One topic has dominated the headlines during Bronco Mendenhall's first fall camp at UVa.
Fourth-year Matt Johns was generally assumed to be this year’s starting quarterback after Taysom Hill decided to stay at BYU and not follow Mendenhall to Charlottesville. That changed in May when Kurt Benkert decided to transfer from East Carolina, eligible to play immediately with two years of eligibility left.
Less than a month ago, I asked if Johns, the incumbent starter, was the leading candidate to start on Sept. 3 against Richmond. Since then, Benkert’s stock has risen sharply and it seems as though he now has the strongest chance to be the starter.
Mendenhall declined to name a starter during his Friday media availability, saying he plans on naming the starter on Wednesday and has “a pretty good idea” as to the direction that the battle is headed. “Barring anything changing through Tuesday, I don’t anticipate [a change in direction],” he added.
With the final decision still pending, let’s look at where Johns can go from here.
If Johns is indeed the backup, it would be a difficult next chapter in his UVa story. After passing for 154 yards and two touchdowns off the bench in his collegiate debut against UCLA two years ago, he was named the starter for the entire 2015 season. Knowing Johns’ character, he would still use his leadership abilities for the good of the team throughout the season and make the most of the chances he would get.
If he ends up the starter? It would give UVa some immediate stability at quarterback in exchange for what would likely be one year of Benkert going forward. Johns was the third-leading passer in the ACC last year with 2,810 yards, a number also good enough for third-best in UVa history. His completion percentage increased from nearly 55 percent in 2014 to 61 percent last year. And, although his 17 interceptions were a point of struggle, his 20 touchdowns were the most for a UVa quarterback since Matt Schaub in 2002. While Johns’ intangibles are well-known, he might be a better quarterback than some give him credit for and it would be understandable if he were given the starting job.
With all that being said, it’s important to reiterate that Benkert probably has a much better chance of being QB1. UVa associate head coach Ruffin McNeill gave Benkert the starting job when both were at ECU last fall until he tore his ACL in mid-August and he’s more familiar with the up-tempo “Air Raid” style of offense ran by offensive coordinator Robert Anae and quarterbacks coach Jason Beck. Mendenhall & Co. have been pushing for a new slate for the team over the last eight-plus months, and while they aren’t a “change for the sake of change” type of staff, it would do them some good to stick with Benkert over the next two years as the program undergoes a badly-needed transformation in many areas.
Where does Matt Johns fit into those plans? We’ll find out on Wednesday.