The unbroken growth that Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall has touted over his five seasons with the Cavaliers was broken in 2020. A year after winning the ACC Coastal Division and playing in the Orange Bowl, Virginia opened the year 1–4, finished 5–5 and ended with a loss to rival Virginia Tech, opting out of a bowl game. It was Mendenhall's worst record since his second year in Charlottesville. Of course, it came in the midst of a pandemic that led extreme schedule disruption.
Virginia looks poised for a do-over in 2021. The story going into this season is all the could-have-been seniors who opted to come back from last year's team. It's a group that includes four starting offensive linemen, three starting defensive backs and a do-it-all athlete in Keytaon Thompson. Virginia returns a player who started multiple games last season at every position on offense and eight of 11 spots on defense.
All of that, along with experience at quarterback, figures to position UVA to get back on track in 2021.
Previewing Virginia's Offense for 2021
Brennan Armstrong is back for his second season as the primary starting quarterback. After struggling with ball security early on last year, the Ohio lefthander got on a roll to help the Cavaliers win four of their final five games to end the season. He fits the dual-threat mold that Virginia wants for its quarterbacks, leading the team in both rushing and passing.
This year, Armstrong will have the advantage of playing behind an experienced offensive line, but UVA has to find ways to replace the production of two key graduating pass-catchers. Wide receiver Terrell Jana caught 36 passes for 423 yards last year, and tight end Tony Poljan, a Central Michigan transfer, led the team with six touchdown catches.
Wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. had a breakout rookie season, but he suffered a torn ACL during spring practice. Billy Kemp IV and Ra'Shaun Henry, a St. Francis (Pa.) transfer who emerged last season, will have to make up for his loss, and sophomore Dontayvion Wicks, who missed last season with an injury, will need to be a factor. Marshall transfer Artie Henry III is also slated to join the mix this fall.
The addition of Oklahoma State transfer tight end Jelani Woods adds an intriguing — and sizable — weapon to the offense. Woods is 6'7" and 275 pounds.
At running back, Virginia returns starter Wayne Taulapapa, who figures to be pushed by Ronnie Walker Jr., an Indiana transfer who played sparingly last year, and Mike Hollins, who opted out of the 2020 season.
Previewing Virginia's Defense for 2021
Like the offense, the defense got tons of good news in the form of players opting to come back this year, including defensive ends Adeeb Atariwa and Mandy Alonso and defensive backs Nick Grant, De'Vante Cross and Joey Blount. It also added a pair of cornerbacks in Louisville's Anthony Johnson and North Dakota State's Josh Hayes. Still, the Cavaliers figure to be thin on the defensive line and at linebacker.
Nick Jackson on the inside and Noah Taylor on the outside are emerging stars at linebacker, and outside linebacker Elliott Brown has experience, but UVA will feel the loss of Charles Snowden and Zane Zandier. Snowden led the team in sacks and tackles for a loss, despite missing the final two games due to an ankle injury.
Virginia will need an edge rusher, possibly D'Sean Perry, to make a big leap this season.
Up front, having Alonso and Atariwa back helps anchor the Cavaliers' three-man front, but it will need young players like Jahmeer Carter, Nusi Malani and Olasunkonmi Agunloye to become contributors as well.
Blount, Cross and Grant will lead a secondary that also has experienced corners Darrius Bratton, Jaylon Baker, Tenyeh Dixon, Johnson and Hayes and safeties Antonio Clary and Coen King.
Previewing Virginia's Specialists for 2021
Placekicker Brian Delaney and punter Nash Griffin are both gone from last year's team. Sophomore Justin Duenkel, who handled kickoffs last season, could take over for Delaney, who set a school record by making 17 straight field goals. Hunter Pearson, the only placekicker on scholarship, could also be in the mix. Brendan Farrell, who hasn't appeared in a game in his two years at Virginia, is the only player on the roster listed at punter. The good news is that Kemp is back to return punts and could also move into the kickoff return role.
UVA had improved its win totals in each of Mendenhall's first four seasons before dropping to 5–5 last year. The Cavs are eager to resume their upward trajectory.
The biggest obstacle may be the schedule. Virginia plays a number of its tougher games on the road, including visiting ACC Coastal foes Miami and North Carolina and an away date at Mendenhall's former school, BYU.
How the Cavaliers utilize Thompson, the Mississippi State transfer who played quarterback, wide receiver and special teams last season, could be a wild card that elevates the offense.
Virginia needs for Armstrong to continue to develop and for Taylor to become one of the league's elite pass rushers. It must plug holes at inside linebacker and develop some depth on the defensive line and at wide receiver. If all that comes together, the Cavaliers could be in the hunt for a division title.
National Ranking: 59
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(Nick Jackson photo by Pete Emerson/Virginia Athletics)