We approach each season with high hopes. We always have, we're painful optimists. But those hopes have accelerated after last year's progress. Virginia is a trendy pick to win the Coastal and get a few monkeys off its back with a big year; but being a preseason favorite wins you no games, and instead just paints a target on your back. Getting over the hump this year is everyone's goal. What is it going to take to actually turn those goals into reality? Hoos Place's writers weigh in with our Keys to the Season:
It's all about the offense for me.
Don't get predictable. Utilize all the talent on hand. Get the OL to take a step forward while replacing Applefield, Fieler, and Proctor. Increase the number of explosive plays. And see a big jump in red zone scoring efficiency.
If the Hoos are to have the type of season some are predicting, those last three elements are especially key.
The expected starting OL candidates (Nelson, Glaser, Oluwatimi, Fannin, Reinkensmeyer, Haskins, and Swoboda) have all learned under Coach 2J their entire career at UVA. It's the first group that can say as much. And while there are no seniors in the bunch, that familiarity with Coach 2J's methods and expectations must make a marked difference. Everything is going to flow from them but with their entire career in one system, and no bad habits developed under other staffs, it's time for the OL to make a statement.
And if they do, that will open up opportunities for explosive plays and better red zone scoring. Despite a plethora of highlights from Perkins, OZ, and Joe Reed the Hoos still had a grind you down offense last year. Grinder In Chief Jordan Ellis has graduated. On paper, the lead candidates to replace him are more explosive. But is the receiving corps? That remains to be seen. But a Bryce Perkins with a healthy throwing hand and more time from the OL can still allow these receivers to do damage. They'll need to. And is there a breakout candidate among the group (Kelly, Jana, Brissett)?
Better play calling. Improved OL play. Better vision from the RB spot. Utilizing the TE position more. And some legit BIG bodies at WR, if they get on the field this year. Combine it all and things inside the twenties can be better. And that's important. Empty possessions when you hit the red zone are a killer. We need to maximize the touchdowns but an improved, consistent kicking game will also take a great deal of pressure off of Bryce Perkins and company.
Establishing a running game early is the best way for Virginia to unlock its offense, but will also be harder to accomplish than last year. Not only was Jordan Ellis consistent as a complement to Perkins, but the offensive line held very strong in run protection, limiting stuffing plays an top-notch rate. Turnover in both positions create some voids and questions that will need to be addressed from the Pitt game. If the by-committee approach is what Mendenhall goes with, he will need to find success early and often in each game to put the offense in a solid flow. The results have not been great for Mendenhall teams that couldn’t run the ball effectively (see: 2016 and the second half of 2017), so staying true to the ground game must be a major point of emphasis.
Replace Chris Peace in the pass-rush scheme. The play of Peace last season flew a little under the radar last season with the play of the secondary turning many heads, but the senior linebacker played an equally vital role in the defense. Peace led the team in sacks with 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. He was far and away the team’s best linebacker in the passing defense last year, and the talented trio of Jordan Mack, Zane Zandier and Charles Snowden will be tasked with filling his void. Mack, who missed several game last season due to injury, will slide in as a leader and key pass-rusher, and with Snowden excelling in pass coverage last season, Zandier will likely be helping him shoulder that load. Noah Taylor, Robert Snyder and Elliot Brown will all likely be in the mix too, but without a true sack artist to replace Peace, some searching and experimentation will likely need to occur.
Find a running back (or multiple). Bryce Perkins can't be asked to do it all. If he is, the team might stumble down the stretch like it did last season. Perkins legs are a threat, but they can't be the only way to run the ball. My bold prediction was Wayne Taulapapa would be the team's leading rusher, but truth be told it really doesn't matter to me who is, as long as it's not Perkins. I don't mind seeing him run read-options, but I don't want him running all-the-way designed runs like he did frequently against Virginia Tech. He's too important to play that role.
Mendenhall has said he wants to find one running back. I don't entirely follow his resistance to taking a committee approach, but as long as Virginia finds a back that can gain ~1,000 yards rushing, I'll feel a lot better.
Joe Reed's emergence. We're going to miss Olamide Zaccheaus a lot next season. Bryce Perkins has said all of the right things about this years receivers (that they're more experienced, a deeper unit, etc.), but this is the position unit that worries me most this season. Multiple players will have to replace Zaccheaus' production, and Mendenhall keeps bringing up Joe Reed. After missing the spring with injury, Reed moved into Griswold's black workout group this summer. Known more as a returner than receiver to most of the ACC, Reed will have an incredibly important role on this offense. For a team in dire need of some dynamic and explosive players on offense, Reed needs to deliver this season.
Defense living up to the hype. I'm really high on this defense, and they should be good regardless. But they will likely need to carry the team at times this season. For as good as Bryce Perkins is, the offense will not return its starting running back, best receiver, and three of it's five starting offensive linemen from a year ago. Perkins can cover up a lot of weaknesses, but there will be growing pains on offense. With critical ACC matchups against Pitt and FSU in September, the defense will need to be ready to go from the start. If Virginia drops even one of those games, the path to the Coastal championship becomes much more difficult with an away game against Miami and the home finale against Virginia Tech still on the schedule. I'm still trying to piece together what Virginia's offense will look like, and while that's happening, the team can't afford any lapses from the defense.
The kicking game must not disappoint. We don't talk a lot about special teams, but we've got some big question marks surrounding both the placekicking and the punting games. Our field goal kickers hit a below-average 68% last year, 9th in the ACC, but it's more than that. They were severely range limited, anything beyond 40 yards was a terrifying proposition, meaning the team would stall out deep in enemy territory in a no-man's land. Bronco had to make tough choices inside opponent 40s at times. We also switched between kickers over the course of the season because no one ever inspired that much confidence. One of Delaney, Meija, Pearson, and newcomber Duenkel need to seize the job and hold it. Making matters worse, entrenched long snapper Joe Spaziani has graduated meaning we're taking the risks that come with another newcomer potentially having wrinkles to iron out. Lastly, we've been spoiled the last few years with Lester Coleman at punter. Nash Griffin will fend off challenges from Delaney and Duenkel this summer, but one of them must make the most of the opportunity. Too many games' fortunes swing on the ability to flip field position with a long punt, or put 3 points on the board consistently when a drive stalls, or god forbid prevent blocks and fumbles due to bad snaps and handles. Virginia needs to find good answers to these question marks to excel this year; if they don't there's the very real risk the kicking operations are the difference in losing a close game or two.
Take the top off opposing defenses. It's a pretty common refrain right now that UVA needs to improve its running game (with its tailbacks as much as Perkins) to open up the offense. But to me a big part of that is going to be taking the safeties out of the equation by scaring them with a true deep receiving threat. Virginia occasionally tried to use Tavares Kelly in that regard, but it never clicked and defenses could stayed keyed in against the running game, leaving a safety to spy Perkins' when he played Houdini. If Virginia can finally start connecting on those deep routes, using the run game to bait safeties before beating them over the top, it will change how defensive coordinators are forced to scheme against us, and over the second half of the season could open up the running game with a less-stacked box to operate against.
Find the right mental edge. Learning to win has a mental component. Duh. Learning to win with the weight of expectations is something else entirely. Virginia was picked as the preseason Coastal favorite, and you better believe no ACC opponent is looking lightly at UVA. From Pitt week 1 to VT week 12, the Hoos will get everyone's best shot. This goes as much for the staff as it does for the players, as the staff is going to have to manage the team's emotions and strike the right balance with playcalling to keep playing to win, avoiding the temptation to play conservative. Trust this team to go out and win games, keep them loose and aggressive, and don't get hung up on hiccups along the way, either a bad play in a game or an unexpected loss over a long season. Starting from week 1, I want to see Virginia playing games like its hungry to claim their crown, and punish anyone who thinks they might stand in our way.