Last year, the Virginia Cavaliers were unable to have spring football due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. On Tuesday, the Cavaliers will hold their first spring football practice of 2021.
In a shortened 2020 season, Bronco Mendenhall's team went 5-5, including 4-5 in ACC play. Virginia probably would have been invited to a bowl game but the team decided to opt out, ending the season.
Virginia's spring sessions are scheduled to run through May 1 when the Cavaliers are slated to hold their annual spring game. Several position battles are just one thing keep an eye on over the next month.
5 Storylines to Watch During Virginia's Spring Practices
1. Starting quarterback job is Brennan Armstrong's to lose
Armstrong performed well in his first season as the starter, throwing for 18 touchdowns compared to 11 interceptions in nine games. While former Mississippi State graduate transfer Keytaon Thompson and other quarterbacks on the roster figure to see snaps during the spring, this is Armstrong's job to lose. When Armstrong suffered an injury that caused him to miss a game (loss to Wake Forest), the Cavaliers' offense wasn't the same. This spring is an opportunity for both Armstrong and the offense to take another step forward.
2. Backfield pecking order
Armstrong also led the Cavaliers in rushing last season with 552 yards followed by running back Wayne Taulapapa. He's back, although Shane Simpson, the team's third-leading rusher, decided to enter the NFL draft. While Taulapapa was productive (395 yds., 5 TDs), Virginia will need more production out of its backfield so others will a chance to show they are deserving of carries this spring. Ronnie Walker Jr., a transfer from Indiana who played in just four games last fall while awaiting a waiver from the NCAA, and Perris Jones should factor in the mix as well.
3. Who will step up at receiver?
Entering the 2020 season, there were many questions about Virginia's pass-catching corps, but this group performed better than expected. Tight end Tony Poljan, a transfer from Central Michigan, was one of the top targets with 38 catches for 411 yards and six touchdowns. Freshman Larel Davis Jr. also made his mark as a freshman with 20 grabs for 515 yards and five scores. Poljan and wide receiver Terrell Jana both decided to enter the NFL draft, so some new targets will need to step up. Davis or Ra'Shaun Henry (four of seven catches in 2020 went for TDs) could be poised to take on bigger roles and diminutive (5-9) H-Back Billy Kemp IV returns after leading the team in both receptions (67) and receiving yards (644) last season. But offensive coordinator Robert Anae needs some of his younger guys at both receiver and tight end to take that next step in their development to provide more depth.
4. Secondary remains a major issue
Virginia's defense did not fare well at all against the pass last season. The Cavaliers gave up 304.4 yards per game through the air, which ranked them 123rd out of 127 active FBS teams. The good news for defensive coordinator Nick Howell is that he will return plenty of experience on the back end. Safeties De'Vante Cross and Joey Blount as well as cornerback Nick Grant are back and should provide a foundation to build around. Louisville transfer Anthony Johnson, who appeared in32 games and made five starts for the Cardinals, figures to get a long look this spring as well.
5. Linebacker group undergoing a major makeover
A strength of the team a season ago, Virginia's linebacking corps is a huge question mark entering 2021. Charles Snowden, a likely pick in the upcoming NFL draft, Zane Zandier, Matt Gahm, and Rob Snyder have all departed, leaving several holes to fill. The cupboard isn't completely bare though with leading tackler Nick Jackson and Noah Taylor returning. There are several other talented options at the position and they will get their chance to make a strong impression this spring.
— 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.