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From the Upper Deck: The Bronco Mendenhall Era Begins

From the Upper Deck is back with a look at the changes the offseason has brought and what has me most excited as we embark in a new era in Virginia Football.

NCAA Football: Kent State at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The long wait is over. After hanging on every single piece of news that comes out of the McCue Center, it’s finally time to rock Scott. Since Bronco Mendenhall was announced as Head Coach of the Virginia Cavaliers on December 4th, I have been nothing but impressed with just about every aspect of the direction of this program. In fact, I am downright giddy about the start of the season — a far cry from the empathy I felt at this time last year. Virginia welcomes the Richmond Spiders in the latest installment of the I-64 rivalry. After enduring the long offseason, here are some things I will be watching for...From the Upper Deck.

1. Five-Stars Ready for a Breakout: It’s hard to call 2014 National Freshman Defensive Player of the Year and 2015 All ACC selection Quin Blanding a candidate for a breakout, but given some of the struggles with personnel playing out of position, Blanding could figure to be unleashed this season. In two years, the free safety has racked up 238 tackles and intercepted five passes. Blanding was only able to find one interception last year, a byproduct of an aggressive but unsuccessful pass rush scheme that left Virginia’s secondaries without support. Enter Coach Mendenhall. It appears as if Blanding will remain in his free safety role and Mendenhall’s 3-4 defense will allow Blanding to play in space. He’s a tremendous open field tackler, and one of the best cover corners in the country. Unless teams completely scheme away from him, expect for that interception total to rise and Blanding to have another All-American year.

Then there is Andrew Brown. The five-star coming out of Chesapeake was the Gatorade National Defensive Player of the Year, but has barely even seen the field during his two years in Charlottesville. Regardless of the reason, this year he’ll move from defensive tackle to defensive end, a move that should allow him to wreak havoc in the backfield, rather than just holding up blockers allowing ends and linebackers to make plays.

2. The Running Backs: While most of the offseason speculation has been spent following the competition for the starting quarterback position, I’m most looking forward to seeing the running backs this season. Arguably the team’s best position group, Taquan Mizzell is joined by Albert Reid, Daniel Hamm, Jordan Ellis, and Connor Wingo-Reeves and, when combined with Olamide Zaccheaus, the group returns 86% of the team’s 1,990 rushing yards from a year ago. Mizzell and Hamm will be the speed backs and I can’t wait to see the creative ways Coach Robert Anae schemes to get them the ball. Reid will anchor the big backs and look to build off his 103-yard effort in last year’s final game loss to Virginia Tech. Ellis’s work ethic and the respect he has earned from his teammates garnered him the first pick in the player’s number draft. Anae will play a high tempo offense so look for all of these backs to get significant run as the game wears on. Then there’s Zaccheaus. Officially a wide receiver, he is too good a playmaker not to be given carries. I look forward to seeing how he gets the ball into his hands, and again, given the pace this offense will play there should be plenty of opportunity.

3. Trust the process: While it will be difficult to discern in only one game, I am excited to see the results of the process that Mendenhall has installed at UVA. I’ve been blown away by how intentional everything is surrounding this program. Everything seems ot have been done to achieve a measurable goal. Whether it’s a benchmark of fitness to practice; the analysis of the program’s historic results to determine a threshold of points scored and given up that gives the team the best chance to win; or adding a third stripe to the player’s helmets; everything is carefully thought out. I am convinced that will bear fruit come Saturdays.

Virginia and Richmond kick off at 3:30 P.M. If you can’t make it to Scott Stadium on Saturday, check out the game on ESPN3 and join us in the Game Thread. Also test your mettle against the STL staff in our College Pick ‘Em game on Yahoo! You can find out more here. And as always, check back on Sunday to how these themes played out...From the Upper Deck.

Have you signed up for our College Football Pick ‘Em league yet? It’s not too late! Go to Yahoo! and enter in the group ID 4131, with the password "bronco". You can find the full details here. Good luck!