Virginia Football returns in four short weeks (and a day). As the Hoos prepare to take on William and Mary on September 2nd, our staff here at STL is joining in on the fun. Today, we discuss the first of four preseason roundtable topics: Who will be your breakout player - offensively and defensively - for the season? Paul “Tiki” Guttman, Matt “Trogs” Trogdon, Danny “The Stats Guy” Neckel, Paul “The O-Line is a Skill Position, Too, Guys” Wiley, Eric “Hobes” Hobeck, Ryan “Reese’s Pieces” Reese, and Jay “Can We Trivia Yet” Pierce all weigh in.
Tiki: This may be the easy answer, but Andrew Brown is my breakout player. He was basically completely overlooked last year in favor of Kiser and Blanding, but Brown led the team with 13 tackles for loss (TFL). As much as anything, injuries have held him back throughout his career. If he can stay healthy this year, look for a coming out party of sorts. Kiser and Blanding got all the pre-season love, but Brown is the best player on this defense and is a potential first round draft pick.
As for new player, I'm excited to see what De'vante Cross can do. Cross might be the most athletically gifted offensive player on the team. I have no idea what kind of WR skills he has, but if Anae can figure out how to get the ball into his hands, good things will happen. I love the potential for some trick plays, and I love that the offense will have to account for that every time he steps onto the field. Which may not be very much, because he may simply be too raw as a WR.
I see Cross being like Hagans was. Hagans actually competed with Schaub at QB at the beginning of his first year before Schaub took over. Hagans moved to WR and had little impact that first year (except at PR, where he was very good).
By his 2nd year, Hagans was a big part of the WR corps. Cross may need a similar amount of time to get used to being a WR. But he may be back at QB before that happens.
Trogs: My breakout players are Malcolm Cook and Joe Reed. Cook was the talk of training camp last fall before being sidelined by a heart condition. His recovery has gone well enough that UVA's coaches felt comfortable moving safety-turned linebacker Jordan Mack inside. If Cook has a big year, he could give Virginia's defense enormous help setting the edge. That could lead to a massive leap forward for that group as a whole.
Joe Reed performed well as a kick returner last season and impressed the coaches, media, and fans in the Spring game. He could turn into Virginia's go-to offensive playmaker by the time his career is over. I'm excited to see how his role expands on offense this season.
As for new players, I'm most excited to see true freshman Jamari Peacock. He's listed at 6'0" and 230 pounds on the preseason roster. That makes him a perfect "big back" in the offensive system Bronco Mendenhall's teams ran at BYU. But Virginia hasn't had a running back with those measurements since Keith Payne in 2010. Peacock will be a staple of the Virginia backfield for the next four years if he can stay healthy. I'm excited to see how he'll be used.
Danny: The defensive player I see having a breakout season for the Hoos would be Andrew Brown. The highly touted recruit had a good year last season with 13 tackles for a loss and 6 sacks. He had a tackle for a loss in each of the last six games as well as sacks in four of the last five. Hopefully his final season here will prove to be his breakout year if he can stay healthy for all 12 games.
As for the offense, I see Olamide Zaccheaus having a breakout year simply because he should be receiving a majority of the targets. He was second on the team in receptions last year to [Taquan] Mizzell and is slated to fill in that role this year. He also led the team in receiving TDs, so he is poised to expand on those totals this season.
Wiley: I'm going to pick an entire position group as my offensive breakout player: the offensive line. (I know, you're all SO SURPRISED.) Last year's OL ... wasn't strong, to put it politely, in either run blocking or pass protection. This year's group should be better, if for no other reason than because of playable size. In 2016, only six offensive linemen weighed 300 pounds or more. Those six combined for 15 of the possible 60 starts, with 12 of them belonging to Eric Smith alone.. Ben Knutson and Sean Karl didn't appear in a single game, and Steven Moss played in just one (which was also his college debut).
In 2017, there are ELEVEN offensive linemen at 300+. That includes both of the incoming transfers, and should include every starter for the upcoming season. While experience is still the biggest question mark, these guys solved the problem of bulk from last season, which should mark a big step forward in the game's most physically demanding position group.
On defense, I'd love to see what Chris Peace does at outside linebacker. We saw how the coaches used Jordan Mack's athleticism as a disruptive force on the edge. Peace is another converted safety and seems to fit well in Mendenhall's preferred mode of defensive football: attack and disrupt.
And I agree with Matty Trogs that Peacock could have a bigger impact than almost any other first year. As I noted in my preview of the incoming rookies, Peacock is the only scholarship player listed as a "fullback," which would suggest he's got the inside track to big-back playing time. He chose Virginia over big time Power Five offers elsewhere, including Stanford, FSU, and Miami, so I'd expect to see him contribute early.
Trogs: I'd like to add that I've always been really impressed by Wiley and his intellect.
Hobes: Offensively, I'm going with a hidden-in-plain-sight pick. Kurt Benkert doesn't have a knee brace anymore and is now two years removed from a torn ACL. He showed flashes of brilliance last year, when between the Central Michigan and Duke games, he became just the second quarterback in UVa history to throw for 300 yards in two straight games. His shoulder injury took a toll on both his mobility and decision-making as well. Now that he's at full health with the kind of offensive line that Paul mentioned, he could have one of the very best seasons for a UVa quarterback since Matt Schaub in 2002.
Defensively? I'll stan pretty hard for Juan Thornhill as the guy who might end up winning UVa a game or two by himself. The deep ball was part of what killed the Hoos on the defensive side last year (including _that_ game), and with him reverting to the safety spot where he can be a center fielder of sorts, that Achilles' heel should be mitigated.
Reese: My defensive breakout player is Malcolm Cook. The Junior has only six career games played to his name, but may be the player most familiar with what Coach Mendenhall and Coach Howell want to do on defense. You may have remembered him standing next to the head coach all last season with a headset as he was charged with calling in all the defensive play calls. That's a huge responsibility for a player and one that ensures he had the trust of the staff and the football IQ to pull it off. That will pay dividends on the field this season as at the college level, fundamentally sound play and a knowledge of where to be when can often mask athletic shortcomings. While he may not be as physically gifted an outside linebacker as this team has had in the past, I look for him to make the plays he's supposed to and be a rock and leader on this team's defense.
On offense, I'm looking at Andre Levrone. At 6-3, 225 coming out of the slot, and with the TE spot still a work in progress, I expect Levrone to be very active across the middle of the field and in the red zone. Add to that, somebody has to catch the 49 passes vacated with the loss of Keeon Johnson. He's seen work both his frehsmen and junior seasons, having lost the 2015 season to injury, but he's only had 25 career receptions. So while he's listed as a senior, he can make a splash given increased playing time and a role that will fill a major void on the offense.
Pierce: I was going to go with Levrone, so thanks Ryan for saving me from having to create sentences.
Tiki: Levrone is a great choice. If he stays healthy, he could have a big season. He's a really tough matchup for most CBs. And coming out of the slot at times, he may even see LBs in underneath coverage. Good luck to that LB.
Pierce: Instead, I'll write about Jordan Ellis. Ellis should be the man this year in the backfield. I'm sure Hamm and the two freshmen will contribute, but Ellis should be the feature back for the Hoos and I'm excited to see him in that role. He's been the victim of a talented and crowded depth chart, but now with Smoke and Reid gone, I think he'll really shine as a starter. Wahoo fans might remember he took his first touch to the house (against William & Mary) plus he's highly regarded by his teammates for his work ethic (winning the "pick your number" first last season, I believe). With an improved OLine (hopefully), I think he's going to put up great numbers this season.
What say you, Wahoo fans? Who are you excited to see with a possible breakout season? Leave your responses in the comments below!