at all 5 positions left to right, which is all you can ask for. A good offense starts with good offensive line play, there’s no running game if the running backs have no holes, and no passing game if the QB can’t stay upright. In a year where we’re breaking in a new QB, as well as trying to restore a traditional running game, this promise and confidence in the OL is as important as ever.
ACC Returning Experience on O-Line:
1. #GoHoos (115 career starts)
2. Notre Dame (109)
3. Duke (94)
4. Virginia Tech (92)
5. Miami (84)
15. Clemson (17)
UVA returns all five starters from 2019 Orange Bowl.
— Preston Willett (@PrestonWillett) August 19, 2020
Coaching Continuity – I know I should really use this space to talk about key players or statistical strengths, but my mind kept coming back to the offensive staff of Robert Anae, Garret Tujague, Jason Beck, and Marques Hagans. Ricky Brumfield joins the offensive staff this year, adding tight ends to his special teams responsibility, but primarily that core of four coaches is what I want to focus on. This group enters its fifth season together, and in an era when coordinators and their assistants (to say nothing of additional consultants) turn over every couple of years at a lot of our rivals, let’s take a minute to appreciate the hidden advantage Virginia has here. Jason Beck took both Kurt Benkert and Bryce Perkins from afterthought transfers (one coming from G5, the other from a broken neck) to ACC tours de force. Marques Hagans turned Olamide Zaccheaus, Joe Reed, Hasise Dubois, and Terrell Jana from modest 3-star recruits into some of the ACC’s most prolific pass catchers of the decade. Tujague took over an O-Line with massive depth and talent concerns in 2016 and now will deploy a deep, dangerous, experienced group. And Anae has constructed offenses around the strengths of his quarterbacks and players to put a dangerous offense on the field each of the last three seasons. And outside of our quartet of transfers (see key #3), most of these guys have years of continuity under these coaches, in their systems, and with their playbook. Players know the calls and they know the adjustments. Coaches know each other and they know the strengths and weaknesses of their players. With most of the Coastal’s offensive staffs in no more than their 2nd seasons at the school, UVA’s staff continuity is a definite strength.
Quarterback Uncertainty – This is kind of a “duh” moment, but we’re replacing all-ACC UVA-record-setting Bryce Perkins. That’s a big deal. We’ve got two promising candidates for the job in Brennan Armstrong and Keytaon Thompson, both bright, talented and capable, but neither anything close to a proven quantity. Brennan has two years of grooming under Beck and Anae and draws rave reviews from practice, but he’s never started a game and really only seen mop up duty or the occasional emergency series thus far in his two year career; how he looks against fresh 1st Team ACC defenses is anyone’s guess. And Keytaon Thompson is new to UVA, trying to learn his coaches and his teammates on a truncated timeline, and while he did see three starts at Mississippi State, those starting appearances were almost two years ago now, so it’s impossible to predict what he’ll look like now, especially in a new system with new teammates. There’s a reason 17 of the last 23 #1 NFL Draft picks have been QBs; it’s obviously the most critical single position on the team, and until we see one of these two emerge as a capable starter under center, we’re holding our breaths on what this year’s offense can do.
Running Back Receiving – Virginia running backs caught a grand total of 17 passes last year (8 to Atkins, 5 to Taulapapa, 4 to Sharp). The year prior it was 14 (7 to Ellis, 5 to Sharp, 1 to Atkins, 1 to Peacock). One has to assume this was a choice in scheme tailored towards Perkins, as Benkert’s offenses in hit the RBs 46 times in 2017 (22 each to Hamm and Ellis plus a pair to Atkins and Sharp) and 58 times in 2016 (52 to Smoke and another 6 to Albert Reid). There’s value to targeting the RBs, either as a called screen or as a dump under pressure. Either way to forces defenses to keep a LB out of blitz packages to honor the pass catcher out the backfield. So are our current running backs or their quarterbacks up to the challenge? That’s going to be a big question mark going into the season. Taulapapa didn’t prove anything here last season. But grad transfer Shane Simpson arrives with 67 career receptions, though of course it’s always a gamble expecting that to translate from FCS to the ACC. As such, whether or not our running backs can become part of a diversified air attack in 2020 remains a concern going into the season.
3 Keys to Success
1. A More Diverse Passing Attack – It goes without saying that a major key to this season is one of the two QB prospects, Thompson or Armstong, rises to the occasion. I don’t care if they’re as good as Perkins, that’s unfair to ask as Perkins was the 2nd best QB in the league last year behind only future #1 draft pick Trevor Lawrence. But rather than just ask that one of the two candidates plays well, stays healthy, or scores a lot of touchdowns (all of which are important, mind you), I want to ask that we see that QB do so by running a more diverse passing game strategy. What I mean is this… Bryce Perkins loved to throw to his wideouts in space. Olamide Zaccheus, Hasise Dubois, Joe Reed, and Terrell Jana all got buckets of targets primarily on the sides of the field, whether in the flats, on out route, running to the corners, or on post routes behind the bulk of the defense. And hey, that obviously worked great! But you’ll notice what’s missing, and that’s use of the running backs and the tight ends, especially over the middle of the field. This was by design, partly because Perkins’ throwing strengths were to the sides of the field with fewer defenders to read and progressions to go through, but also because it helped declutter the middle of the field for him to exploit with his escapability, opening things up for big chunk runs.
But what that also meant was fewer linebackers or safeties needed to hang back 10 yards deep to cover tight ends attacking the seams or guarding slot receivers running crossing routes, and instead could stack the box to focus on containing Perkins and limiting his escapability, but that had the additional effect of limiting our traditional running game as well, 7+ guys in the box could quickly plug holes in the O-Line and shut down the running backs before they ever got going. This year, I want to see the passing game attack the middle of the field more with the RB slip screen, the TE, and the slot receivers because that’s going to reshape defenses in such a way that it takes pressure off the O-Line, letting (a) more holes open up for the tailbacks and (b) hopefully buying the QB more time to go through his progressions and make a good throw with a clean jersey.
2. The O-Line Proves Its Promise – It’s “Show Me” time for the offensive line. The unit is deep and experienced, with 10 juniors or seniors on the roster, most of whom are in at least their 4th season in the program. We’ve been building towards this for years, having been grooming many of these starters since pushing into starting action as true or redshirt freshmen. And if ever there were a year we needed the unit to arrive, it’s this one. We’ve got a new QB who is going to have to settle into his new job as a starting QB in the ACC, and is going to need that extra second of pocket security to go through his reads until the game slows down for him, preferably limiting hits that could rattle him before he finds his rhythm and confidence. We’ve got a running back stable that needs to take a big leap forward in production and is going to need bigger holes to hit to rack up respectable yards. We’re going to need the offensive line unit to largely stay healthy, pick the right starting lineup and let it gel and coalesce over the season, and of course see some individual players take solid steps forward developmentally.
That last one mostly goes for the tackles. On the interior, Oluwatimi was an all-ACC center last year, and the guard trio of Glaser, Nelson, and Reinkensmeyer are all highly experienced and proven veterans. But on the edge, Bobby Haskins is only entering his 3rd year at UVA, having been on the field since he was an underweight true freshman, and still only scratching the surface of his potential. Similarly, potential right tackle Ryan Swoboda, while a RS Jr 4th year, lost a big chunk of his early career to health setbacks and many feel his best years are yet to come, potentially this season being a breakout. And after losing his first year at UVA to a leg injury, transfer Alex Gellerstedt needs to shake off his rust and get back in game shape quickly and prove why once upon a time coach 2J was so high on him as starting tackle material. The potential is there; fingers crossed we get to see it all come together in time for September.
3. Steep Transfer Learning Curves – UVA’s not exactly stranger to the grad transfer market under this coaching staff, especially on the offensive side of the ball, having leaned on them at QB (Benkert, Perkins), wideout (Chatman, Brissett), and O-Line (Pertile, Montelus, Applefield) over the last four seasons. But this offseason, the staff went a lot harder on this route than they usually do, bringing in Keytaon Thompson at QB, Ra’shaun Henry at wideout, Tony Poljan at TE, and Shane Simpson at RB, while also finally getting to see 2019 grad transfer Alex Gellerstedt in action for the first time. Each and every one of these guys is expected to compete for a spot on the 2-deep and see meaningful snaps at some point this year. Grad transfers are always a bit of a gamble. Maybe they couldn’t crack the rotation at a Blue Blood like ND or PSU, but is all they need a fresh start, or are they just not quite a fit for the P5 level? Maybe they were a standout at a lower level (G5 or FCS) but will that translate to P5 competition? And of course in almost all of these cases, these guys are summer transfers meaning they have only a couple months to (1) learn the playbook, (2) mesh with their teammates, and (3) survive and excel in Bronco’s greuling summer conditioning program. It’s a lot to ask. Some guys get it done, like Benkert, Perkins, and Applefield did. But this year we’re asking maybe as many as 6 transfers to make a mark, every position group on the offense included, and the ability for at least 2 or 3 of them to pan out will go a long way to setting the ceiling for this offense.
As the defense took one hit after another last, injuries and suspensions wolloped the back end of the defense, the offense needed to step up to save a season that still hung in the balance. As the Hoos went into Halloween, the prospect of the offense carrying the team to the Orange Bowl was a bit far fetched, after scoring just 9 points in Miami and just 14 in Louisville before tacking on a meaningless garbage time touchdown. But UVA went on a scoring binge the next four games, the most exciting November in program history, scoring 38 at UNC, 33 on GT, 55 on Liberty, and 33 on VT (doesn’t include the final defensive TD).
UVA loses the benefit of having a proven QB, that much is true. There is no replacement for Bryce Perkins. And Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois were all-ACC performers and will be drastically missed.
But good teams lose top players, even top quarterbacks, and survive. It’s still a big mountain to climb, though. At the end of the day, our OL may be the best we’ve seen in years, our WR corps may have a ton of potential to tap, our RB stable may be improved and rebound strong. All that’s only going to mean but so much if the quarterback play takes a big step back.
We’ve got a former high-3-star recruit in Brennan Armstrong who’s gotten good press in his two years of internship behind Perkins. We’ve got a former consensus 4-star QB with starting experience transferring in from the vaunted SEC. One of them has to turn into the guy, and if we want to be competing for a second-straight shot at the ACC title game, that QB play has to arrive early enough to carry us to wins in September as well as November.
I’m cautiously optimistic. Assuming good health, of course, Beck and Anae are a proven coaching tandem in developing QBs and tailoring an offense to them. But they’ve also never had a real QB competition, with Benkert and Perkins each largely having won their QB jobs by default due to thin, inexperienced competition. If both Thompson and Armstrong show well in practices or games (or heck, even if both are relatively equal levels of mediocre or inconsistent), we may see a QB controversy at UVA for the first time since the London era. Hopefully that doesn’t come to pass; hopefully one of them wins the job cleanly and then earns that job for the long haul with good performances week after week.
Add good QB play to our competent receiving corps, deep RB stable, and veteran offensive line, and we’ve got the recipe for another great year. I, for one, think we get it done.