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.
In 2017, Virginia averaged 3.1 yards per rushing play. That ticked up almost 1.5 yards last season to 4.5 per play. That’s a big jump, and a lot of that increase is attributable to Bryce Perkins’ ability as a runner. His positive gains helped bump the average. But not as much as you may think. Unlike the NFL, in college football, sacks count against rushing yardage. While Perkins had plenty of big gains, he was also docked yardage for taking 32 sacks, nearly 2.5 per game. Perkins actually finished at 4.4 yards per rush. Meanwhile, Jordan Ellis had his best season as a Cavalier as a senior, finishing with 1,026 yards, the 15th 1,000-yard rusher in UVa history and first since Kevin Parks accomplished the feat in 2013. Ellis posted 4.8 yards per carry. In 2017, he was at 3.9 ypc, which shows the effect Perkins had on improving the rushing attack as a whole. He’s a threat to take off on almost any play, and thus, holes open up for others. Ellis is gone and trying to make a name for himself in the NFL with the Bengals, but an influx of talent and the presence of Perkins should hopefully keep the running game on a good track in 2019.
Jordan Ellis – The bruising tailback – who was chosen to pick his jersey number first in each of Mendenhall’s first three seasons in Charlottesville because of his superior work ethic – accumulated 1,997 yards in his UVa career, 18th all time, and 19 rushing touchdowns, tied for 10th. Ellis is now getting his chance in the NFL after getting signed as undrafted free agent by Cincinnati.
The workhorse is gone, but Virginia has an intriguing backfield full of experience, guys ready to take the next step, and some exciting – albeit unproven on the college level – talent. Here’s the stable, in order from seniors to freshmen.
Chris Sharp - Senior - 6'1" 200 lbs – A “big back,” Sharp hasn’t carried the ball much in his career, but the New Jersey native did catch five passes last season, two for touchdowns.
Lamont Atkins - Junior - 5'10" 205 lbs – Atkins has carried the ball just five times over his first two seasons and could find it tough to carve out more carries with PK Kier and Mike Hollins likely ahead of him on the depth chart. For what it’s worth, in a very small sample size, he averaged 8.3 yards on his four carries last season and does bring some speed to the table.
PK Kier - Junior - 6'0" 235 lbs – The Winchester, Virginia, native is one of two backs likely to fill the void left by Ellis’ graduation, according to Mendenhall. He’s shown flashes as a bulldozing runner, similar to Ellis, and certainly has great size, but he hasn’t found the end zone yet and averaged just 3.1 ypc on 26 totes in 2018. He did not play in the spring game because of a concussion.
Jamari Peacock – Junior – 5’11” 245 lbs – The Florida native is another “big back” who hasn’t gotten many carries and will probably again be relied on for blocking.
Wayne Taulapapa - Sophomore - 5'9" 210 lbs – Taulapapa is a sophomore but served a two-year LDS mission from 2016-17, so he is older than your typical second-year. Last season, he played in seven games, participating on special teams in the later stages of the season. In the spring game, he got a heavy workload with Kier out and turned some heads. However, at July’s ACC media days, Mendenhall did not mention him as being one of the primary guys who would step up, at least immediately, in Ellis’ absence.
Perris Jones – Freshman (R) – 5'8" 175 lbs – Jones played in four games as a true freshman on special teams and was able to retain his redshirt under the new NCAA rules.
Mike Hollins - Freshman - 5'9" 200 lbs – Hollins is the other back that Mendenhall specifically mentioned as filling in with Ellis gone. Hollins is a three-star recruit out of Louisiana and helped University Lab High School win two straight state titles. He rushed for 237 yards and four touchdowns and also recorded a receiving TD in the 2018 championship while being named game MVP.
Seneca Milledge – Freshman – 5’6” 160 lbs – This Floridian is very fast. Milledge has recorded a personal-best 40-yard dash time of 4.37 and won the 2A state title in the long jump. As a senior, he ran for more than 9 yards per carry. It would not be surprising to see Milledge get used early because of his exceptional speed. He could also be utilized like Olamide Zaccheaus and Tavares Kelly, as a receiving back, though Zaccheaus was officially listed as an H-back, and Kelly is listed as a wideout.
PK Kier – Watch out for Hollins, but Kier has the most experience, is big bodied so he can get a lot of carries, and we’ve seen him emulate Ellis before. He just seems like the one guy that will have the most chances to step up early and become the new primary ball carrier if he takes advantage of his opportunities. Mendenhall has indicated the workload could be more spread out without Ellis, but I’m taking Kier as the MVP of the backfield (minus Perkins of course).
Mike Hollins – It sounds like he will get an opportunity to shine. Mendenhall has said he looks ACC-ready, and his high school competition was high level. And while he is small, if Milledge can turn his track speed into football speed, then Virginia should absolutely try to get him the ball in space and see what he can do.
A Stab at the Pitt Depth Chart
Without Perkins, how good would this backfield be on its own merit? It’s tough to know, because luckily, the ‘Hoos DO have Perkins, and the backfield is also so reliant on the offensive line, which took a step forward last year as well. There’s no doubt that in 2018, the running game saw more success than it had experienced in several seasons. Ellis has exited Scott Stadium, and I have the ultimate respect for his work ethic and dedication to helping build the program. But he was never a big-time home run hitter, and his skill set can be replaced. Virginia does not have a top-of-the-line, no-doubt star, but promise is there. The perception of Kier as a worthy successor to Ellis, incoming talent of Hollins, scintillating speed of Milledge, and experienced depth of Atkins, Sharp, and Peacock should give UVa viable options in the backfield to pair with the versatility of Perkins.