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Five UVA football storylines worth monitoring throughout spring ball

The storylines we’re paying attention to as the ‘Hoos go through spring practices.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 10 Virginia at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Spring practices are upon us and Tony Elliott hopes to get the Virginia Cavaliers back on the right track. Here are five storylines to look out for.

The battle for QB1

Following the departure of three-year starter Brennan Armstrong, Des Kitchings and company have two primary options in the quarterback room: Monmouth-transfer Tony Muskett and returner Jay Woolfolk.

Muskett piled up accolades at the FCS level, including the Big South’s Freshman of the Year and a first team all-conference honor in his sophomore season. As I previously wrote, making a jump from the FCS to the Power Five and then being productive would not be unprecedented. His biggest strength is downfield accuracy, aligning with Kitchings’ primary offensive philosophies.

Although Muskett has recently entered the UVA program, he still has an experience advantage over Woolfolk. Plus, with Woolfolk spending much of his spring with the baseball program, Muskett has more time to build chemistry with the receiving group.

Regardless, competition can only be a good thing from a team perspective. We will continue to monitor the situation throughout the offseason.

The return of Mike Hollins

The Virginia running back has made a full recovery and is back on the football field. After his heroics acts amidst tragedy, Hollins will be a nationwide story this upcoming season.

We must consider that everybody copes in different ways. While some needed to remove themselves from the constant reminder of the trauma, Hollins approached it differently. “I could have left, I could have transferred, but I think of that as sweeping things under the rug as best as I could. The best place for me to move forward, not move on but move forward, is in Charlottesville with the people who shared that experience with me,” he said.

As far as things go on the field, Hollins is a full participant in practice but the coaching staff is understandably being cautious. Perris Jones and Xavier Brown join him at the top of a stacked running back room.

A receiving corps built on speed and playmaking

The transfer portal takes and the transfer portal gives. That was encapsulated this off-season, when slot receiver Billy Kemp IV decided to exercise his final year of eligibility at Nebraska, but the ‘Hoos added Northwestern-transfer Malik Washington to compensate.

Washington is a similarly built player to Kemp, with a small 5’9 frame while being a reliable pass catcher and dangerous runner in the open field. He finished his previous two seasons at Northwestern with over 100 total catches and nearly 1,300 total yards.

Behind Washington, keep an eye out for Demick Starling, Malachi Fields, and Sean Wilson as they progress through spring camp.

Piecing together an offensive line

Last season was rough for the ‘Hoos in the trenches. They finished 62nd in average line yards, 97th in stuff rate, and 103rd in sack rate. To take things further, seven-year offensive line coach Garett Tujague accepted an offer as an assistant at NC State. Elliott hired Stanford’s Tony Heffernan as Tujague’s replacement.

Last season’s starting unit, made up of entirely new pieces, has completely departed, with the exception of center Ty Furnish. Center Jestus Johnson, guard Noah Josey, and tackle McKale Boley all return with periodic playing time under the belt and should vie for a more regular role in 2023. Transfer Ugonna Nnanna and freshman Houston Curry have been specifically noted by the coaching staff as newcomers that can also contribute at tackle. While there is actually a bit more experience in the room than last off-season, Heffernan may find that his most glaring issue is depth. Ideally, newly committed Dayton transfer Brian Stevens can help to address that.

Using defensive success as a stepping stone

Although the team struggled overall, the biggest positive takeaway from last season was the vast transformation on the defensive side. John Rudzinski improved Virginia’s unit in basically every statistical category from the year before, most notably touchdown rate (111th to 18th), forced turnover rate (94th to 57th), and sack rate (105th to 11th).

Top defensive returners Nick Jackson and Fentrell Cypress II have departed through the transfer portal, while Anthony Johnson has entered the NFL Draft. That leaves the most notable returner as Chico Bennett, a fifth year defensive end who finished the 2022 season with seven sacks and two forced fumbles. Also keep an eye out for Kam Butler, a former All-MAC defensive lineman at Miami-OH, who is coming back to UVA for his final year of eligibility.

Virginia has holes to fill in the secondary, but a number of transfers and veteran players returning ought to help fill those roles while those defensive ends work to get at the quarterback.