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Virginia Cavaliers 2016 Spring Football Preview

Taquan Mizzell

Taquan Mizzell

Later on in April, Bronco Mendenhall will host his first spring game as the head coach of the Virginia Cavaliers. Early in Virginia's spring practices leading up to the annual spring game, Mendenhall is making the players earn everything, including even the numbers on their jerseys.

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Under former head coach Mike London, the Cavaliers often had mental breakdowns defensively as well as inconsistent play at the quarterback position. There's no denying that Virginia has some questions to address since the team has not had a winning season since 2011.

5 Storylines to Watch During Virginia’s Spring Practice

1. Will Matt Johns improve from his 2015 campaign?

Quarterback Matt Johns started all 12 games for the team in 2015, but the results were very much a mixed bag. While Johns threw 20 touchdown passes he also had 17 interceptions. If the Cavaliers are going to qualify for a bowl in 2016, Johns will need to be more consistent.

Johns has been learning the Cavaliers’ new offense with quarterback coach Jason Beck, who has worked with Mendenhall since 2013. How quickly Johns picks up the offense will go a long way to how successful he will be for the upcoming season.

2. How will Taquan Mizzell be used?

Under London, Mizzell was not only used as Virginia’s primary ball carrier, but he also was a key component of the passing game. Last season, Mizzell not only led the team in receptions with 75, he was second in receiving yards (721) and touchdown catches (four).

While at BYU, Mendenhall loved big, bruising running backs, but Mizzell is the total opposite. Mizzell got the nickname "Smoke" because of his blazing speed, so it will be interesting to see how he fits in with the Cavaliers’ new offense.

3. Offensive line

Virginia has nine players returning along the offensive line, each of whom has started for the team at some point in their career. That's amazing to have that much experience returning, but the players will have to adjust to their third offensive line coach in three seasons.

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Garett Tujague, who also was Mendenhall's offensive line coach at BYU from 2013-15, will be the one tasked with putting the Cavaliers’ line together and getting everyone on the same page.

4. How can Virginia improve defensively?

Virginia ranked 79th in the nation in total defense in 2015. Former East Carolina head coach and Virginia assistant head coach Ruffin McNeill will be the man that can hopefully improve the team's defense.

McNeill brings a wealth of experience to Charlottesville following six seasons at East Carolina. Prior to that McNeill was on Mike Leach’s staff at Texas Tech from 2000-09, spending the last two as assistant head coach/defensive coordinator.

5. Who will replace Maurice Canady and Demetrious Nicholson?

Canady and Nicholson have exhausted their eligibility, meaning new defensive coordinator McNeill will have to identify his starting cornerbacks. Those are two pretty big holes to fill on a defense that has much room to improve and is making the transition to a new coaching staff.

Senior Tim Harris appeared in 10 of 12 games last season, so he’s a likely candidate to fill one of the two vacant cornerback spots. Starting opposite Harris could end up being sophomore Darious Latimore, who recorded two interceptions last year. Fortunately for McNeill he does have safety Quin Blanding, a first-team All-ACC honoree last season and an All-America candidate for 2016, to build around in the secondary.

Pre-Spring Virginia Outlook in the ACC

The best-case scenario for the Cavaliers in 2016 is finishing with six wins and qualifying for a bowl game, but it will not be easy. With road trips to Oregon, Duke, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, the path to bowl eligibility is not an easy one.

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Virginia will need better play from quarterback Matt Johns and running back Taquan Mizzell and the team will need to find more playmakers on offense. The Cavaliers also will need to improve their defense. If linebackers Micah Kiser and C.J. Stalker can live up to expectations and help serve as linchpins, that alone will improve Virginia's defense.

With the ACC Coastal seemingly wide open, Virginia has a chance to make an instant impact in its division. The Cavaliers likely aren’t going to win the Coastal in 2016, but hiring new head Bronco Mendenhall is a step in the right direction.

— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.