Hope springs eternal in college football, even at Virginia. After a decade of trending downward, the UVA football program kicks off the 2016 season on Friday with the first day of fall camp. Bronco Mendenhall, a westerner with a steely gaze and a hard work attitude to match, has traveled east to try to take Virginia back to national relevance. He’s said all the right things to date, but is it time to be optimistic about what’s to come? Here are three reasons that might give you pause. We’ll come back this afternoon with the flip side to this coin.
1) Virginia has talent, but lacks depth.
Great football teams are built from the lines out, and Virginia’s line depth is scary thin. On the offensive line, Virginia only has six players who have seen serious playing time: Eric Smith, Jackson Matteo, guards Jack McDonald and Sean Karl, and tackles Mike Mooney and Jack English. Anae’s desire to play an up-tempo offense means Virginia will need to be able to rotate multiple bodies. Things could get pretty dicey if injuries start to pile up.
As scary as the offensive line is, the outlook at defensive line might be worse. UVA projects to start Wilkins, junior Andrew Brown, and redshirt freshman Eli Hanback as linemen in its new 3-4. While fans have waited two years for Brown to live up to the hype he received as a high schooler, Hanback enters the scene as almost a complete unknown. Senior Andre Miles-Redmond is the only other lineman on the roster who has seen any playing time in a Cavalier jersey. Behind those four sit transfer Jack Powers from Arizona State, four redshirt freshmen, and three true freshmen.
2) The ACC Coastal has improved.
Much of the talk around the ACC Coastal last season was about the parity in the division. This year, things look more differentiated. North Carolina enters as the clear favorite, but there’s optimism at Miami after the arrival of Mark Richt. Pitt is projected to win 8 games in its second season under Pat Narduzzi. Duke, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech have more question marks, but all three are projected to finish ahead of UVA.
Virginia has a bit of a schedule quirk this year – it plays all of its strongest conference opponents at home and all of its weakest conference opponents on the road. On the bright side, the Hoos should be competitive in all of their ACC games. On the down side, there isn’t a single conference game on the schedule that could be defined as a “gimme.”
3) Virginia’s QB position is unsettled.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Virginia will enter fall camp without a clear cut starter at quarterback. Senior Matt Johns is the incumbent, but he failed to win the job outright in the spring. Transfer Kurt Benkert has an edge in athleticism and arm strength and played under a similar offense at East Carolina. In my opinion, Benkert is the key player here. If Benkert wins the job outright, or even if he wins the back-up job outright, it could help stabilize the position and set up a succession plan into the future. The potential for success is there, but until we see better QB play on the field, it’s hard not to be pessimistic.