Despite going a mere 6-6 last season, Brennan Armstrong and the Virginia Cavaliers accounted for one of the most prolific passing offenses in the country.
Armstrong led power five football with 4,429 passing yards and 35 touchdowns. Perhaps even more impressive is how efficient he was with such high volume. Armstrong was fifth in the power five in yards per attempt, despite having a relatively high dropped pass rate at 9.0%. He also was pushing the ball downfield, accounting for an average depth of target of 11.1 yards, top ten in the FBS. Oh, and did I mention Armstrong is a dangerous runner too?
Needless to say, it is not often that a quarterback with this degree of production returns. However, while Virginia’s path to an improved record mostly involves a better defense and more established run game, he will need to adjust his playing style given the changing situation around him.
Transitioning from Anae to Elliott and Kitchings
Robert Anae, the offensive coordinator under the Bronco Mendenhall regime, was creative with formations and pre-snap motions but also had clear tendencies. Ever since Bryce Perkins — his first dual threat quarterback at UVA — arrived in Charlottesville, the offense was almost entirely shotgun based.
Last year, Virginia passed the ball on 64.6% of plays, the third most in the FBS. While that should not be exactly frowned upon given Armstrong’s production, it had its underlying flaws. This 64.6% does not account for the times that Armstrong kept it himself, often running through contact, and leading to injury at one point.
The good news is that the new regime has already emphasized the need to establish the running back position. It is not entirely clear what the playbook will look like but there are a few things that are indicators.
First, consider that while Offensive Coordinator Kitchings has not had the full role as an OC yet, he has worked under plenty of successful, innovative minds. Most recently, he was an offensive assistant for the Atlanta Falcons in a year where the staff transformed Cordarrelle Patterson from a return specialist to a highly productive wide receiver/running back hybrid. With that in mind, expect Keytaon Thompson to continue to be used creatively.
Additionally, look for Elliott to be a lot more involved with the playbook than Mendenhall was. Like Kitchings, Elliott emphasized a downhill rushing attack with an explosive vertical passing game at Clemson. For the most part, Elliott was able to adjust his tendencies based on personnel. So at Virginia in 2022, the run game will make a return but Armstrong will probably be used heavily again.
An Entirely New Offensive Line
Something that goes under the radar regarding UVA’s offensive success last year is the amount of time Armstrong had to work through progressions. On average, he had 2.86 seconds in the pocket, which places in the 75th percentile among FBS QB’s.
This offseason, Virginia loses all five of their starters and the line will look completely different. Obviously, lack of experience will lead to struggles, but if anything, the current group is more compatible with Kitchings’ diverse scheme.
Armstrong will have less time to throw, both by design, and because the line will not be as strong in pass protection. He needs to develop into a more well-rounded quarterback, using his instincts more often to make quick, sharp decisions.
The interesting, and perhaps promising sign is that Armstrong’s mistakes were made more often when he had more time. If 2.5 seconds is set as the benchmark, his turnover worthy pass rate increased from 2.7% to 4.1% without immediate pressure. His pressure to sack rate had a similarly drastic trend. When Armstrong recognizes blitzes and needs to get rid of the ball quickly, he is able to do so quickly and effectively.
Because of this, the staff is optimistic about his ability to adjust. They rave about his instincts and increased attention to detail. He returned to school for a reason and is eager to pick up on the new scheme. Armstrong will be tested to become a game manager in addition to an explosive, stat compiler.
What this means for Armstrong’s future
Even though he was as productive as anyone at the college level, Armstrong was not considered a first nor second round 2022 NFL draft pick. Scouts specifically worried about the offense he functioned in, which lacked diversity in passing concepts, as well as his mechanics.
There is a risk involved but if he has anywhere near the season he had last year, Armstrong will be a much more intriguing prospect. By the time the 2023 draft preparation process rolls around, he would be a better fit NFL schemes and much more prepared to play immediately.
All in all, coming back to this program under the new staff will allow Armstrong to polish his game while producing in an offense that will likely be more conducive to his professional opportunities in a year for now.