A whirlwind six weeks for the Virginia Cavaliers that started with Bronco Mendenhall’s surprise resignation on December 2 has wound down, as new head coach Tony Elliott rounded out his first staff. With only Marques Hagans, Garrett Tujague, and Clint Sintim retained from the previous on-field coaching staff, there will be plenty of new faces in orange and blue come this fall.
Who are these new guys, and what do UVA fans need to know about each of them?
Below is a breakdown of the upside, the downside, and possible X-factors for each coach.
Offensive Coordinator: Des Kitchings
The Good: From 2016 to 2018, he was assistant head coach and running backs coach under Dave Doeren; the Wolfpack offenses in 2017 and 2018 were both top-30 nationally, with the 2017 squad on the edge of the top 10. No small part of that success came from Kitchings’ recruiting prowess building up the talent in the NC State program: Kitchings recruited North Carolina HARD for the Wolfpack and hauled in some of the best offensive players in the country during his near-decade in Raleigh.
The Bad: Kitchings took the reins as co-coordinator in 2019—and the NC State offense fell off a cliff. Some of that attrition was due to losing a bevy of experienced playmakers on offense, with promise or upside not panning out. But local media also pinned blame on Kitchings failing to put State’s new personnel to proper use. He headed south to USC in 2020, helping to raise the Gamecocks’ offense from abysmal to just bad during Will Muschamp’s final season in Columbia, before joining the Falcons in 2021.
The Unknown: What will be the scheme—and how involved will Elliott be with play-calling? Here was Elliott’s description of the offense he’d like to run, from his introductory press conference:
[M]y background is a two-back, no-huddle spread. That’s my background. But if you’ve watched over the years, been very multiple, and I think you have to adapt your system to the personnel that you have.
The basic schematic principles fit with what Kitchings helped run in NC State, and Elliott seems well attuned to keeping the offense aligned with the roster. Who gets the reins for installing the offense during the offseason, and who gets to take point on calling plays on gameday?
Defensive Coordinator: John Rudzinski
The Good: Air Force has been among the nation’s top defenses in terms of total defense under Rudzinski’s watch. After finishing 65th nationally in total defense in 2017—the year prior to Rudzinski taking over as defensive coordinator—the Falcons improved each season under Rudzinski: 43rd his first season in 2018, then 17th, 6th, and 5th in 2021.
The Bad: Advanced stats, however, have not been as kind in their assessment of the Rudzinski era. Using the defensive efficiency ratings on Football Outsiders, those four years were ranked more like 101st, 51st, 39th, and 47th—still a positive trend line from where they were when he started, but not the meteoric rise to the nation’s very best that pure counting stats suggest.
The Unknown: What will Rudzinski be able to accomplish away from Colorado Springs? An Air Force graduate, Rudzinski has spent his entire coaching career on the Air Force staff. We saw BYU staff have some issues moving east from the Rockies to set up roots on the East Coast. He’ll need to learn quickly to adjust to a new time zone—and to the jump to Power Five football.
Defensive Tackles: Kevin Downing
The Good: Downing is well versed in the attacking, multiple approach to defense that Elliott wants to deploy on that side of the ball. Under his tutelage of the defensive ends and “Raiders,” Navy’s defense finished top-10 against the run in 2019; the 2021 Navy defensive line was in the top third nationally in most line metrics as well. Downing’s previous coaching stops were at Elon and Winston-Salem State, giving him fifteen years of coaching experience entirely within Virginia’s primary recruiting footprint.
The Bad: The Midshipmen’s defensive line performance cratered in 2020 (along with the rest of the Midshipmen’s defensive unit) before rebounding this past season. Neither of the 2020 or 2021 seasons featured much production at all in pass rush from the defensive line, and Navy’s line was frequently overpowered in short-distance and power situations.
The Unknown: Can Downing haul in big-name talent? Navy’s roster isn’t exactly replete with blue chip defensive linemen; in fact, according to the 247Sports roster, there wasn't a single defensive lineman in 2021 even rated as a composite two-star. Experience as a recruiting coordinator for an FCS school in North Carolina is great, as it gives Downing an in for finding diamonds in the rough. But with better pedigree to sell and fewer limitations on the talent pool, will Downing be able to box out bigger programs for better players?
Running Backs: Keith Gaither
The Good: But Gaither has spent four of the last seven seasons under Army head coach Jeff Monken, widely regarded as one of college football’s great offensive minds. During the times he wasn't in West Point, Gaither was the pass game coordinator at East Carolina and wide receivers coach at Western Michigan; prior to coming to Army for the 2015 season, he coached future Ravens and Saints receiver Willie Snead to two All-MAC and Biletnikoff Award semifinalist performances at Ball State. As a coach at Elon in 2009 and 2010, Gaither helped Terrell Hudgins break a number of school and FCS records en route to a runner-up finish for the Walter Payton Award.
The Bad: The two-season stint at ECU wasn’t exactly draped in glory—part of what Bill Connelly described as “a four-year, slow-motion collapse” under former coach Scottie Montgomery. A decent-enough-for-G5 offense in 2017 cratered in 2018, ranking 119th in offensive S&P+. Against Tulane and Cincinnati, the pass game of which Gaither was coordinator produced a dreadful completion rate: just 29 completed passes on 89 attempts.
The Unknown: How will Gaither do coaching an all-new position group? When the hire was first announced, Elliott said that Gaither would be on the defensive side of the ball; while Gaither didn't have prior defensive coaching experience he did play defensive back in college. UVA hasn't gotten much explosiveness out of its running backs the past two seasons. Can Gaither add that home-run element to a group that’s been more steady than flashy?
Defensive Ends: Chris Slade
The Good: It’s Chris Slade. The ACC’s all-time sacks leader, a legend in the 757, and a guy with a decade in the NFL to his credit. It’s Chris freaking Slade. He took the football program at Pace Academy in Atlanta to a 2015 state championship in just their sixth season in existence; that squad included future UGA offensive line stars Andrew Thomas and Jamaree Salyer. Pace has a number of players currently who would seem to fit the UVA profile, including 2022 OLB/DE Xavier Agostino—currently a Harvard commit with offers from Duke, Wake Forest, and Virginia Tech, among others—and 2024 blue-chip defensive lineman Hevin Brown-Shuler.
The Bad: He’s never coached in college before, and the Power Five is a doozie of a first step. While his tenure at Pace started on a high note, Slade mutually parted ways with the school after the 2021 season following a run of seasons with fewer than six wins.
The Unknown: Just about everything. Will his experience as a high school coach at a program that turned out plenty of Division I talent help him connect with top recruits? Or is there bad blood lurking with high school coaches in Georgia, his former nemeses on the field? Does he still carry cachet in the 757? With no college track record to his credit, Elliott is betting on the obvious—and enormous—upside of bringing in a Pro Bowl program alum.
Defensive Backs: Curome Cox
The Good: Cox brings both a familiarity with Rudzinski’s defense, having coached the DBs for Air Force the past two seasons, and ties to the DMV—he was a star player at Gonzaga in DC and then played for Maryland. He should also be able to lend a hand on special teams, after an NFL career that saw him log the majority of his playing time on special teams units.
The Bad: No, I’m not just copy-pasting this, but ... no Power Five experience. Before Air Force, Cox’s only FBS experience was two seasons (2017 and 2018) at UConn; the Huskies went a combined 4-20 those two years. In fact, Virginia tore up the UConn defense when they met in 2017, with Kurt Benkert throwing for 455 yards and 3 touchdowns.
The Unknown: Will Cox be UVA’s ambassador to the talent-rich world of WCAC football? His high school alma mater churns out some of the nation’s top prospects year in and year out—see, e.g., Caleb Williams at Oklahoma. UVA has struggled to gain traction with other WCAC powerhouses like DeMatha and (especially) St. John’s. Can sending in a native son in orange and blue finally open the spigot on that pipeline?
Quarterbacks: Taylor Lamb
The Good: Lamb was a star himself at Appalachian State and helped elevate the offense for Gardner-Webb in 2021. While playing under Scott Satterfield (now Louisville’s head coach), Lamb was hailed as a “coach on the field” for the Mountaineers. The GWU offense he ran featured a mix of tempos, formations, and concepts to get the ball to playmakers in space and keep defense off balance. Lamb also has prior ACC experience after two years as a graduate assistant at NC State—both years under Des Kitchings.
The Bad: While Gardner-Webb finished the 2021 season strong, neither the 2020 nor 2021 offenses were among the FCS’ best. Even just ranked among its Big South peers, GWU’s offense was middle of the pack both seasons (according to SP+).
The Unknown: What does Lamb bring to the table as a recruiter or evaluator of talent? Recruiting chops is the throughline of the rest of the staff, and definitely an element that Elliott has been very upfront about emphasizing. Lamb replaces Jason Beck, who showed he could reel in high-quality prospects. Will Lamb be able to fill those shoes?
Justin Ferber had a great observation about this staff once Lamb and Cox were announced:
One commonality: they’ve all coached in places where maximizing resources is critical.— Justin Ferber (@Justin_Ferber) January 19, 2022
FCS: Everyone but Hagans, Slade & Tujague
HBCU: Elliott, Downing, Gaither
Service Academies: Rudzinski, Kitchings, Downing, Gaither & Cox
D2/D3/JUCO: Tujague & Sintim
As they piece together the rest of the 2022 class, including transfers, and start to build for 2023 and beyond, we’ll see if that experience finding diamonds in the rough translates to what they can build in Charlottesville.