A year after winning its first-ever ACC Coastal Division title, ending its 15-game losing streak against rival Virginia Tech and making its first appearance in the Orange Bowl, Virginia could be hard-pressed to continue the “unbroken growth” that coach Bronco Mendenhall has touted since taking over before the 2016 season. Then again, each year Mendenhall and his staff have been able to help the program take another step forward despite seemingly daunting personnel losses.
The biggest challenge this year will be to revamp an offense that was electric behind star quarterback Bryce Perkins and find a spark like the one explosive kick returner Joe Reed brought to the team. But Mendenhall’s 3-4 defense is loaded with talent and experience, yet again, especially at the linebacker position.
Virginia never even took the field for spring practice before concerns over the spread of COVID-19 essentially shut down sports in the spring. The Cavaliers will have plenty of work to get done in the fall if they’re going to be ready for a challenging season-opener.
Previewing Virginia's Offense for 2020
Perkins led Virginia to a 17–10 record in his two seasons at the helm, passing for 6,218 yards and 47 touchdowns while running for another 1,692 yards and 20 scores. And Perkins isn’t the only departure, as two of his top three targets were seniors. Sophomore Brennan Armstrong, an effective but less explosive runner, will take over behind center, with grad transfer Keytaon Thompson also in the picture. With Armstrong, the staff envisions running an offense similar to what it used with Taysom Hill back at BYU. Terrell Jana, who came on in the second half of last season, figures to be the Cavaliers’ top pass catcher, with young prospects Dontayvion Wicks, Tavares Kelly Jr., Billy Kemp IV, Ugo Obasi and Dorien Goddard also likely contributors. The receiving corps received a late boost this summer with the addition of graduate transfer tight end Tony Poljan from Central Michigan.
In a welcome reversal, the offensive line may finally be a strength for the team for the first time in Mendenhall’s tenure. Virginia returns seven players who started games on the line last season and adds Penn State graduate transfer Alex Gellerstedt, who sat out 2019 with a knee injury.
The Cavaliers also return their top running back from last season in Wayne Taulapapa, while Mike Hollins, who played as a true freshman, figures to take on an added role in his sophomore season.
Previewing Virginia's Defense for 2020
Virginia’s defense loses three key starters, two of whom missed considerable time in 2019, allowing younger players to gain valuable experience. In all, the Cavaliers return 15 players who started at least one game on that side of the ball. The strength of the unit figures to be the linebacking corps. Outside linebackers Charles Snowden and Noah Taylor have the potential to be a disruptive duo coming off the edge. Zane Zandier led UVA in tackles last season from his inside linebacker position, and Nick Jackson, who played as a true freshman, has the tools to be a star in the making.
That position accounted for most of the team’s 46 sacks, a total that ranked tied for ninth in the nation.
The secondary will potentially be solid again as well. The unit had to adjust to the in-season injury to All-America cornerback Bryce Hall. The players who filled in, including Heskin Smith and Jaylon Baker, now have experience going into 2020. Senior Joey Blount is a budding star at safety, where he’ll likely line up alongside either the versatile De’Vante Cross — who played all over the field in 2019 — or Brenton Nelson, the 2017 ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year.
If there’s a question mark it’s the depth of the defensive front. Eli Hanback, who was a rock for four seasons, is gone, but Richard Burney announced plans to return for a sixth year of eligibility after applying for a medical hardship waiver. Additionally, Jowon Briggs impressed as a true freshman, while Mandy Alonso and Aaron Faumui could be poised for breakout years.
Previewing Virginia's Specialists for 2020
Reed is gone, and suddenly one of Virginia’s biggest threats — its explosive kick return game — is more of a question mark. Losing spring practice and the opportunity to work out potential replacements was a setback for the unit.
Mike Hollins, Kemp and Kelly could all be options. The Cavaliers don’t have to worry about replacing their kicker or punter, as both Brian Delaney and Nash Griffin return.
Beating Virginia Tech, contending for Coastal Division titles, and winning bowl games have become the expectation for the once-scuffling program that has seen its win total grow from two to six to eight to nine in four years under Mendenhall.
The coach and his players believe that the team’s culture of accountability had it uniquely positioned to handle the challenges of losing spring ball to the COVID-19 crisis. It won’t take long to find out, as the Cavs have September games against national title contenders Georgia (at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta) and Clemson.
Landing another New Year’s Six bowl bid may be tough, but a fourth straight bowl game, something Virginia last did from 2002-05, is well within reach.