After taking a look at the quarterbacks on Tuesday, today we’re assessing the Virginia Cavaliers’ running backs and their prospects this fall. With Tony Elliott and Des Kitchings the new leading offensive minds for UVA, there’s already been added emphasis on the importance of the run game. There’s no doubt that the ground game will be a bigger part of Virginia’s 2022 offense than it was in 2021 and its success will largely depend on whether or not there is legitimate growth from this group.
Frankly, UVA doesn’t bring back much in terms of running back production from last season. Granted, there wasn’t much to begin with. But Wayne Taulapapa’s transfer to Washington has left opportunities for a number of players who’ve had quite limited use throughout their careers in Charlottesville.
As of right now, Jones is Virginia’s number one running back. Elliott named the former walk-on as the “guy that’s kind of been trying to separate himself by doing the little things right,” earlier this week and even went out of his way to tell Jones, in front of the entire team, “if you want the job, go take the job. I don’t care if you came here as a walk-on. If you’re the best guy then it’s going to be your job.”
Jones’ performance in practice has reportedly lined up with that assessment. While the Wahoo staff is clearly trying to push competition among all the backs, Jones appears to be living up to the hype. The fifth year senior is intentional and, according to Elliott, has nailed down the little things and established the necessary consistency that the staff is looking for out of its lead back. He’s playing error free ball and that is quite obviously a big deal especially in comparison to the often inconsistent, risk-averse Mike Hollins.
If Jones does open the season as Virginia’s number one guy, that would be quite something particularly for a guy who only has three (yes THREE!) career carries in four seasons.
The best known name at running back and the guy with the most potential, Hollins should act as a bellwether of success for UVA’s backfield in 2022. Both in previous seasons and in camp, Hollins shows flashes of being the type of breakout player that could alter how the UVA offense approaches its running game.
But, at the same time, those are just flashes. Too often the junior has been held back by a lack of consistency and an unfortunate penchant for mistakes. The little things are what keep Hollins from overcoming the hurdle that is that inconsistency.
With Jones slated as RB 1 for the Wahoos right now, Elliott is hoping that Hollins flips a switch. “Hopefully that will light a fire in Mike,” he said on Monday. “We know we’re going to need Mike. I just need him to be his best. In order for us to establish the run, we’re going to need multiple guys playing at a high level not just one.”
If, and only if, Hollins does get over that hump, this could be a dynamic running back corps. The Georgia native has all the tools to do it. He’s quick, but also boasts bulk and the ability to run through tackles, something Jones lacks at 28 pounds lighter. But, for now, Hollins remains a guy who is “talented but [has to] become more detail-oriented,”
Ronnie Walker Jr.
After suffering a serious lower body injury back in the spring, Walker Jr. has been a limited participant in fall camp. With that said, a reported September return points to a quicker than expected recovery. Such a return would be a boon for UVA’s hopes to resurrect the ground game this season.
Granted, similar to Jones and Hollins, the Indiana transfer hasn’t made waves in his time in Charlottesville. Nevertheless, he’s got experience and could provide a sure hand and more reliable depth at a position where injuries are a constant concern.
While not new to the program as a whole, Amaad Foston enters his second year on Grounds after not appearing in any games for UVA last season. The sophomore has been dealing with an injury recently and hasn’t been practicing, so that’s set him back. But, at 6’0”, 218 pounds, he’s the biggest guy among Virginia’s running backs and could provide a boost in short yardage situations while not sacrificing much speed.
If Foston does return relatively soon he could find himself among the running back rotation. With Walker Jr. still recovering from injury and Cody Brown playing catch up, Foston is in prime position to be the third back behind Jones and Hollins early in the season.
The new faces
A former four star recruit, the Miami transfer is still getting up to speed in the UVA system. He wasn’t around in the spring so is clearly playing catchup to the rest of the room, yet still has had his moments, according to Tony Elliott. In fact, the Wahoo head coach said earlier this week that Brown is “very talented,” but is still “still learning the playbook.”
Elliott added that Brown “still has to work on the details. [We] need him to catch the ball a bit better. I think a lot of it is that everything is just spinning for him right now, new terminology [because] he wasn’t here in the spring. But he’s a one cut and get downhill guy with some violence behind him. We just got to get him going in the right direction consistently.”
The next few weeks will be critical for the former Miami back. If he can get up to speed and going in the right direction then he has a chance at contributing this season. If this turns into a longer term adjustment, then this will likely be far more of a developmental year for the sophomore.
Perhaps the most under-the-radar name on this list, the freshman Brown could provide a burst with a big play here or there for the Wahoos. Injuries to Foston and Walker Jr. mean UVA’s depth isn’t particularly strong right now so an opportunity could arise for the speedster if things fall in the right places. He’s not going to be a featured back, but the three star Kentucky native is a name worth knowing.