Virginia wasn't anticipating a change in leadership following a 6–6 season, but in between the team losing its regular-season finale to Virginia Tech and having its appearance in the Fenway Bowl canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak, head coach Bronco Mendenhall decided to retire — for the moment, at least — from college football.
Enter Tony Elliott, the former Clemson offensive coordinator and the man now tasked with keeping the proverbial ball rolling for the Cavaliers, whom Mendenhall led to an ACC Coastal title in 2019 at the height of his tenure. Elliott inherits a roster rich with offensive talent in the passing game but bereft of experience on the offensive line. It's a unit that never truly established a traditional running game in any of the past four seasons.
Defensively, UVA returns five starters from a unit that has had a propensity to give up big plays each of the past two years.
The Elliott era kicks off Sept. 3, at home against FCS Richmond, the same in-state opponent that handed Mendenhall a loss in his Virginia debut. This new staff inherits a program in much better shape than the one Mendenhall took over in 2016. And the expectation is that Elliott — who has talked about building "the model college football program" — will be better equipped to hit the ground running.
Previewing Virginia's Offense for 2022
Virginia brings back most of the firepower from its record-setting offense, including quarterback Brennan Armstrong and top wide receivers Dontayvion Wicks, Keytaon Thompson and Billy Kemp IV. Plus, UVA will get 2020 breakout star Lavel Davis Jr. back after he missed last season with a torn ACL.
Those skill positions are loaded for Elliott's first season, but the offensive line is a major question mark that could derail the entire product. Virginia must replace all five of its starters up front with no obvious candidates. Senior Derek Devine, who worked at both guard and tackle in the spring, is the program's most experienced returner. UVA went into the transfer portal for right tackle Mac Hollensteiner (Georgetown) and left tackle John Paul Flores (Dartmouth). However, Hollensteiner opted to return to Georgetown in June, adding even more concerns to the trenches for Elliott in '22.
Elliott has talked extensively about bringing more balance to the offense and developing UVA's lagging traditional run game, but a spring injury to Ronnie Walker Jr. combined with the lack of experience and depth up front may have derailed that progress.
In the end, Armstrong's running ability may have as much to do with the offense's success as his pro-caliber arm.
Previewing Virginia's Defense for 2022
The Cavaliers have struggled on defense of late, and some top playmakers — including defensive end Mandy Alonso, linebacker Noah Taylor, cornerback Nick Grant and safety Joey Blount — are gone.
UVA plans to be multiple schematically under new coordinator John Rudzinski, so both three- and four-man fronts are in the plans. The Cavaliers used mostly a five-defensive-back look in the spring.
Inside linebacker Nick Jackson led the team with 117 tackles last season. A big question will be where Virginia derives its pass rush. Of the Cavaliers' 19 sacks last season, 12 came from players who are no longer with the team. Georgia Tech transfer Chico Bennett Jr., who missed last season with a knee injury, and sophomore outside linebacker Mike Green are two players who could have an impact in that area.
In the defensive backfield, former Louisville transfer Anthony Johnson returns at cornerback to lead a unit that allowed 21 pass plays of 30 yards or more, the fifth most in the ACC.
Related: ACC Predictions for 2022
Previewing Virginia's Specialists for 2022
UVA asked a lot of Brendan Farrell last season. After working mostly as a punter and opening the season without a starting job, he ended up placekicking and kicking off for most of the year. With Jacob Finn and his 44.2-yard per punt average gone, Farrell may get a look there, too. Freshman kicker Will Bettridge figures to challenge Farrell for the extra point and field goal work.
Kemp figures to be the team's primary punt returner again. Kemp and running back Mike Hollins split kick return duties last season, but UVA would like to get more pop from that spot this year.
The ACC Coastal Division looks to be, once again, pretty open for the taking, but in Elliott's first season, UVA may be a few pieces short of being able to take advantage of that. The Cavaliers should offer up plenty of highlights in the passing game, with Armstrong, Wicks and Davis emerging as true stars. But a lack of experience on the offensive line, no established running back and a defense that still has to prove it won't get torched for big gains may be too much to overcome.
The schedule is a mixed bag. Playing at Illinois in Week 2 will be an early test, and Old Dominion and Coastal Carolina are both capable Division I opponents. A tough three-game stretch from late October to mid-November, when UVA faces division foes Miami, North Carolina and Pittsburgh in consecutive weeks, figures to be the defining test of the season. The good news? All three of those games are at home.
If Virginia can find a way to protect Armstrong and cut down on giving up big plays, the Cavaliers could surprise people in Elliott's first season. If not, he may be struggling to outdo his predecessor's 2–10 debut six seasons ago.