This piece is a part of our 2018 football preview. To view other entries in the preview series, click here.
With kickoff fast approaching, and our comprehensive preview behind us, each of us wanted to share our Final Thoughts on the upcoming football season. Once we've said our peace, there's nothing left before the University of Richmond game. Thanks for joining us through this preseason coverage.
As I closed my Quarterback Position Group preview, it's a good time to be optimistic. This is a team that could be pretty good. It has talent. Maybe not a lot of depth - only 27 ACC-calibre players according to one observer - but some guys at the top who can make everyone else better if they stay healthy. With a little luck on the injury front, Virginia has three offensive playmakers who can turn any touch of the ball into a touchdown, and a few other guys who are solid and can come up big for you. One can hope that with the explosive ability of Bryce Perkins, Joe Reed and Olamide Zacchaeus on the field that a guy like Jordan Ellis will be able to find some seams to hammer through. The offensive line cannot be called a strength by any stretch of the imagination, but Bronco can put five guys on the field who could over time forge a decent line. The positive is that Perkins is the kind of quarterback who can thrive and still make plays with unpredictable protection. Zacchaeus and Reed are two other guys I keep coming back to because of their talents in a broken field.
On defense you don't like that the line looks a little shaky, especially in the middle, but the Hoos have a plethora of big talent guys behind them. The secondary is loaded, beginning with Juan Thornhill, who can outjump half the guys in the NBA. The new free safety has a chance to make serious coin in the NFL and the FS position gives him the freedom to make plays all over the field. The secondary should be very difficult to throw against and the linebackers can cover a lot of ground. It's a defense that could be pretty good again. With a great punter, Virginia looks to be in pretty good shape in the field position game.
Now is the time for optimism. I've got the knife in one hand, the fork in the other, bib tied around my neck and I'm licking my lips with visions of another bowl game in my eyes. Now we'll see what happens when the roadrunner goes "beepbeep."
I sat down and went through the schedule game by game to try and get a feel for how this season was going to go. And to be honest, I couldn't come up with a conclusion. There are just so many toss-ups on the schedule, too many games that will come down to the cliched "who makes the plays," maybe down to a few breaks, maybe down to coaching decisions. Maybe down to who's healthiest the week of the game.
And so much of that uncertainty is due to the three key areas of uncertainty on our own roster. The revolving door of D-Linemen. An O-Line guilty of the ACC's worst run production last season. A quarterback who's a total unknown in Division 1. How much of that is going to be resolved this season? Maybe Bryce Perkins is the answer. Maybe the maturation of young offensive linemen Reinkensmeyer, Glaser, and Fannin lead a run-blocking renaissance. Both are feasible hopes. The D-Line performing adequately is going to require a degree of injury luck I'm just not comfortable assuming at this juncture. Oh, and did I mention there still isn't a clear answer at place kicker? You know at least one of these toss-up kind of games is going to come down to field goals.
But there's quality elsewhere on the roster, arguably more on balance than last year. The defensive backs and linebacking corps project to be plus units. There are solid talents and ample bodies at tailback and wideout. And going into Year 3 of the Mendenhall regime, system familiarity and comfort level should be reaching a steady state level.
Things are moving in the right direction. But it's also a bounce-back year in the Coastal, with Duke and GT, and also maybe UNC, rebounding from subpar years to make every game a challenge. NC State and Louisville could also be top-half Atlantic teams. Outside of maybe Richmond and Liberty, every game is going to be a challenge. This may ultimately be a year where the Win/Loss record come December is a step back from last year's .500 mark, but that masks overall progress the program is making. And if some of those question marks work themselves out in our favor? Look out.
I will say this, I'm letting myself be excited again.
When it comes to football, Virginia fans need something to believe in and trust. Mendenhall’s on-field impact was nothing short of disheartening his first season on the job. His second season was better – a nice first half of the season, and despite a humiliating performance against Navy, a bowl berth was unquestionably important for the development of the program. But Al Groh had a solid season in 2007 and so did Mike London in 2011, yet neither returned to a bowl game in their Virginia tenures. UVa hasn’t been to consecutive bowl games since the Marques Hagans quarterback days in 2004 – 2005. There’s a reason Scott Stadium doesn’t fill up like it used to.
Remember the set-back the team incurred after losing its 2016 home opener to Richmond? All of the positive offseason momentum that was built through months of deliberate messaging was lost over the course of three hours. Something similar is at stake this season – Virginia needs another bowl berth to sustain its momentum built last a year. A second consecutive bowl game would go a long way towards securing funding for the new football facilities; it’d help sell more season tickets, which is the tide that raises all boats; and it’d help Mendenhall continue to sell his program’s vision on the recruiting trail and land more four-star, instant-impact players. Fans want to buy in, but they need reasons to do so. They need continued results to believe Mendenhall can truly bring the program out of mediocrity.
That starts in September, when UVa absolutely must take care of business in its non-conference schedule. UVa should handle Richmond with relative ease, but a road night game in week two against Indiana will set the stage for the season. A 2-0 start would likely lead to a 3-0 record before facing Louisville and NC State in consecutive weeks to round out the first month of football. But a loss to the Hoosiers sets up a big game against Ohio, which could be the MAC’s best team this season. Anything short of a 3-2 start to the year will jeopardize Virginia’s path to bowl eligibility. Bet on Miami and Virginia Tech being good again, and Duke, North Carolina, Pitt, and Georgia Tech should all be improved from a season ago. UVa’s schedule isn’t daunting, but there are few gimmes and Mendenhall must win some toss-up games (like he did last season) to push Virginia to six wins.
If the reworked defensive line can hold its own against the run, the defense should be among the better groups in the ACC and absolutely good enough to keep Virginia in most games. But the offense is a question mark – what will it look like? Can Bryce Perkins stay healthy? Can he throw the football? Will his dual-threat abilities open up the run game and the rest of the offense? The success of the season rests on Perkins’ arm and legs. Mendenhall sings his praise– with a focus on his athleticism and leadership – but Perkins is still very much an unknown commodity. And if the offense doesn’t hit the ground running in week one, the success of the season is on the line.
Mendenhall knows program and organizational design – few question that. Now in year three, he must show he knows winning ACC football, too. Mendenhall and Carla Williams have laid out the path to creating a successful program. It’s time to execute.
I can understand if anyone has a hard time getting excited for UVA football in 2018. The 21st century has not been kind to the Hoos on the gridiron. But as September quickly approaches, I find myself genuinely exited in UVA’s 2018 season.
That excitement revolves around the changes coming on offense in 2018 and the addition of a true dual threat QB in Bryce Perkins.
Like many, I’ve waited and waited and then waited some more for UVA to adopt a modern spread offense. The Hoos are poised to abandon the pro style approach to offense that rarely works well any longer for teams that cannot amass waves of NFL talent along its offensive line. With the arrival of a modern college football offense also comes the acknowledgement that the rules of football are geared toward scoring. Instead of trying to win games 20 to 17, we’re poised to try to win shootouts consistently. Now, if the Hoos would only look to push the pace on offense too (wait, is this basketball or football?) I’ll bet set. But maybe that will part of the excitement for 2019.
Since arriving in Charlottesville, Bronco has openly wished for a Thorterback to man the QB position in the mold of Taysom Hill. He finally found his man in JUCO transfer Bryce Perkins. Perkins appears to be an exciting, explosive runner at QB, perhaps the best at the position for the Hoos since either Marques Hagans or maybe Jameel Sewell. UVA football needs to be fun and capture the imagination. Perkins will go a long way in meeting those goals. And while he may not be poised to set the world on fire as a passer, Perkins can still lead a successful offense given weapons like Joe Reed, OZ, and Evan Butts. It will be up to the coaches to scheme around Perkins’ talents to make it happen.