In any given year, when we talk about new faces on the football team, we're talking almost exclusively about the new freshmen. It's not to say that UVA, either under Bronco or under previous regimes, didn't take transfers. But it was maybe one or two a year.
This year is different.
The extentuating circumstances relating to the pandemic, which affected both UVA's roster and smaller conferences' seasons, created the perfect environment for Bronco to flood the 2-deep with transfers this year. Six immediately-eligible graduate transfers arrived this summer, not to mention a traditional underclassman transfer and even a holdover grad transfer from last season. With so many players arriving from around the rest of college football, we wanted to dedicate a piece introducing each of them and talk about their potential impacts on the roster this year.
This is a group that's not just padding depth; all seven graduate transfers (and maybe the traditional transfer depending on a waiver appeal) listed below are basically guaranteed to be on the 2-deep, to including both phases of the return game. Linebacker is the only position on the team that won't feature a graduate transfer on game day. All eight have earned their number, most of whom did it by the second round of the number draft. It's a group that's impressing the coaching staff and has the chance to really turn the tide of UVA's season.
(Also, a ninth player I didn't include below, but still deserves a call-out: grad transfer long snapper Danny Caracciolo, a 5'11" 230 lb walk-on long snapper by way of Bryant and JMU who was the first of the team's three LS's to earn a number in camp, before even incumbent RS sophomore Lee Dudley).
Keytaon Thompson - Quarterback
6'4" 215 lb
Going into this past offseason, Bronco didn't hide the fact that while he had a ton of confidence in Brennan Armstrong's ability to take over for Bryce Perkins, he wasn't comfortable with going into the season with only one quarterback he felt was ACC ready. RJ Harvey, last year's #3, was on his way out for disciplinary reasons. Lindell Stone is more of a coach than a playable prospect. Ira Armstead has long term potential but as a true freshman would've been over his head. A grad transfer quarterback was going to be required.
A few names were bandied about over the spring. Caylin Newton had lit up the MEAC at Howard but was a little undersized (he ended up going to his brother Cam's alma mater, Auburn). Jack Sears had shown promise at Southern Cal but was maybe more pro-style than what the staff was looking for (he ended up at Boise State). Anthony Brown had done well at BC under their old coaching staff but his injury history was worrisome (he ended up at Oregon).
It turns out Thompson was the player the staff was waiting for, he's the total package. Thompson was a composite 4-star recruit in the 2017 class, originally committed to then-head coach Dan Mullen. Thompson got action right away as a true freshman when starter Nick Fitzgerald went down in the Egg Bowl, nearly leading a comeback win over rival Ole Miss (fell short 31-28 after a 22 point 4th quarter), then leading State to a win over Louisville in their bowl game. He scored 7 TDs in a win over Stephen F Austin as a true sophomore before yielding the starting job back to the veteran Nick Fitzgerald under new head coach Joe Moorehead. Thompson never meshed with the new State coaching staff and when Mississippi State changed coaches yet again to Mike Leach, Thompson made a move.
Oh, and did I mention he's only a redshirt junior, meaning we should get multiple years of him on the team?
He's a true dual threat quarterback, amassing 846 career passing yards with 8 PaTDs to go with 672 rushing yards with 10 RuTDs. Having seen what UVA's offense can do with that type of versatility under center with Bryce Perkins, there's every reason to be excited for Thompson's prospects at UVA.
Ultimately, Brennan's familiarity with the playbook in a short, weird offseason gave him the edge over Thompson in the run up to the Virginia Tech game, but Thompson is a good one who will probably still win UVA some games before it's all said and done.
Ronnie Walker Jr - Running Back
5'11" 210 lb
There arguably wasn't a more prioritized in-state recruit in the 2018 class for UVA than Ronnie Walker out of Hopewell. Virginia's coaching staff built a close, early relationship with the talented 3-star running back and were well positioned to earn his commitment in the summer or fall of 2017. But then August 2017's Unite the Right rally occurred, and rumors were that Walker was at that time doubting his desire to go to Charlottesville. Shortly thereafter he made the decision to go to Indiana and that was that.
Fast forward to the spring of 2020, and Walker was buried on the depth chart behind Stevie Scott. After registering 32 carries as a true freshman, his usage as a sophomore plateaued (27 carries, 12 receptions), and after the Hoosiers' Gator Bowl trip he felt like a change of scenery was in order, announcing he was leaving IU in February. By mid April, he had decided to come home to Virginia.
Then came the uncertainty.
Ronnie Walker is the only traditional transfer on this list, meaning he's transferring without having completed his undergraduate coursework. The NCAA lets anyone who's finished their undergrad degree transfer with essentially no restrictions. But for those who haven't, a sit-out year is traditionally in order. This wouldn't have been a huge issue in past years as Walker still had his redshirt year to use anyways. Sit one, play two. No big deal.
But waivering that redshirt year requirement has become a messy proposition, thanks to the NCAA's seeming inconsistencies on awarding exemptions over the years (think Braxton Key coming from Alabama without needing to sit out, or London-era quarterback Phillip Sims). Usually these waivers boil down to one of two things: a family emergency necessitating a player move to a school closer to home, or escaping a toxic situation at their past school. This year, it felt as if COVID fears would be added as a third "shoo-in" category, those coming home to be nearer to family during the pandemic. Honestly, most around UVA simply assumed Ronnie's waiver was a formality and a given.
In late August, in a "Friday news dump" kind of presser, Bronco let it slip that Ronnie's initial waiver request was denied by the NCAA. This was beyond perplexing, because the NCAA has been granting exemptions like candy. What could be more of a gimme than coming home during a pandemic?
The rejection is under appeal, but with the NCAA who knows, best not to get your hopes up.
Were he to have been eligible, Walker was in line for a lot of work on offense thanks to the massive attrition from the RB room: gone are upperclassmen Jamari Peacock, PK Kier, and Lamont Atkins to transfer, and gone are underclassmen Seneca Milledge to dismissal and Mike Hollins to pandemic opt-out. We didn't even take a RB in the 2020 recruiting class. Wayne Taulapapa was the only incumbent scholarship running back in camp this summer. Walker, who despite his lack of statistics at Indiana does boast a pretty well rounded skill set as both a ball carrier and a pass catcher out of the backfield. He had a chance to battle Wayne for the job of bellcow tailback.
Feel free to keep your fingers crossed on the NCAA changing gears if you want, but for the moment it looks like we're going to have to wait one more year before we get to see what Walker can really do.
Shane Simpson - Running Back / Kick Returner
5'11" 200 lb
Shane Simpson was a first team FCS All-American at Towson in 2018. As an all-purpose back and kick returner, Simpson accounted for over 2,000 all purpose yards as a redshirt junior (711 rushing, 356 receiving, 887 kick return) to go with 12 total touchdowns. He got off to a roaring start in 2019, his redshirt senior year, averaging 7.4 yards a carry over the first couple games before suffering a season-ending injury in his 3rd game. The NCAA granted Simpson a medical hardship waiver for a 6th year, and he was primed to dominate at the FCS level yet again, but then the FCS teams and conferences began to shut things down in late July and Simpson worried he might not get his last chance. He put his name in the transfer portal and UVA jumped in, possibly aided by the presence of former Hoo RB Chris Tyree on the Towson staff. On August 2nd, UVA's summer conditioning already underway, Simpson committed (his other finalist was powerhouse Texas, which speaks volumes) and started his trip south.
At the time of his commitment, Simpson projected as a 3rd down back specialist on offense, with Wayne Taulapapa and Mike Hollins returning for the every-down role, and Ronnie Walker coming aboard as well.
But then Mike Hollins elected to opt-out due to the pandemic and Ronnie Walker's waiver request was denied by the NCAA, and suddenly Simpson rocketed up the offensive depth chart, now one of only two scholarship running backs projected eligible for the season.
He's still got a lot to prove, jumping from the CAA (FCS) to the ACC, though running behind UVA's massive veteran OL will help. He's got a ton of burst and shiftiness and should see a ton of action from scrimmage helping diversify the offense and spelling Taulapapa, especially since he brings such a different (Smoke-like) skill set.
Before the pair of losses to the RB stable (Hollins and Walker), Simpson projected to heavily lend his talents to the kickoff return game as well, where we're looking to replace all-American KOR Joe Reed. Tavares Kelly came into the summer as the clear front-runner for the job, but given that Simpson has a couple career KOR TDs at Towson to go with over 2,000 career return yards, Kelly likely has someone to share practice reps with (and gives standout rookie returner Demick Starling a year to breathe). That return total includes punts, though kickoffs was where he shined, and with D'Angelo Amos added to handle punt returns (see below), I think Simpson's special teams assignment gets limited to kickoffs this year. Part of me wondered if we might look to lighten his KOR load given his importance to a thin tailback group, but last year Joe Reed was a key piece in both phases as well, so it wouldn't surprise me to see him split returns with Kelly, maybe even winning the primary KOR job at some point.
One way or another, though, he's a name Hoo fans are going to hear called weekly.
Ra'Shaun Henry - Wide Receiver
6'3" 190 lb
Wide receiver was always a focus area for the coaching staff when they went into the offseason looking for grad transfers. Even back in December we got heavily linked to UCLA transfer wideout Theo Howard, though he ultimately picked Oklahoma for his destination.
In May, Virginia got their receiver when FCS standout Ra'Shaun Henry went into the transfer portal out of St. Francis in Pennsylvania. The Texas native had an uneventful first few years for the Red Flash in the Northeast Conference, catching only 18 balls across his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons.
But his redshirt junior season last year (2019 season) he absolutely blew up and became one of the most productive receivers in all of FCS, earning first team all conference honors as he caught 90 balls for 1,118 yards and 9 touchdowns over 12 games. I don't care what conference you're in, those are insane numbers.
He walks into a position to contribute immediately at Virginia. Gone are high-producing graduates Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed along with Terrell Chatman and Dejon Brissett. High upside sophomore Dontayvion Wicks was lost for the season to injury. Nathaniel Beal is slow to recover from an ACL injury and there's speculation Dorien Goddard might be an opt-out. That means in terms of WR competition, there's lead dog Terrell Jana, the breakout-ready Billy Kemp, and heretofore low-production Ugo Obasi and Tavares Kelly.
Reports from camp so far say Henry's developed fast chemistry with Brennan Armstrong, putting his great size to use along with crisp route running and reliable hands. Brennan is a pass-first QB who will look to spread the ball around, meaning Henry is going to fill a big need for the Wahoos offense this year from the get go, likely starting at one of the sideline WR positions opposite Jana.
Tony Poljan - Tight End
6'7" 265 lb
Tight End really hasn't been a focus of the offense the last couple years. I've written about this elsewhere in the preview series, as I think the offense was specifically tailored for Bryce Perkins to throw everywhere except the middle of the field which we wanted to leave open for his downfield runs. As tight ends primarily live in that piece of the field in the passing game, it meant Evan Butts and Tanner Cowley didn't get a ton of usage, 49 total catches for the tight ends over the last two season (out of 564 completions in that span, so TEs accounted for only 9% of our catches).
Some interpreted that as a designed strategic shift away from the TE position. But the first signal that this wasn't true came last summer when Anae secured the verbal pledge of high-upside 3-star TE prospect Joshua Rawlings, now a true freshman, out of western PA. But for those that wondered if it meant we were going to have to wait a year or two for Josh to develop before we saw TE's reintegrated into the offense, Anae went out in July and grabbed Tony Poljan, one of the most exciting TE's at the G5 level.
Poljan had an interesting path to becoming an All-MAC tight end at Central Michigan. The Lansing, MI native was at a time committed to Minnesota and had offers from numerous other B1G schools, but while most schools saw him as a jumbo athlete, destined for OT, DE, or TE, he had dreams of playing quarterback. CMU's promise to let him audition there was enough to get him to spurn the B1G for the MAC.
After redshirting in 2016, Poljan lined up under center for the Chippewas for two years, though his statistics were disappointing. He completed 89 of 168 attempts (53%) for 703 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 5 INTs over those two seasons, though he did add a couple hundred rushing yards and a pair of rushing TDs. But ultimately TE was where he landed, moonlighting there as an underclassman (223 yards, 2 TD receiving as a freshman and sophomore) before switching to TE full time as a redshirt junior.
There he shined, putting his 6'7" frame to good use, starting every game and catching 33 balls for almost 500 yards and 4 TDs, for which he earned second team all-conference honors. He was all set to come back to Mount Pleasant for his senior year before the MAC became the first G5 league to shut down their conference for the fall. Poljan jumped into the transfer portal with UVA the pick.
With RS Sophomore converted defender Grant Misch (1 career reception) the lone returning TE, Poljan walked right into an open starting spot. Misch has impressed in camp as well, and they ultimately should both get work. They're both excellent blockers with excellent size, and can line up next to the OTs for jumbo looks, maybe even playing behind the line in a fullback role from time to time (needed with FB Jamari Peacock's outbound transfer). But when it comes to pass catching, when Anae needs a TE to line up in the slot and run a seam route, Poljan is going to be the guy.
He came to UVA with NFL aspirations, and for the first time since maybe Jake McGee graduated after the 2013 season could we see the TE position become an offensive focal point thanks to Poljan's great upside.
Alex Gellerstedt - Offensive Tackle
6'7" 320 lb
Including Gellerstedt here may be a bit of a cheat, as he's been in Charlottesville for over a year now. The grad transfer arrived mid 2019 with two years of eligibility remaining but was lost for the year to injury almost immediately upon arrival. So this year, this summer, is the first time we're actually seeing Alex suit up for UVA. He'll be a new name to a lot of UVA fans so it felt reasonable to lump him in with this piece.
Alex arrived in State Collge as a solid 3-star jumbo athlete prospect in the 2016 class (for point of comparison, he would've been our 4th highest ranked player in our 2016 class). He redshirted, then started to gain momentum in the 2017 season, appearing in seven games, four of which he played on offense and the other three strictly on special teams. As a redshirt sophomore, though, he saw minimal action before deciding to get a change of scenery.
Given the youth on last year's line, Gellerstedt arrived with a big opportunity to earn a starting job, likely at right tackle. But a summer leg injury ended that before it even began, and though he was healthy by winter, the cancellation of spring practice meant he didn't get a chance to shake off the rust before this summer.
Gellerstedt entered this year battling to earn a starting tackle job. Ryan Swoboda seems to have earned the right tackle spot with a great offseason and summer, but an injury to incumbent left tackle Bobby Haskins (i'm penciling him as a scratch until maybe early October) meant there's a need on the left edge. Gellerstedt has been in a heated competition with fellow fifth year senior Dillon Reinkensmeyer for that job. The rust is a real concern; coach Tujague has long been high on Alex's potential as a starting tackle in the ACC, but being out of football for a year is a lot.
The deployment of the offensive line this year is still a bit of a question mark going into fall camp. Vic Oluwatimi starting at center is basically the only guarantee, though Swoboda on the right edge (Brennan Armstrong's blind side) is inching that way. But Gellerstedt and Reinkensmeyer continue to take turns as the 1st team LT, while Reinkensmeyer's also in the mix at Guard along with Ryan Nelson, Chris Glaser, and the fast-rising RS Sophomore Joe Bissinger. It's impossible to predict whether Alex ends up starting vs VT or ends up as the top reserve to go into the year, but either way he's going to be a critical piece of the 2-deep on our OL, especially if the Haskins injury drags out.
Not a ton of highlights available for Gellerstedt from his Penn State days unless you want to go watch 2018 Nittany Lion games and pick him out of the trenches, so we'll just share this tape from his PSU signing day package.
Adeeb Atariwa - Defensive Line
6'3" 280 lb
As UVA's fall camp got underway, new DL coach Clint Sintim found himself in an unenviable position, with two projected members of his two deep missing due to pandemic opt-outs: junior starter Aaron Faumui and redshirt freshman second-stringer Ben Smiley. There was still a solid starting trio for the 3-4 front to work with in Richard Burney, Jowon Briggs, and Mandy Alonso, but reinforcements were needed for the second line.
Meanwhile, FCS powerhouse JMU was trying to stay afloat as an independent despite the CAA shutting down, but ultimately couldn't make it work and decided to punt their season to the Spring like many other schools. This opened up the door for UVA to recruit Loudoun native Adeeb Atariwa, a 5th year graduate transfer. Atariwa earned 23 starts over 39 career games for the Dukes, a span in which the Dukes won a pair of CAA championships and made the FCS championship game twice (losing to North Dakota State each time).
Of UVA's six graduate transfers this offseason, Atariwa was the only one to not earn some level of all-conference honors at his previous stop, but that's not surprising. JMU's defensive system is a lot like UVA's, a 3-4 front where the defensive linemen aren't statistical monsters, instead playing far more unheralded but still critical roles occupying offensive linemen so that the linebackers can rack up stats. But even then he found a way to total 51 tackles over the course of his redshirt junior season, which included 13 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, plus one blocked kick. He had six tackles and a TFL in last year's FCS championship game.
Atariwa played the nose at James Madison, but in the ACC he's a little undersized for that role, though really we don't play a traditional 0-technique NT anyways. His build is similar to that of senior DE Mandy Alonso, and he'll slot in at DE for the Hoos while 300-pounders Briggs and Jordan Redmond handle the NT role. He'll be an effective backup to Burney and Alonso, able to hold his own even against ACC OL, which hopefully will buy us time to get Smiley (who did eventually rejoin the team after missing much of the summer) back into game shape and bring our high upside but still underweight true freshmen DE's along slowly.
HIGHLIGHT I TURNOVER ON DOWNS!!! Adeeb Atariwa muscles his way through the line for his 2nd sack, upping JMU's total to five today! pic.twitter.com/njbKXvODIp— JMU Football (@JMUFootball) October 13, 2018
D'Angelo Amos - Safety / Punt Returner
6'1" 185 lb
We talked about the decision of JMU to postpone its season above with DE Adeeb Atariwa, opening the door for some senior standouts on the FCS powerhouse Dukes' roster to look for FBS options to finish their careers. UVA's involvement with the JMU roster didn't end with Atariwa, as shortly after Adeeb's commitment was announced the second week of August, his teammate D'Angelo Amos similarly committed to the Hoos.
The circumstances for Amos were a little different than Atariwa, in that there wasn't an obvious roster deficiency that he was plugging. Amos is a pure safety, and Virginia came into fall camp pretty comfortable with its safety depth, boasting talented veterans like Joey Blount, Brenton Nelson, and De'Vante Cross, while talented underclassmen were in the pipeline. But after last year's defensive backfield was shredded by attrition (losing Bryce Hall, Darius Bratton, Antonio Clary, Brenton Nelson, and Heskin Smith to extended injuries), the staff was looking for additional depth here to prevent a repeat. The word early in the summer was that the staff would target more of a cover corner for a grad transfer, but utlimately Amos was the guy the staff wanted and got.
At JMU, Amos was an all star, first team all-CAA as both a defensive back and as a punt returner, even earning FCS All America honors as a specialist. As a safety, Amos sports career totals of 135 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, two interceptions, 11 pass breakups, three fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. As a specialist, Amos boasts four blocked kicks over his career to go along with 1,259 career punt return yards and five touchdowns.
As a specialist, Amos can essentially be penciled in as our starting punt returner. Billy Kemp returns there but his return numbers as a sophomore last year were very pedestrian, bottom half of the ACC. Kemp brings a ton of value as our #2 receiver this year, but Amos clearly has the most upside on punt returns and should be our best option there in ages.
Defensively, Amos will slot into a deep competition in the secondary. He'll mix in with Blount, Cross, Nelson, Smith, Bratton, and Nick Grant for heavy snaps where those seven will rotate heavily, allowing us to go nickel as much as we want to while also having a healthy amount of injury cushion (not unlimited, but we can survive a couple losses). He will enable us to keep our stars fresh througout the game, continuing to play lockdown coverage well into the 4th quarter of tight games. While JMU is "just" FCS, he's been on the big stage with deep runs to the FCS championship game and isn't going to blink in high-pressure situations.
With his ability to elevate both our special teams and our defensive phases, Amos may be one of the most valuable FCS call-ups in college football this year.