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Virginia Football Unit Previews: Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

For a team with so much hype coming into the season, there’s an awful lot of production that needs to be replaced offensively. That includes both a 1000-yard rusher and a 1000-yard receiver. Olamide Zaccheaus is just the third UVA WR to break the 1000 yard mark. Ever. He’s also the all-time leader in receptions, with almost 20% more catches than anybody else. It’s insane how productive he was over the past two years.

It’ll be a RB by committee to replace Jordan Ellis’s production. That’s tougher to do with WRs. Zaccheaus was always open, and Bryce Perkins knew that. That isn’t easy to replace. Neither is OZ’s ability to make plays after the catch.

2019 Outlook

Thankfully, the top three receivers after Zaccheaus are returning. In fact, 14 players caught at least one pass last year, and 12 return. Only Zaccheaus and TE Evan Butts are gone. Of course, that’s nearly half of the team’s receptions (109/228), but it does provide a lot of options for Bryce Perkins to work with.

Hasise Dubois was second on the team 52 receptions for 578 yards and 5 TDs. That’s a paltry 11 yards per catch, so Dubois isn’t exactly a big-play WR. However, at 6’3” 215, he’s a tough cover for most college DBs. Dubois is very strong on slants, posts and similar routes. Any time he can get himself between the QB and DB, he’s going to be tough. He’s also strong on a fade into the endzone.

This is actually more of a back-shoulder throw than a true fade. But it still shows Dubois’ size and physicality. He goes up over the DB and gets the ball. Ball probably should’ve thrown been a bit higher. A better DB might make a play on that. Dubois is also a very good downfield blocker.

Alongside Dubois is Joe Reed (25 catches for 465 yards). Reed is, almost undoubtedly, the best WR on the team right now. Dubois may have had more receptions, but Reed led the team in yards per catch and was second behind OZ in TDs. Reed is probably the guy who most needs to step up his production to make this a successful offense. Reed isn’t OZ, and at 6’1” 215 he’s more of an outside WR than a slot guy. But he can do a lot of the things that OZ did. Here’s a couple of examples.

Those are both plays Olamide ran quite often. Joe has the ability. But he’s also a big play, over the top guy.

That’s an outstanding catch, and hopefully, we’ll see more of that this year. Joe really came on later in the year, with 8 catches for 217 yards over the final three regular season games. He had 16 catches for 238 yards prior to that. As you probably know, Joe also returns kicks. He was 10th in the nation in kick returns last year, with three career returns for touchdowns.

Virginia’s depth chart lists two WRs, one HB and a TE. The starters at the WR spots were Dubois and Reed for every game last year, so that should not change. Reed and Dubois did not always actually “start” the game. The “starters” were dependent on the formation that Robert Anae used. Virginia started multiple games with in a ‘22’ package (meaning two RBs and two TEs) and one game in a ‘31’ (meaning three RBs and a TE). (For more info on personnel packages, see this.) Of all the skill position players, the only guy who started every game was Zaccheaus. Dubois started nine times and Reed started seven. But those two guys were the primary options at outside WR. It doesn’t really matter who “starts” and at what position. Anae moves the WRs around in various formations. Anae also uses a lot of 4 WR looks. That spreads the defense out, and can open up running lanes for the zone read option.

Terell Jana was the primary backup to Dubois and was actually the fourth leading receiver last year with 11 receptions for 151 yards and a TD. Jana isn’t nearly as big as Dubois, but has a similar style of play. It is telling that Jana was one of the first guys to earn their number this year. Reed’s primary backup was walk-on Ben Hogg. Hogg didn’t actually play much, though he did have 1 catch on the year for 18 yards.

Reed’s real backup is very likely one of the two graduate transfer WR on the roster. One of those is Dejon Brissett, from Richmond. If the name is familiar to you, it’s because he played for Richmond twice against Virginia (or it might be because his brother was a basketball player for Syracuse). Last year, Dejon had 3 catches for 22 yards against the Hoos, and then after three games, fractured his ankle. He received a medical redshirt, but hasn’t yet practiced and his availability at this point is unknown. He had 63 receptions for 896 yards as a junior in 2017, so the ability is there, if he can get healthy.

The other transfer is Terrell Chatman, from Arizona State. Chatman was a 4-star guy and the #30 WR in the nation according to ESPN. He was in the same recruiting class as Perkins (and they likely played on the scout team together). Somehow, he has just 3 receptions for 28 yards and a TD in his career. At 6’4”, he’s another potential X-factor, especially if he and Perkins click. With Brissett likely unavailable, Chatman might be the backup to Reed. There’s also a chance Chatman starts, with Reed moving to the slot.

In Virginia’s scheme, that slot WR is called an H-back. This was OZ’s spot. There is actually one guy on the roster listed at HB, Billy Kemp. Kemp didn’t really figure into the depth chart last year and doesn’t figure to this year either. He returned some punts in the Belk Bowl (3 for 31 yards) and looked good. He’ll have an opportunity to win the PR job.

The two guys who backed OZ up on the depth chart last year are Tavares Kelly and Chuck Davis. Kelly is a burner, who has run a 10.49 in the 100 meters. That’s insanely quick. He was the primary PR for much of last season, returning 13 punts for 143 yards. If he’d had three more returns, he would’ve qualified for the national lists and would’ve ranked in the top 20 at 11 yards per return. He also had 10 receptions for 121 yards and 6 rushes for 21 yards. Those aren’t that far off OZ’s first year (21 receptions for 216 yards and 33 rushes for 262 yards). And OZ wasn’t sitting behind the all-time leading receiver in Virginia history as a first year. Kelly could be an X-factor this year. If Reed isn’t moving inside, then Kelly probably gets the nod at HB.

Davis did not record a catch or a carry, but he did have 19 punt returns for 73 yards. He’s the guy Virginia sent out if they needed a catch. Davis began his career at Nebraska but transferred before his freshman season. He’s got a lot of straight-line speed, but not the same wiggle that some of the other guys have.

Another option at H-back is freshman Seneca Milledge. He’s listed at RB on the roster and was discussed in the RB preview. But he’s got a similar build to OZ and has similar skills with the ball in his hands. The issue with Milledge is getting him used to playing WR instead of an option QB. And, of course, getting his strength up. There’s a reason there aren’t a lot of 160 lb guys in college football.

At TE, there’s only two options. The first is Tanner Cowley and he’s the only TE on the roster with any experience at the position (DE Richard Burney played some TE earlier in his UVA career.) Cowley has 6 receptions for 84 yards in his career. He’s a very good blocker and has good hands but he’s not a burner and isn’t going to have the same impact in the passing game that Butts had. The other TE on the roster is Christian Baumgardner, who was not with the team last year and played DE in 2017. Baumgardner is a big physical guy and might have a role around the endzone. He’s still learning how the play the position though.

2020 Outlook

Replacing OZ is a daunting task. But with everybody else returning, it’s doable. Next year, Virginia will be replacing both Reed and Dubois. There’s a lot of young talent at the position, and we’re going to learn a lot this year about who is ready to step up.

There’s guys such as Kelly and Jana who’ve already had opportunities. Billy Kemp and Chuck Davis fit that bill as well, though not really as WRs. Ugo Obasi got some playing time as a true freshman last year and has intriguing size and ball skills.

Behind them, true freshmen Dontayvion Wicks, Dorien Goddard and Nathaniel Beal are waiting in the wings for their opportunities. Beal (6’4” 210) and Goddard (6’3” 220) are potential replacements for Dubois. None of the other WRs on the roster have that size.

A guy who could move into Reed’s role on the outside is sophomore Darnell (D.J.) Pratt, who also runs for UVA track. At 6’2” 185, with sprinter’s speed, he could be dangerous on the deep ball.

There’s more talent on this roster at WR than there has been in a long time. It’s largely untested though. With Reed, Dubois, Chatman and Brissett all seniors, there simply won’t be enough chances for all of these guys to show what they can do. So it’ll be interesting to see who gets those limited chances. Those guys will be leading the pack over the next couple of years.