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Virginia Football: 2018 Cavaliers Preview and Prediction

Juan Thornhill, Virginia Football

Juan Thornhill, Virginia Football

Virginia began 2017 with low expectations but finished as one of the ACC's biggest surprises by reaching its first bowl game since 2011. In order for the Cavaliers to replicate last year's success, they have to replace a 3,000-yard passer (Kurt Benkert) and jump-start an offense that averaged only 20.1 points in ACC games last fall. Junior college transfer and former Arizona State quarterback Bryce Perkins is slated to replace Benkert, and his mobility should help alleviate some of the concerns in the trenches. Bronco Mendenhall's defense took a step forward by cutting its yards per play average allowed from 6.3 in 2016 to 5.4 last year. Improving on that total could be difficult with the concerns up front, along with the departure of linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding.

Previewing Virginia Football's Offense for 2018

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Kurt Benkert started at quarterback for 23 of the 25 games Bronco Mendenhall has coached at Virginia and was far and away the best option on the UVa roster for the new coaching staff -- but he wasn't the perfect fit for the offense Mendenhall and coordinator Robert Anae want to run with the Cavaliers. Now, former Arizona State quarterback Bryce Perkins, who transferred to Virginia after spending last season at a junior college, gets his shot to take over behind center. He fits the mold, giving UVa a mobile, dual-threat QB who can overcome other deficiencies on the offense.

Perkins will have a pair of explosive playmakers to work with in senior Olamide Zaccheaus and junior Joe Reed. The coaching staff has to find more ways to get those two the ball in space while also developing more depth in the unit. Senior tight end Evan Butts came on late last season and might see an expanded role in the new-look offense.

The Cavaliers return workhorse ball carrier Jordan Ellis, who led the team with 836 yards and six touchdowns last season.

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Once again, Virginia's offensive line figures to be the team's biggest question mark and potential weak point heading into 2018.

Previewing Virginia Football's Defense for 2018

The unit loses a key star at each level. Safety Quin Blanding, linebacker Micah Kiser and defensive end Andrew Brown all were seniors last season. Still, Virginia returns plenty of experience and talent at linebacker and safety. It's the defensive front in the Cavaliers' 3-4 scheme that could be the question mark. Three of the team's top five defensive linemen from a year ago, including Brown, are gone. Virginia will need nose tackle Eli Hanback and end Mandy Alonso to build on their encouraging 2017 campaigns while developing two or three more dependable options along the defensive line. Mendenhall looked for help for the line in the summer, adding junior college recruit Cassius Peat for 2018.

At linebacker, despite losing Kiser -- who led the ACC in tackles each of the past three seasons -- Mendenhall should feel fairly confident. A pair of seniors, Chris Peace and Malcolm Cook, will work at the outside positions, and junior Jordan Mack is an emerging force inside.

The Cavaliers enjoy similar depth in the secondary, where they have so many options at cornerback that it freed up senior Juan Thornhill to move back to safety.

Previewing Virginia Football's Specialists for 2018

Reed gives Virginia an explosive weapon at kick returner. He ran two kickoffs back for touchdowns last season, including a 92-yard runback against Georgia Tech and a 98-yard return against Navy on the opening kickoff of the Military Bowl. Punter Lester Coleman, one of the many pleasant surprises last season, returns after averaging 43.7 yards per kick.

Final Analysis

In Year 2 at Virginia, Mendenhall took the team from two wins to six and helped the Cavaliers reach their first bowl game since 2011. He may be hard pressed to continue that upward trajectory this season, at least in terms of wins and losses. The team lost key seniors in key spots, robbing the lineup not only of production but also of leadership.

Virginia: college football picks against the spread

The offensive and defensive lines are being largely rebuilt, and the entire offense figures to have a different feel as Virginia moves to a dual-threat quarterback and a scheme more reminiscent of what Mendenhall and his staff employed at BYU. There's enough depth on defense to be optimistic, and if Perkins shines at quarterback, the offense could be interesting.