After finishing 2-10 in his first season in Charlottesville, Bronco Mendenhall orchestrated a turnaround that resulted in the Virginia Cavaliers making their first postseason appearance since 2011.
A 5-1 start, including a road win at Boise State, gave way to a 6-7 finish as Virginia lost its last four games. Even though the ending, a 49-7 drubbing by Navy in the Military Bowl, left a sour taste in the Cavaliers’ mouths, the focus has now shifted to building on what they were able to accomplish in 2017.
To do that, Mendenhall and the coaching staff will have to deal with replacing several key starters, including finding a new quarterback. With spring practice now in session, here are some things to keep an eye on in Charlottesville.
5 Storylines to Watch During Virginia’s Spring Practice
1. Bryce Perkins
Kurt Benkert has a good chance of hearing his name called at some point during the NFL draft later this month, so the competition to be Virginia’s new starting quarterback is officially open. Junior college transfer Bryce Perkins will get the first shot at claiming that job this spring.
After committing to Arizona State out of high school, Perkins dealt with an injury that put him behind the quarterback competition with the Sun Devils and he decided to transfer to Arizona Western College. Last season, he led the Matadors to the NJCAA national championship game. A dual-threat, Perkins could be able to give the Cavaliers’ offense a boost with his arm and his legs.
2. Virginia’s offensive line
The quarterback won’t be the only new sight on offense for Virginia this fall as the offensive line is experiencing a lot of turnover of its own. The key members of the 2018 front line are expected to include Marcus Applefield, a graduate transfer from Rutgers who he made 10 starts at right guard for the Scarlet Knights last season. Among the holdovers, Dillon Reinkensmeyer, Chris Glaser and guard Ben Knutson all saw playing time last season, but will be asked to take on even more significant roles following the departure of three starters.
3. Finding new defensive anchors
Linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding and Micah Kiser were not only All-ACC performers, the two were multi-year starters and the heart and soul of the Cavaliers’ defense the past three seasons. So, replacing both will not be an easy task. Jordan Mack (above, right) is a young linebacker the coaching staff is expecting a lot from in 2018 while rising sophomore defensive end Mandy Alonso came on strong late last season. Fellow sophomores Joey Blount (safety), Zane Zandier (linebacker), and John Kirven (defensive line) are other young players Virginia will depend on as well.
4. Retooling in the secondary
Although the secondary needs to replace Blanding, the cupboard isn’t bare. Redshirt freshmen Riah Burton and Germane Crowell and sophomores Darrius Bratton and Nick Grant should see a lot of playing time next season. Tim Harris and Darious Latimore also should factor into the competition among defensive backs this spring as well.
5. Can Virginia get back to a bowl game?
The Cavaliers haven’t made consecutive bowl appearances since a four-year run from 2002-05. Even though Virginia finished with a losing record in 2017, Mendenhall still led the team to the postseason. Can he do it again this fall?
First, it will be up to Perkins to see if he seizes the quarterback job and how much of an impact he can have in his first season as the starter. With such a young team, Virginia’s offense will need consistent quarterback play. Another key will be how quickly the defense comes together with new starters in key positions.
Even with the roster turnover, another bowl berth isn’t out of the question. And it’s possible the Cavaliers could exceed last season’s six wins in the process.
— 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, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
(Top photo courtesy of Virginia Football's Facebook page)