With the Virginia Cavaliers through five fall camp practices now, Head Coach Tony Elliott talked to the media last night and made a number of interesting individual assessments specifically in regards to positional battles throughout the roster.
Perris Jones leading in the running back room
The first topic that Elliott addressed on Monday was the battle in UVA’s running backs’ room as the ‘Hoos plan to prioritize the run more this season and therefore are looking for jumps from a couple of different backs. Elliott did note that rising sophomore Amaad Foston has been dealing with a minor injury so he wasn’t included in this assessment. But, the headline was that Elliott went on to say that rising senior and former walk-on Perris Jones is above the rest of the backs right now.
Specifically, Elliott said that “Perris has been the guy that’s kind of been trying to separate himself by doing the little things right. I anticipate that Mike [Hollins] is going to turn it on because he’s going to see that the best guy is going to play. I told the team and told Perris in front of the team, ‘dude 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.’ Hopefully that will light a fire in Mike. 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.”
Jones did look good in the team’s spring game back in April and his apparent rise to the top of the depth chart early on in fall camp is encouraging. Considering, as Elliott pointed out, Virginia is going to need a stable of quality backs, Jones’ ascension is great news.
Meanwhile, Hollins is likely the player with the highest potential for performance this upcoming season, it’s good to see the coaching staff challenging him. Yet, at the same time, the fact that Elliott’s current assessment of him is “talented but gotta become more detail-oriented,” it’s up in the air when exactly things will click for the junior.
Elliott also gave an update on Miami transfer and former four-star back Cody Brown, emphasizing that while skilled, Brown is still playing a bit of catch up. Elliott noted that Brown is “very talented,” yet “still learning the playbook. Still has to work on the details. 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.”
That sounds like Brown may get limited opportunities this fall, but potentially fits in as a more long term option for the ‘Hoos down the line.
Offensive line strengthening but lacking continuity
Prefacing the topic by saying that illnesses and subsequent absences have kept UVA from having the same units among the offensive line, Elliott said that he is “pleased with the effort,” from this young and inexperienced group. He went on to say that “what we’re trying to do on some of our run schemes, I’ve seen improvement. Footwork is better,” but “that it’s been tough on them,” due to the lack of continuity.
For individual notes, Elliott pointed to senior tackle Jonathan Leech who “is really, really progressing,” while also saying that “it was good to get [sophomore guard] Logan [Taylor] back today,” and that he “saw some good things out of [center] Jestus Johnson today.” He added that Dartmouth grad transfer John Paul Flores provides “some toughness and some depth and competition there.”
But again, Elliott still said that “the biggest thing for those guys is they haven’t had the same five guys lined up for two practices in a row and that’s tough. Especially when you got so many young ones but then when your older ones are out, it’s challenging on them.”
All in all, he did emphasize how he’s “seeing improvement, so I like the progress. Just got to continue to challenge those guys and they got to strain a little bit more. And we got to get those other guys back into practice which we should have this week.”
Kam Butler leading amongst the edges
On the defensive line, Elliott said that Miami Ohio transfer Kam Butler has impressed on the edge and that “he’s worked his way to the front of the line very quickly because he’s got a motor.” On top of that, Elliott pointed to how Butler is “one of those guys who came in here very intentional. He’s very twitchy and he loves to practice. So what he’s done is he’s upped the competition level and set the standard for what game reps look like in practice.”
Generating real pressure on opposing quarterbacks is an absolute must for the Virginia defense this season. With a number of incoming transfers supplementing the pass rush, it’s good to see Butler impressing this early on.
Specialists living up to the hype
In regards to UVA’s special teams and the various kickers and punters on the roster, Elliott noted that he’s seen good competition. He specifically mentioned Florida transfer punter Daniel Sparks as someone who “has definitely increased the competition level at punter.”
Additionally, Elliott is clearly very happy with highly touted true freshman kicker Will Bettridge, especially after the coaching staff has made an effort to simulate end of game situations to put pressure on the young gun. “We call him ‘Little Walk-off Will.’ At first I didn’t know if I was going to use that nickname for him. But I tell you what it looks like he’s got pretty good nerves about him. Putting him in a situation at the end of practice, putting running on the line and treating it like it’s the game on the line, 48-yard field goal, he didn’t know it was coming and he walked out there and he hit it.”
Of course, the ‘Hoos haven’t gone live yet, so Elliott mentioned that he’s still waiting to see how each of the specialists react in live action.
When prompted, Elliott also talked about returner Brendan Farrell — who was UVA’s leading kicker last season — and said that “he’s looked good so far. Gotten back into his grove punting the ball [as we’re] still having him do both. Hopefully with the three of those guys we can distribute some of that workload and let those guys maybe hone in more on one aspect of the kicking game.”
Depth showing at linebacker
When asked about what he likes at the linebacking position outside of Nick Jackson, Elliott acknowledged his appreciation for the team’s depth, saying that “you got a ton of very functional, functional depth. Nick [Jackson] is obviously the leader but [Josh] Ahern is a football player. He’s communicating better. He knows how to get lined up. He’s a downhill aggressive kind of guy. Then you got James Jackson was doing well until he banged up his shoulder a little bit. He’s probably got the highest upside of all the guys. He’s a talented, talented, young guy.”
Elliott continued, mentioning that “Hunter [Stewart] is doing well. He’s learning that he’s not quite as fast as the other guys to get sideline to sideline. But he’s very efficient in the box. He’s a bigger guy, a more powerful guy. So I like the improvement I’ve seen there.” The head Wahoo also pointed to “[Stevie] Bracey and [Trey] McDonald” who “are still young, and trying to figure everything out.”
Once more, Elliott pointed out that “what I like is the functional depth. If you got six of those guys ready to go being that we’re [using a 4-2-5 formation] I would feel really good about that.”
He also brought up junior D’Sean Perry and that they’ve been “moving [him] to WILL linebacker and getting him some more work there at a more natural position for him with his size and his skillset but he’s still learning all the aspects of the position.” And, finally Elliott talked about sophomore Josh McCarron who “has come in and put some weight on so he’s about 220 now. So he’s moving around pretty good.”
Considering that, last season, the linebacking corps was decent but not game-changing, hearing Elliott praise as many guys as he did supports the prospect of real growth from that group. Nick Jackson is Nick Jackson and as he goes so will the middle of UVA’s defense, but providing him with legitimate adjacent help could stabilize things for the Wahoos.