2016 was a year that Virginia football fans would rather forget...at least those of us still remaining. The season began with a disheartening loss to Richmond and ended with an embarrassing blowout by Virginia Tech. Along the way, hopes of a quick turnaround under new coach Bronco Mendenhall gave way to the brutal realization of just how much of the program needed to be rebuilt. The off-season, quite frankly, brought relief from the pain.
While it’s easy for fans to point to coaching missteps, it’s clear that Virginia’s roster badly needs an infusion of talent and depth. To Mendenhall’s credit, he and his staff are moving to address those needs. Virginia added a graduate offensive guard transfer last month and has 22 players committed in its 2017 recruiting class. The incoming freshmen will improve depth in places UVA needs it most: offensive line, defensive line, defensive backfield, running back, and special teams.
Here’s a look at Virginia’s projected roster as it currently stands.
Virginia’s defensive strength in 2017 looks to be its linebacker corps. UVA will return All-American senior Micah Kiser at inside linebacker, and starters Chris Peace and Jordan Mack on the outside. Malcolm Cook also returns. Cook had locked up a starting spot at OLB last August before missing the 2016 season with a medical issue. Virginia has enough depth among its linebackers that it won’t be forced to play any of its true freshmen.
Virginia’s defensive backfield should also be a strength, though depth could be tested there. UVA will welcome back Tim Harris, Darious Latimore, and Myles Robinson at cornerback. All three of those players suffered season-ending injuries in 2016. Starting corners Juan Thornhill and Bryce Hall will also be back, as well as All-American safety Quin Blanding. True freshman Germane Crowell and Zachariah Burton will join the team in January.
UVA’s defensive line faces this biggest question mark this off-season. While starting defensive ends Andrew Brown and Eli Hanback will return, the Cavaliers don’t have an obvious replacement for Donte Wilkins at nose tackle. Senior Jack Powers and sophomore James Trucilla will vie for that spot, and don’t be surprised if UVA looks for a transfer in the spring.
The biggest roster concern for UVA in 2017 will be the building of the offensive line. The Cavaliers were scary thin last season, only playing 7 players for the majority of the season. Tackle Jack English and guard Jack McDonald are the only players with significant starting experience in the group. Rising sophomore RJ Proctor likely has the inside track on the center position, while Jake Fieler looks to be the first option at right tackle. Virginia added Notre Dame guard John Montelus via graduate transfer last month. Montelus probably wouldn’t have come to Charlottesville without the expectation of competing for a starting spot.
UVA has done a solid job of recruiting the OL so far and will bring in at least four true freshman for the fall. Virginia continues to recruit Mekhi Becton heavily. The massive tackle from Highland Springs would be the jewel of the 2017 class if he signs. Even so, look for UVA to try to add one more transfer that can provide playable depth next season.
Virginia fans should also be ready for another quarterback transfer. Mendenhall has discussed his unease with the roster hole between rising 5th year Kurt Benkert and redshirt freshmen Devante Cross and Sonny Abramson. Incoming freshman Lindell Stone is highly-regarded among recruiting circles, but Mendenhall will still want to build depth through the transfer market.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Virginia will be bringing in two highly-regarded specialists next year. Chantilly’s Brian Delaney is an Under Armour All American and will likely take over kickoff and punting duties. Peyton Henry, a Californian with a Virginia name, should be considered the favorite at placekicker. Delaney will be on scholarship, while Henry will be a walk-on.
After a 2-10 season, the words “youth movement” aren’t going to make many Virginia fans feel better. Yet, with 53 underclassmen (out of 82) projected to be on the roster, that’s exactly what we’re seeing in Charlottesville. If there was any bright spot last season, it’s that young players like Hall, Mack, Hanback, Proctor, Joe Reed, and Landan Word showed significant promise. Virginia will need more underclassmen contributions in 2017 if it wants to improve. Players like Delaney and Henry can make instant impacts, while running backs Jamari Peacock and Lamont Atkins could shoulder an increased load as the season goes on.
We’ll be following how UVA’s roster develops throughout the off-season. Stay tuned.