For the second year in a row, the Hoos open their season against an in-state FCS team. Fans will undoubtedly enter Scott Stadium on Saturday hoping things go better than they did last year. Without belaboring it too much, Virginia looked totally impotent in a 37-20 loss to Richmond.
This year’s opening opponent is William & Mary. The Tribe aren’t nearly as good as Richmond was early last season. (Richmond’s season was decimated by injuries later in the season, but they opened the season in the FCS Top 5. The Tribe finished last year 5-7 (including a season ending win over Richmond), and is picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Colonial Athletic Association this year. The Tribe are coached by Jimmye Laycock (don’t ask me why there’s an ‘e’ there), who is beginning his 38th year as the head coach. He also played for the Tribe back in the 60s. The Hoos and Tribe last played in 2015, a 35-29 win for the Hoos. The winning score came on a Maurice Canady punt return TD.
Let’s take a look at this year’s matchups.
When Virginia is On Defense
The first thing you need to know about the Tribe offense this year is that they don’t have a QB. Three QBs are listed “OR” on the depth chart. This includes junior Tommy McKee, who was the backup last year and has limited experience.
The other two potential quarterbacks are sophomore Brandon Battle and true freshman Shon Mitchell. Mitchell set all kinds of records for Virginia HS QB. He is the all-time leader in passing yards, TDs and completions. He’s also one of the top recruits William and Mary has ever had. Mitchell had an offer from the Hokies. Despite being known for all those passing records, Mitchell is a dual threat guy. He isn’t the fastest of QBs, but he’s capable of making plays with his legs. Battle is also a dual threat guy who is probably a better runner than Mitchell but not as polished as passer. McKee is mostly a pure pocket passer.
Regardless of who the starter is, the Hoos are likely to see at least 2 of the QBs, if not all 3. My guess is that Battle starts. That is a completely uneducated guess, though. Mitchell is undoubtedly the most talented of the 3 and the likely starter for the future. But Laycock may not want to thrust him into the starting lineup against what should be a solid FBS defense.
William and Mary also has questions at running back. Kendell Anderson, who rushed for over 3000 yards in his career, is gone. His backup last year, Albert Funderburke, is still recovering from a torn ACL. That leaves a pair of redshirt freshmen on the depth chart. There may be others involved in the running game as well.
The team’s strength on offense is in its receiving corps, which is led by All-CAA performer DeVonte Dedmon. Dedmon dealt with a nagging foot injury all last year and still made 2nd team all-conference. The last time these two teams played, Dedmon torched the Hoos for 7 catches, 80 yards and 2 TDs. Along with Dedmon are seniors Daniel Kuzjak and Andrew Caskin. Those are the top 3 receivers from last season and all 3 look poised to have big senior years. Caskin, a TE, is a team captain.
I think the key for Virginia will be to keep the Tribe QB off balance. Look for the Hoos to change up coverages quite a bit. There will be some press coverage with blitzes. There will be some cover-2. There will be stunts and run blitzes and everything else you can think of (more accurately, everything else Bronco Mendenhall can think of).
Key Matchups To Watch
1) Tribe OL vs Andrew Brown
This is a game that the Hoos should win. Plain and simple, UVA has a higher talent level. There may not be a more talented player on the Virginia roster than Andrew Brown. A lot of people are expecting a big year from him, and it could get started this week. The left side of the Tribe OL features two All-Conference players. But the right side of the line is inexperienced. Brown is listed at LE (which means he goes against the right side of the OL), but look for the Hoos to line Brown up all over the place, especially in the nickel package. He’ll be double teamed quite a bit, but he’s is capable of beating them. And if he does manage to get a 1-on-1 matchup, that bodes well for the Cavaliers.
The rest of the DL should benefit from the increased attention to Brown. That means single matchups as often as not for Eli Hanback, Juwan Moye, and whoever else ends up on the line. How many of those matchups the Hoos can win will go a long way towards deciding this game.
2) Devonte Dedmon vs UVA CBs
Dedmon may be the only player on William and Mary who ends up in the NFL. He’s a little on the small side (5’10” 195), but he’s quick and he runs great routes. The Hoos CBs are much bigger than him (6’2” 205 for Tim Harris and 6’3” 200 for Bryce Hall), which means they should have some advantages in press coverage and on jump balls. But Dedmon might have a quickness advantage.
The Hoos are going to be physical with Dedmon. He’s going to see press coverage, and he’s going to get hit when he gets the ball. But he’s still the most dangerous weapon that the Tribe has and he’s going to be targeted often. They’ll run him on WR screens and other simple routes to get him the ball before he can get hit. They’ll also run him on slants and outs. Everything is designed to get him the ball in space, where he’s dangerous. If Dedmon goes off again like he did in 2015, this game will be closer than the Hoos would like.
3) Tribe QBs vs Bronco Mendenhall
I’m particularly interested to see how Mendenhall schemes his defense to fluster William and Mary’s quarterbacks. He’ll likely want to keep them off kilter and make them guess at coverages and blitzes. If one of the young, inexperienced QB misses a read, it could lead to a big play for the defense. Those types of plays can turn games.
Bronco showed success in similar situations last season. The Virginia defense completely flustered Duke’s freshman QB Daniel Jones into 6 INTs. The Hoos don’t need 6 INTs this week, but a similar effort would go a long way towards a win.
When Virginia Is On Offense
Unlike William and Mary, Virginia has an experienced starter at quarterback. Kurt Benkert will lead the Wahoo attack in 2017 barring an injury. He’s the only UVA QB with any college game experience, so keeping him healthy will be a major factor in the team’s fortunes this season.
Other positions are not quite as set. Virginia has a pair of experienced veterans starting at RB (Daniel Hamm at SB and Jordan Ellis at BB), but the picture behind them is less clear. We could see as many as 6 running backs play for the Hoos this season.
Similarly, at WR, the Hoos have a few veterans, but will also run some young guys out there. Sophomore Joe Reed is slated to start at ‘Y’ (slot) receiver, but a number of other underclassmen will likely see the field. True freshman Terrell Jana is on the depth chart at ‘X’ receiver as is redshirt freshman QB/WR Devonte Cross.
The strength of the W&M defense is up front. The DL has two seniors entering their third season as starters and two sophomores who played as freshmen. The seniors (Matt Ahola and Isaiah Stephens) totaled 7 tackles and 1 TFL in the 2015 game. The two CBs are both veterans. Junior Raeshawn Smith played against the Hoos in 2015 as a freshman and senior Aaron Swinton is a team captain. (Swinton was injured for the 2015 contest.)
The Tribe LBs are all in their second year on the field. Shamir Bearfield is a transfer from Temple (though he never played for the Owls). Nate Atkins was the starter at MLB last year as a redshirt freshman and was second on the team in tackles.
Last year’s Tribe defense excelled against the pass. In fact, they finished first in FCS in passing yards allowed and fourth in pass efficiency defense. They did it with coverage and not pass rush. They ranked 118th in sacks and 122nd in TFLs. But they were 40th in INTs. The rush defense was not good, ranking 102nd. That was a veteran unit which lost 7 starters from the opening week of last season. The rush defense should be better this year, because a lot of the youngsters saw extensive action last season. But the pass defense will struggle some after the loss of 2 starting DBs and leading tackler WLB Stephen Lubnow.
Once again, the key for the Hoos will be to keep the Tribe off balance. The Hoos’ offense last year was not very balanced. There were far too many passes. That was often a product a being behind on the scoreboard. But it was also a lack of confidence in the OL. Virginia should be able to run the ball against the Tribe. If not, it would be a bad omen for the season as a whole.
1) UVA WRs vs Tribe CBs
The most talented position on the field for Virginia is WR. There is a crazy amount of depth and talent there. Three of the Wahoo WRs are 6’3” and the Tribe CBs are 5’9” and 5’10”. That size difference has to be scary for William and Mary’s defensive coaching staff. Can 5’9” Aaron Swinton cover 6’3” Andre Levrone? Better yet, can 175 pound Aaron Swinton tackle 225 pound Andre Levrone?
Look for the Tribe to play a lot of cover-2 and similar defensive schemes. They aren’t a pressure defense. They just want to keep everything in front of the defenders and make tackles. They don’t give up many big plays and they make opposing offenses work for everything. The size differential should really come into play in the red zone. Benkert’s arm is better suited for laser strikes versus precision bombs, but a back corner fade route is going to be tough for W&M to stop.
2) Hoos OL vs Matt Ahola/Isaiah Stephens
As I mentioned above, the DL should be the strength of the Tribe defense. We’ve been over this before, but the biggest question mark for the Hoos this year is on the OL. The situation was exacerbated by the loss of Jack English to suspension. Starting a freshman at LT against a senior DE like Matt Ahola is dangerous. Ahola has to think he can win those one-on-one battles. That means giving help to Dillon Reinkensmeyer, which could throw off the offense from the get-go.
One advantage the Hoos have in this matchup is size. The Hoos’ OL averages 316 pounds. The Tribe DL averages 272 pounds. That’s a big difference. It isn’t that surprising for a 4-3 defense to have smaller DEs, but the interior of UVA’s OL has a big advantage as well. OC Jacob Fieler is the key. He’s proven capable at multiple positions, but now moves to his natural position in the middle. The trio up the middle should have a big advantage in this one, so short yardage plays are a key. If the Hoos struggle to pick up 3rd and 1 or 4th and 1, we could be in for a long season.
3) Robert Anae vs himself
I am getting repetitive, but at roughly 60% of all plays, the Hoos threw far too many passes last season, beginning with the season opener against Richmond. The Hoos first three plays of the season last year were all passes. Yes, the Hoos were down 6-0 already, but that is far from an insurmountable deficit. Benkert was 3-3 for 17 yards on those three plays. That’s 5.6 yards per attempt, which just isn’t getting it done. Seven of the 11 plays on the Hoos first drive last year were passes. That shouldn’t happen this year. Not in this game. Anae needs to keep the offense balanced enough to keep the defense guessing.
Some of last season’s opening drive may have been about getting Benkert comfortable at QB. He hadn’t been in a real competitive situation in years and the 3 quick completions may have been good for his confidence. Then again, losing to an FCS team in his debut probably was not good for his confidence. None of that is necessary this year. The need for confidence is on the OL. Just tell those big uglies to “get a hat on a hat” and push. With a 40-pound average weight difference, the Hoos OL should be able to dominate. Let’s see it happen.
I don’t blame fans for being apprehensive about this game after last season’s loss to Richmond. Strange things happen. But this Wahoo team is not last year’s team. They have more depth, more speed, and more talent. They also have a full season of Mendenhall’s schemes under their belt.
William and Mary will be ready to play, but their offense is going to have trouble moving the ball consistently against the Hoos. That is regardless of who we see at QB. The Hoos may not be all that successful on offense either, but they won’t have to be to win this game.
Prediction: Hoos 35, Tribe 10