Hopefully the title here is pretty self-explanatory. This is the first in a two-part series where we’ll ask five intriguing questions by position unit heading into fall camp and the regular season, first starting with the offense. Some questions are scheme-related, while others are production-related. Likewise, some questions are more intriguing than necessarily related to on-field performance, and vice versa. The intent here isn’t to preview, but rather to evaluate the battles taking place and schemes being designed and tweaked by the staff.
We’ll start with the offense, with part two focusing on the defense.
1) Quarterback: What does the leap for Perkins look like?
With the exception of an oddly-timed start for Matt Johns in 2016’s penultimate game, we’ve really only seen two quarterbacks play for Bronco Mendenhall and his staff – Kurt Benkert and Bryce Perkins. While they certainly have very different playing styles, their paths to Charlottesville were similar. Both by way of grad transfer. Both with two years of eligibility remaining. And both having never started a FBS game.
While Benkert’s first season in Charlottesville should be taken with a grain of salt since it was also Mendenhall’s first year on grounds, the jump from his junior to senior season was undeniable. He improved in essentially every statistical category – yards (2,552 in 2016 to 3,207 in 2017), touchdowns (21 to 25), interceptions (11 to 9), and completion percentage (56% to 59%). Benkert’s development was enough to earn him a spot on the Atlanta Falcons last summer, and he’ll compete for their backup job in training camp.
Does Perkins have a NFL-caliber leap in him? It’s tough to say. As soon as he started to look more comfortable in the pocket last season, he injured his pinky, which he played through for the remainder of the season. But draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. has Perkins as his fifth rated senior quarterback entering the season. He must see something in the senior.
Perkins posted really impressive stats last season – 2,680 yards, 25 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, and a 64% completion rate. That’s already as good or better than Benkert’s senior season in three of the four categories, not to mention Perkins’ 923 rushing yards (which really should be closer to his 1,189 positive yards since the NCAA subtracts sacks from the quarterback’s rushing total).
I’m not sure how his stats will look next season. But you could already tell from the spring game his confidence and arm strength look improved from last year. I’m excited to see if he can make a Benkert-level leap.
2) Quarterback: Packages with both Bryce Perkins and Brennan Armstrong?
The first question on quarterbacks is more serious. This one is a bit more fun.
The staff has hinted there will be packages where both Perkins and Armstrong are on the field at the same time. That happened once last season, coming in the Belk Bowl. With Perkins lined up as a receiver, Armstrong took the snap and flipped the ball to Perkins, who completed the pass to Hasise Dubois.
I’m high on Armstrong’s ability. I think he has the best arm on the team, and he has the potential to be Virginia’s first three-year starter at quarterback during my fandom. As long as Perkins isn’t running routes as a receiver (cough, Louisville), this could be a fun wrinkle every now and then in the offense.
3) Running Back: Will there be a committee approach?
Wayne Taulapapa threw a wrench in the staff’s plans this spring. The Jordan Ellis-to-PK Kier succession plan became a bit murkier with Taulapapa’s performance while Kier was down with a concussion. Assuming the 2019 offensive scheme resembles 2018’s, Kier made sense as the next man up – he seems to have the ability to hit the A-gap and fall forward like Ellis. But Taulapapa’s one-cut style makes him a different and intriguing option. Is there room for both this season?
Last season, Ellis received 86.6% of the carries by running backs. His 215 attempts far surpassed Kier’s 26, which were the second most on the team by a running back. The prior season, 2017, was similar. Ellis’ 215 carries were most by a running back with Daniel Hamm’s 26 good for second on the team (Ellis consumed 83.0% of running back carries). Even in 2016, Mendenhall’s first season, the carries were still somewhat concentrated, with Taquan Mizzell’s 187 attempts accounting for 61.2% of the running back carries; Albert Reid’s 98 carries (32.4%) were a good bit behind Mizzell’s total, although they did show some distribution by the coaching staff.
Mendenhall has called his lack of a lead running back his biggest concern entering training camp, so expect this battle to eat up headlines. I’m just curious if the staff will show some flexibility and creativity this season after pounding the rock solely with Jordan Ellis two years in a row.
4) Wide Receiver: Who will lead the team in receiving yards?
I’m confident Hasise Dubois will lead the team in receptions, and it might not even be that close. But I’m less sure who will lead the team in receiving yards. That could be a number of players.
Obviously this is taking into consideration the big-play threat that Dubois doesn’t really possess. With Zaccheaus’ 1,058 yards needing to be replaced, this could go a number of different directions.
Dubois had 578 yards on 52 receptions last season (11.1 yards per catch), so his volume approach could lead the team in 2019 (note that while Zaccheaus had some big plays last season, his average yards per catch was only 11.4). Joe Reed finished third on the team with 465 yards on 25 catches (18.6 yards per catch). Terrell Jana is a candidate to break out, but he likely won’t best Dubois’ total. Dejon Brissett is a dark horse candidate after amassing 896 receiving yards for Richmond in 2017, but missing spring ball and being limited in training camp with his foot injury limits his time to develop chemistry with Perkins.
All said, my guess is Dubois leads the team in receiving yards. But if Joe Reed can be more consistent, he and his big plays could have something to say about that.
5) Offensive Line: Who wins the center battle?
This seldom talked about position on the line will likely be the biggest determining factor in how the offensive line takes form. Largely manned by Dillon Reinkensmeyer the past two seasons (12 starts at center in 2018 and 9 in 2017), the junior will likely move elsewhere on the line this season with the center battle between sophomores Tyler Fannin and Victor Oluwatimi. The former redshirted in 2017 but missed the 2018 season due to injury. Oluwatimi also sat out last season per NCAA rules after transferring from Air Force following the 2017 season.
Despite neither yet appearing in a college football game, one is likely to start at center, which means Reinkensmeyer can move elsewhere on the line. He started at right guard in the Belk Bowl and played left tackle for two games his freshman season, so he could fit in at a number of spots, although I’d expect him to eventually land at guard.
Oluwatimi came out of spring ball with a slight lead for the starting center position over Fannin, but Oluwatimi’s versatility might end up giving the position to Fannin with Oluwatimi sliding to guard.
There’s a number of possibilities here, and we likely won’t have clarity until late this summer.