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2018 Virginia Cavaliers Football Position Previews: Running Backs and Wide Receivers

Who will stand out for the Hoos this season?

NCAA Football: Virginia at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we looked at the quarterbacks and offensive line. In both cases, we noted that those units have not been particularly good over the years. In fact, the UVA offense has simply not been good since 2011. So let’s look at the running backs and wide receivers.

A year ago, Virginia had an 800 yard rusher and an 800 yard receiver. They hadn’t had that since 2011, when Perry Jones rushed for over 900 and Kris Burd had over 900 receiving. That, of course, was also the last time Virginia went to a bowl. Gaining 800 yards in 12 (or 13) games is definitely doable, as the player needs just 67 yards per game. So can the Hoos do it again this season?

When looking at RBs, an important stat to look at is Opportunity Rate. This is the percentage of plays in which the OL does its job. Very few RBs are going to be successful when the OL gets beat. Here’s a quick chart of the top Wahoo RBs the past three years with their Opportunity Rate along with their Highlight Yards.

For more information about these values, check out our advanced stats primer.

UVA Running Back Opportunity Rate and Highlight Yards

Year Player Opportunity Rate Highlight Yards/Opportunity
Year Player Opportunity Rate Highlight Yards/Opportunity
2017 Jordan Ellis 28.8 3.6
2016 Smoke Mizzell 41.7 4.3
2016 Albert Reid 45.9 3
2015 Smoke Mizzell 32.9 4.1
2015 Albert Reid 28.8 9.9
2015 Daniel Hamm 30.4 4.5

For comparison, 2015 Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry had a 41.3 Opportunity Rate and 5.4 Highlight Yards per Opportunity. Obviously, there’s a reason why Henry won the Heisman and is currently in the NFL, but his numbers aren’t really out of line from Virginia’s RBs.

Last year, with the offensive line struggling, Ellis was unable to get anything going against good defenses. And when he was able to get good blocks, he struggled to exploit. Ellis is a solid, between the tackles runner, but he’s not a burner or a “home run” guy. His long run last year was just 25 yards. Here’s what Ellis can do:

He sees the hole, hits it, runs over the DB and gets into the endzone. That’s Jordan Ellis right there.

Virginia’s success rate running the ball was 37.5%. Considering Ellis had over ⅔ of the teams’ carries, we can reasonably use that as his success rate. If the OL was successful 28.8% of the time, but the run was successful 37.5% of the time, it seems like Ellis did his job.

At WR, the situation is similar. Here’s another chart, this one shows the top UVA receivers along with their catch rate, success rate and yards per target. Compare this to Kurt Benkert’s 58.5% completion rate, 5.6 yards per attempt and the team’s 38.5% passing success rate.

WR Advanced Statistics

Player Catch Rate Success Rate Yards per Target
Player Catch Rate Success Rate Yards per Target
Olamide Zaccheaus 60.70% 46.40% 6.4
Doni Dowling 47.20% 35.00% 6.2
Andre Levrone 46.60% 39.70% 9.4
Evan Butts 82.10% 48.70% 6.8
Joe Reed 76.70% 56.70% 8.1
Jordan Ellis 78.60% 39.30% 4.9
Hasise Dubois 76.20% 52.40% 5.7

As a group, the WRs mostly did their job. Doni Dowling was 2nd on the team in receptions, but overall wasn’t very good. Averaging over 9 yards per target is outstanding. So although Levrone wasn’t “successful” as often, he made so many big plays that he was very good.

The Starters

Ellis is back, so he’s going to start. He averaged 3.9 ypc last year, and that won’t go up unless the OL does better. Ellis is a grinder. He’s a big back, and he’s got very good vision. He doesn’t make many mistakes. If there’s a hole, he’s gonna get through it. That makes him good at short yardage and makes him good at not losing ground. The Hoos, though, have some other options in the backfield.

I feel safe in saying that Ellis will not get ⅔ of the carries this year. He’ll still get the bulk, but some of the youngsters provide more of a home run threat and might be a better fit in the option-based attack we expect to see.

As for the WRs, look at that chart above. What stands out? Joe Reed stands out. He’s simply better than any other WR we’ve got. Yes, OZ gets the publicity, and deservedly so. But the team badly needs to get the ball into Reed’s hands more. OZ’s value is his versatility. Check out a few of his highlights here. In the first video, he runs a deep pass route. He’s covered by a LB, which is just unfair. In the second video, he stays back for a quick pass and runs to the endzone. He also scored on 56 yard TD run.

Incidentally, Zaccheaus needs just 54 catches to move into first place all time in receptions for the Hoos. Even in a run-heavy scheme, that seems exceedingly likely.

Looking at video of BYU’s offense, they lined up in three WR sets a lot. Zaccheaus and Reed will be two of those guys. The third is most likely Hasise Dubois (though there will also be TEs at times). Dubois was decent last year in limited opportunities. He’s big at 6’3, 215 and has good speed. He ran a 4.69 in the 40 while in HS, which is fast for his size.

Zaccheaus and Reed are dangerous in space. They run quick hitters like screens and slants in order to get the ball to them as quickly as possible. Dubois is different. He can be a possession receiver, but he’s also a deep threat. He’s the guy who is most likely to get off the line clean and run a go route, similar to what Andre Levrone did last year. Dubois is also the best perimeter blocker among the WRs, which has value in an option-heavy offense.

If you need somebody to sit in the middle and make a big catch on third down, Evan Butts is your guy. Look at that receiving chart above, Butts caught over 80% of his targets. That’s elite. Yes, those are short passes. That’s what he’s asked to do. On third and four, you trust Butts to get open in the middle and catch the ball when it’s thrown to him. Butts is not a great in-line blocker, but he’s pretty good in space.

The Backups

Nine WRs caught a pass for the Hoos last year. Only five of them had as many as one target per game. Three of those are the starters. The other two graduated. Sixth in targets is no longer with the team. In other words, there’s room for some younger WRs to make an impact.

One of those guys could be former QB/DB De’Vante Cross. He’s finally locked into one position (for now) and that is WR. It takes talent to be successful at more than one position. He’s incredibly athletic, and was initially recruited as a running QB. Now focused entirely on WR, he could be very good. He’s in the same mold as Reed. He’s tall and strong, but also incredibly quick. Cross has the ability to take a short pass and turn it into a long play.

Reed, Dubois and Cross are classmates. There’s another guy in the class who also played as a true freshman, but missed last year with a broken leg. That’s Cole Blackman. He’s big (6’1, 205), fast (4.62 in high school) and has outstanding hands. He could very easily be the third starter ahead of Dubois, because he’s so good at making tough catches. But we still don’t know how his leg will hold up to full contact situations.

Terrell Jana was the only true freshman WR to play last year, and frankly he wasn’t very good. But the experience he got is valuable, and he should be a bigger part of the offense this year.

The incoming WR class is deep and talented. There could be a few guys who see action. The most exciting of them is Tavares Kelly. Though he’s just 5’8, 160 pounds, he possesses truly elite speed. He’s run as fast as 10.4 in the 100m. Maybe you’ve seen this before, but that time is the 62nd fastest in the United States this year. Not just among HS runners, but among all sprinters in the entire nation. That kind of speed simply can’t go to waste. The return game is an easy way to get ball into Kelly’s hands.

Kelly’s classmates, Ugo Obasi and Wooby Theork-Youmans are mostly notable right now because of their interesting names. But, they’re both very talented and will soon be known for their ability on the field.

As far as TE goes, there isn’t much depth. Behind Butts are junior Tanner Cowley and sophomore Osiris Crutchfield. Crutchfield came to grounds as a DE, moved to OT as a freshman, then moved to TE last year and started against Navy. Cowley started eight games last year, but had just two receptions. Cowley is a similar player to Butts. Crutchfield appears to be more of an in-line blocker, based on his size and background. With more of a ground game this year, it will be interesting to see if the TEs have a bigger impact.