In a year full of peaks and valleys, the Virginia Cavaliers’ 2017 football season finished with a 6-7 record, culminating in a 49-7 blowout at the hands of Navy in the Military Bowl. Notwithstanding the bitter aftertaste, the season was a marked improvement from the 2-10 showing in 2016, head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s first year, showing flashes of ability, if not inconsistency. Oddsmakers don’t fancy the Hoos’ chances this coming fall; Virginia will need to utilize their explosive talent on offense and find a defensive identity if they hope to answer the question marks.
Get junior college transfer Bryce Perkins comfortable with the offense—and vice versa—and do it quickly. A 3 star recruit coming out of high school according to 247Sports, Perkins is the quintessential dual-threat quarterback who started his collegiate career at Arizona State before a neck injury sidelined him and he transferred to JUCO Arizona Western. Under Offensive Coordinator Robert Anae, former quarterback Kurt Benkert’s deep throw ability often thrived in the pass-happy system. Perkins represents a whole new test, and, perhaps, one that offers far more potential. His arm isn’t as powerful as Benkert’s, but he also doesn’t rely as heavily on the drop back pass. The staff will hope to craft Perkins more into a player like Taysom Hill, who, under Anae, averaged over 103 yards per game on the ground in 2013 at BYU. By comparison, Perkins ran the ball 69 times last season to average 5.1 yards per carry, while Benkert rushed it 65 times to average -0.97 yards per carry. Integrating Perkins’ arm and, in particular, his speed, will be key to offensive success.
Use Perkins’ ground game to open up room for bigger plays across the board. Perkins’ greater mobility will hope to expand the number of explosive plays that the offense relies upon. Look for do-it-all back Olamide Zaccheaus and wideout Joe Reed, both coming off strong years, to garner the majority of these big-play opportunities. Rising senior Jordan Ellis also needs to take advantage of the newfound quarterback mobility, as it should open more holes. At the very least, UVA needs to see some improvement in the running game; last year’s meager three yards per carry haunted the Hoos in second halves.
Find star power on defense. While the offense certainly has the opportunity to flourish in year three under Mendenhall and the majority of starters on defense return, Virginia is tasked with replacing program changers like linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding. There are fewer problems in the back, which returns cornerbacks Tim Harris, who recently had wrist surgery, Bryce Hall and strong safety Juan Thornhill. Younger talent like Germane Crowell, who also suffered from injury, and walk-on turned star Brenton Nelson will most likely play critical roles.
Manage the D-Line. The overhaul of the defensive line should create the most unease for the Hoos in summer camp. With the departures of Juwan Moye and Steven Wright for team violations and heralded seniors Kiser and Andrew Brown, expect a relatively young group of guys that will need to mesh quickly. The addition of transfers Dylan Thompson out of Ohio State and Cassius Peat out of Michigan State (in the most circuitous fashion) should help speed things along, as should the linebacker core of Malcolm Cook, Jordan Mack, and Chris Peace, who had a combined 21.5 tackles for loss last year.
Having now had two seasons at the helm, Coach Mendenhall will look to regain the momentum from the beginning of the 2017 season that collapsed down the stretch. This team has the pieces to at least be competitive in what should be another deep year in the ACC.
For more analysis, check out SBNation’s Bill Connelly’s review.