As the Virginia Cavaliers are less than a month out from their season opener against Richmond on September 3rd, we’ve decided to take a look at arguably the three biggest keys to the team’s success in Tony Elliott’s first year in Charlottesville.
Strength in the trenches
Perhaps the two most important position groups for the Wahoos heading into the fall are offensive and defensive lines. With the entire starting o-line from the 2021 squad departed, the 2022 group and position coach Garrett Tujague are up against it to perform at similar levels in pass protection and run blocking as last season.
Recently, Tony Elliott said that there are seven guys who he feels are confident can play come September 3rd. Specifically, he mentioned junior tackle Jonathan Leech, sophomore guard Logan Taylor, senior tackle Derek Devine, sophomore guard Noah Josey, sophomore tackle Charlie Patterson, Dartmouth grad transfer John Paul Flores, and sophomore center Jestus Johnson. Tujague added sophomore center Ty Furnish as another guy potentially fighting for a starting spot with the possibility to provide more depth on the interior.
So, on the one hand, there are a number of guys who could make real jumps and step up into big roles. On the other hand, none of these players are solid, known quantities at this level and the depth is a second legitimate question mark. How good this group turns out to be could determine the success for Virginia’s 2022 campaign as a whole. Providing Brennan Armstrong sufficient time to go to work in the passing game while also creating holes for what the UVA staff hopes will be a resurgent running game should decide how much the Wahoo offense can control games and mitigate the weaknesses on the defensive side of the ball.
Meanwhile, the Wahoo d-line was a disappointment in 2021 as the team’s blatant inability to stop the run was a major achilles heel and the pass rush was near non-existent. Granted, that position group appears to be on the up-and-up heading into the fall and is likely the most important position group for the sake of the defense’s improvement in 2022.
For starters, stopping the run should be new defensive coordinator John Rudzinski’s first priority and that starts with the d-line. Names to watch on the defensive line include junior nose tackle Jahmeer Carter, junior d-tackle Ben Smiley III, Ohio grad-transfer Kam Butler, senior Aaron Famui, South Carolina grad-transfer Devontae Davis, Columbia transfer edge Paul Akere, Michigan State transfer edge Jack Camper, edge/linebacker Mike Green, and edge/linebacker Chico Bennett Jr.
Obviously, that’s a lot of names as UVA heavily invested in the defensive line via the transfer portal. Carter, Smiley III, and Famui are the most experienced returners and could each be primed for long awaited breakout seasons. If those guys can step up beyond their previous levels and a few of the incoming transfers stick, Virginia could make a significant improvement in the pass rush and with stopping the run.
Said development could drastically improve the Wahoo defense. Establishing a more consistent pass rush could take the pressure off of Virginia’s questionable secondary by limiting opponents’ time in the pocket. Then, in the ground game, providing a tougher front at the line of scrimmage would prevent other teams from controlling games via a consistent rushing attack.
Together, UVA’s degree of strength in the trenches on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball will likely have a larger impact on Virginia’s success this season than anything else.
Brennan Armstrong’s development as a game manager
After exploding last season to break school records and lead an incredibly high-powered offense to score tons of points, Brennan Armstrong enters his fifth year in Charlottesville with a more nuanced task at hand: to become a better game manager.
Last season, Armstrong had the responsibility of leading a team that not only counted on him to sustain seemingly never-ending shoot-outs, but simultaneously to consistently throw the ball 40-50 times a game while also being the team’s second leading rusher and leading the team in rushing touchdowns. Armstrong was expected to put everything on the line for a first down to keep his abysmal defense off the field and keep the points pouring in as there was no telling whether or not he’d get a chance to win games if he didn’t score every chance he got.
While perhaps manageable in a few contests per season, that sort of game to game effort is not sustainable and frankly put a toxic amount of pressure onto the southpaw’s bulky shoulders. Undoubtedly, he is the leader of this team and is responsible for plenty of its success. But, this season, he’ll need to adapt his mindset and grow as a game manager rather than a points scorer.
Ideally, with the defense coming along particularly among the front seven, some of that “do or die” sentiment that hung over each offensive possession in 2021 will dissipate. That should allow Armstrong to limit some of the risks he took last season — with his most notable against BYU resulting in an injury that in many ways resigned the ‘Hoos to losing the last four games of the season.
Then, beyond that, he’ll need to adapt to the players around him. Obviously, the offensive line won’t be as robust as the two previous years which means Armstrong will have to get the ball out of his hands far quicker as he’ll need to make quicker reads and grow comfortable taking what is there rather than going all in on hazardous plays.
The UVA offense may be more conservative this coming season. But that should be a welcome relief as Armstrong hones in on the minutiae of the quarterback position in order to also take some pressure off his defense by allowing them to rest during longer possessions. While his contributions as a playmaker will never go unappreciated, the Ohio native could be facing his biggest challenge yet this season in leading a team looking to him to better the collective via a more reserved, calculated approach.
Significant improvement in the running backs’ room
To further complement Armstrong in Elliott and offensive coordinator Des Kitchings’ new offense, real, tangible improvement in the running backs’ room could make this take this Wahoo offense from good to great.
On the one hand, strength at running back would be a luxury that the high-powered Virginia attack may not need. On the other, establishing a tried and true running game may be the key to not only more consistency for the offense, but a better team as a whole. Too often last season UVA got caught up in shoot-outs as the Virginia offense went score for score with the opponent while the flailing Virginia defense tried desperately to make a few meager stops.
As Elliott and Kitchings plan to move slightly away from the run and gun style that Robert Anae ran last season and look to the ground game as a more viable part of the offense, the contributions of the running back room should be far less trivial. Seeing noticeable jumps from returning backs including Mike Hollins, Ronnie Walker Jr., and Perris Jones along with any punch that Miami transfer Cody Brown and redshirt freshman Amaad Foston can provide should be expected.
Being able to run the ball well is a penchant for any good football team. While the old school mantra of putting the ball on the ground solely for the sake of balance or to establish play action may be a bit obsolete, the degree to which the 2021 Virginia Cavaliers relied on Brennan Armstrong’s arm was ridiculous and especially won’t hold up with an admittedly questionable offensive line.