It’s been a little while since the Virginia Cavaliers had a legitimate lead running back who they could rely on for consistent production. In 2021, Wayne Taulapapa led the ‘Hoos with just 324 yards on the ground while two non-running backs Brennan Armstrong and Keytaon Thompson were second and third in total rushing. UVA didn’t have any single game 100-yard rushers last season and only averaged 123.2 per game from the running game compared to 392.6 yards on average through the air.
In fact, it’s been nearly four years since a UVA running back rushed for 100+ yards in a single game — the last to do so was Jordan Ellis in the 2018 Belk Bowl.
But, with Tony Elliott now at the helm, UVA has pledged to commit to the running game in a way that former HC Bronco Mendenhall and previous OC Robert Anae never did. The question, however, was who would take on the necessary workload.
Somewhat surprisingly, in fall camp, fifth year Perris Jones was the name that emerged as the leading running back. At times it seemed as if the praise the staff heaped onto Jones’ shoulders was targeted at junior Mike Hollins — who arguably has more potential than his elder teammate — in order to challenge the Baton Rouge native to step up.
Yet, after one game, the hype is real for Perris Jones. Despite only having three carries coming into this season, the former walk-on dominated against Richmond as he rushed for 104 yards and a touchdown (which was the first of his career) on 19 carries (5.5 yards per carry) while adding another score on an 11-yard reception.
Tony Elliott picks up win No. 1, Brennan Armstrong breaks a record and Perris Jones bursts out.— CBS19 Sports (@CBS19Sports) September 3, 2022
Highlights from a 34-17 UVA win over Richmond pic.twitter.com/c6vkdzT6rV
For Jones’ teammates, it’s just evidence of the immense amount of work Jones has put in to get to this point. Listed as a defensive back for Mendenhall’s team last year, Jones has been building towards this moment for a long time.
“People don’t see the hard work he really puts in,” said wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. “He’s been here five years. Perris is like a big brother to me. He worked really hard for this. And to see him go out and perform like that, that’s amazing. I’m really happy for him. I told him that as soon as we got off the field. You just see somebody work so hard in the dark and then you just want it for him when he gets out there in the light and he did that so I was really happy for him and really proud of him.”
Quarterback Brennan Armstrong echoed similar sentiments about his running back, emphasizing how “he’s a workhorse. You see that in his workouts too. He’s a workhouse. He never gets tired, he never backs down,” before he added that “as a teammate of his and being here five years with him, I’m just super happy for him and proud of him. He deserves all this.”
Tony Elliott highlighted that, even though Jones has impressed in practice, “you don’t know [how he’ll perform in games] because he didn’t have a ton of game experience.” But, with that said, the head Wahoo agreed with Davis and Armstrong, saying that he’s “really really happy for [Perris]. He’s an unbelievable young man. He’s the epitome of what commitment looks like. He works hard every single day. I was glad I was next to him during the Good Ole Song so I got to rub on his head and tell him how proud I was of him because he stayed the course.”
Elliott admitted that staying the course was obviously a challenge for Jones. “Fifth year guy, probably wasn’t looking very promising when I came in [as a] new [coach who was] probably going to change a lot of things. But to see him have that success is really really awesome.”
Of course, this isn’t the ceiling for Jones. One big game against an FCS opponent doesn’t mean he’ll have similar levels of success for the rest of the season. But, with how he’s developing as a versatile back, Jones has the opportunity to take on an even bigger role in the UVA offense.
According to Offensive Coordinator Des Kitchings, “he can be a three down back,” as Jones has displayed an ability to be tough in pass protection and provide an extra weapon out of the backfield. He actually had a key block in the first quarter as he picked up a blitzing Richmond linebacker on third down and gave Armstrong enough time to find Thompson for a first down.
“Considering his size, he fights you,” said Kitchings of Jones’ protection capabilities. “So at least he’ll get in there and fight and strain. He’s done a good job with it. That’s why we had him in there in that situation.”
Elliott added to Kitchings’ comments by noting that “if you want to be a three-down back you got to be complete. You got to find the big play when it’s there. You got to run behind your pads and get the dirty yards. And then you got to step into the line of fire and take the bullet for your quarterback and find any way to keep your quarterback from getting hit.”
He said that Jones’ key block on that third down “was encouraging there,” but that “there was also an opportunity too where he didn’t perform so we’ll challenge him there.” Nevertheless, Elliott pointed out that “as long as he is willing to do that then he can stay on the field because on third down, if he can protect, then you also see him out of the backfield, he can be a weapon. So it gives us the advantage so that we’re not predictable in those situations by bringing a different guy in [on specific passing downs].”
Granted, Elliott also laughingly pointed to how, on Jones’ touchdown catch, he was actually supposed to run a more shallow route rather than curl into the end-zone but concluded, with a smiling shrug, that “hey, sometimes it’s just your day.”
For what it’s worth, Jones knows what it will take for him to be that three-down guy. “Coach Gaither, our position coach, stresses earning the right to play, earning the right to hold the ball, run the ball, and catch the ball. And part of that is blocking and taking care of Brennan. We like to think of ourselves as the secret service. So trying to give him as much time as he needs to make the decisions he needs to and keep his jersey clean at the end of the day. So that’s definitely a big part of what we do.”
Jones also is aware that his contributions to the running game can expand Virginia’s offensive potential. “The sky is really the limit,” he said. “We can run it, we can throw it. Those guys on the outside, those receivers are top notch. So if we’re running the ball and can force those defenders to come up and be conscious of the run, it allows them to do what they do to the best of their ability. So we’re definitely going to be a dynamic group.”
A dynamic group indeed. With Brennan Armstrong, a known elite quality behind center, and a stable of receivers better or on par with the rest of the ACC, UVA’s only remaining question among the skill positions was at running back.
In Perris Jones, Virginia might have just found its answer.