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State of the program: Virginia football

Now that Bronco Mendenhall set a standard for success, Tony Elliott is tasked with building on that foundation.

NCAA Basketball: Clemson at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

​​As the 2021-2022 athletic year has come to an end for the Virginia Cavaliers, we at Streaking the Lawn will be running a state of the program series for the numerous athletic programs that are a part of the university.

In the past few weeks we took a look at the men’s lacrosse program, the women’s basketball program, the men’s basketball program, and the baseball program by evaluating the confidence level in four critical categories: success over the last five years, coaching staff, current roster makeup, and the future roster/recruiting. The four degrees of confidence are, in descending order, extreme, solid, mild, and low.

Today, we take a look at the Virginia football program that has undergone a great deal of change over the last seven months with Bronco Mendenhall stepping down as head coach and former Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott taking over.

Confidence in performance over the last 5 years: Solid

Relative to expectations and the stretch of football from 2011-2016, these last five seasons with Bronco Mendenhall were absolutely a step in the right direction for the program.

After a poor first year with Mendenhall as the head coach, things got on track in 2017 as UVA reached bowl eligibility for the first time in six years, finishing the year 6-7 after a loss to Navy in the Military Bowl.

In 2018, the Wahoos finished an impressive 8-5 on the season with a notable 28-0 shellacking of South Carolina in the Belk Bowl the highlight. Bryce Perkins came to the fore as UVA’s starter and the Virginia defense was establishing itself as something to be dealt with. Two straight road overtime losses — including a 34-31 heartbreaking defeat to Virginia Tech — to end the regular season hurt what could’ve been a program defining year. Nevertheless, 2018 was proof of further progression.

The three years of work in 2016, 2017, and 2018 came to fruition in 2019. Virginia finished the year 9-5 overall with a Coastal division championship, an appearance in the Orange Bowl, and a win over Virginia Tech for the first time in exactly 16 years. Three of UVA’s five losses came against top-10 teams as Bryce Perkins’ electric play style lit a fire in the UVA fanbase and sparked belief in what Mendenhall was doing.

2020 was set to be a transition year and with COVID-19 as an added complication, UVA had a relative down year. The ‘Hoos started their campaign 1-4 before climbing back above .500 with four wins but then dropped the season finale to Virginia Tech 33-15. Despite making the decision not to play in a bowl game, UVA still did reach bowl eligibility for the fourth straight season.

Then 2021 happened. The definition of an up and down season, the ‘Hoos started the season 2-0, then dropped two games, won four, and proceeded to lose the final four contests before not being able to compete in the Fenway Bowl due to a COVID-19 breakout in the team. Of course, there was also the small matter of Mendenhall retiring roughly a week after the season ending loss to Virginia Tech.

In the end, last year’s team was a tale of two sides of the ball. The offense was one of the best in the country with Brennan Armstrong stepping up in his second year as the starter and a number of his receivers having breakout seasons as well. The issue was a defense that was practically paper thin all year long which meant that any competitive game turned into a shootout.

Still though, to consider the 2021 season a disappointment is emblematic of how far the program has come. When Mendenhall took over in 2016 the team hadn’t made a bowl game since 2011. When he left, UVA’s been bowl eligible in five straight seasons. That’s no small feat and has set a solid foundation for Tony Elliott to build on.

Confidence in coaching staff: Solid

Frankly, I struggled with deciding between Solid and Mild here. But, for now, I’ll give Tony Elliott and his staff the benefit of the doubt. Elliott comes to Virginia with a PHD in hiw to win at the highest level of college football and hired coordinators who fit the type of football he wants to play.

Des Kitchings might not have been the flashiest of names to hire as the offensive coordinator, but he does bring worthwhile experience particularly in the run game that Elliott is dedicated to establishing in Charlottesville.

Defensive coordinator John Rudzinski comes to Charlottesville after building a defensive powerhouse at Air Force with his 2021 defense finishing four nationally in total defense and his 2020 and 2019 squads finishing similarly high in team defense metrics. He should bring a necessary level of toughness to a UVA defense that was obliterated in the 2021 season.

Of course, Elliott also intelligently retained wide receivers coach Marques Hagans and offensive line coach Garett Tujague who were two stalwart position coaches under Mendenhall and should continue to succeed under Elliott. Clint Sintim was also retained but is moving from defensive line coach to linebackers while fellow former Wahoo Chris Slade is coaching the defensive ends.

The staff effectively combines young talent and experience and looks promising. Of course, this is all being said with zero games having been played. But this appears to be a good staff with the potential to build something real in Charlottesville.

Confidence in current roster: Solid

As for next year’s team, there is plenty of reason for optimism. One of the best — if not the best — quarterbacks in the ACC, Brennan Armstrong is back with a point to prove as he makes his case to pro scouts. Meanwhile, receivers Dontayvion Wicks, Keytaon Thompson, Billy Kemp IV, and Lavel Davis Jr. make up what ought to once again be a stacked arsenal of offensive weapons.

On the defensive side of the ball, the defensive line is set up to improve with a number of players primed for breakout seasons including Ben Smiley III, Jahmeer Carter, and Aaron Famui and a couple transfers who should bolster the rotation. Meanwhile, Nick Jackson will anchor the linebackers in the middle of the field as the defense’s leader with Hunter Stewart another name to watch among the linebackers.

The question marks for next season’s roster are obviously in the secondary, on the offensive line, and in the running backs room. Last season’s entire offensive line is gone, although Tujague has assembled a few of transfers to fill in and will hope young players in the program will step up. Only time will tell how capable the new group is, but it quite clearly won’t be as elite as the line was these last two seasons.

The team’s running backs are in a similar place as they were heading into last season. A number of guys with the opportunity to break onto the scene, but nobody with the proven track record to rely on quite yet. Mike Hollins and Ronnie Walker Jr. are the most experienced of the group while Miami transfer Cody Brown is another option along with senior Perris Jones and sophomore Amaad Foston has plenty of potential as well.

In regards to the secondary, the only real losses from last year’s squad are safeties Nick Grant and Joey Blount. The first six corners on the 2021 team’s final depth chart all return including starters Anthony Johnson, Darrius Bratton, and Coen King. Granted, continuity doesn’t guarantee improvement. But there is at least potential for these guys to grow into their roles more this year.

All in all, the 2022 Virginia squad has a good shot at being better than last year’s team. If the offensive line is stable and the defense makes some form of improvements, there’s no doubt that Armstrong and UVA’s weapons have the ability to carry the team to a bunch of wins.

Confidence in future roster/recruiting: Mild

Again, I was on the fence here between Solid and Mild yet have decided to be more pessimistic for this fourth category than the previous two. Judging football recruiting is undoubtedly a tricky game with recruiting rankings and assessment via a number of stars as the simplistic but unfortunately necessary method.

With that said, UVA football is going to have to pick up its recruiting if the program wants to consistently do more than just make bowl games. Breaking ground on new facilities is a major step in the right direction with Virginia’s facilities considered some of the worst in the ACC. But more efforts need to be made particularly in state to bring in more talent to Charlottesville.

Granted, the ‘Hoos have had plenty of success with three star players — see Brennan Armstrong, Bryce Perkins, Dontayvion Wicks, Keytaon Thompson, among others. But around the board UVA needs more talent and size if it wants to compete on the national stage.

All in all though, Virginia football appears to be headed in the right direction. So far Tony Elliott has made all the moves that indicate he’ll be successful in Charlottesville. The next five years will be absolutely critical for the long term future of UVA football yet should also be a fun process to watch as the program strides to reach continuously higher standards.