Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall has always been very clear what he looks for in potential incoming transfers: they have to fill a position of need, and he has to like them. “I think any one of us in any capacity wants to be needed and wanted,” Mendenhall stated at the ACC Football Kickoff back in June. “I won’t consider a graduate transfer that we don’t really need, but then I better like him as a person, otherwise what a grind that is to be with someone you don’t like every day. Those two criteria have to be met.”
The 2021-22 season may have just begun, but early returns show that transfers Jelani Woods and Anthony Johnson have cleared those criteria with flying colors. The duo was critical to the team’s success on Saturday as Virginia dominated Illinois, 42-14.
Woods finished with six receptions, a game-high 122 yards receiving, four of Virginia’s 10 “big plays” (15+ yards), and one touchdown. At 6’7, 250 pounds, he’s a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.
“Well, the first challenge is, who do you match up with him?” Mendenhall asked during Saturday’s postgame. “If you choose to put a linebacker on him, most likely he’s not as fast, and there aren’t many linebackers that are over 6’7. If you choose the secondary route, there’s not many secondary players that are 6’7. They might be fast, but they probably don’t weigh 250. So really, there’s a matchup issue no matter what direction you go.”
Against William & Mary in the season opener, Woods struggled with cramps that left him sidelined for most of the game. He finished with one reception for five yards, leaving fans to wonder what the deal was with the highly touted transfer out of Oklahoma State. Woods answered those questions — and more — with his performance against the Illini.
For his efforts, Mendenhall gave him the honor of breaking the rock postgame.
On the other side of the ball, Louisville transfer Anthony Johnson made his mark in the secondary. Mendenhall reworked the depth chart between weeks one and two of the season, moving Johnson — or AJ as his new teammates call him — into a starting cornerback position. Against Illinois, AJ was all over the field. Johnson finished with five tackles, two pass breakups, and came up with the Hoos’ first turnover of the season with a fourth quarter interception.
After picking off Artur Sitkowski, Johnson ran to the sidelines amidst a crowd of enthusiastic teammates before popping up on a bench to receive an ovation from the home crowd. Mendenhall described AJ as a player that “prepares wildly” and said he’s someone you hear before you see. “As a transfer to another team in our league, he just is so grateful, and he just celebrates every day,” Mendenhall said Saturday afternoon. “It’s contagious. Our team likes him.”
The support in the locker room is evident. “When I say a family, we are a huge, big family. That’s one thing I love about it here,” Woods said after the game. “With, AJ, he was my transfer brother, so seeing him have a great game and how he did today, it just brought out a lot ... We are both doing good, we are both doing what we wanted to do when we came in, and it is just perfect, really. It’s like a little Cinderella story.”
Fellow secondary member Joey Blount echoed these sentiments and was thrilled AJ — who has become a close friend in a short amount of time — was able to get that first interception of the season. “I understood his struggles and his story,” Blount stated. “He wanted to be wanted somewhere and wanted to be used. That’s all we’re trying to do here at UVA: make sure he’s felt wanted. He’s being used to the best of his abilities [and] playing within his playing style. So you know, that’s one of my close friends on the team now ... We’re really good friends and seeing him accomplish that goal of getting the first one [interception] this season...I was really happy for him.”
Johnson and Woods aren’t the only impact transfers with the Cavaliers this season. Football player Keytaon Thompson is one of the most dynamic players in the league and in his second season with Virginia after transferring from Mississippi State. Running back Devin Darrington came to Charlottesville from Harvard and is expected to be a major contributor in the ground game. Fellow RB Ronnie Walker Jr. transferred in from Indiana, and punter Jacob Finn is a graduate student from the University of Florida.
In all, Virginia has 12 players on the roster that were enrolled at another school before coming to Charlottesville. Former quarterbacks Kurt Benkert (ECU) and Bryce Perkins (ASU) both played two years under QB coach Jason Beck after transferring in.
It seems Mendenhall’s transfer criteria is working not just for the coaching staff, but for the players and team as a whole.
“Yes. Oh yes,” Woods said with a bright smile when asked if he made the right choice when transferring. One hundred percent. Probably 200%.”