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Five players to watch for Virginia football vs Tennessee

Analyzing what would constitute as success tomorrow for five players who will help make or break Virginia’s season.

Photo courtesy of Virginia Athletics

The Virginia Cavaliers football team kicks off the 2023 season tomorrow at noon against the vaunted no. 12 Tennessee Volunteers. While a season opening win would be pretty far-fetched to predict, there’s still plenty that we can learn from this matchup that the ‘Hoos can hopefully build on for the remainder of the season.

With that in mind, today we’re taking a look at five UVA players that will be worth watching in Saturday’s matchup. These five will be critical pieces to Virginia’s season this fall and any success they can have against Tennessee will project that there are more good things to come.

Tony Muskett

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Muskett is going to get a legit immediate introduction to Power-Five (four now?) football, and how he handles himself and performs against an elite opponent in a hostile environment will tell us a lot about how good he can be in the ACC.

He doesn’t have to set the world on fire for it to be a positive performance. But Muskett moving the offense down the field a few times and putting a few touchdowns on the scoreboard would be encouraging considering the low expectations for this offense in this game (and, frankly, this season).

Muskett has claimed to be comfortable in Tony Elliott’s offensive system. If true, that would be a far cry from Brennan Armstrong last year. Ideally, we’ll see some early signs of that comfort even against an uncomfortably elite opponent.

Malachi Fields

If there’s one player on this roster that looks primed for a breakout year, it’s Fields. He’s been on the verge of breaking out for a few years and, now that he’s fully healthy after missing almost all of last year due to injury, 2023 should be his year. He’s got the size, speed, and hands to be Muskett’s favorite target.

Like his quarterback, Fields is being thrown into the fire against Tennessee. He’s probably the team’s number one receiver, so whether he is able to create separation horizontally or vertically in this game will be a bellwether for the UVA offense’s potential in this game and this season. He’s got all the talent in the world. Now it’s just about playing to that level.

Ty Furnish

Ty Furnish enters tomorrow’s game as Virginia’s only true returning starter on the offensive line. Noah Josey picked up plenty of snaps last season, but he’ll be replaced by Ugonna Nnanna at left guard once Jimmy Christ is healthy and takes his job back at right tackle. Furnish is the presumed leader of the Wahoo offensive line and will play a critical role.

How Furnish does as the director of the Wahoo line will speak volumes. He struggled last season against five-down or “bear” fronts when defenses lined a defensive tackle up directly across from him. That’s a result of his slightly smaller size (6-foot-3, 282 pounds). Candidly, Furnish was bullied at times in pass protection. Those heavier fronts also made it difficult for him to get out into space and make the difference where his size is a benefit: as a run blocker upfield.

Tony Elliott said in his press conference earlier this week that he expects Tennessee to bring heavy pressure all game long. It’s up to Furnish to communicate with the rest of a still-gelling line in order to manage that pressure. If the Wahoos can at least not get clobbered in the trenches, that should give Muskett some opportunities to show off his arm and for the team to counter the Volunteers’ pressure.

Ben Smiley

Ben Smiley has been a year away from reaching his potential for a few years now, but the coaching staff continues to rave about him in practice. He’s back at his natural position of defensive end and Tony Elliott has gone far enough to (lightheartedly) say that he needs Smiley to produce in order to back up all the praise he’s been giving him.

Tomorrow’s game is the perfect opportunity for that. Chico Bennett’s absence due to injury means that Smiley is starting at defensive end, making his fifth career start. He registered his first 1.5 career sacks in 2022, and he’ll be hunting for more against the Vols.

If Smiley can make any splash plays versus Tennessee it would be a notable boost not just for the game itself, but for the potential depth he could bring to the edge position for the Wahoos. Bennett, Butler, Paul Akere, and an emerging Smiley would make up a truly dangerous edge group. He doesn’t have to be a game wrecker tomorrow or this season, but a few good reps against such a quality opponent would be a step in the right direction.

Coen King

King has moved to play outside corner for the ‘Hoos this season after last year’s starters Anthony Johnson (NFL) and Fentrell Cypress (FSU) went elsewhere. He gets the start on the left side with transfers Malcolm Greene and Sam Westfall battling for the job on the right.

King has always been a smart player who doesn’t make many mistakes and provides a physical presence as a tackler and in coverage. But his foot speed and anticipatory skills haven’t been tested on the outside in a Wahoo uniform. If he can be a capable starter on the outside that would provide John Rudzinski’s defense an answer to a position that is currently a bit of a question mark.

The final outcome of tomorrow’s game probably won’t be pretty. But for a program that is building itself back up, the small positives are big ones. If these five ‘Hoos impress in some way, shape, or form then that would constitute a win in my eyes.