Every year as we wind down our season previews for football and basketball, we ask our writers to look critically at UVA and talk about the X-Factors to a successful season. What three things do they think the season will ultimately boil down to? Maybe it’s a player, maybe it’s an aspect of the offense or defense, maybe it’s an intangible. For everyone, they’re looking for something different. What do our writers think it will be this year?
Find a Ground Game – Last year’s leading (and most explosive) rusher Bryce Perkins is no longer under center, and aside from Wayne Taulapapa, no returning Virginia player had more than Tavares Kelly’s 43 rushing yards last season. Virginia must be more balanced this season, and it starts up front with the offensive line. Coach Garett Tujague’s unit returns the most starts of any offensive line in the ACC, and while not many of those players will grace the All-ACC teams, Virginia should field a top-half of the ACC unit for the first time under Mendenhall. The hope is they can create enough holes for Taulapapa and Perkins’ successor Brennan Armstrong, both of whom are better suited running between the tackles, to keep defenses honest. Virginia will also lean on Towson transfer Shane Simpson to provide a bit more of a dynamic threat from the backfield. Establishing a reliable ground attack will be critical to help ease Armstrong into his first season as the starting quarterback.
Expand the Passing Attack – Even while Bryce Perkins set the Virginia single-season passing record last season with 3,538 yards, the air attack had its limitations. Perkins always struggled with the intermediate-to-deep passing game, and while his decision making was sound, he did not push the envelope in anticipating throws. Perkins had undeniable strengths as a quarterback, but it is as much a credit to Jason Beck and (gulp) Robert Anae that they so effectively tailored the offense to his strengths. Now with Brennan Armstrong under center, Virginia is hopefully trading Perkins’ dynamic ability on the ground for Armstrong’s expanded aerial attack. Armstrong can put a bit more zip on the ball than Perkins and should be able to connect on the deep throws and between-the-hashes routes that left the offense with Kurt Benkert’s graduation. Expanding the passing attack is critical as Virginia’s offense adjusts to not having a generational running threat under center.
Unleash the Linebackers – You can’t talk about the 2020 Virginia football team without talking about the linebackers. Headlined by seniors Charles Snowden and Zane Zandier and junior Noah Taylor, Virginia also boasts strong depth in Nick Jackson, Rob Snyder, and Matt Gahm, among many others. What type of schemes co-defensive coordinators Nick Howell and Kelly Poppinga draw up to create havoc is one of the more intriguing week one storylines, not to mention one of the keys to the season. Virginia will get exotic with both formations and blitz packages, and Snowden and Taylor’s length and ability to drop into coverage will keep quarterbacks guessing both pre- and post-snap. This should be a fun group to watch this season.
Defense Stays Healthy – With a bit of a step back on offense, the defense needs to take a step forward for the team to go where it wants to go. It is in position to do that, but needs some good fortune, especially on the DL, where an opt out from Aaron Faumui tests the depth a bit. Obviously, we want the team to stay injury-free every year, and this year, we also need to hope for a lack of positive COVID-19 tests. Even if a player isn’t “sick,” a positive test will mean sitting out. So hopefully, the team stays relatively healthy, in every sense of the word. That is especially true for the defense if we think it can be special. Last season’s defense had a chance to be special, and injuries, especially in the secondary, left it decidedly rough around the edges as the campaign drew to a close.
Armstrong is a Worthy Successor to Perkins – We don’t need him to be Superman like Perkins was asked to be at times, but if Armstrong can be accurate and mostly mistake free passing the ball, move the chains a few times with his legs, and lead the team as a stable rock in times of turmoil, he should be good enough to win a sizable chunk of games. He’s already done each of those things in small portions. He’s completed 68 percent of his career passes, showed he can run the ball, and came in against Louisville and Georgia Tech in 2018 to lead unexpected scoring drives when Perkins got banged up. Just extrapolate what Armstrong has already accomplished into a full season, and you’ve got a solid ACC QB.
At Least Three of the Transfers Step Up in a Big Way – It isn’t out of the question that all of the transfers can make good contributions, since there are so many. But if three can go a step above that, it could really mean UVa has a successful season. I left it opened ended — “step up in a big way” — vague on purpose, but I think we will know it when we see it. Maybe D’Angelo Amos starts every game at one of the safety spots and returns a punt for a TD (would be the first for UVa since 2015). Shane Simpson may return a kick for a TD and combine for 600 receiving and rushing yards. Keytaon Thompson may be a big-time asset at the goal line. Ra’Shaun Henry could go for 60 catches and five TDs. Maybe Tony Poljan makes 30 receptions and scores three TDs. Alex Gellerstedt surprises and is an all-ACC OL. The possibilities are endless.
OL Play – The Hoos return a veteran offensive line that’s been growing together, mostly, over the course of several seasons. Fans have preached patience, rightfully so, and stressed that the unit needed time to become a force.
Collectively, the unit returns 116 career starts. Dillon Reinkensmeyer leads the way with 37 career starts. And Ryan Nelson has a unit high 27 consecutive starts. No starts on the OL were lost to player departures after the 2019 season. The outlines of playable depth are finally taking shape for really the first time under Coach 2J. The training wheels are off and the OL is ready to lead the way as the rest of the offense finds their sea legs.
The goal is to be a top half of the ACC position unit. Anything less will be a major disappointment. The stretch goal is a top five ACC position unit.
Who’s correct about Brennan Armstong, UVA fans or pundits? – UVA fans are cooly confident about the QB named to replace Bryce Perkins. They’ve seen Armstrong come in to lead scoring drives under pressure against Louisville and Georgia Tech as a true freshman. They’ve seen him put easy points on the board in garbage time against Liberty and William & Mary. They’ve read the stories and seen the practice highlight videos. They’re ready to get the season started with Armstrong at the helm of the offense.
Pundits that cover ACC football are much more cautious about the lefty sophomore. In ACC QB rankings, Armstrong routinely ranks in the lower quarter of ACC signal callers. It’s likely a case of wanting to see Armstong do it on the field first, but it’s not difficult to sense some skepticism as well.
Whichever group is proven right by Armstrong’s play will largely dictate the outcome of UVA’s 2020 football season.
How does the offense adapt? – The Hoos lose a couple all-time greats in Bryce Perkins and Joe Reed. They lose fan favorite, heart of the offense, and all around dog at WR in Hasise Dubois. And they lose grossly underutilized Tanner Cowley at TE.
We’ve detailed all the possible replacements in depth already. But the onus is on the coaching staff to reshape the offense to fit their strengths and to identify and develop a new slate of playmakers. There will certainly be some changes in offensive tactics and tendencies. But do the coaches tinker at the edges? Or do they change things wholesale?
Whatever the answer, this is one of the most interesting subplots of the entire season. And the coaches need to get it right or be agile enough to adapt quickly for the Hoos to have another banner season.
The QB is No Worse than a Game Manager – Hard to avoid the obvious answer here, which in many respects boils down to “somehow replace Bryce Perkins.” Perkins was Superman and carried the offense for long stretches last year, and most media doubts surrounding the Hoos revolve around the giant shoes Perkins left to fill, whether by currently-annointed starter Brennan Armstrong or his ready backup in the wings Keytaon Thompson. But I don’t want to set the bar too high. Brennan is just a redshirt sophomore who’s never started a game. Thompson was often brilliant but also inconsistent in his tenure at Mississippi State and is still so new to the team at UVA. Both have next-level potential, but asking either to immediately step in and play at an all-ACC level right now is just unfair to them both. Instead, I want them to play to a “game manager” level, meaning they don’t need to be the offense, just run it, and run it efficiently. Move the chains. Spread the ball around. Don’t take sacks, whether that means effectively scampering past the LOS or just throwing the ball away under pressure. And most importantly, don’t turn it over (I still have nightmares about Greyson Lambert’s turnover-prone debut against UCLA in 2014). We’ve got a great defense, and hopefully we’ve got a resurgent running game (more on that next)… we don’t need the QB to be a Bryce-level superstar to win us games if we can defend effectively and our tailbacks can balance the offense effectively. But at the same time, we absolutely can’t have our QB lose the game either.
The Running Backs Stay Healthy – No position group was as shredded by attrition this offseason as the running backs were. Rising seniors Jamari Peacock, PK Kier, and Lamont Atkins all left the team after having been passed over on the depth chart. Rising second year speedster Seneca Milledge was booted from the team, as was dual-threat QB RJ Harvey who could’ve been redployed as a running back. Rising sophomore tailback Mike Hollins, last year’s presumptive #2 back, is one of this season’s pandemic opt-outs. And then to really make matters worse, transfer Ronnie Walker, Jr had his eligibility waiver denied by the NCAA, apparently the only transfer in college football to suffer this indigity when seemingly everyone else is getting a one year free pass due to COVID. Add it all up (or subtract it all down, you might say) and we’re left with the following: (1) incumbent starter Wayne Taulapapa who averaged a pedestrian 4.1 ypc as a sophomore and caught only 5 passes all year, though did score an impressive 12 TDs, (2) Towson grad transfer Shane Simpson who was an All-American in 2018 but at the FCS level and has injury rust to shake off after missing most of his senior season in 2019, and (3) walk-on RS Sophomore Perris Jones who is impressing in camp but has never logged a carry in college. This group can’t afford in-season attrition, especially since we don’t have Bryce Perkins to rely on in the running game anymore. Any hope for good offensive balance rests with our tailbacks staying close to 100% and effective every week.
Win the VT Game – This is such a weird season from a schedule perspective. Virginia plays one game in September. One. And it’s not just any game, it’s the Commonwealth Cup, with the Hoos forced to defend it a mere three games after winning it back in the first place. After we play VT on the 19th we have a bye on the 26th, then we start October with a trip to Death Valley to play arguably the best team in the country, one that whooped UVA in last season’s ACCCG by a margin I’m frankly too embarrassed to type. So what that means is if we don’t win in Blacksburg, we almost certainly go into mid-October with an 0-2 record, having lost the Commonwealth Cup back to Tech way too quickly, and our offseason optimism and positive momentum essentially squandered. Yes, there are still 9 more games on the schedule after Clemson to redeem things, plenty of time in theory to bounce back to a winning record if the team keeps its head up and takes care of business against projected bottom-half teams like NCSU, Wake, Duke, and BC. But all that assumes all those games happen as scheduled and aren’t scratched due to COVID outbreaks (or hell, even just a flu-outbreak) here, there, or anywhere. But beat Tech, and everything that happens after that (even with a potential spanking in Clemson) is far more palatable. With that kickoff win, the team stays positive going into October knowing it’s got the Cup for another year, it rallies around that as it faces any uncertainties or challenges over the course of a long season. In any other year, I’d say the result of your first game is pretty immaterial over the course of a long year, it’s how you finish not how you start. But this year, maybe moreso than any year prior, that first game arguably matters most of all.