Coming into Saturday’s season-opening matchup against the Tennessee Volunteers, junior wide receiver Malachi Fields had just 16 career receptions for 230 yards in his two collegiate seasons with the Virginia Cavaliers. Yet even as the Wahoos’ offense struggled to get off the starting blocks in the Cavaliers’ 49-13 loss in Nashville, Fields stood out as quarterback Tony Muskett’s go-to weapon and someone who could be poised for a breakout campaign.
Fields, a Virginia native who starred at Monticello High School, hauled in four passes for 63 yards against the Volunteers. He flashed abilities as a deep threat and, at 6’4” 220lbs, as a big-bodied receiver who can go up and make contested catches.
Fields’s versatility was on full display in the first half. His first grab came midway through the first quarter when he found a hole in the Volunteers’ zone and Muskett hit him for 19 yards to convert a third-and-long. Later in the half, Fields blew by Tennessee DB Gabe Jeudy-Lally and laid out to haul in a 30-yard bomb. Fields was even used on a screen play in the opening half, although it was quickly snuffed out by the Vols’ defense.
After the game, Head Coach Tony Elliott emphasized Fields’s ability to thrive in various ways as a pass catcher, highlighting his “big third-down catches over the middle,” and the “huge play” that allowed the Cavaliers “to put together a little bit of a drive to go get some points. I think we all know what he’s capable of.”
The emergence of Fields should not come as a surprise, however. His potential has been on display since 2021, when as a true freshman he managed to earn playing time in a stacked receiver room and posted a 60-yard performance against Louisville. Then, after breaking a bone in his foot before the start of the 2022 season, Fields caught five passes for 58 yards and a touchdown in his lone game of the season against Pittsburgh in week 10.
UVA OC Des Kitchings has faith that Saturday’s performance is representative of the type of player we can expect to see going forward. “[Fields] is going to continue to flash,” he asserted after the game. “That’s who he is and that’s what he’s going to bring.”
There were a lot of question marks surrounding Virginia’s wide receiver group coming into the season, so a potential Fields breakout year would be a huge development for an offense that desperately needs a spark. And yet despite the solid performance, Fields still has plenty of room to grow moving forward. “There were a couple of throws I was hoping he was going to come down [with],” Elliott said, alluding to a few back-shoulder throws from Muskett that were broken up.
Despite the incompletions, it was clear that Muskett built a lot of chemistry with his big receiver during the off-season as he exhibited confidence in Fields to come down with 50-50 balls right from the season’s opening drive.
Unfortunately, Fields was one of just a few bright spots for Virginia’s offense Saturday. The Cavaliers were out-gained by the Vols 499 yards to 201, converted on just 5-of-18 third downs, and were unable to take advantage of several short-field opportunities. “That’s the tough thing about offensive football,” Elliott emphasized after the game. “It takes all 11. For one guy to be able to do his job the other ten have to be on the same page.”
Virginia’s offensive line, another big question mark entering the season, was at the forefront of the Cavaliers’ early struggles. The Vols racked up 4 sacks and 11 tackles for loss, using their speed and versatility to wreak havoc on UVA’s overmatched unit. But the group took positive steps as the game went along, and the offense was able to establish the run in the second half. The offensive line “got better as the game went on,” Kitchings pointed out. “[Tennessee’s] speed… initially was a shock to us, [but] those kids battled… they fought, and they finished.”
Despite the lopsided score, there were several positives to take away from Virginia’s season-opener on Saturday, with the emergence of Malachi Fields at the top of the list. Muskett’s status is uncertain after leaving the game with a shoulder injury. But assuming he is able to return this season (and the offensive line can provide him with a little more time), his connection with Fields could become a catalytic combination for Virginia’s offense moving forward.