Nothing went right for head coach Bronco Mendenhall in his first season at Virginia, begining with an opening home loss to FCS member Richmond. The Cavaliers stumbled to 2-10 as both sides of the ball struggled mightily. Mendenhall has experience returning at quarterback and some intriguing receivers, but the running game is unproven and the offensive line remains the biggest question mark with this team. The defense features two standout performers, another guy who could be and then a lot of unknowns even with eight starters returning. Things shouldn’t be as bad as they were last season for Mendenhall and company, but that doesn’t mean expect a big turnaround in the win-loss column either.
Previewing Virginia Football’s Offense for 2017
Virginia was last in the ACC in rushing, the product of an offensive line that couldn’t create any daylight in the run game. Pass protection was only marginally better. Quarterback Kurt Benkert took some shots early in the season, became skittish in the pocket and was benched later on in favor of Matt Johns.
With Johns graduated, its Benkert’s show again. The strong-armed East Carolina transfer now has a year in the system, is 15 pounds lighter and has shed the brace he wore to protect the knee he injured before the 2015 season. Marvin Zanders was expected to join the team as a transfer from Missouri. However, the school announced in early June that Zanders would not transfer to Virginia.
There are potential playmakers in receivers Olamide Zaccheaus and Doni Dowling, who combined for 101 catches last year. There’s also promising young talent in sophomores Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois.
Tailback Taquan Mizzell was the Offensive MVP last year. Daniel Hamm is the top candidate to replace him, though rugged Jordan Ellis and freshman Lamont Atkins will also be in the mix. Everything once again hinges on the line, which returns two starters in guard Jack McDonald and tackle Jack English. Two graduate transfers were added as a short-term Band-Aid while the younger linemen are developed. There’s a need for improved physicality across the board.
Previewing Virginia Football’s Defense for 2017
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Few players in the nation were busier than linebacker Micah Kiser and free safety Quin Blanding, the top tackling tandem in the ACC. Kiser led the league and was third in the nation with 134 stops. Blanding was second in the league and 16th in the nation with 120. Both flirted with entering the NFL Draft before opting to return. While that’s good for Virginia, it would be even better if they didn’t have to be quite so productive this year.
The Cavaliers never got a handle on big plays in 2016 and will need to improve on the back end. With Blanding again lining everyone up, and with cornerbacks Tim Harris, Darious Latimore and Myles Robinson returning from injuries, Virginia should be better in pass coverage.
Up front, Virginia must replace nose tackle Donte Wilkins, the hub of the Cavaliers’ three-man front. But they have a potentially elite pass rusher in defensive end Andrew Brown and the ultimate man in the middle of the linebacking corps in Kiser, who led the team with 6.5 sacks and forced five fumbles.
Previewing Virginia Football’s Specialists for 2017
Placekicking was an adventure last season, but help is on the way in freshman Brian Delaney, a Parade All-American. All-ACC punter Nicholas Conte leaves big shoes to fill, but the return game is solid. Hamm and Reed ranked among the best in the ACC as return specialists.
With a track record of success at BYU, a reputation for instilling order and accountability, and methods and metrics straight out of a business management text, Bronco Mendenhall seemed to have an answer for every contingency when he arrived at Virginia, playfully warning fans not to make travel plans during bowl season.
Reality hit home when the season started, however, and by the end of a 2–10 campaign, Mendenhall admitted he’d underestimated the scope of the rebuilding project. Expectations have been re-calibrated, with Mendenhall cautioning that a turnaround could take a while. After laying the cultural foundation last season, he’s turning his attention to improving the execution that was so woefully lacking.
With a tighter on-field operation and a fair amount of talent returning, Virginia could be better, but fans likely won’t need to alter their bowl season travel plans just yet.