Robert Elder is a third-generation Wahoo who grew up bleeding orange and blue. He attended home football games every fall starting back in 2004, soaking up any and all Virginia sports reading material since.
Elder graduated from UVa with a degree from the McIntire School of Commerce in May 2017. While in school, he served as sports editor of the Cavalier Daily in calendar year 2016. Throughout his time at the Cav Daily, he covered the football, men’s basketball, men’s and women’s lacrosse, men’s soccer, and swimming and diving teams. He served as a member of the Hoo Crew Committee. From the press box to the first row at JPJ, those were his glory days.
"I’m a football guy at heart, although beating Syracuse at home in 2014 to lock up the ACC men’s basketball regular season championship is undoubtedly my favorite UVa sports memory.
"Never forget: Teven was fouled."
I’ve never liked the idea of throwing the tape out the window, in the sense that it was just one game – forget about it and move on. Isn’t there always something to learn? But if this idea was ever applicable to a game for Virginia, the Military Bowl was it. In short, last Thursday was presumably the last game the Cavaliers march out that spread, whatever-you-want-to-call-it offense led by Kurt Benkert. Next season, get ready for an entirely new look doused with QB draws and option reads. On defense, Virginia won’t have to face a triple option like Navy’s (which has surprisingly more wrinkles than Georgia Tech’s) anytime soon. So aside from a glaring lack of focus and preparation, let’s not take the bowl game for anything more than it was – part of a 6-7 season with some nice ups but also some obvious downs.
With that being established, looking ahead to 2018 is tricky in much the same way as looking ahead to 2017 was one year ago. For one, it’s difficult to project what the offense will even look like, not to mention how Bryce Perkins will perform. Don’t forget how much Benkert struggled his first year in Charlottesville. Defensively, although the secondary should remain a strength, there will be a lot of depth and leadership to replace, especially in the front seven. And with the hiring of Ricky Brumfield as special teams coordinator, it’s tough to say whether the special teams will be able to improve from a largely shaky performance this year.
Looking ahead, we must consider Mendenhall’s ability to develop talent. I think Jordan Mack, Bryce Hall, and Brenton Nelson are great examples, and even Landan Word two seasons ago. New players will emerge that right now seem like afterthoughts. But we also must remember Mendenhall’s teams at Virginia have showed a repeated tendency to lay a few eggs each season (e.g. Virginia Tech 2016, BC 2017, and Navy 2017), and that whatever is causing such performances still needs to be fixed.
So first, we’ll focus this exercise on what needs to be improved – five areas that look weak heading into the offseason. Second, we’ll touch on specific personnel and game plans that, if implemented, could make the team a lot more dangerous.
2018 Focus Areas for Improvement
1. Offensive line
I’ll leave the in-depth breakdowns to Kendall, but this group was nowhere near good enough in 2017. The Cavaliers had just FIVE rushing yards against Virginia Tech. Is there anything else you need to know?
If the 2017 team had even an average offensive line, I think Virginia potentially finishes the regular season 8-4, with additional wins against both Miami and Virginia Tech. Think about it – the Cavaliers were up two touchdowns in the second half against the Hurricanes. Good teams can run the ball, kill clock, and wear down the opposing defense in those situations. Instead, Virginia was held to just 55 rushing yards, and Benkert’s third-quarter pick-six gave Miami all it needed to run away with that game. And against Virginia Tech, holding an opponent to 10 points should win any football game. As soon as the Hokies shut down Virginia’s run game, the contest was over. Benkert is a good quarterback, but few in college football are good enough to single handedly carry a team to victory against a Bud Foster-coached defense. All of this is without even mentioning the pass protection issues that showed up time and again.
I don’t want to take shots in the dark about who the starting-five will be next season, because that ultimately comes down to unit chemistry and how the underclassmen develop over the offseason. After promising freshmen seasons, I’ll say I’d like to see Dillon Reinkensmeyer at left tackle and Chris Glaser start at right tackle, and Jake Fieler will likely man one of the interior positions. From there, let the underclassmen battle it out and may the best man win.
I’d be surprised if the unit doesn’t improve next season, especially with the help of a mobile quarterback. But like last year, this is ultimately a position group that will take a few more good recruiting classes to solidify.
2. Run Defense
Next season, Virginia will lose several key pieces from this season’s front seven, most notably Andrew Brown and Micah Kiser. Quin Blanding will also be sorely missed, as for my money, he played the run better than any Virginia linebacker not named Micah Kiser. Linebacker Jahvoni Simmons is transferring. Virginia will also have to address its defensive line depth after two promising sophomores, Steven Wright and Juwan Moye, were dismissed from the team. I don’t want to sound alarms, but these are big changes.
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom, as Mendenhall has shown the ability to get the most out of his players up front. Eli Hanback quietly became a very good tackle, and Mandy Alonso started the final three games and proved he will be a mainstay for the next several years.
But just like this year, new faces must emerge. On the line: Christian Baumgardner, John Kirven, Tommy Christ? At linebacker: C.J. Stalker, Zane Zandier? I’m confident the unit will return to strength, but don’t be surprised with some early-season struggles. The group is losing a lot.
3. Pass Rusher Development
Chris Peace had a really nice season as a pass rusher, corralling 7.5 sacks, including the game-clincher against North Carolina. But he’s not a player that can truly take over a game. Virginia hasn’t had that type of dynamic since Eli Harold and Max Valles were bookends in 2014.
The Cavaliers still generated pressure in 2017, but a lot of that had to do with the creative schemes Mendenhall designed. Take away seniors Kiser (5.0 sacks) and Brown (3.5 sacks), and the next-best pass rusher on Virginia’s 2018 roster is ILB Jordan Mack, who finished with 3.0 sacks. In 2018, Virginia must find some new pass rushers, which in my opinion, is by far the most important role on the defense.
I’m looking for growth from one guy in particular – Charles Snowden. With his 6-foot-7 frame, Snowden has a Max Valles-type build. While he only had 1.5 sacks as a true freshman (albeit one was huge late against Duke), he generated more and more pressures as the season went on. The Cavaliers need someone to emerge opposite Peace, and Snowden seems the most likely candidate.
4. Running back
Call Jordan Ellis a work-horse; a grinder; a team-first player. Throw around any blue-collar adjective you want. The bottom line is he just isn’t that good.
I don’t have any specific plays in my head to back up this up, and that is exactly the point. No opponent had any reason to fear him last season. Ellis rushed for 836 yards in 2017, and aside from some nice runs late against Duke, that’s about all you can say about his season.
He averaged just 3.9 yards per carry with a long of only 25 yards. He was never a threat as a receiver, either, catching just 22 balls for 137 yards. In short, he never scared opposing defenses; no team had to gameplan for him. If opponents won the line of scrimmage, Ellis was neutralized. Ellis would never outrun anyone, and he’d rarely run through them. Compare that to Taquan Mizzell, who could make would-be tacklers miss and was arguably the best receiving back in the conference. Looking back before Mizzell, Kevin Parks, while lacking breakaway speed, always found the hole and wiggled out much-needed yardage.
I think Ellis is the most limited Virginia starting running back of recent memory. Ideally this team returns to having backs like Wali Lundy and Alvin Pearman – multi-threat guys that can pick up a needed first down who are also threats to take a carry all the way. I’m not sure we have any of those guys on the current roster, but I know for certain Jordan Ellis doesn’t fit the bill.
Don’t get me wrong – I like Ellis’ old-school, down-hill mindset, and I love that his teammates respect him, giving him first number choice two years in a row. But an FBS, power-five program can just do better. If Chris Sharp can fix his fumbling woes, give him more touches. Otherwise, I’m looking for more carries for Lamont Atkins and PK Kier next season.
5. Wide Receiver
Mendenhall mentioned this (along with offensive line) as still a position of need in the 2018 recruiting class. To an extent, he’s right. Virginia loses Doni Dowling and Andre Levrone to graduation, who combined for 84 receptions, 1,336 yards, and 12 touchdowns this season. Dowling was second on the team in receptions (50) and Levrone was second in receiving yards (689) and first in touchdown receptions (7). Losing these two will undoubtedly hurt the unit’s depth.
However, the reason wide receiver is No. 5 on this list and not higher is because I think Virginia already has respectable players on its roster to replace Dowling and Levrone in Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed, respectively.
Let me explain.
Through two years, Dubois has 24 catches for 219 yards – while those stats are nothing to write home about, Dubois’s production compares quite nicely to Dowling’s first two seasons. But the main comparison point is their similar styles – physical, strong receivers with a knack for making the tough receptions. Next look at Joe Reed, who has nice speed and showed his playmaking ability with a 75-yard touchdown reception against Miami. Add in Olamide Zaccheaus (85 receptions for 895 yards in 2017), and Virginia will boast a nice trio of receivers.
The main concern here is depth. What happens if Zaccheaus, Dubois, or Reed go down? Warren Craft can’t seem to stay healthy, and who knows if De’Vante Cross will be ready to step up as a full-time receiver. Maybe we would see Chuck Davis or Terrell Jana. Whoever it is, more depth and consistent playmaking ability needs to emerge at the position.
What I want to see more of
1. Touches for Evan Butts
In Mendenhall’s two seasons, Evan Butts has been the most severely underutilized player on the team. His lack of consistent looks has been criminal, especially in third-down and red-zone situations. Butts is an all-ACC talent at tight end who has become an afterthought in Robert Anae’s spread offense.
To be fair, he did haul in 30 receptions this season, and in 2018’s more option-oriented offense, I’d expect that number to increase. But at 6-foot-4, 250 pounds with good hands, I want to see his role mirror Nick O'Leary's at Florida State. With limited depth at receiver returning, Butts can be a big help in the passing attack. He should see 5+ targets per game.
2. Offensive creativity
You can put the blame on a weak offensive line, limited running backs, or a quarterback that didn’t fit Anae’s preferred system. But however you spin it, the offense was quite predictable all season. If a receiver motioned, he was going to get the swing pass. If Levrone had man coverage, he was going to get the deep shot. If Chris Sharp was in the game, he was going to get the ball. Cavalier fans had weekly déjà vu moments.
I’m expecting a much different offense next season with Bryce Perkins presumably at the helm. More read option plays, more bootlegs to tight ends, and more deep shots off of play action. Hopefully that play mix will keep defenses guessing and eliminate days when the offense disappears (e.g. BC, Pitt, VaTech, and Navy).
3. Field goal attempts
A.J. Mejia went 8-for-12 on field goals with a long of just 38 yards (0-for-4 from 40+ yards). Put in other words, the Cavaliers were never truly in field goal range until they entered the red zone. That type of limitation really constrains your ability to score points.
Virginia landed a big commitment in three-star Hunter Pearson, who 247Sports ranks as the No. 3 kicker in the class. If he can come in and seize the starting role, that would do a world of good for Virginia. Here’s hoping Pearson is a four-year starter that is a legitimate threat from 50-yards out.
4. De’Vante Cross returning punts
We saw some explosion emerge in the kick return game in 2017, with several long returns from Joe Reed (including a bowl-eligibility-saving one against Georgia Tech). Now I’d like to see more of the same with punt returns.
Daniel Hamm was great in the sense that he almost always caught the punt, which was comforting after a few years of watching Khalek Shepherd. That said, explosive plays win football games, and Hamm’s 2017 stats were pretty mediocre – 22 returns for 98 yards and no touchdowns. If De’Vante Cross is truly the team’s most explosive player, he should be getting more touches. As he develops at receiver, this is a way to get the ball in his hands more often.
This, or the lack thereof, is what I’m calling what we witnessed in the bowl game. I’ll also apply this to the Boston College homecoming contest and the Virginia Tech debacle in 2016. For whatever reason, when there is some sort of emotional draw to the game, Mendenhall’s teams just haven’t come to play. Knowing Mendenhall, I don’t buy that he’s simply not preparing his teams well enough in practice. Even without preparation, the safeties should know not to overshoot the gap against the triple option.
Rather, I believe these embarrassing performances are all mental. To be fair, part of the reason Mendenhall is at Virginia is to eliminate these mental lapses, so he certainly shoulders much of the blame. But this is ultimately about the players coming together and learning how to turn their weekday practices into focused, concerted, and deliberate football on a weekly basis. To shake their “soft” label, this is a hump Virginia must overcome.
In my opinion, anything less than a 2018 bowl berth will set the rebuild off track. The schedule should make bowl eligibility possible. Virginia has a very real opportunity to go 4-0 in nonconference play next season, facing Richmond, Ohio, and Liberty in Charlottesville. The only non-conference road game next season is against Indiana, which despite marching all over the Cavaliers in week two, only finished 5-7 (2-7 Big Ten). Just as important, Virginia again avoids both Clemson and Florida State in its ACC slate.
The defense should remain strong, with the secondary as its strength. The offense is a question mark, but having a mobile quarterback will open up a lot of play calls, especially in the running game. There are a lot of unknowns looking to 2018, but after seeing the way Mendenhall can develop talent, I’m bullish on next year’s team and expecting 6-7 wins, which would continue momentum towards what could be a very strong 2019 season.
The 2017 Virginia football team built a foundation. Now it’s up to the 2018 team to decide whether they do anything with it.
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