“We look like a different team, we really do.”
That’s what Virginia starting quarterback Kurt Benkert had to say when asked to compare this year’s Virginia Cavaliers chemistry on offense with the 2016 team. And that’s a good thing, because if we’re buying what Benkert’s selling, we should be seeing a much more cohesive and explosive offense this year.
At a glance, it seems like Benkert had a pretty good year in his first year as a Wahoo. He threw for over 2500 yards and 21 touchdowns. He set the all-time record for single-game passing against Central Michigan, with 421 yards. That is impressive, especially considering it was his first extended game action in 4 years.
But a closer look at the numbers, and you realize that Benkert actually wasn’t that good. For starters, he threw the third most passes in a season in school history. His 56% completion rate was the lowest for a UVA starting QB since Dan Ellis in 2000 (yes, even lower than David Watford). In total, he was 86th in the nation with a passing efficiency of 120.6. That is well below the 127.8 that Matt Johns had in 2015.
In truth, the problems were not entirely Benkert’s. The offensive line struggled to give him time, which led to 36 sacks allowed. It also led to a quick passing game that was largely devoid of downfield passing. The running game wasn’t a whole lot better. Though Benkert threw just 11 INTs to Johns’s 17, Johns was a more accurate passer, completing over 61 percent of his passes.
We were told that Benkert was mobile and could generate yards on his own. He rushed for -94 yards (sacks count as rush yards in college football). In 2015, Johns rushed for 86 yards, and was sacked just 21 times.
Obviously, Matt Johns is gone. As is Connor Brewer, who never got a chance at Virginia. The QB situation this year is pretty much just Kurt Benkert. The plan was to have another graduate transfer sit behind Benkert and prepare for a potential starting gig in 2018. But Marvin Zanders was not granted entry into Virginia, although he did get into Vanderbilt, which brings up some interesting questions about the admissions departments of both schools.
Behind him is a true freshman, Lindell Stone. Also in the mix is redshirt freshman De’Vante Cross, who is currently spending most of his time training at WR. Cross will probably see the field this year at WR, though that is not certain. Stone, with any luck, doesn’t get on the field other than mop-up duty.
Yes, if Benkert gets knocked out for any period of time, the Hoos are in trouble. Stone has impressed the coaching staff during training camp, but his reps have been limited. The coaches are understandably focusing on getting Benkert as comfortable as possible. Cross has worked with the WRs, so it seems unlikely he’ll be seen at QB this year. He could move back next year though. Stone and Cross both completely lack experience and the only other QBs are walk-ons.
Included in those walk-ons is Texas transfer Matthew Merrick. Merrick was a 3-star recruit out of Dallas, who spent 2 seasons at Texas. He did not play in a game. He was not highly recruited other than the Longhorns. He walked on at Virginia, and though he could figure into the QB decision down the road, he doesn’t really fit the mold of what Mendenhall and Anae like in a QB. Also, he’s been quoted as being focused in academics and has a sister who is a student at Virginia. So his interest in Virginia and his focus may not be on football.
Reports out of training camp are that Benkert looks noticeably lighter and quicker. The knee brace he wore last year is gone. He’s showing the mobility that we were promised last year. He’s also showing an improved grasp of the offense.
As we’ve previously discussed, the loss of Smoke Mizzell (and, to a lesser extent, Keeon Johnson) hurts, but the Hoos have depth and talent at WR. That bodes well for Benkert and the offense this year.
But the most important factor for the offense and for Benkert’s season is probably the OL. The reports out of camp are that the OL is much improved. They are bigger, which helps. Last year, the OL averaged 293 pounds (based on official listed weights). These days, that is small. This year, the OL figures to average roughly 315. That should have immediate impacts on both the running game and pass protection.
If the OL has a strong year, and Benkert’s increased mobility proves true, he could be in for a big year. But if the OL struggles continue and Benkert spends the season running for his life and throwing quick hitch routes to Olamide Zaccheaus, he isn’t likely to be any better than last year. And that does not bode well for the Hoos this year.
Benkert is a senior, so the Hoos will have a new QB next year. If Cross sticks at WR, then Stone will almost undoubtedly be that starter. As mentioned, he’s impressed in his first run with the Hoos. He’s not really a prototypical Robert Anae QB because he’s not a dual threat. That said, he’s athletic enough that he can move outside the pocket and make plays. He’s not a dynamic runner, but he can run enough to keep the defense honest.
Next year, the Hoos bring in a new QB, Wyatt Rector. Rector is a dual-threat QB. He’s big, he’s strong and he’s fast. He actually is the prototypical QB for Anae. Given Virginia’s lack of other options, Rector should have a chance to battle Stone for the starting spot in 2019. Whoever wins that battle could end up being a three- or four-year starter.
Also, don’t discount the possibility of Bronco Mendenhall bringing in another graduate transfer next year at QB. As impressive as Stone has been, he’s still likely to enter next season with almost no experience. Bringing in an experienced QB could really help get the Hoos through what should be a transition year at QB. Stone and Rector should be ready to take over by 2019.