Every year, we like to do a piece on bold predictions. Emphasis is on the "bold." We want our writers' long shot bets on the year ahead. It has to be more specific and more daring than "UVA will win a lot of games," though preferably stopping short of the simply impossible like "Georgia Tech is going to run the table." We've asked each of our writers to share their thoughts on this topic; lets hope some of these come true:
Charles Snowden has a breakout season that sees him join Bryce Hall as a first round pick in the 2020 NFL draft. The NFL is going to increasingly place a premium on rangy athletes that can cover ground and get to the passer on defense. Snowden has both of of those spades. The type of plays he made that resulted in interceptions against Louisville and Virginia Tech are indicative of the type of play he'll be making this season.
UVA outside linebacker Charles Snowden (#11) deflection and interception pic.twitter.com/Tb3Ond2Vpb— NFL Draft Videos (@NFLDraftVideos) May 26, 2019
For the second time in school history, the Hoos hit the 10 win mark. The only other time it happened was when George Welsh's 1989 squad went 10-3. The season line's up well to achieve that feat.
Under UVA's control are a litany of positive elements. The return of Bryce Perkins, an offensive line with several players with in game experience including three players that have logged major minutes in their careers (Nelson, Glaser, Reinkensmeyer), deep rosters at both RB and WR, a defense that returns eight starters and has impressive depth including potential NFL first round draft pick Bryce Hall, and coaching staff continuity across the board.
Outside of UVA's control but favorable nonetheless are coaching upheaval and question marks for nearly all conference opponents. The season opener at Pitt features a team replacing its top two running backs, four of five OL starters, the offensive coordinator, and the wide receiver coach. Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Louisville, and Miami saw coaching changes and overhauls to their coaching staffs. Georgia Tech is also scrapping it's option offense while Miami is still trying to fix its QB position. Florida State is in year two under Willie Taggart and year one was not pretty. Now a new offense will be installed with a new QB under center. The Hoos get the Noles early which will be a big advantage. Duke is trying to replace first round NFL draft pick Daniel Jones under center as well as some key cogs on defense. And their OL is still problematic.
The nonconference schedule is also soft with only a trip to South Bend to play Notre Dame looking to be an expected challenge.
Veteran receivers Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois will both play major roles in the Virginia offense, but when the dust settles, Richmond transfer Dejon Brissett will lead the team in receiving touchdowns. Brissett was brought to the Cavaliers as a deep threat to help add that layer to the offense, and has both the size and speed to help Bryce Perkins stretch the field with big plays. We saw Andre Levrone play a similar role in the 2017 offense, coming in as an oft-injured receiver to put up monster numbers – seven TDs through the air and an average of 20.3 yards per catch. Brissett has the track record to back his role up, having averaged 14.9 YPC in his career; and the plethora of weapons he has alongside him could open up space all across the field. Perkins’ new toy may just be his shiniest.
This is probably a realistic goal for Mendenhall to set this season, but I predict the team will have a top-10 scoring defense in the country. The team actually wasn’t too far off from achieving this last season, ranking 21st with a 20.1 point average; but the variance of points allowed tells a story of inconsistency (0 against South Carolina and 3 against Louisville, but at least 30 to Ohio, NC State, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech). Last season’s 10th ranked defense was Army, who averaged 17.7 points per game, so its not unfathomable that Virginia could squeeze into the top tier. The schedule features three non-Power-Five teams (W&M, ODU, Liberty), three teams with a new coaching staff (Louisville, UNC, GT) and two teams that will likely have new QBs under center (Duke, Miami), so that ball-hawking Cavalier defense may be able to feast on some unproven teams and put up a banner season. Let’s just pencil in Notre Dame as the outlier.
Virginia will field a top-10 defense. Mendenhall's unit finished 24th in yards per game last season, allowing 337 yards per game. Alabama finished 10th in yards per game, allowing 295, and for the past several seasons, the top-10 threshold has held steady at around 300 yards per game. So that's a net ~40 yards per game Virginia needs to improve to break the top-10. I think they get it done.
Without a ball-hawk like Juan Thornhill, the strength of this team will be its physicality and limiting yards, not necessarily creating turnovers. With an improved and deeper defensive line, a linebacker unit headlined by Jordan Mack and Charles Snowden, and arguably the nation's best corner in Bryce Hall, the personnel is in place. Virginia has a staff of terrific assistants that can carry the defense to the top tier of college football.
Jordan Mack will be first-team All-ACC. I've loved his game ever since he moved inside along Micah Kiser as a sophomore. That season, he totaled 114 tackles and three sacks. We only saw a limited sample of his potential last season after an injury late against Louisville caused him to miss four games. Still, after a few weeks of easing back into action, he looked lights out against both Virginia Tech and South Carolina. And now having moved back to the to the Sabre inside backer position he played his sophomore season and becoming one of six players in strength coach Shawn Giswold's black performance group -- the highest tier -- he seems poised for a breakout campaign.
A first team All-ACC nod would be a heck of an accomplishment given the talent on both Clemson's (see Isaiah Simmons) Miami's (see Shaquille Quarterman and Michael Pinckney) defenses, but Mack will have the tackling numbers and likely the sacks to make voters notice. A former high school safety, he's also quite good dropping into coverage, too.
Wayne Taulapapa leads the team in rushing. Color me skeptical on PK Kier. Mendenhall calls him the heir apparent Jordan Ellis, but I just haven't seen it. Ellis' first career carry was a 39 yard touchdown run against William & Mary, so even in his limited action as an underclassman, we knew there was some potential. Kier's 32 rushes for 112 yards (3.5 yards/attempt) and career long of 13 yards haven't sold me on the junior. And while Mike Hollins is unquestionably the running back of the future, there's yet to be a true freshman emerge as a real difference maker under Mendenhall.
Which leads us to Taulapapa, who emerged from spring as the starting running back with Kier battling a concussion. I really like his one-cut style, reminding me of the backs Mike Shanahan could turn into 1,000 yard rushers seemingly out of nowhere. Taulapapa showed he can fall forward, and he has more wiggle and speed than Kier. Bryce Perkins might go ahead and out-rush all of these guys anyway, but I'm buying in on the sophomore.
The OL breaks out. Now, this isn't to say the Offensive Line was totally a problem last year. It gets a bad rap as one of the underperforming units on an overperforming club, but I think a lot of that has been lazy analysis. The numbers say the unit was okay last year. Not dominant, mind you, but not bad. We were 6th in the ACC in yards per carry at 4.5 without a dominant breakaway back. They ranked fifth in fewest tackles for loss allowed. Some of this was due to the escapability of Perkins improving the running game and avoiding negative plays. But the incremental progress of the line was there. And yet, even with the losses of two-and-a-half starters, I think this unit takes another step forward this year. Basically everyone expected to contribute is home-grown with a couple years already in the program. The big 2017 recruiting class, which was Tujague's first that was all his, has stayed together and now will be third years; most of them were able to redshirt and then get game experience last year. There's some real upside ready to be tapped.
I'm not expecting them to necessarily be the best in the Coastal, but if the veteran core can stay healthy I expect them to be stronger across the board. Opening up bigger holes for our young backs, buying Perkins a little more time, keeping him a little cleaner. Could make a huge difference in our offensive prospects.
If Armstrong has to play, we'll still win games. Perkins is our X-Factor, and everyone understands our Coastal goals ride on his ability to carry us over 12 games. But god forbid the redshirt freshman redhead steps under center for any meaningful stretch, a lot of casual football fans are going to ask "wait, who's that?!" The kid is the real deal. He came out of spring practice looking like a tank, and plays as both a runner and a passer with extreme confidence. He's got the trust of both his teammates and his coaches, and while he'll still have some growing pains whenever it's his turn to take the reins, he'll start flashing that upside with more consistency and keep Virginia winning football games while he's at it.
The defense unleashes a new pass rush. This isn't to say that the pass rush has been bad under Mendenhall, but the finishes (11th in the ACC in sacks in 2016, t-7th in 2017, 9th last year) don't wow you. Obviously the easiest thing to pin this on has been the utter lack of continuity on the defensive line, both season-to-season and game-to-game. But every reason to expect that changes this year. Virginia brings back 6 experienced D-Linemen this fall, brings another good one off his redshirt, and adds two blue chip freshmen. The defense last year used a lot of 2-4-5 alignments to paper over the poor DL depth, and while they were able to hold up okay against the run with that alignment, it was poorly suited to getting in the backfield, especially when those 2 down linemen were on the inexperienced side. But this year, we have every reason to think we'll be playing 3 mature, experienced down linemen with frequency, who can either eat up blockers to let linebackers shoot the gaps, or can collapse the pocket all their own. Expect Virginia to average at least 2.5 sacks a game, maybe more, which will put us squarely in the top half of the ACC for the first time since 2014.