I hope you enjoyed my trip down memory lane during the past two posts as I recounted some of my favorite Virginia football games I've attended.
Now, I want to look forward to 2020. Obviously, this coming season is going to look different than any in recent memory because of the coronavirus pandemic. On Thursday, sources said that the ACC, and also the Big Ten with more conferences surely to follow, are expected to only play conference games. What this means for the starting date of the season is anyone's guess right now. Obviously, if schools only play conference games, that affords more flexibility and time for them to actually take place, whether that means playing 10 games over 12 weeks, eight over 10, or four over eight, whatever. There's also the chance there could instead be a mini-season played in the spring. And of course, there could be no season at all. These are all possibilities people have brought up. There are still more questions than answers. But for now, perhaps in the spirit of optimism and just because I wanted to write this post, I am moving forward. Even if only a handful of games are played, this post will still be relevant no matter how much football we get.
This is going to be a look at the Cavaliers' roster, with reminders about who has graduated and who is returning, and notable players who are new.
As a quick refresher, some of the accomplishments for the 2019 team included:
- First nine-win season since 2007
- First Coastal Division title/ACC championship game appearance
- Second New Year's Six bowl berth (Orange Bowl) and first since January 1991 (Sugar Bowl)
- First win over Virginia Tech since 2003
Some may call 2020 a rebuilding season for Virginia with a certain quarterback now in the NFL. But I don't see it that way. I don't expect a full reload, but this team is still fully capable of going back to a bowl game, or shall we say, just having a successful season, if there are no bowl games? There's lots of talent and depth returning in this program, and I'm sure the players are eager to show it, if they are allowed to.
OK, on to the players. Class years will reflect their class for this fall. Players that have graduated or left are labeled in red, returners in green, and any newcomers in blue (not an exhaustive list of newcomers).
Quarterbacks: Bryce Perkins' record-setting career in Charlottesville, which was, unfortunately, only two years long, is over. Perkins will now get his shot in the NFL with the Rams. Perkins' total stats from 2018-19: 544 completions out of 844 pass attempts (64.5 percent) for 6,210 yards, 47 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions; 1,682 rushing yards with 20 touchdowns.
It hurts to lose him, no doubt, but Brennan Armstrong has played just enough the past two seasons for fans to get a glimpse of what's possible with him under center. The redshirt sophomore from Shelby, Ohio, has even endeared himself enough to earn nicknames referencing his red hair and playing style. ("Red Rifle" and "Baby Tebow" just to name a couple.) It's tough to earn a nickname unless you're turning heads, and that's what he's done. Armstrong has looked solid in limited time. He's completed 17 of his 25 passes (68 percent) for 258 yards, two TDs, and two picks, and he's rushed for 93 yards. During his true freshman season in 2018, he entered the Louisville and Georgia Tech games after Perkins got banged up and led touchdown drives, so he has no fear and is definitely ready and prepared for this opportunity. Armstrong is sturdily built at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, has shown good running ability, and shown he can take a hit. He seems like a tough kid and a solid leader. Analysts that only know about Perkins and attribute a lot of Virginia's recent success to him could be in for a surprise with Armstrong taking over. It isn't fair to expect him to produce as much as Perkins, especially right away, but I have reason to believe Armstrong can lead the Wahoos to another successful season.
Unlike last season, though, there is some doubt about who will start at QB. That's because Virginia picked up an immediately-eligible transfer in the offseason from Mississippi State, Keytaon Thompson. The 6-foot-4 225-pounder has two years of eligibility remaining. At Mississippi State in limited time, Thompson completed 50 of 105 passes (47.6 percent) for 846 yards, eight scores, and three INTs. He added 672 yards and 10 TDs on the ground. Given the lack of time to get ready for this season, Armstrong has the edge to start since he's been in the system, but Thompson will be someone to watch given his hulking size and running ability. Perhaps the staff will look to get him involved in certain plays, especially given those running abilities. I would trust this staff to come up with a two-QB look more than the past couple of Virginia coaching staffs, which tried a couple of times but mostly found no success.
Running backs: The lack of depth is concerning here after PK Kier and Lamont Atkins left the program, and Chris Sharp graduated. However, none of them contributed on a consistent basis, with Kier and Atkins combining for 252 rushing yards and two scores in 2019, while Sharp had nine catches and three receiving TDs the past two seasons. Senior Jamari Peacock is back, but he is used primarily for blocking, with only two rushes and one catch the past two seasons. Junior Wayne Taulapapa led the team's running backs in rushing last year with 116 attempts for 473 yards (4.1 ypc). He was used consistently at the goal line, scoring 12 touchdowns, fourth among ACC running backs. I have been on the record saying I think Taulapapa should've gotten more carries last year to take some of the load off of Perkins. He's only 5-9, but pretty solid at 210 pounds. He averaged over 4 yards per carry, so I think he can produce at a higher level if the team needs him to. Mike Hollins is a promising sophomore who flashed potential in 2019 with 21 carries for 112 yards (5.3 ypc) and a trio of TDs. For now, those are the only two proven ball carriers on the team. But Virginia is hoping Indiana transfer Ronnie Walker becomes immediately eligible. The former Hopewell (Va.) star recorded 221 rushing yards, 112 receiving yards, and three total TDs with the Hoosiers in two seasons. Walker should have a role if he becomes eligible. I think Taulapapa and Hollins are both durable, good backs, but will feel a bit better if Walker can also play.
Wide receivers: Losing Perkins is one reason critics might doubt UVa's 2020 passing game, and another is the loss of two receivers in Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed who both caught at least 75 passes, with Reed leading the team with seven receiving TDs, and Dubois pacing the corps with 1,062 yards. But luckily, the third guy of last year's receiving triumvirate caught 74 passes for 886 yards and three scores -- senior Terrell Jana -- and he is returning. He should slide right into the No. 1 role. Junior Billy Kemp shined as a complementary piece last season with 35 receptions, 289 yards, and one TD, a big one against Virginia Tech. Junior Tavares Kelly (14 receptions, 152 yards, one TD) has shown promise but hasn't gotten many opportunities yet. Dontayvion Wicks (three catches, one score) and Ugo Obasi are a pair of sophomores waiting their turns who are supposed to have potential. The receiving corps also got a boost in the transfer market with the addition of senior Ra'Shaun Henry, who will play his last season in Charlottesville after starring in 2019 at St. Francis (Pa.), where he caught 90 passes for 1,118 yards and nine TDs. With the graduation of Dubois and Reed, Henry should have a chance to make an immediate impact.
Tight ends: Tanner Cowley, who recorded 28 receptions and one score last season, has graduated. Sophomore Grant Misch caught only one pass, a TD against North Carolina, and he is the next man up. This position isn't used too often in the offense, but at the very least, expect to see true freshman Joshua Rawlings, who stands 6-5 and 245 pounds, get on the field.
Offensive line: The good news is every starter is back. The bad news is this has been the weak spot of the offense in Bronco Mendenhall's tenure. But after having a rough midseason last year, with Notre Dame (eight), Miami (five), and Louisville (four) all sacking Perkins at least four times, Perkins was never sacked more than three times down the stretch run of the season. Plus, as I mentioned, I think the run game with Taulapapa was underutilized and underappreciated. So there's optimism that this will be the best OL UVa has seen in quite some time. And it's not like Armstrong can't take a hit when the protection inevitably breaks down. The line is still young. Three of this fall's presumed starters could be back in 2021. Junior Bobby Haskins started 13 of 14 games at left tackle; junior Ryan Nelson started all 14 games at left guard; junior Olusegun Oluwatimi (honorable mention all-ACC) started 13 games at center; senior Chris Glaser started 13 games at right guard; and senior Dillon Reinkensmeyer started 12 games at right tackle and one at right guard. There is experienced depth as well, including transfer Alex Gellerstedt, a senior who previously played at Penn State. He was eligible last season but suffered a season-ending injury in camp. He played in eight games over two years for the Lions. And Ryan Swoboda, a junior, appeared in 10 games last season and made three starts, two at right tackle and one at left tackle.
Defensive line: Eli Hanback (36 tackles, 8.5 for losses, 4.5 sacks, and one of the biggest fumble recoveries in school history in 2019), who never missed a game in his Cavaliers career, has graduated, but otherwise, the strength of the defense starts up front. Senior DE Mandy Alonso started nine games and had 23 tackles, 6.5 for losses, two sacks, two breakups, and a forced fumble -- again, one of the biggest sacks and forced fumbles in Virginia history. Junior DT Aaron Faumui started five games and tallied 33 tackles, eight for losses, four sacks, and two breakups. Sixth-year senior DE Richard Burney started six games and recorded 21 tackles, 2.5 for losses, a sack, and a breakup, and it was announced in January he planned to petition the NCAA for a sixth year based on medical hardship, which he received. Sophomore DT Jowon Briggs started seven games and had 19 tackles, three for losses, and a sack, and he's reportedly up to about 310 pounds now after playing below 300 in 2019. Redshirt sophomore DT Jordan Redmond collected 10 tackles two seasons ago, but only played in two games last year. Redshirt freshman Ben Smiley III saw time last season as a true freshman but retained his redshirt. And there's some excitement around true freshman Jahmeer Carter, a 6-2 300-pounder. This position group is in good shape.
Linebackers: Like the line, there's really only one loss here, Jordan Mack and his 69 tackles, 8.5 for losses, and team-leading 7.5 sacks. But luckily, the team knows what it is like to play without Mack, as he missed four games in 2018 and did not play in the Orange Bowl last season, when Virginia challenged Florida. He was also less than 100 percent for the last few regular-season games after getting banged up against Georgia Tech. At inside linebacker, senior Zane Zandier (honorable mention all-ACC) returns after racking up a team-leading 108 tackles, 12.5 for losses, five sacks, and five breakups while starting every game. Sophomore Nick Jackson is back after getting two starts, amassing 28 tackles, one for loss, and half a sack. Senior Rob Snyder played in only four games last season before getting hurt but played a lot in 2018, recording 53 tackles, 1.5 for losses, and one sack. Senior Charles Snowden (honorable mention all-ACC) headlines the outside linebacker group. He seemingly adds muscle each season and is currently listed at 6-7, 235 pounds. In 2019, he piled up 72 tackles, 11 for losses, five sacks, and four breakups while starting every game. Junior Noah Taylor started 10 games and posted 57 tackles, a team-leading 13.5 for losses, seven sacks, and four breakups, not to mention two picks against the Hokies, one of which was a game-changer in the fourth quarter. Senior Matt Gahm had 36 tackles, 5.5 for losses, 1.5 sacks, and three breakups while starting four games. Senior Elliott Brown played in eight games and recorded eight tackles, 0.5 for loss, and half a sack. Redshirt freshman Hunter Stewart didn't play but is a promising recruit. As for incoming true freshmen, Jonathan Horton, another long, rangy guy at 6-5, could see time as the second-ranked recruit in UVa's class.
Secondary: Virginia says goodbye to All-America cornerback Bryce Hall (20 tackles, three for losses, one sack, four breakups), but remember, the Wahoos had to adapt without him for eight full games last season. Otherwise, the only other loss is backup safety Chris Moore (42 tackles, two breakups), who decided to transfer to Georgia State. Let's start with the returners at cornerback, and the first one, you probably barely remember his name: redshirt junior Darrius Bratton. He was knocked out for the season in camp last year with a knee injury. He was expected to start at the corner opposite Hall after a solid 2018 in which he started five games and collected 16 tackles and seven breakups. The other expected starter at corner this year is senior Nick Grant, who was thrust into the starting role in 2019 when Bratton went down. Grant played pretty well, tallying 51 tackles, one for loss, half a sack, two picks, and eight breakups. A pair of guys that saw time, especially after Hall went down, are redshirt junior Heskin Smith and redshirt sophomore Jaylon Baker. Smith started three games and played in eight, recording 28 tackles and two breakups. Baker started one game and played in six but had just one tackle. At safety, senior Joey Blount (third-team all-ACC) -- whose solid play has probably been overshadowed the past two seasons by Juan Thornhill and then Hall -- finished second on the squad with 95 stops, 6.5 for losses, 3.5 sacks, three INTs, and three breakups. Senior De'Vante Cross started most games at safety but some at corner and finished with 60 tackles, four for losses, one sack, two picks, and six breakups. Senior Brenton Nelson played in eight games with five starts before missing the rest of the year with an injury. He put up 19 tackles, an interception, and two breakups. Behind those main guys, sophomores Tenyeh Dixon and Antonio Clary were on the field some, with Dixon playing in nine games and getting three tackles, and Clary playing in five games and picking up four tackles.
Kicker and punter: The 'Hoos are set here, with senior Brian Delaney at kicker after an all-ACC honorable mention year in which he hit 20 of 24 field goals, though he did miss two memorable extra points against Florida State and Virginia Tech, though luckily for him, UVa won both games. At punter, the Cavaliers welcome back senior Nash Griffin, who averaged 42 yards per punt.
Many pundits are saying Virginia will take a major step back in 2020, but that's because they think that Perkins is all we had. That's not true. Who knows how many games the Cavaliers will be able to play this year, but however many they get, they'll be out to prove they weren't just a one-man wrecking crew in 2019. The offense has the entire line back, a couple of nice weapons, and a solid-looking QB. And the defense is loaded to begin the season. Now if we can just get to the season.