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Virginia Football Position Preview: Wide receivers and tight ends

Who will step up for the Cavaliers as the go-to receivers for Virginia?

NCAA Football: Abilene Christian at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia football season starts in just 25 days when William & Mary comes to town. We gave you the rundown on the Tribe yesterday, so today we’ll start with our first position preview. There are a lot of questions around the wide receiving corps, but Marques Hagans is one of the more underrated position coaches in the country.

Hagans has been the wide receivers coach at Virginia since 2013 and worked 2011 and 2012 as a graduate assistant with the program. Now in his ninth season with the Cavaliers, the former UVA quarterback has shown that he’s an extremely talented coach. Wide receivers like Canaan Severin, Andre Levrone, Keeon Johnson, Olamide Zaccheaus, Joe Reed, Hasise Dubois, and Terrell Jana have emerged and thrived since 2013 under Hagans’s watchful eye.

Jana (423 yards, one touchdown) and tight end Tony Poljan (411 yards, six touchdowns) have departed the program after graduating, leaving some production to be replaced.

Everyone expected phenom Lavel Davis Jr. to follow up his 20 reception, 515 yard, and five touchdown freshman campaign with a big second year, but the 6’7 player tore his ACL in the spring. There’s a possibility he returns in November or later this season, but who steps up in his stead? Can Virginia find an explosive play receiver, something they desperately need on offense?

The Returning Players

One of the most consistent receivers in the country will be back for the Hoos as Billy Kemp IV returns. He finished second in the ACC and No. 18 in the country with 6.7 receptions per game and averaged 64 yards per game last season. Kemp IV isn’t your big strike threat, but he’s always around when you need a pick up of 8-10 yards.

“He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve been around,” Hagans said of Kemp IV. “He’s tough, he’s competitive, and he loves to prove that he catches the ball. Some guys receive the ball, like they use their body to make catches. That’s not him. He is very arrogant in catching the ball with his hands, which I love.”

Hagans added that Kemp is a safety blanket for quarterbacks, and that they know when they get him the ball, he’s going to get the yardage they need.

Ra’Shaun Henry is another guy that Virginia fans will be familiar with returning this fall. Henry had four touchdowns on seven receptions last year, and he had four scores on four catches for awhile. With Davis Jr.’s injury, Henry is a candidate for the big play receiver, but the senior has much higher expectations this season.

“So far, in the offseason, he’s continued to work hard, get his body in the best shape ever,” said Hagans. “He’s got his body fat down, and he looks really well, he’s in great shape. So now it’s just a matter of taking what he did in the spring, continue to develop that throughout fall camp, and then throughout the season, making sure that he’s the consistent guy that we can count on.”

Dontayvion Wicks, a third year, has maybe the highest expectations of any receiver heading into the first game. Wicks didn’t play last season due to an ankle injury sustained in the off-season, but played in 10 of 14 games his first year. Now that he’s healthy, he’s ready to contribute. Wicks said his route running, ability to get up and get the ball, and being able to get open are his biggest strengths.

Although his chemistry with current QB Brennan Armstrong fell off a little bit with his injury, Wicks says they have a strong relationship.

Hagans admits that he might be hard on Wicks, but that it’s for a good reason. “If anything, I told him my biggest disappointment is if I don’t get him to maximize the ability that he has,” Hagans stated on his relationship with Wicks. “If I don’t get him to see what I see in him, then I failed him as a coach. So every day I’m pushing him, and that’s no discredit to anyone else in my group, I push everyone the same.”

The versatile Keytaon Thompson is another piece that the Hoos will use as a wide receiver this season. Thompson, listed as a QB/WR, is an absolutely electric player that offensive coordinator Robert Anae can get creative with.

The New Faces

Not to be confused with Ra’Shaun Henry, the Hoos add Artie Henry as a transfer from Marshall. With the Thundering Herd last season, Henry had 22 receptions for 308 yards and three touchdowns.

The biggest — literally — addition to the group is another transfer in Oklahoma State’s Jelani Woods. At 6’7, he follows in the footsteps of Poljan last season as a transfer TE. He’s already got a lot of buzz around his quickness, physicality, and catching ability. Beyond that, he’s a huge addition to an already strong offensive line in the blocking game. Don’t be surprised if he turns a few heads this season.

When asked if any other newcomers have turned Hagans’s head this fall, he quickly answered no before pausing. “No,” he said with a laugh and smile. “I’ve got to keep some stuff close to the chest.”

First year Malachi Fields, a 6’4, 220 pound Charlottesville native, could be a candidate to make some noise as a new face. We’ll get some answers soon, so stay tuned for more season preview content as we get closer to the start of the season.