Whether you’re ready or not, football season is around the corner. This past Saturday, the Hoos had their Spring Football Festival, where fans got their first chance to see the 2017 Cavaliers in action (even if you couldn’t tell exactly who the players are).
In his first season as head coach for Virginia Football, Bronco Mendenhall saw his share of ups and downs (ok, mostly downs), as he took the first steps towards rebuilding a program in despair. The Hoos finished at a dismal 2-10 on the season with wins over Central Michigan and Duke, and bad losses to Richmond (the season opener), UConn (bungled late game play calling), and Virginia Tech (again) in the QB-swapping disaster. Virginia returns some key starters on both offense (Olamide Zaccheaus, Kurt Benkert) and defense (Quin Blanding, Micah Kiser), and has some young players with potential, so where do we see this program going in the future? In the next five years?
Luckily (hopefully?), Virginia shouldn’t have to deal with another head coaching search as Coach Mendenhall continues to instill his style in Charlottesville. Everyone knew that his defensive schemes and more attack-based offense would take time to develop, but with frustrations at an alarmingly high level thanks to a decade of mediocre football, the Virginia faithful don’t have much patience. Personally, I think Coach Mendenhall could be a great fit at Virginia, but there has to be some sort of tangible result on the field...soon. Luckily, the schedule for the near future appears to be a little kinder to Coach Mendenhall than what Coach London dealt with as he had to face USC, Oregon, and Notre Dame (among others).
Here’s what we know about Virginia’s non-conference schedule for the next five years:
2017: William and Mary, Indiana, UConn, @ Boise State
2018: Richmond, @ Indiana, Ohio, Old Dominion
2019: @ Notre Dame
2020: Georgia (neutral site), VMI, @ Old Dominion
2021: Illinois, @ BYU (this may change), Notre Dame
Outside of a Georgia or Notre Dame here or there, none of those are impossible for the Hoos.
The Virginia Football staff hit the road last Monday to kick off their spring recruiting season after a weekend full of commitments.
(Shout out to my high school, Potomac Falls)
Virginia got commitments last weekend from four 2018 players: wide receiver Tavares Kelly (FL), outside linebacker Case Gatlin (FL), offensive lineman Joseph Bissinger (TX), and offensive lineman Will Lawrence (TN), who had received offers from some pretty heavy hitters. The Hoos now have seven commits in the class of 2018, including some much needed offensive line and linebacker help.
With regards to the incoming 2017 class, Virginia will welcome 27 players to Charlottesville. There are three four-star and 19 three-star players in the bunch, led by athletes Shawn Smith and Germane Crowell, and outside linebacker Zane Zandier. Quarterback Lindell Stone (Woodberry Forest) is definitely a player to watch and had offers from Wisconsin, UCLA, Maryland, and Cincinnati. Stone, 6-2, 187, was described by ESPN as a highly poised and accurate passer who reminds them of BYU’s Tanner Mangum.
The 27 incoming players include four first years - FB Jamari Peacock, TB Lamont Atkins, CB Riah Burton, and Crowell (listed as a CB) - who have already shown up on Grounds. Both Peacock and Atkins impressed in the spring practice, as did running backs Jordan Ellis and Daniel Hamm. The running game took a hit with Smoke Mizzell graduating (and recently signing with the Ravens), but it’s encouraging to see positive reports out of the preseason. Virginia’s predicted starter at quarterback, Kurt Benkert, also had a good showing. With his shoulder injury from last season fully healed and 15 pounds off his frame, Benkert looked more agile on the field. Additionally, David Hall of the Virginian-Pilot reported that Benkert has been watching Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers to help develop methods to extend a play from within the pocket.
Re-building a program - especially one that has struggled as much as the Cavaliers have in the last decade - is difficult. As Coach Mendenhall has said, everything about the culture has to change. Players have to learn how to win. The time for moral victories has long passed. It’s no longer going to be good enough to say “well they hung with so and so” or “if it weren’t for that last second, crippling touchdown pass by [Louisville] [Notre Dame] we would have gotten that huge win”.
The first step is making a bowl game. It seems simple, but a simple post-season appearance for the Hoos would be huge. Not only would it boost excitement and enthusiasm around the program, but the extra time for practice and the experience alone would be huge. With a non-conference schedule that includes William & Mary, UConn, Indiana, and Boise State, the Cavaliers have a real chance to build some wins before entering ACC play. The Hoos have conference home games against Duke, Boston College, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech, and quarterback departures around the ACC (Miami, UNC) could help, but the ACC is no longer the football pushover it once was.
Although it can be difficult, Virginia fans need to give Mendenhall & Co. time to implement their system. To recruit their players. To change the culture. Fair warning, that could be two or three more seasons. If Virginia can get to the point where they are winning 8-10 games per season with bowl game appearances each year and regain possession of the Commonwealth Cup, I’ll be happy. Hopefully we won’t have to wait too much longer.