As explosive as the Virginia Cavaliers’ offense was in 2021, there was still a clear lack of consistent usage of the running back corps, which may have held the team back overall. Former offensive coordinator Robert Anae coined the term “THORterback,” in which the offense lived and died by the signal caller. Brennan Armstrong was no exception, posting a 64.6% pass play rate (3rd in the FBS) and rushing for a team-high 476 yards.
New head coach Tony Elliott and OC Des Kitchings have already established that this will change. Both have a heavy background of working with running backs and run-based schemes. Kitchings laid it out clearly: “We’re not saying we’re going to be 50% run, 50% pass, but when the game calls for it we’ll be able to run the ball.”
Given that it will be a balance but not an even balance, to what extent should Virginia utilize these backs with such a prolific quarterback?
The 2022 UVA RB Room
Before drawing conclusions about the entire basis of the offense, it is important to consider what the running back room looks like.
Last year, Wayne Taulapapa led the backs in carries with 6.1 per game. Taulapapa had the ability to consistently grind out a few yards but lacked breakaway speed. Keytaon Thompson was used as the more explosive type, often entering the backfield on pre-snap motions.
Taulapapa transferred out but this UVA running back committee appears to be much more promising. Mike Hollins is a well-rounded type that can provide agility, power, and receiving. He is the top returning candidate to receive a heavy workload.
Additionally, Virginia recently landed Miami-transfer, Cody Brown, an explosive, downhill runner who was a highly touted recruit in the 2021 class. While Brown was merely a depth option in his freshman year at Miami, opportunities are much more available at UVA.
Super senior Ronnie Walker and true freshman Xavier Brown are elusive enough to see the field in certain spots. Don’t be surprised to see redshirt freshman Ahmaad Foston compete for carries either.
Plus, Thompson had forced 22 missed tackles on 39 carries last year, so you have to expect him to be utilized creatively again.
Virgnia’s backfield is significantly deeper and more dynamic than previous seasons, but still has a number of unproven quantities.
FBS Trends in 2021
The top scatterplot displays all 130 FBS teams last year and the rate at which they chose to pass the ball versus their passing efficiencies (yards per attempt). The bottom shows the same dataset but compares the offenses’ overall offensive efficiency. Football Outsiders adjusts this metric based on opponents and only uses non-garbage time FBS vs FBS plays. Virginia’s data point is shown in orange.
Logically, teams that are better at passing the ball will do so more often. It is also accepted that passing the ball is generally more efficient than running the ball so pass-heavy teams are more successful overall.
This applies here but not in a linear relationship. In fact, both graphs have little correlation at all. It applies to a small minority of teams, those in the 90th percentile and above like UVA. Offenses that are vastly efficient in passing will want to do so relatively often but the rest of the pack is best hovering around 50%.
So last year, Virginia did pass the ball approximately at the right rate. Looking forward, we could assume that Armstrong will have similar success to last season and that Virginia will finish near the top of the country offensively. Zooming in on UVA in specific will provide more context though.
2021 Virginia in Context
Direct snaps to Keytaon Thompson were considered “non-QB runs” even if he was technically lined up at the quarterback position.
Here is a breakdown of the Virginia play-calling splits and its effect on their offensive efficiency. EPA stands for “expected points added.” 0 would be a completely neutral play.
In theory, there is a “true” EPA per play that an overall offense is valued at. In Virginia’s case, the more they continue to throw the ball, the less efficient they are in the air and more efficient they are when they mix in the run. Since the EPA/play values are almost identical on runs and passes (0.0096 vs 0.0097), the perfect balance was used.
Also, while it may appear that the running backs needed to be fed more, the ground game was effective situationally. Despite varying rates of utilizing the quarterbacks, traditional backs, and Keytaon Thompson, Virginia had a positive run EPA in all but two games.
It would still be foolish to act like Elliott and Kitchings’ change in offensive philosophies is not necessary though. Coaching football is not about optimizing the offense — it is about optimizing the overall chances to win the game. Yes, there are, in fact, two sides of the ball!
Virginia’s defense, simply put, was a disaster last season. Most of that was due to a combination of ineffective scheming, poor fundamentals, and the relative lack of talent. But those issues were exacerbated by the fact that they were on the field so often.
UVA’s offense was unable to sustain drives, which led to fatigue on the other end. Despite being 16th in offensive efficiency, they were 60th in busted drive rate and 90th in turnover rate.
The Bottom Line
There is convincing statistical evidence that Virginia should keep their offensive tendencies that maximized their success last season. In other words, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But the team did go 6-6 last year so things were not exactly perfect. If the defense struggles again, the coaching staff will be best served to take some of the load off Armstrong’s shoulders and into the hands of the improved running backs. Just not too much.