Sunday, June 11, 2017
Bilo's 2017 College Football Previews: Virginia Cavaliers
It has been a long and dark period in Virginia football history, and Bronco Mendenhall will enter his second full season as coach of the Cavaliers, with his job being to find a light at the end of the tunnel. That light did not exist after a 2-10 finish last season that saw Virginia win just one game in ACC play. If Mendenhall stays at the level of expectations that I have for a new coach, year two should start to see this team showing some fight and getting competitive, but has the overall roster reached the point where that could be possible this fall?
What To Be Excited About: Offense
East Carolina transfer Kurt Benkert took off with the QB job, and gives the Cavaliers the best QB they have had overall in years. He passed for 2552 yards and 21 TDs to 11 INTs, and he figures in as the starter once again in 2017. If Virginia can get some talent around him, he should be able to far surpass the numbers that he posted last fall.
Benkert should have some solid targets in the passing game, as his top two receivers from a year ago, Doni Dowling and Olamide Zaccheus, both return. The two combined for 101 receptions last fall for 1210 yards on the season, and they also combined for 11 of the 21 TDs that Benkert threw for. With some losses behind them, both receivers may show an increased work load in 2017. Every key reserve from last season will return, but two starters were lost to graduation.
What To Be Concerned About: Offense
The offensive line must replace three starters from the lineup that started against Virginia Tech in the finale in 2016. Jack English (LT), and Jack McDonald (RG) are the only returing starters from that unit. Jake Fieler will likely start at either Center or LG, and RJ Proctor will start at RG in the current scenario, which leaves them one position short in position battles this fall in camp at either C or LG.
The run game will take some hits as well, with the two leading rushers, Taquan Mizzell and Albert Reid, both gone. Jordan Ellis, a junior, had all of 14 carries for 61 yards last fall, and is the most experienced returning back.
The kicking game was an absolute mess last fall, and there are no clear answers as we head towards camp in a battle that should continue between Sam Hayward and Alex Furbank. They combined to hit on just 5/10 attempts last fall.
What To Be Excited About: Defense
Virginia will get both starting DEs back in 2017 from a defense that allowed 33.8 points per game last season. Andrew Brown returns at LE, while Eli Hanback is back at RE. Brown led the team with 13 TFLs, while Hanback added 4.5 more. Steven Wright could be the primary backup at both spots.
Three starters return at LB this fall with another year of experience after some bumps in the road last season. Jordan Mack, Micah Kiser, and Chris Peace all return this fall. Kiser finished with 10 total TFLs last season, and Peace finished with 6.5. Kiser led the team with 134 tackles in a very busy 2016 season, averaging 11.17 tackles per game. Peace finished with 53 tackles of his own. Mack was a freshman last season, and should be a breakout candidate this fall.
Three starters all return in the secondary, and that should help progress as much as anything else. Juan Thornhill and Bryce Hall are both back at CB after being young starters last fall. They combined for five picks last season, Thornhill had a huge season after finishing with seven PBUs and three picks. Hall finished with four PBUs.
Quin Blanding is back at FS, and is the lone returning Safety this season. He is a huge returnee, as he finished second on the team with 120 tackles last season, or ten per game. He also finished with six PBUs.
What To Be Concerned About: Defense
Virginia allowed 20 rushing TDs last season, and will be rebuilding at NT. Donte Wilkins is gone, and it looks as if either senior Jack Powers, or RS sophomore James Trucilla will be his replacement. They combined for 17 total tackles as reserves last fall.
Zach Bradshaw is also gone at ILB after finishing with 62 tackles last season, removing another key component from the middle of the field. Landan Word, a sophomore, may be replacing him, and he finished with 21 tackles as a freshman last fall.
Kelvin Rainey is also gone at the SABRE position in the secondary, He was third on the team with 72 tackles last fall.
The punting game also takes a huge hit with the departure of Nicholas Conte, who averaged 44.31. Finding a successful replacement in camp will be paramount to help the development of this defensive unit that is still trying to find an identity overall.
2017 Schedule: 9/2 William & Mary, 9/9 Indiana, 9/16 U Conn, 9/22 at Boise State, 10/7 Duke, 10/14 at North Carolina, 10/21 Boston College, 10/28 at Pittsburgh, 11/4 Georgia Tech, 11/11 at Louisville, 11/18 at Miami, 11/24 Virginia Tech
This rebuild is a massive job for Bronco Mendenhall and his staff. Why anyone would leave BYU for this mess is beyond me, but Mendenhall wanted the challenge, and he certainly has one. I am not looking for leaps and bounds this season, but the Cavaliers look to be in some games on a competitive level early on. The Boise State trip will begin a tough slate of games as UVA heads into ACC play, and that is where the bumps in the road can start getting rocky. Expect improvement, but not miracles this fall.