After a disappointing, yet unsurprising start to the regular season in 2023, things were improving after the bye. The Virginia Cavaliers defeated a (then) top-10 North Carolina, took quality Miami and Louisville teams down to the wire as heavy underdogs, and took down Duke. However, all these momentum was halted by a disastrous showing against Virginia Tech, which resulted in a 55-17 loss.
As expected, Tony Elliott and his staff will stay in Charlottesville for their third season. Now, it is time to show consistent results. This offseason will be a critical one.
The quarterback position is one area that UVA fans can feel confident in. Anthony Colandrea’s freshman season was far from perfect, but he did more than enough to prove that he is Virginia’s quarterback of the future. Returning another competent veteran piece in Tony Muskett certainly does not hurt either.
As far as the skill positions go, the verdict is split. The wide receiver room can absolutely be a strength again. With Malachi Fields returning, and the massive addition of Notre Dame-transfer Chris Tyree, there is potential for 1,000-yard production. The depth of this room needs to be addressed, though. Malik Washington was able to mask the fact that there was not a reliable third or fourth option by having an All-American caliber season on his own. That might be where he is missed the most.
As far the running backs go, there is plenty of room for improvement. With Mike Hollins and Perris Jones gone, only Kobe Pace returns with meaningful experience with Xavier Brown not playing this season due to injury after showing flashes as a true freshman. Regarding depth, it is worth noting that Amaad Foston and Cody Brown have entered the transfer portal.
Nonetheless, it is the offensive line that was the primary reason for UVA’s struggles on that side of the ball. The Cavaliers were in the bottom ten in sack rate and averaged just 3.44 yards per rush. This is the most important position group to address in the transfer portal, especially because of how important experience is.
Tackles McKale Boley and Blake Steen are the key returners on either end, and both guards Noah Josey and Ty Furnish could be back. But for Virginia to be a better football team they straight up need better players in the trenches. No matter whether that comes via the portal, internal development, or somewhere in between, it needs to happen.
The defensive side of the ball is more difficult to gauge. Last offseason, Nick Jackson and Fentrell Cypress were among key transfer portal departures that had many feeling pessimistic about John Rudzinski’s unit. While they certainly had a few poor games, they held their own most of the time, especially from a yardage perspective.
The return of Jahmeer Carter, Chico Bennett, Kam Butler, Kam Robinson, and Jonas Sanker, provide exciting pieces on each level. There are two particular areas that the coaching staff should address in the portal.
The first is speed at the corner back position. Early on, Virginia corners were getting burned over the top, until eventually Rudzinski implemented schematic adjustments to stop the bleeding. Defensive backs that can cover large amounts of space is a staple of a Rudzinski defense and something that can allow him to be more flexible in his coverage patterns.
Additionally, a ballhawking safety could go a long way. Virginia was in the bottom third in the country in both turnovers forced and interceptions forced (opponents threw just eight total on the season). Adding someone with exceptional ball skills to complement Sanker in the safety room would drastically change the defense.
Not only should bowl eligibility be a realistic goal, but it is something that needs to be a bare minimum for Elliott in year three. He absolutely has the foundation to do it, and it will be a test to his ability as a coach and program builder to determine if he can come through.
Of course, it is important to keep in mind that leading a program at the University of Virginia comes with its natural restrictions. In the modern climate of college sports, the ceiling is not as high as several programs around the country. That being said, three win seasons will not cut it moving forward.