Virginia, coming off its most wins since 2011, hopes to continue its rapid ascent under coach Bronco Mendenhall, who has guided the Cavaliers to back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 2004 and 2005.
This season, UVA expects to have a loaded defense, a year after finishing third in the ACC in scoring defense, holding opponents to 20.1 points per game. Offensively, the Cavaliers will need to replace some key pieces, but they return one of the conference’s rising stars in quarterback Bryce Perkins.
Building Virginia into a consistent postseason participant was one of Mendenhall’s main goals when he arrived in Charlottesville. He guided BYU to 11 straight bowl games before taking over at UVA. He appears on his way to accomplishing that objective. He also has stated his desire to beat rival Virginia Tech and to win an ACC Coastal Division title.
Last season, Virginia came painfully close to both, hanging in the title race until late in the season and losing to the Hokies — for the 15th straight time — when Perkins fumbled near the goal line at the end of regulation. Tech won 34–31 in overtime. This year, UVA has its sights set on finishing both those tasks.
Previewing Virginia's Offense for 2019
Two of the biggest weapons Virginia had on offense are gone. Jordan Ellis, a 1,000-yard rusher, and first-team All-ACC wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus were both seniors last season, and replacing them won’t be easy. But the Cavaliers return Perkins, the quarterback who transformed the offense last season. He ranked third in the ACC in total offense, accounting for 277.2 yards per game. He was responsible for 34 touchdowns, throwing for 25, tied for the second most in the league, and rushing for nine more.
Perkins, coming off finger surgery, should be every bit the dynamic playmaker and team leader he proved to be last year, his first season in Charlottesville. The question will be what kind of pieces can UVA put around him to keep the offense moving forward.
Senior Joe Reed, also an explosive kick returner, could be poised for a breakout season as a pass catcher. Senior Hasise Dubois was productive last year, and junior Terrell Jana and sophomores Tavares Kelly and Billy Kemp could all be in line for major steps forward this season.
At running back, Ellis has been the team’s workhorse the past two years. UVA is hoping that junior PK Kier can step into that role, although in the spring, he was pushed by sophomore Wayne Taulapapa.
Of course, none of that will matter if Virginia can’t get its offensive line sorted out. Two seniors — Marcus Applefield and Jake Fieler — are gone, as is junior guard R.J. Proctor, who left the program. Up front, the Cavaliers will count on experienced but young players such as Dillon Reinkensmeyer, Chris Glaser and Ryan Nelson.
Previewing Virginia's Defense for 2019
As it was last season, Virginia appears stacked with talent at linebacker and in the secondary but could again be thin on the defensive line. The Cavaliers do lose a pair of key contributors at linebacker and safety in Chris Peace and Juan Thornhill, but they look to have capable replacements ready to step into those spots.
Outside linebacker Charles Snowden, a junior, and inside backer Jordan Mack, a senior, are emerging stars, and they highlight that position group. But they’re far from alone. Juniors Zane Zandier and Robert Snyder both proved capable on the inside last season, and junior Elliott Brown and sophomore Noah Taylor look poised to follow Snowden’s lead on the outside.
Virginia got a major lift in the secondary when cornerback Bryce Hall decided to return for his senior year. That takes some of the sting out of losing Thornhill and cornerback Tim Harris, a senior last season. Juniors Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson give UVA one of the better safety tandems in the ACC. The Cavaliers will need someone to emerge as the second corner, opposite Hall.
Previewing Virginia's Specialists for 2019
Reed gives Virginia one of the ACC’s best kick returners, an explosive weapon capable of giving the offense great field position — if opposing teams kick to him. They didn’t do that often in 2018. Still, Reed averaged 27.2 yards per return and took one back 90 yards for a touchdown. That’s the good news. The trouble? UVA must replace an excellent punter in Lester Coleman, and the Cavs have been shaky on field goals the past two seasons. Juniors Brian Delaney and A.J. Mejia will compete for that spot. Delaney took over last season and went 12-for-16.
Mendenhall has guided the Virginia program from the basement of the ACC to a level of respectability. Maintaining that new status will be challenging enough, but the Cavaliers have designs on moving up even more. A Coastal Division title? That may be challenge, with UVA still rebuilding its offensive and defensive lines, though the Coastal remains as ripe as ever for the taking, with Miami, Georgia Tech and North Carolina all debuting new coaches in 2019.
Three winnable nonconference games in William & Mary, Old Dominion and Liberty should position Virginia for another bowl appearance. What UVA does in conference play could have Mendenhall positioned for another step forward.