We’re almost done with our 2020 football preview content, and now’s the point where we survey our writers and ask them to share their Bold Predictions for the season ahead. And when we say “bold,” we’re asking our writers to really go out on a limb, no safe predictions. As such, these may be a bit out there, but where’s the fun in playing it safe?
So without further ado, let’s see what our writers are betting on this year…
Wayne Taulapapa Rushes for 750 yards, and Keytaon Thompson Scores Six Rushing TDs: Taulapapa rushed for 473 yards on 116 carries (4.1 ypc) last season. I thought he looked good doing it and deserved more touches. With a lack of depth at RB and able to take the punishment — plus the fact that the staff doesn’t want Brennan Armstrong to run as much as Bryce Perkins did, and the OL improves its run-blocking — Taulapapa sees his workload increase to about 170 carries, and he averages a touch over 4.4 ypc to reach 750 rushing yards.
Taulapapa excelled at the goal line last year, scoring 12 TDs. Despite an increase in yardage, I’ll predict his number of scores will go down, because UVa will work Thompson into some packages, specifically at the goal line, where he will nab six TDs, some of which would have gone to Taulapapa.
Armstrong Completes 65 percent of His Throws and Records 15 Passing TDs: Armstrong’s 68 percent completion rate in a small sample size his first two seasons is predictive, as he ends up being the most accurate passer at Virginia since Matt Schaub, edging out Perkins’ 64.5 percent rate in 2018 and 2019. His 15 passing TDs pales in comparison to Perkins’ 25 in 2018 and 22 in 2019 on the surface, but dig deeper, and you’ll see that is a great number: Perkins had 16 through 12 regular-season games last season before tossing six combined against Clemson and Florida, so 15 in 11 regular-season games for Armstrong would be pretty dang good.
UVa Competes for a Spot in the ACC Title Game Again: Virginia topples Virginia Tech for the second straight season, falls as expected at Clemson, but then loses just one more game the rest of the way, including a victory over North Carolina, to finish 9-2. That win over the Tar Heels ends up being key in a complicated tiebreaker that sends the Wahoos to the ACC championship against Clemson over fellow two-loss squads Notre Dame and Louisville. UNC finishes 8-3.
UVA Plays Its Entire Season: No, really. This typically mundane statement proves to be a big deal. The ACC has every incentive to make sure their teams each get eleven games completed. But it’s still up to the actual programs to do their part in seeing this to fruition. As we’re all keenly aware, not all programs are created equal in this regard. There will be some teams that fall flat in the ACC. But not the Hoos. They prove capable and disciplined enough to handle the most difficult of circumstances while completing the eleven game regular season without breaking a sweat.
Ryan Swoboda Plays His Way into 2022 NFL Draft 1st Round Talk: Swoboda’s combination of wingspan, footwork, and the P word (potential) get him on the NFL draft radar in a hurry as he becomes a full-time starter at RT for the Hoos in 2020. His play makes a large impact too in catching the attention of scouts especially because of improved strength and a quickly developing mean streak. After the season, Swoboda will get NFL feedback. He’ll hear that he’s a day two pick in 2021 but continued improvement during the 2021 season will get him into the 2022 NFL Draft first round. He’ll do just that as his play only continues to get better (and that first round pick status will be a big deal for 2J on the recruiting trail).
A Member of the UVA Defensive Coaching Staff gets a FBS Head Coaching Job Following the Season: Nick Howell and Kelly Poppinga will be the heavy favorites here, especially after the UVA defense balls out in 2020. To the surprise of some, Bronco encourages the move despite its impact on staff continuity. The benefits outweigh the risks as building his coaching tree is ultimately a legacy move that also is a positive influence when looking to hire a high potential replacement for the opening. Upward career mobility is always a good thing. The UVA defense won’t suffer too terribly because of the remaining staff and because the architect remains firmly entrenched in the McCue Center.
Noah Taylor Records Double-Digit Sacks: This will admittedly be a bit more difficult than normal with the presumed evelen-game schedule. It’s a reach, but I think Taylor has the superstar ability to pull this off. Taylor was second on the team in sacks last season with 7.0, only behind Jordan Mack’s 7.5. And that was while playing as much safety as linebacker as injuries mounted down the stretch. Co-defensive coordinators Nick Howell and Kelly Poppinga seem ready to tailor the defense to the linebackers, and Taylor should benefit as arguably the group’s best pass rusher. No Virginia player has recorded double digit sacks since Clint Sintim recorded 11.0 in 2008. Expect Taylor to push that total and eclipse double digits this season.
Billy Kemp Leads the Team in Receptions: Billy Kemp had 35 receptions last season, admittedly a long way off from Terrell Jana’s 74, which was tops among the returning players. But the best comparison for Kemp likely isn’t the raw numbers, but rather the production of others at his position. Playing the H-Back role, Kemp will move around both in the slot and at times in the backfield as well, just as Olamide Zaccheaus and later Joe Reed did before him. Zaccheaus led the team in receptions in both 2017 and 2018 with 85 and 93 receptions, respectively, while Reed led the team last season with 77 catches. Don’t forget Reed made the leap in 2019 after only recording 25 receptions in 2018, when he was largely slotted behind Zaccheaus. Kemp became a reliable pass catcher in the final month of the season, and expect him to rise to the occasion and lead the team in receptions in 2020.
Virginia has Two Safeties Selected in the 2021 NFL Draft: In a time when cross training is the talk of the defensive back room, Virginia has four very good senior safeties to lean on in Joey Blount, D’Angelo Amos, De’Vante Cross, and Brenton Nelson. I think two of those players will be selected in the 2021 NFL draft. Joey Blount is perhaps the most logical pick, entering his third season as a starter and coming off third-team All-ACC honors a season ago. Meanwhile, Amos was receiving draft buzz even while at JMU and has reportedly excelled in camp, earning himself first-team reps. And while Cross’ name has been mentioned as cross training at both corner and receiver, I think the former quarterback can excel if given the chance to play safety for a full season. Nelson might be the longest shot due to his size (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) and injury history, but he has a nose for the ball when he is on the field. The safety room has plenty of NFL potential, and I expect at least two of these players to capitalize and hear their names called on draft day.
UVA pushes Clemson: I know the point of this is to be bold and really take a chance, and in that spirit I should pick us to beat Clemson. I’m just not there. Just “two games ago,” in the ACC Championship Game, Clemson ran away from UVA 62-17. They were just consistently a step faster in the open field, a bit stronger in the trenches, a bit more accurate where it counted. Turnovers were costly. But UVA then went to Miami and looked like it belonged when battling with Top 10 Florida, a team that’s not on Clemson’s level but was still in a class better than anyone other than Clemson in the ACC. The Hoos learned a lot from that back-to-back experience of what it means to play a team with NFL-level talent at every position, how to attack it, how to defend it.
Every season it seems one ACC team is able to inexplicably battle Clemson to the wire. Last year UNC lost on a failed 2-point conversion 21-20. The year prior Syracuse went into Death Valley and lost by only 4, which was the year after they handed Clemson the Tigers’ most recent ACC loss in a 27-24 upset at the Carrier Dome. In 2016 Pitt ruined Clemson’s bid to be unbeaten with a 43-42 upset in Death Valley. Who’s it going to be this year that proves the thorn in Clemson’s ACC side? Why not UVA? It will take a near perfect game, of course, winning the turnover battle, using special teams as a difference maker. But with a healthy, deep, veteran defense, the Hoos could absolutely make some surprise noise in Death Valley come October.
The Secondary Terrorizes the ACC: Maybe this doesn’t feel as bold as other things here… after all, this is the program that’s had three DBs drafted in the last two years (Bryce Hall, Juan Thornhill, and Tim Harris). Clearly producing top notch DBs isn’t new for us. But at the same time, consider how last year went. A brutral string of attrition at various points cost us Darious Bratton, Myles Robinson, and Germane Crowell for the entire season and Bryce Hall, Brenton Nelson, Chris Moore, Heskin Smith, and Antonio Clary for key stretches during the season. That doesn’t even address other guys who were merely dinged up but played anyways at less than 100% due to sheer emergency need. As a result, the Hoos pass defense lagged badly down the stretch, allowing just 169 passing yards a game over the first 8 contests but 320 passing yards a game over the final 6. Hendon Hooker (VT), Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), and Kyle Trask (UF) all had big passing days.
People are now sleeping on this secondary at their own peril. The unit is staffed back up and healthy. Joey Blount, finishing last season with the team lead in INTs (3) and second in tackles (95) is back to lead a safety group that sees former ACC DROY Brenton Nelson back to form alongside senior swiss army knife DB De’Vante Cross (2 INTs, 6 PDs in 2019), a healthy young up-and-comer Antonio Clary, and newcomer JMU all-American D’Angelo Amos (2 INTs, 5 PDs in 2019). At corner, Nick “Nino” Grant returns from his breakout 2019 (team-high 8 PDs) with Darious Bratton healthy (7 PDs in 2018 as the primary backup to NFL’ers Tim Harris and Bryce Hall), junior Heskin Smith ready to take another step forward, and sophomore Jaylon Baker ready to break out. It’s a deep and high-upside unit, and while it lacks some of the star power of years past (Bryce Hall, Juan Thornhill, Quin Blanding all being ACC household names), collectively it’ll be a nasty 4- or 5-man unit to throw against on any given passing down, having the combination of depth, talent, and experience that likely has DC Nick Howell excited. If it can stay healthy, expect the Hoos to go back to holding teams to around 200 passing yards a game as it did in 2018 when opponents managed only 183 passing yards a game over the entire season.
We Have a QB Controversy: I don’t quite yet know how it’s going to happen. Maybe Brennan Armstrong is playing fine but twists an ankle and Keytaon Thompson steps in. Maybe Thompson is doing so well in practice that Anae starts sprinkling him in with special packages or for a “change of pace” series and it balloons from there. God forbid but not implausible at all, we have a 2014 repeat where we go into Game 1 with a confident pecking order (in that year it was QB1 Greyson Lambert, QB2 Matt Johns) before a disastrous debut (Lambert had three first half turnovers in his inaugural start against UCLA) necessitates a switch. But however we get from A to B, I just feel like Thompson is ultimately good enough that one way or the other he’s going to rise to the occasion and capitalize on the need to spell Armstrong, whether for a series or a game, and make things very “interesting” for a while for Bronco, Anae, and Beck in a way we Hoos haven’t experienced since that 2014 controversy. Crazy to think but we’ve been spoiled since then, only three starting quarterbacks total over the last five seasons.