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2018 Virginia Cavaliers Football Position Previews: Quarterback

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Bryce Perkins is almost the polar opposite of last year’s starting quarterback, Kurt Benkert.

Jim Daves/UVA Media Relations

Today’s look at the quarterback position builds off of yesterday’s explainer, going deeper into the numbers and metrics and providing some different perspective.

Last season, Virginia Cavaliers’ starting quarterback Kurt Benkert became the first returning starter for the Hoos in five years, dating back to the Mike Rocco years of 2011-2012. This year, Virginia will turn to JUCO transfer Bryce Perkins to take over—and help revamp—a struggling Virginia offense.

2017 Season

At first pass, Benkert, was pretty good last year. He broke a number of passing records for the Hoos and led them to their first bowl game in six years. But the advanced metrics tell a different story. The Hoos were 51st in the nation in passing yards, but just 78th in passing S&P+, and they were 114th in Passing ISO PPP, which is a measure of explosive passing plays. Furthermore, they were 90th in passing success rate. The combination of poor success rate and few explosive plays says the passing game was not good.

Similarly, while Benkert was 24th in the nation in passing yards. But he was 108th in yards per attempt. That wasn’t all his fault, as there were far too many dropped passes. But Virginia was 121st in the nation in yards per completion. There were too many short passes and too few deep ones. Still, Benkert is on the preseason roster for the Atlanta Falcons (behind Matt Ryan and former Cavalier Matt Schaub), and we can’t scoff at that.

2018 Starter

Now Benkert is gone. In thinking about Perkins at the helm, longtime fans of the Hoos know that the school doesn’t usually take JUCO transfers. Perkins, though, began his football career at Arizona State in 2015. He redshirted, as most true freshman QBs do, then went on to miss the entire 2016 season with a neck injury. It was then that he transferred to Arizona Western Community College, in an attempt to re-invigorate his college career. Perkins is the younger brother of NY Giants RB Paul Perkins. Readers may recall facing the elder Perkins when he was at UCLA in 2014 and 2015.

It’d be tough to find two QBs with less in common than Kurt Benkert and Bryce Perkins. Benkert is a drop-back passer with a cannon for a right arm, but mobility is not a strength. Perkins has a decent arm, but he’s not looking to throw the ball downfield. He wants to get out of the pocket and either make a throw on the move or pick up yardage on his own via the run.

The Hoos ran a lot of “read-option” looks over the past two years with Benkert. They weren’t read-options in the true sense, because Kurt was never going to keep the ball. They were shotgun, inside-handoffs. Critics can boil it down to just being a slow-developing run play. The benefit of that look was play-action. Benkert would fake that handoff and transition directly into a pass play. More traditional play-action plays require the QB to take his eyes off the defense for a split second to make the fake. That usually isn’t necessary in the read-option look.

With Perkins under center at QB, the Hoos will be running actual read-option. Make no mistake, Perkins will be running the ball. In Perkins’ highlight video below, there are several shots of him running the zone-read—take a look at the one at about the 0:39 mark, where he avoids good pressure from the defense and takes off up the middle for a 70 yard TD run. There’s another good example coming at about the 2:35 mark, which shows us a more traditional zone-read look. He sees the edge defender go towards the RB, so he runs right towards the spot that guy vacated and picks up 20+ yards.

There are also a couple of shots of Perkins throwing the ball downfield. He throws a couple of deep balls in the first minute of the video, and in fact, most of the video is actually Perkins throwing the ball. There are a few throws that he hits despite being late on the throw, although those will more often than not get picked off by good defenses. He’ll have to work on speeding up his reads. His release is also a bit inconsistent.

Instead, Perkins’s strength is using his legs to make plays. Sometimes those plays are him running downfield. Sometimes, as you can see at around the 2:58 mark of the video, the plays come when he’s able to use his legs to buy time and make a play throwing the ball. He somehow avoids an almost-certain safety and gets out of the pocket and makes a throw for a 30 yard gain. Those plays will make Perkins—and the Virginia offense—look good.

Perkins is the prototypical QB for what head coach Bronco Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae want to run. They’ve both compared him to former BYU (and current New Orleans Saints) QB Taysom Hill. They’re about the same size, but Hill ran a 4.55 at his NFL Pro Day. Perkins has yet proven to have quite that level of speed, but he is fast (he was listed at 4.73 in high school, which pretty fast for a high school QB).

As a high school senior, Perkins threw for over 3,000 yards, with 46 TDs and just 6 INTs. He broke the Arizona single-season completion percentage record, completing over 74% of his passes. Though he’s very athletic, he’s a passer first. Hill, on the other hand, was probably a runner first and passer second. For his career, Hill rushed 534 times at an outstanding 5.3 ypc. He threw 1047 passes, at a poor 6.6 ypa. Last year, Perkins completed 63% of 180 passes for 1311 yards (7.3 ypa) and rushed a nice 69 times for 353 yards (5.1 ypa). Obviously, the competition at Arizona Western isn’t the same Hill faced, but the numbers are comparable to Hill’s. That bodes well for his success in Anae’s scheme.

We can’t really know what Anae has in mind for Perkins. Best bet is that, while not exactly the same, they’re similar enough that the staff will likely hope to use Perkins at UVA in a similar fashion to how they used Hill at BYU. Below is a video of Hill at BYU. You’ll notice that a majority of the highlights are Hill running, with both traditional option and zone read option. There’s also what appears to be designed runs and there are a few plays with Hill taking off after dropping back to pass. Most of the pass plays shown are deep balls. Hill has a strong arm, and the threat of his runs seems to open things up for the deep ball. He makes some good throws, but many of these throws are to wide open receivers. We’ll see if Perkins has the same level of success on the ground, which would similarly help open up the deep passing game. As we’ll see later this week, Perkins will not be hurting for options in the passing game.

Backups

There are two other scholarship QBs on the roster, sophomore Lindell Stone and true freshman Brendan Armstrong. Stone took a few snaps last year, all in garbage time. That actually makes him the only experienced DI QB on the roster. Stone is a good athlete, but really not a true dual-threat, so while he could certainly run the read-option, it’s more likely that we see the offense look a bit more “pro-style.” Still, don’t expect the playbook to alter very much. Stone has a good arm, but not a great one. He appears to be a more accurate short and intermediate passer than Perkins, Perkins seems to have more arm strength and appears to have more touch on the deep ball.

Armstrong’s game is more similar to Perkins’s. He’s a very good runner, but he’s a passer first and runner second. Armstrong is a left-handed thrower and has a very strong arm, but is not, at this point, the most developed of QB prospects. He tends to get locked on to his primary read and often struggles to go through his progressions (a sentence that might describe 90% of high school QBs). The new redshirt rules may benefit Armstrong, in that he may see some garbage time action without burning his redshirt.

The final guy is Matthew Merrick. The Texas transfer was expected to a backup candidate after sitting on a redshirt year last year. But Merrick announced last week that he’s retiring from football for medical reasons. It’s a shame, because Merrick could’ve been a useful scout team QB for opposing teams with pro-style QBs.