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Virginia Football: Cavaliers' 2022 Spring Preview

Tony Elliott, Virginia Cavaliers Football

Virginia head coach Tony Elliott is getting ready to start his first spring practice as the Cavaliers enter a new era

A new era of the Virginia Cavaliers football program will begin on Tuesday morning.

This will be the first spring football session with new head coach Tony Elliott, Clemson's former offensive coordinator, who is replacing the now-retired Bronco Mendenhall. During the next few weeks, Elliott will have an opportunity to introduce his culture and install his offensive and defensive schemes leading up to the spring game on April 23 at Scott Stadium.

Virginia is coming off a pedestrian 6-6 season, finishing fourth in the ACC Coastal. The Cavaliers will look to improve on their 4-4 conference mark and try and get back to ACC Championship Game after playing for the conference title two years ago.

But first, coaches and players look to get on the same page during the spring.

5 Storylines to Watch During Virginia's Spring Practice

1. How much can the defense improve?

Virginia wasn't 6-6 because of its offense. The Cavaliers' defense failed the team on more occasions, and the statistics back this statement up.

New defensive coordinator John Rudzinski will be given the task of turning around a defense that allowed 31.8 points (104th nationally) and 466 yards (121st) per game. Virginia also struggled mightily against the run, surrendering 225.8 yards per game (123rd). 

This means there's only one way for Rudzinski and this unit to go. And that is up. How quickly remains to be seen but in the spring, but the expectation is that the Cavaliers will operate primarily in a 3-4 alignment.

Besides learning the new scheme and assignments, Rudzinski and the defensive staff also have personnel questions to address at defensive end/outside linebacker and in the secondary.

2. Brennan Armstrong's next act

After being named third-team All-ACC and ranking among the national leaders in several passing categories last season, there was some thought that Armstrong would test the NFL draft waters. Instead, the Cavaliers' talented quarterback decided to return for his fifth season.

Armstrong set school single-season records for passing yards (4,444), total offense (4,700), completions (326), and touchdown passes (31). He also tossed just 10 interceptions on 500 attempts. And he added 251 yards with nine more scores on the ground. He led the ACC in both passing and total offense.  

Armstong has clearly established himself as not only one of the top quarterbacks in the ACC, but in the nation period. The question is how will he handle the transition to the new coaching staff and offensive system? Armstrong's presence gives Virginia a shot at contending in the Coastal, especially if he comes close to duplicating last season's production.

3. Offensive line

One way to support Armstrong is to protect him better. He suffered a rib injury last season that caused him to miss a game. Virginia also has had three offensive linemen from the 2021 team transfer — Olu Oluwatimi (Michigan), Ryan Swoboda (UCF), and Bobby Haskins (USC).

That leaves just one returning offensive lineman with experience, so Mac Hollensteiner and John Paul Flores, who transferred from FCS programs Georgetown and Dartmouth, respectively, should factor in when they arrive later in the spring. For now, this gives younger players such as Jonathan Leech, Derek Devine, and Noah Josey an opportunity to impress line coach Garett Tujague, one of the holdovers from Bronco Mendenhall's staff.

4. Is the No. 1 running back currently on the roster?

Wayne Taulapapa, Virginia's leading rusher last season, entered the transfer portal last December. Even if Taulapapa decides to return, the Cavaliers have significant questions related to the running back position.

Virginia does return Mike Hollins, Ronnie Walker Jr. and Amaad Foston. Also, incoming freshman Xavier Brown, a 3-star recruit from Lexington, Kentucky, will arrive this summer. Whoever gets the nod will be asked to improve a running game that averaged 123.8 yards per game last season, which ranked 100th in the nation.

The coaching staff could take a look at the transfer portal if they aren't pleased with what they see from the backfield this spring.

5. What changes are coming?

As with any new head coach, they will make changes in the program to put their stamp on things. While Elliott did retain a few assistants from Mendenhall's staff, all three coordinators are new — Kitchings, Rudzinski, and Keith Gaither (special teams).

Elliott has already said he wants to bring more balance to the offense after Virginia was first in the ACC in passing attempts and last in rushing attempts in 2021. The Cavaliers led the conference and were third nationally in total yards per game and averaged 35 points per game, but has already been mentioned, it didn't do the defense many favors and is a reason why the team finished with a .500 record.

Either way, expect a new-look Virginia team when the Cavaliers take the field for the spring game.

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— 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.