Greetings Wahoos. From the Upper Deck is back. Admittedly, I, like many of you, have taken a break from following college football this offseason, but as the calendar approaches September, I’m ready for fall Saturdays in Charlottesville. The Virginia Cavaliers kick off the second year in the Bronco Mendenhall era with reason for optimism. Playmakers return on both sides of the ball. The culture change that was much needed last season should be in the rear-view mirror, and this team will be better positioned to focus on playing better football. It all gets started on Saturday as the Tribe of William and Mary come to town. This edition of From the Upper Deck is less about the opponent and more about watching how offseason story lines come to fruition. So, here is what I will be looking for...From the Upper Deck.
- Continuity at Quarterback – Kurt Benkert returns this season after throwing for 2552 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. It’s a fortunately unique situation for the Cavaliers as it’s the first time since 2012 Virginia will start its leading passer from the year before. However, even that year requires a lax definition of “continuity” as Michael Rocco had to fend off the five-star phenom Phillip Sims. That was a mess from the start. Not this year however. The decision to move De’vante Cross to wide receiver, particularly given the lack of depth at quarterback, shows the staff’s confidence in Benkert. Presumably, he’s healthy. He’s had a full spring and summer being “the guy.” And finally his offensive line is bigger and a year more experienced. All that amounts to justifiable excitement under center. On Saturday, I’m looking for Benkert to appear comfortable. Against a team like William and Mary he should have time to make plays and show that the offense can move the ball. If nothing else, its a pleasant change to not have quarterback as one of the team’s biggest question marks.
- A Dominant Defense? – It’s hard not to be excited about a defense anchored by First-Team All-ACC talents Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding. However that excitement has to be tempered somewhat when we remember that this team ranked 99th in country in scoring defense a season ago. But defense is still Coach Mendenhall’s calling card, and given the team’s increased familiarity with the playbook, I am looking for this unit to be unleashed. Look no further than Blanding. The senior Safety was much maligned last year as it too often looked like he was chasing after a receiver sprinting towards the end zone for a long touchdown. But I’m in the camp that believes it was less about Blanding being beat or out of position and more about breakdowns in other areas of the defense. I look for those to be tightened up. Nothing makes me feel better about that than the return of Tim Harris. The senior only played in two games a season ago after having started 21 games in his previous three seasons. His return should help solidify the secondary and free up Blanding to just make plays. Similarly, Micah Kiser returns to build upon his 134 tackles a season. And like Blanding, he’ll get a veteran added to the linebacking corps as Malcolm Cook rejoins that starting lineup. Cook spent a year attached to coach Mendenhall’s hip calling the defensive signals, and his addition gives Kiser another leader to feed off of and two rocks at the strong and middle linebacker positions. Then there’s the defensive line. Andrew Brown showed flashes last season and there is reason to believe he can live up to his lofty recruiting ranking. In a similar vein to Kurt Benkert and the offense, William and Mary shouldn’t present the same challenges as the likes of Louisville, but it will be a chance for the team to showcase their playmaking ability and really show whether or not they have what it takes to be a suffocating defense.
- New Faces on Offense - Taquan Mizzell is gone. Albert Reid is gone. Keeon Johnson is gone. But that doesn’t mean this teams lacks offensive weapons. Olamide Zaccheus will still be dangerous in his hybrid running back/wide receiver, while Doni Dowling moves into the role of go to receiver. But there are some “new” faces on offense I’m excited to see perform. First is Andre Levrone. Like Harris and Cook on defense, Levrone is a senior, but will get his time to shine as injuries have hampered his career so far. He’ll likely play the X receiver to start the season. At 6-3, 225 pounds with speed, Levrone can create a significant mismatch against the smaller corners across the league. Backing him up is De’vante Cross. The converted quarterback has sick athleticism and despite the QB position being thin behind Benkert, the coaches still feel Cross is an asset on the outside. Joe Reed moves into the starting lineup after playing primarily on special teams last year. The sophomore will work out of the slot and like Cross has crazy speed and athleticism. He has the upside to one of the most exciting players in recent UVA memory. Finally in the backfield, Jordan Ellis gets his time to shine. He played in all 12 of UVA’s games last season but only got 14 carries. With Albert Reid gone, Ellis will have a shot to remind us of the player who took his first collegiate carry 39 yards to the house for a score. Look for one of these to make special play on Saturday and give us all a glimpse of what we can hope for the rest of the season.
That will do it. Check back on Sunday to see how these played out. If you can’t make it to Scott Stadium, you can check out the game on ACC Network Extra at 3:30 P.M. and hang out in the game thread. Until then and as always, Go Hoos!