It's Game Week! And that meant that this morning, Virginia released their first depth chart of the season. A lot of what we've written over the course of the last 3-4 weeks became old information as the summer workouts continued to progress, with some youngsters impressing, some veterans suffering injuries, and some reshuffling of personnel in deep position groups to get the best players on the field.
Today, we're doing a Hot Take on the newly released depth chart to take a look at what we've learned and what we're updating based on the results:
We were shocked - shocked I tell you - when we looked at the depth chart released for the Pitt game and saw the quarterbacks. Bryce Perkins starting? Brennan Armstrong in the vice president chair and Lindell Stone as second runner up? That's exactly how we drew it up. We really were just taking a shot in the dark with that one, but clearly were prescient. (Oh, wait, everyone else saw that coming too? Never mind.)
In our running backs position group preview, we guessed the pecking order to be, at small back (SB), PK Kier and then Mike Hollins, two guys Bronco Mendenhall specifically pointed to as being the likely leading men at that spot in July. Instead, the Week 1 depth chart leads with spring surprise Wayne Taulapapa followed by Kier and Lamont Atkins, who we did not have on our depth chart at all. We also only had two players at each spot, while the real one has three.
There is an "or" between Taulapapa and Kier and Kier and Atkins, which probably indicates the carries, at least at Pittsburgh, will be divvied up based on who has the hot hand and other situational factors. We wouldn't expect any back to be getting 20-plus carries. Even Jordan Ellis didn't crack that barrier often. At least at first, it looks like we should expect more of a timeshare until a lead horse steps up.
And then at big back (BB), the depth chart lists Jamari Peacock and Chris Sharp first and second, which is what we guessed. And then Hollins is listed. It seems curious to have the freshman there after he seemed primed to be in the two-deep at SB in July. He's also 5-foot-9 and 200 pounds, hardly big. My understanding is the names of the positions are more about their functions and do not necessarily mean that the small back is small and the big back is big, but in general, the body types have matched. But except for Peacock, Kier is the biggest running back at 6-0, 230, and he's at SB, so it isn't a clear divide. Like SB, the BBs have two "ors."
It looks like, going into the Pitt game, the running back position group is still a little unsettled, and the first game could be a testing ground to find out who is going to be in which roles and for how many snaps each game.
There weren't a ton of surprises with the wide receiver group. Bronco elected not to specify the X, Y, and Z positions specifically, though that can be inferred. Dubois starting was obvious, but true freshman Dorien Goddard impressing enough to be his backup was a pleasant surprise. Goddard was the only freshman to make the 2-deep, with Nathanael Beal redshirting this season with an injury and Dontayvion Wicks on the outside looking in at the moment. Joe Reed starting was also no surprise, but his backup was. Chuck Davis is a preferred walk-on and has been primarily a special teamer to date. Dejon Brissett, who we'd pegged as the backup here, missed a lot of summer camp with minor injuries and, while we expect him to get some PT sooner rather than later, this week he's just a tad behind the curve. Terrell Jana as the third WR starter was also an accurate prediction on our part, though he's sharing that spot via an "OR" with grad transfer Terrell Chatman, who had a great summer camp.
The half-back receiver, the only wideout spot specifically called out on the depth chart, is being shared by Tavares Kelly and Billy Kemp as we foresaw. With that said, there's an OR there which shows just how close a battle between the two this continues to be in their effort to step into Olamide Zaccheus' vacated position.
At tight end, Cowley was the only returning player at the position group from last year, so his position as the starter was safely assumed. The backup position was a battle between converted DE Misch and a former DE/TE in Baumgardner who sat out last year. As we predicted, Misch got the nod as the #2 for this week.
On the offensive line, the starters ended up exactly as we predicted weeks ago, and it's reassuring because that means the starters have primarily been working out all summer at their ultimate destinations. Some surprises with the second stringers, however. Fannin showed up as the backup center, and he may be able to cover any of the interior spots as necessary as he played with the first unit at RG some this summer when Reinkensmeyer was resting. Bissinger at backup LG tracks with our expectations as well, as does seeing Haskins backup the LT spot. But the right side backups were news to us. For as good as Hubbard's high school reputation was, we expected the established depth to keep all true freshmen off the 2-deep initially. It will be interesting to see if he actually gets in games, or if Fannin and Bissinger get the nod ahead of him. And at RT, seeing Devine show up was a pleasant surprise. We initially had Haskins as a swing tackle, but knowing Devine is ready to step in as well is reassuring.
The defensive line had the veteran DEs land basically as expected, with Burney and Hanback starting, Alonso basically a third starter who will play extensively in reserve, and the true sophomore Faumui looking to build on a quietly promising freshman campaign. Christ had been our third NT, and here he checks in as the 5th end, but that may all just be semantics; he'll rotate in situationally regardless. It's still nice to see Burney playing well enough to start, though, after medical issues nearly ended his career a year ago; we were hopeful this would be the case when we pegged him the starter a month ago, but we love seeing it confirmed. The real news here is at nose tackle. True freshman Jowon Briggs quickly seized the starting job this month and is generating a ton of hype, including preseason Freshman All-America honors. We were skeptical of annointing a true freshman when writing the position breakdown initially, but credit to the rookie. Still expect Redmond to play a lot too, though, Bronco said in the Monday press session that he expects at least 6 DL to rotate every week.
Mack and Snowden as starters for the linebackers were a given. There was absolutely no drama there. But everything else was up for grabs. At OLB, we knew that Elliott Brown was likely to backup Charles Snowden and that's what the depth chart reflects. The battle to replace Chris Peace opposite Snowden was highly anticipated. We cast my lot with experience in Matt Gahm. But he was unable to hold off the fast-rising Noah Taylor despite the depth chart listing the position as Taylor OR Gahm. Taylor is a high potential player who we expected to need another year of seasoning before being a starter. I'm excited that he's so far ahead of schedule. Gahm and Brown will still play throughout the season so we haven't heard the last of those guys yet.
There were two other position battles in the linebacker room. The obvious one was the starter opposite Jordan Mack, Zane Zandier vs Robert Snyder. The other was who was to be Jordan Mack's backup, TC Harrison or Nick Jackson. We missed on both of these in our preview. We expected the fast charging Nick Jackson to need more time to surpass redshirt freshman TC Harrison who had been reported to have a nice redshirt season. Jackson is just proving to be too good and it's a nice problem to have behind the senior Mack. Opposite Mack, we figured the more steady Snyder would get the nod over Zandier. The depth chart listed the position as Zandier OR Snyder, but like the Taylor vs Gahm battle the OR seems perfunctory. It's just a hunch but we suspect we're about to see Zandier break out this season.
The biggest – and more unfortunate – takeaway from the defensive back two-deep is the fallout from cornerback Darius Bratton’s likely season-ending knee injury. He was the most underrated member of Virginia’s defense last season and was my pick for a breakout star playing alongside Bryce Hall. His eye for the ball (eight pass break-ups last season) will surely be hard to replace. Fortunately, his replacement has been the hardest-working member of the team over the summer, Nick Grant. The sophomore got the honor of the No. 1 jersey choice on the team several weeks ago. Mendenhall has praised Grant’s conditioning and labelled him a playmaker during camp. He’ll have to carry that on to the field immediately, since he’ll likely be targeted frequently with Hall on the other sideline. Expect some growing pains as he transitions to full-time action, but it likely wont take long for him to catch up with his work ethic.
The only other point to note is the depth, with injuries to Myles Robinson and Germain Crowell sliding some younger players into backup roles. Redshirt freshman Jaylon Baker will likely see some action backing up Nick Grant. He has great size for a cornerback at 6’2” and has been a mentee of Bryce Hall according to Jeff White, so he could be set up for some solid play after a year of getting stronger. Former receiver recruit Heskin Smith will provide the other depth at cornerback after spending a his true freshman year on special teams. Finally, De’Vante Cross returns to provide safety depth after hauling in an interception last year.
Bratton’s injury stings, and the injuries to veteran depth takes away some of stability of a contingency plan. Still, the DBs will be one of the strongest all-around units on the team as long as Hall, Blount and Nelson are patrolling the air. Nick Grant could be a breakout player and fan favorite if all goes well.
Nash Griffin won the punting job as we had projected (and a scholarship this week as well!), with Brian Delaney as the placekicker and backup punter. Justin Duenkel beating out Hunter Pearson for #2 kicker was a mild surprise, as you expect the guy returning with a scholarship to make the depth chart. At this point, it starts to look like Pearson will not be a successful experiment.
Holder and long snapper were as projected, with Griffin as the holder and redshirt freshman Lee Dudley doing the snapping.
Where we missed and confess to being a touch disappointed is with the returners. We had Tavares Kelly as the lead punt returner with his younger clone Seneca Milledge as the number two. It appears Bronco is leaning on Chuck Davis and his 3.8 ypr as the primary pr, with Kelly as the other one. Fans and commentators like the punt returners who can go to the house; coaches - especially defense first coaches - want the guy who is going to catch the damn ball. They like touchdowns, but they like even more not having their defense stop the opponent then the punt returner give the ball right back. So Davis it is.
At kick returner, we brilliantly predicted Joe Reed as the primary, but we put Kelly with him, and the two-deep has redshirt-freshman Perris Jones as the number two. Knowing nothing about Jones, we have no idea what to expect - other than Reed getting every kick we can get to fall into his hands.
Lots of "OR"s still, with both running back positions, the H-back, the WR(Y), both ends, two linebackers, punter, and snapper all still arguably up for grabs. In some ways this is a great indicator of depth, but at the same time it'll be important to establish a heirarchy at a lot of those spots sooner rather than later. Maybe over the course of this week of practice, separation occurs. Maybe that separation occurs in Pittsburgh this weekend. Or maybe it takes a few weeks yet (in theory they all should be able to excel against Bill and Mary next week).
It's a really deep roster. There really aren't weak spots across the 2 deep, and it's a credit to the staff's job recruiting, developing, and retaining good players that we're in this position. Incumbents fill most starting spots, and where young players have emerged it's because they rose to the challenge and earned it at a deep position, not simply because a lack of depth necessitated it. Injuries have really only hit one position group so far (*knock on wood*) with the absences of Bratton, Robinson, and Crowell felt at the corner position. But everywhere else, Bronco will be putting his best players on the field. This is what we've been building to, a full 2-deep of experienced, talented guys organically nurtured in Bronco's systems. Now it's time to see what it can do on the field.