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Welcome back to our 2019 Football Season Preview. To view our preview table of contents and read already-completed pieces, click here or on the Series button above.

It probably didn’t take long for most Virginia fans to realize they were going to love watching Olamide Zaccheaus. In the final two games of his freshman season when he caught a touchdown against Duke and then showed plenty of speed on his end-arounds against Virginia Tech, I personally started to think we had a special player on our hands. Turns out we did. He was a four-year stalwart, finishing his Virginia career as the program’s all-time leader in receptions (250) and No. 2 in receiving yards (2,753). He was a versatile playmaker that garnered Associated Press first-team All-ACC honors last season and will go down as one of the best receivers in Virginia history.

With his graduation and subsequent signing with the Atlanta Falcons, who will step up to fill his shoes? Zaccheaus’ 1,058 receiving yards in 2018 are nearly double the yards of team’s second-leading receiver, Hasise Dubois, who finished with 578 yards.

Zaccheaus’ nine touchdown receptions also led the team. Despite his size at just 5-foot-8, he is leaving big shoes to fill.

The cast of receivers that Bryce Perkins will depend on in 2019 will be a mixture of both familiar and unfamiliar faces. Dubois, who Athlon Sports named third-team preseason All-ACC, will lead the group coming off of a breakout junior season – he combined for just 24 receptions and 219 yards his first two seasons on grounds. Senior Joe Reed will join him, hopefully showcasing more of his playmaking talent that we saw against Liberty, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech last season. Junior Terrell Jana returns, looking faster and stronger after a sophomore season where he showed flashes (see his 42-yard touchdown reception against Pitt and three catches in the game-tying, two-minute drill against Georgia Tech). Sophomores Tavares Kelly, Billy Kemp, and Ugo Obasi return after quiet freshman seasons, freshmen Dorien Goddard, Dontayvion Wicks, and Nathaniel Biel III will join the team and add noticeable size, and graduate transfers Dejon Brissett (Richmond) and Terrell Chatman (Arizona State) will add depth and potentially production.

Meanwhile at tight end, Evan Butts graduated, leaving senior Tanner Cowley as the heir apparent.

That’s a lot of names, but also a lot of unknowns. Outside of Dubois, this is a group of players with more questions than answers.

Who's Gone?

Olamide Zaccheaus and Evan Butts are the big names. As mentioned above, Zaccheaus leaves as one of the most decorated receivers in Virginia history. He had explosive ability, but he was also reliable in the short passing game. And although used less frequently as the season progressed, he was a threat (or at least a decoy) in the run game, which helped spring Bryce Perkins and Jordan Ellis for gains.

Meanwhile, Butts saw the field frequently but wasn’t as involved in the passing game last season. After catching just seven balls for 46 yards and one touchdown (a fake field goal against UNC) in 2016 – Mendenhall’s first season – he had a semi-breakout year in 2017 with 32 receptions for 266 yards. However, he followed that up with just 16 catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns in 2018. That said, he earned honorable mention All-ACC, mostly for his blocking, and received a tryout spot on the Baltimore Ravens after going undrafted.

De’Vante Cross started last season as a wide receiver, but after recording just one catch for 20 yards through the first half of the season, injuries in the secondary forced him to safety, where he will play this season.

Lastly, the transfer portal claimed underclassmen Cole Blackman (Illinois State), Riah Burton (Delaware), and Wooby Theork-Youmans (unknown).

 

Who's Back?

Zaccheaus’ graduation is the lone notable departure at receiver, so that leaves a number of names returning. As such, we’ll review the returners below by class.

The senior class includes Hasise Dubois, who finished 2018 with 52 receptions for 578 yards and five touchdowns. Outside of Zaccheaus, he became the most consistent receiver on Virginia’s roster. Dubois differs in this regard from classmate Joe Reed, who is the complete opposite of consistent. He flashed his brilliance at times, and often in key moments. He helped spark Virginia’s comeback against Virginia Tech, gave Virginia life against Georgia Tech while Bryce Perkins nursed his injured ankle on the sidelines, and even provided clutch plays in a three-touchdown performance against Liberty, which kept up with Virginia for a half. Yet Reed also disappeared at times, catching just one pass for 10 yards against South Carolina. He gathered 465 yards on just 25 receptions last year (18.6 yards per reception), so he’s clearly a big-play threat. The question is whether he can be anything more.

The juniors are headlined by Terrell Jana. After catching just two passes for 21 yards his true freshman season, he caught 11 balls for 151 yards in 2018. While not eye-popping numbers, some of those receptions last season came in big moments, and he was one of the most consistent performers in spring ball. Preferred walk-on Chuck Davis is also in this class, but after not corralling a reception last season while spending most of his time at punt returner, he doesn’t appear to be in line for a bigger role in the passing game.

The sophomore class is intriguing in a number of ways. To start, of the three receivers in this class, only Ugo Obasi reaches the 6-foot plateau – at an even 6 feet. Meanwhile, Tavares Kelly stands at 5-foot-8, and Billy Kemp is 5-foot-9. In terms of height, this class appears to be the exception of the Mendenhall receiver classes to come.

Nevertheless, all three played last season, albeit with varying degrees of success. Kelly was the name that stood out in fall camp, as the 160-pound speedster reportedly put on a show. Yet his impact was minimal, catching just 10 balls for 121 yards after playing in all 13 games. In fact, his biggest moment was the one that didn’t happen – the dropped would-be touchdown against Virginia Tech. Still, Kelly remains intriguing, and he flashed with a nice catch and run on a screen play in the spring game. Meanwhile, Kemp and Obasi are somewhat mysteries. Neither caught a pass during the season, although Kemp did show flashes as a punt returner against South Carolina, taking three returns for 31 yards. More quick to Kelly’s fast, Kemp is intriguing as an H-back, yet it’s strange to think he didn’t catch a pass or take a carry in his seven games last season. The same can be said for Obasi, who played in 10 games without recording a stat. The staff must have seen something it liked in the Baltimore native, but his game at the college level remains an unknown. (Note that Darnell Pratt – a 6-foot-2, 185-pound former two-star recruit – is also in this class, although he did not appear in any games last season after redshirting in 2017).

At tight end, senior Tanner Cowley will assume the lead this season. After redshirting in 2015 and not recording a catch in 2016, he’s amassed just six receptions for 84 yards the past two seasons, with 40 yards coming on a single reception (a screen pass in last season’s rain-drenched game against Pitt). Despite not throwing often to tight ends, a simple eyeball test tells you Mendenhall’s staff seems to like having a tight end on the field, although that might differ this season since Cowley isn’t the blocker Butts was. My guess is Cowley is on the field for approximately 50 percent of the offense's snaps and finishes the season with a stat line similar to Butts in 2018 (16 catches for 141 yards).

Who's New?

At wide receiver, we’ll start with graduate transfers Dejon Brissett and Terrell Chatman, each of whom will spend their final seasons of eligibility in Charlottesville. Brissett (6-foot-2, 195 pounds) was a starter at Richmond, earning first-team All-CAA honors in 2017 after leading Richmond with 63 receptions to go with 896 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s played in 33 career games over four seasons but had his 2018 season end in his third game due to an injury for which he received a medical hardship waiver, enabling his transfer to Virginia. Brissett just recently had the hardware removed from his foot, but he should be a full go after a week or so into training camp. Fellow transfer Chatman, a member of Bryce Perkins’ class at Arizona State, was rated his class’ No. 30 wide receiver by ESPN, but he’s only recorded three career receptions. He and Perkins are close friends, so it will be interesting to see if that chemistry translates on the field. At the very least, with a 6-foot-4 frame, he will provide another big presence to the receiving corps. 

In addition to the transfers, the three freshman receivers are also intriguing – all at 6-foot-2 or taller (early-enrollee Dorien Goddard at 6-foor-3, Dontayvion Wicks at 6-foot-2, and Nathanial Beal III at a staggering 6-foot-5). As the general identity of a Bronco-led team is becoming clearer, so is the build of his wide receivers. Just as he likes tall, rangy corners, he seems to favor the bigger receivers. The three additions in the 2019 recruiting class make the smaller 2018 receiver class seem like an outlier. 

It’s tough to say if any of the freshmen will emerge this season. All are three-star recruits per 247’s composite rankings, with Wicks and Beal falling in that mid-to-high three-star range and Goddard coming in as a low-to-mid three-star prospect. Mendenhall has shown the star system has its flaws, so there’s no reason to think someone couldn’t step up and contribute, but there’s also no reason to think someone will, either. Wicks, a late addition to Virginia’s class after committing just days before December’s signing day, had his 247 rating bumped up to four stars a few months ago, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for him once practice starts.

At tight end, the staff converted junior Christian Baumgardner, a former defensive end from the 2016 recruiting class who wasn’t on the team last year, and redshirt freshman Grant Misch, formerly an undersized defensive end who peculiarly played his first and only collegiate game in a start against Georgia Tech a season ago, to the position. However, don’t expect to see much from either in 2019. Both switching positions from the defensive line to tight end, this season will be more about grooming them for the future.

Preseason MVP

Hasise Dubois - Dubois made his presence felt early last season, catching a touchdown pass against Richmond to let Wahoo nation know he was ready to break out. No pass-catcher wants to be called a possession receiver, but that’s what Dubois is – and he’s really good at it. His long reception was just 33 yards last season, but at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, he can outmuscle almost any corner and win those 50-50 balls, as he did many times last season (like his touchdown reception against Ohio). I’m expecting his reception total to increase to 60-plus with 700-800 yards. With his frame, he’s a red-zone threat and the favorite to lead the team in touchdown receptions, too.

Breakout Candidate

Terrell Jana - He performed well during spring practice, where he had increased opportunities with Joe Reed sidelined with injuries. Jana’s highlight play from spring came on the final play of the scrimmage, where he stretched for, caught, and ran for a 64-yard touchdown off a dart from Brennan Armstrong. The Woodberry Forest product looks the part, listed at 6-feet and a likely heavier-than-listed 190 pounds. The quarterbacks seem to trust him, too, as both Perkins and Armstrong frequently looked his way in the scrimmage; if Perkins had been more accurate on a couple of his early passes to Jana, the junior would likely be the talk of the offseason.

I’m expecting Jana to catch 40-plus balls this coming season, and depending on Reed’s performance and consistency, Jana could become Perkins’ second-favorite target. He has more explosion to his game than Dubois, and at the very least, Jana will consistently help move the chains. 

A Stab at the Pitt Game Depth Chart

WR(X)

Hasise Dubois

Terrell Chatman

WR(Z)

Joe Reed

Dejon Brissett

WR(Y)

Terrell Jana

Ugo Obasi

WR(H)

Tavares Kelly

Billy Kemp

TE

Tanner Cowley

Grant Misch

Grade: C+

Final Thoughts

Losing Olamide Zaccheaus is a big hit to the wide receivers. And losing Evan Butts is a big hit to the tight ends. There’s no dancing around either of those facts. As is frequently asked in the inevitable churn of college football, the question becomes who can emerge to replace their production, and how the new offense looks as it adjusts to the rising players’ strengths and weaknesses.

At receiver, the era of the big-bodied pass catchers has officially arrived and is likely here to stay. With Dubois, Reed, Jana, Brissett, and Chatman all 6-feet or taller (not to mention the freshmen), the receivers will bring a physical presence in 2019. While the long catch-and-runs like we saw from Olamide Zaccheaus last season might decrease (like his 247-yard performance against Ohio), the effectiveness of the slants and post routes should increase. Virginia will still need to find those big plays, likely from a combination of Reed, Jana, and Brissett. Tavares Kelly and Billy Kemp could also have chances to make plays on screens, swing passes, or on jet sweeps, but I’d consider any production from them more of the exception than the rule in Robert Anae’s increasingly downhill, physical brand of offense. 

At tight end, expect to see the position used less frequently than in the past few seasons, as Virginia is without proven depth. Cowley will still see action, but he’s just not the blocker Butts was, which could limit his time on the field. With little depth behind Cowley, it just doesn’t make much sense for the tight ends to be heavily utilized. Mendenhall has said the tight end position isn’t dead at Virginia, and the addition of three-star pledge Joshua Rawlings to the 2020 class will help – just don’t mistake that to mean he’ll lean on that group for heavy reception numbers.

Ultimately, I think we’ll have times this season where we’ll miss some big plays coming from Zaccheaus. But I also think we’ll have times where we’ll be pleasantly surprised by breakout candidates Jana and Brissett. As good as Zaccheaus was, Anae was more fitting his system around Zaccheaus’ talents than building around them. Dubois, Reed, the transfers, and the freshmen certainly appear to be the more prototypical Anae receivers.

Entering the fourth year of the Mendenhall era, the offense is nearly fully-formed to the build and identity the staff envisioned when it arrived in Charlottesville in December 2015. Get used to the more finalized form of Virginia receivers - the question is just how well they can produce.

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