ACC Football Kickoff takes place July 21-22 in Charlotte, and the Virginia football season gets underway in just 47 days when William and Mary come to Charlottesville. The Cavaliers are sending QB Brennan Armstrong, QB/WR Keytaon Thompson, and CB Joey Blount to Charlotte with head coach Bronco Mendenhall as they will meet with the media for the first time in the 2021-22 season.
Here are some major storylines for the Hoos this season:
Will Virginia have a productive running game?
Last season, the Cavaliers averaged 163 yards per game on the ground, but 61 yards per game came from quarterback Brennan Armstrong. He led the team for the season with 552 yards, with running back Wayne Taulapapa over 150 yards behind him with 395. Taulapapa returns this season, and he’ll be helped in the backfield by second year Mike Hollins and fourth year transfer Ronnie Walker Jr. Hollins didn’t play last season, but the 5-9, 200 pound bruiser is the type of strong runner the Hoos need. Walker Jr., a transfer from Indiana, only saw action in four games last season due to waiting on his waiver and dealing with illness.
Virginia also has Harvard transfer Devin Darrington in the mix this season, as well as first year Amaad Foston.
ESPN’s David Hale ranked Virginia’s rushing attack No. 11 in the conference, but ranks Virginia’s offensive line No. 1. They return six players that started in a game last season, and the unit has a combined 122 starts. This will be a benefit for the ground game, and if there has been big offseason improvement from the running back corps, you could see a big jump in that aspect of the offense.
Underrated: UVA's O-line play. Hoos ranked 7th in P5 in yards/rush before contact. Problem is, UVA didn't have a really athletic playmaker at RB and ranked 61st in yards/rush after contact. Offensive explosiveness outside of the QB position has hounded Hoos under Bronco.— ️♈️ (@ADavidHaleJoint) July 13, 2021
Who will step up as a receiver?
The news that sensational first year receiver Lavel Davis Jr. tore his ACL was absolutely devastating in the off-season. Davis Jr. was second on the team with receiving yards (515) and touchdowns (five) and provided a big target for Armstrong. He might make a late season return, but Virginia will have to find other targets in his absence. Billy Kemp led the team in receptions (67) and yards (644), but was more of an asset to move down the field rather than score (just one touchdown). Although Kemp has proven to be a consistent receiver, is he the big play guy Virginia needs?
Transfer tight end Tony Poljan had a successful season with the Hoos last year, and all indications are that Oklahoma State transfer Jelani Woods is poised to have a big season. At 6’7, 275 pounds, he’s a huge target that can also help in the run-block. Ra’Shaun Henry had just seven receptions last season, but four of them were touchdowns. He could be a huge piece this season, and Dontayvion Wicks is back with something to prove.
Much like the RB and TE units, Virginia added some offensive depth with a transfer in WR Artie Henry III from Marshall.
There are a lot of questions around this unit, but Marques Hagans has shown that he’s able to consistently provide Virginia QBs with great targets.
What should we expect from the defense?
There will be some big names gone from the roster this season as Charles Snowden, Zane Zandier, and Jowon Briggs have all moved on. Noah Taylor and Nick Jackson return, as do Nick Grant, Joey Blount, and De’Vante Cross in the secondary. Returning faces are good, but the secondary absolutely has to step it up from 2020. Virginia dealt with injury issues all season, but the Cavaliers gave up a lot of huge plays and quick scores that put extra pressure on the offense. Three-time FCS national champion Josh Hayes (North Dakota State) and Anthony Johnson (Louisville) joined the Cavaliers in the off-season via the transfer portal, adding some much-needed depth and experience.
There will be a lot of opportunity for players to step up defensively this season. Who will be the ones that answer the call?