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Virginia Cavaliers Football Primer: The Offense

UVA, Explained: Breaking down Virginia’s offense for the everyday fan.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the third installment of STL’s “UVA, Explained” series. Today we’ll break down Virginia’s offense, led by offensive coordinator Robert Anae and QB coach Jason Beck.

Let’s start simple: Offenses are typically constructed around a quarterback. While coaches have systems they like to implement and plays they like to call, it ultimately depends on what your QB can do. What are their strengths? What weaknesses can we avoid? How do we play around an injury? Are they big enough to run the ball? How strong is their arm? Those are the questions that often go into crafting an offensive system.

The last two seasons, Virginia built its offense around QB Kurt Benkert, a pro-style quarterback who relied heavily on the pass-game. Due to this, Virginia ran a pass-heavy air raid style offense that finished the season dead last in the ACC for rushing yards attempted and averaged (yikes) but fifth in average passing yards per game.

Benkert was used to the air raid offense, which relies more heavily on receivers than it does on running backs, from his time at ECU. It fit with Benkert’s strength being more in his arm than in his legs, and Anae was familiar with the format as well from his time as the offensive line coach in Mike Leach’s Air Raid system at Texas Tech. Basically it made a whole lot of sense for Anae and the Cavaliers to craft a pass-heavy offense with Benkert at the helm.

BUT with the addition of versatile dual-threat quarterbacks who can both run the ball and play the pass game, Virginia’s offense will be sporting a new-look this season that’s more similar to Anae’s creations in Utah. Liiiike we said earlier in the series, Anae and Beck used to run an option-heavy attack at BYU.

An option offense is a more fluid system that adapts to defensive alignments as plays are being put into motion and relies more heavily on running plays than the Hoos did under Benkert. The run game is the backbone of an option offense, which likely means we’ll be seeing standout half back Olamide Zaccheaus targeted much more often this fall.

Not so fun fact: Navy, who obliterated Virginia in the Military Bowl last December, runs a triple-option offense. The triple-option is still based on the option run, but uses three players who might run with the ball instead of the two used in a standard option run. It offers even more options when it comes to carrying the ball. During said encounter, the Midshipmen rushed for 452 yards while holding an impressive (and simultaneously depressing) 42 minutes in time of possession. They only attempted one pass during the entire game, an incompletion. But I digress.

With dual-threat quarterback Perkins as Virginia’s starter and Zaccheaus on the carry, the Cavaliers will pose a much more significant run threat than they did before.

In his 2017 JUCO season, Perkins ran the ball 69 times to average 5.1 yards per carry, rushing for 104 yards and 1 TD in his team’s JUCO championship loss. Perkins also went 18/32 for 139 passing yards in the same game. For comparison, Benkert rushed for -4 yards in the Military Bowl, finishing the year with a -1.0 rushing yard average, but went 16/36 for 145 passing yards. While neither of these games were the QB’s shining moments, it helps to see how Perkins can find success with a more diversified portfolio of plays.

Moral of the story: Perkins dual-threat status opens up a lot of options for Virginia offensively. He’s also pretty fast, which is a bonus when it comes to running the ball himself or scrambling in a not-so-ideal situation. Add in Zacchaeus, the senior from Plainfield, N.J. who’s the ACC’s returning receptions leader with 85 receptions, and we’ve got a solid duo as the foundation of Virginia’s ground game.

With options of both run and pass plays, Virginia can craft a more versatile offensive playbook, although the run game will likely be the team’s go-to. If Benkert was your prototypical drop-back passer who could make big-time plays in the air, the 6’3” Perkins is your prototypical dual threat QB — which, given that all the right pieces come together, should mean plays all over the field. The less pass heavy offense can use playmakers like Zaccheaus, wideout Joe Reed, and senior tailback Jordan Ellis to shake things up on the field. True freshman Tavares Kelly, a wide receiver and kick returner from Florida is also another name to note. He’s only 5’8” and 165 pounds, but his speed could help him see some reps despite his size.

Let’s look at Virginia’s offensive line real quick: Coach Garett Tujague runs this part of the show. His line has historically struggled, but improved last season from his first year at Virginia. In 2017, the offensive line allowed 2.38 sacks per game on Benkert, lower than 2016’s 3.0 per game.

Although Tujague lost starting right tackle Brandon Pertile, starting left tackle Jack English, and starting guard John Montelus, a few lineman are coming back who’ve seen playing time in previous seasons.

The Cavaliers have also added Rutger’s graduate transfer Marcus Applefield to the roster, who could play at either guard spot or tackle. Redshirt freshman Ryan Nelson saw reps this spring at left tackle, but Applefield would likely win the starting slot if Tujague decides to play him at tackle. Senior Jake Fieler will lead the line, Virginia’s highest-ranked returning player who started four games at center and nine at right guard last season. With these guys on the field Tujague has a few options for who to finish out his edges with.

Tujague is emphasizing effort and effectiveness this season, focusing his players on keeping Perkins safe and protecting the ball.

TLDR (too long, didn’t read):

Virginia’s new-look offense: Options, options, options. Run game, run game, run game.

Perkins’ can play the ground game better than Benkert could, but his pass game isn’t as strong. With the loss of key receivers but the retention of top-running backs, this means Perkins will fit in well with the rest of Virginia’s remaining offensive weapons. Anae has had all spring and summer to perfect a Perkins-centered offense, so there shouldn’t be as much of an offensive adjustment as when ECU-transfer Kurt Benkert first took the field in 2016.

The O-Line will hopefully continue to improve this season under the leadership of Applefield and Fieler, but a lot of new faces will have to take the field to make up for last season’s losses.

Next up: defense.