It’s finally game week, and the Virginia football team welcomes William & Mary to Charlottesville this Saturday at 7:30pm. As we get ready for the season opener, we are looking at each position group. Today: the running backs!
There are a lot of questions at running back after a bit of an underwhelming season in 2020, but there are reasons to be optimistic this year. Grad transfer Shane Simpson (Towson) decided to forego the extra year of eligibility granted as a result of the pandemic season, but he’s really the only big loss from 2020 to 2021. Simpson finished third on the team with 278 yards, and he added two touchdowns for the season.
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall has been high on his backs throughout fall camp, and Wayne Taulapapa earned the top spot in the first depth chart released. But Mendenhall said it’s a minuscule amount of distance between the four backs listed, making his job difficult.
“It is so close, and Wayne’s experience gives him a more ‘every play’ role in anything we’re doing just because we’ve seen him do it all,” Mendenhall said in Monday’s press conference. “Mike Hollins adds a dynamic ball carrier emphasis that is really special, and [with] Ronnie [Walker Jr.] there is a speed and dynamic component that comes to that, and Devin Darrington might have been the most effective runner through the entire camp that we’ve had. It is really hard to say right now, who, and how many touches and what roles, and it’s a photo finish as of Monday.”
Let’s take a more in-depth look at who the Hoos will have when the season kicks off in four days.
The Returning Players
This running back corps starts with Taulapapa. The 5-9, 210 pound senior out of Hawaii has been a grinder for Mendenhall and RB coach Mark Atuaia, and he finished second on the squad last year with 395 yards. Quarterback Brennan Armstrong was the team’s leading rusher and by a relatively large margin. Armstrong finished with 552 yards and five touchdowns, which tied for the team high alongside Taulapapa’s five touchdowns.
Indiana transfer Walker Jr. also returns, but he only played four games as a result of waiting for his waiver to get approved by the NCAA. Once receiving approval, Walker Jr. had to sit due to illness, so timing all around was just unfortunate. He averaged 2.9 yards per carry on 23 carries with no touchdowns, but expectations are high.
The New Faces
The bigger issue that the running back corps faced is a lack of explosiveness. Virginia’s offensive line graded out to be the top in the ACC when it came to making space for its backs, but the Cavaliers struggled without any explosive plays.
Through film study, Football Outsiders determined a formula for the proportion of rushing yards an OLine is responsible for on a given carry.— ACC Content (@ACContent__) June 17, 2021
Here are the line yards per carry FBS rankings in 2020:
Harvard transfer Devin Darrington could be an answer here, as could second year Mike Hollins. While Hollins is technically a returner, we’ve included him here after opting out last season with pandemic concerns. Hollins is a bruiser, and that’s exactly what this offense needs. At 5’9 and 210 pounds, he can get low and get moving. Hollins had 114 yards (only two yards lost) on the ground in 2019, averaged 5.33 yards per carry, and scored three touchdowns.
Darrington was considered a preseason All-Ivy League candidate before the conference canceled their 2020 season, and he amassed 1,181 yards and 12 touchdowns while playing with Harvard. With an offensive line as experienced as Virginia’s and a corps of more consistent runners, the backs could end up being a bright spot for the Cavaliers. This is a position that still has questions to answer, but the depth and potential is something to get excited about.