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2020 Virginia Cavaliers Football Preview: Offensive Skill Positions

NCAA Football: Louisville at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

In a normal year, we would have published a post-spring depth chart for Virginia Cavaliers Football. We would have covered offseason training and summer camp top to bottom. It’s September already, which means we really would be publishing a game preview.

But, it’s 2020. Nothing about this has been normal.

Spring practice didn’t happen this year, so players missed out on three weeks’ worth of practice, the fans missed out on a bunch of highlight videos and we missed out on lots of information about the players, especially the young guys we haven’t seen on the field. Summer camp did happen, somehow, but with limited media availability, plus there have been so many question marks about whether the season would actually be happening. But here we are, and it looks like in a week and a half, we’ll actually be getting Virginia football this season.

We’ll start, then, by taking a look the Cavalier offense. Today we’ll break down the skill positions, and tomorrow we’ll break down the also-skilled-but-not-referred-to-as-such offensive line.

Virginia’s lost its quarterback (Bryce Perkins) and top two wide receivers (Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois) to graduation. Those are the most notable losses. But there have also been losses in the backfield, as well as new additions by way of transfers and recruits. So let’s get into it.

Bear in mind that there will be deviations to this depth chart, due to a number of factors. Injuries, academics, and on-field performance can all cause alterations to this depth chart. And there is still time for players to impress and move up on the depth chart. Also, these are our projections, with no insight into how players have looked during pre-season or who might be injured or nicked up.

The positions on our depth chart are taken from the official depth chart released weekly during the season.


Starter: Brennan Armstrong (So)
Backup: Keytaon Thompson (Jr)

Armstrong has been named the starter at QB, and rightly so. He’s earned it. But, as one of my STL co-writers said, by transferring to UVA, “Thompson didn’t come here to not start.” The starting job is Armstrong’s, but Thompson may get some playing time. He’s too dynamic with his legs. Don’t be too surprised to see both QBs in the backfield together, especially in light of the depth issues at RB (to be addressed later).

Thompson played as a true freshman in the SEC. That is no joke. He started in a bowl game that season and out-dueled Lamar Jackson in a Mississippi State win. He rushed for 147 and 3 TDs. He also threw for 127 yards, completing 11/20 with 1 INT, and it’s these passing numbers that are likely a big part of why Armstrong has the starting nod. Thompson seems to have accuracy issues.

Is this a miscommunication with his WR? Is it an overthrow? A missed read? We can’t know, but it looks bad. That said, bear in mind he was a true freshman thrust into action due to an injury to the starter.

Armstrong also has a command of this offense. Having taken a redshirt year, he’s now in his third year in the program and has been the understudy to Bryce Perkins the past two years. He’s rushed for 93 yards in his career on just 16 carries. He’s also completed 17/25 for 258 yards with 2 TDs and 2 INTs—much, but not all, of it in garbage time.

Sure, that pass is mostly Joe Reed. But Armstrong gets him the ball right when it’s supposed to be there and right where it’s supposed to be. And that run is all Armstrong,

Running Back

Virginia’s depth chart shows two RB positions, “Speed back (SB)” and “Big back (BB)”. At 5’9” 200, freshman Mike Hollins was listed at BB all of last season. That may have just been a way to get him on the depth chart, because when he played (usually in garbage time), he was almost exclusively used as a single-back. The only real “Big Back” that ever played was FB Jamari Peacock, although the Hoos often went with two smaller backs (P.K. Kier and Lamar Atkins, for example).

In the backfield above is Lamont Atkins and P.K. Kier, the two backup SBs on the depth chart (they were listed as “OR” behind Taulapapa). Taulapapa didn’t play in this game against Liberty, but this shows two SBs in the backfield together. The benefit of this type of play is the ball could go in either direction, so the defense can’t shade to one side. Both Atkins and Kier are gone, having chosen to transfer. Peacock is also gone for the same reason. Hollins is sitting out this year. That’s four guys who were expected to get a lot of playing time this season.

Speed Back

Starter: Wayne Taulapapa (Jr)
Back-up: Shane Simpson (Sr)

Taulapapa is back, and with all the attrition he’s going to have to be a workhorse. Luckily, that’s exactly what he is. He’s not flashy and doesn’t break a lot of long runs, but he also doesn’t lose yardage. In 116 carries, he lost yardage on just 9 of them.

He rushed for 473 yards and 12 TDs. Those 12 TDs tell a story—most of those are short yardage, where Taulapapa simply excels. He converted 68% of his short yardage carries (2nd or 3rd down and 3-or-less to go), including 70% of his goal line carries (goal to go from 3 yard line or closer). These are outstanding conversation rates for even NFL RBs.

Taulapapa takes the carry, picks a hole, and, with some help from tremendous blocking in front of him, hits it hard. It’s not easy to navigate that jumble of big bodies in the middle of a goal line formation but Taulapapa does it well.

Simpson is a transfer from Towson and will act as a third down back of sorts. He is quick and dangerous in space. He could also see some time in the slot or as an H-back.

Tell me that doesn’t look a little bit like Olamide Zaccheaus or Joe Reed out of the backfield. Also like how he fights for yards at the end of the run.

Big Back

Starter: Ronnie Walker Jr. (Jr)
Back-up: Perris Jones (So)

Maybe you already know the Walker story. Bronco Mendenhall recruited him hard out of New Jersey, but Walker chose to attend Indiana. After two years of not really cracking the starting lineup, Walker decided to transfer and Bronco came calling again. Walker is still working on getting a waiver approved to allow him to play this year. He’s been denied, but he is appealing.

Walker is a north-south runner, not too different from Taulapapa, but with more size and speed. He’s not going down to an arm tackle.

Jones is a walk-on who has put in his dues and earned the right to pick #10 in the jersey draft. He may not get much playing time, but he should make the 2-deep.

Neither of these guys are true “big backs”. Certainly not the way Peacock was. Chances are, we’ll see a lot of single-back sets, especially if Walker doesn’t win his appeal.

Tight End

Starter: Tony Poljan (Sr)
Back-up: Grant Misch (So)

Misch got some playing time at TE last year (and even caught a TD), so he’s certainly got the leg up there. But Poljan is a graduate transfer from Central Michigan, where he was second team All-MAC. He caught 33 passes for 496 yards and 4 TDs last year. He actually started his career at QB and got some playing time there, completing 76/147 passes for 625 yards with two TDs and five INTs in 2018. He also rushed 64 times for 123 yards. None of those numbers are all that great, which may be why he changed positions, but he certainly has the athleticism, and long-time Virginia fans know what converted QBs can do at the TE position (see Miller, Heath and McGee, Jake).

At 6’7” 265 lbs, Poljan also has size on Misch (6’4” 250), which might make him a more effective blocker.

It is difficult to just blocking skills from highlight reels. But we can try.

Poljan (#85) comes across the formation and acts as a lead blocker on the QB Keeper. He completely stands up the ILB who was in position to make the play. This leads to a big run for the QB. With mobile QBs and a strong OL, this is exactly the type of play that makes good things happen.

Wide Receiver

Robert Anae’s offense uses three and four WR sets almost exclusively. The depth chart lists 3 WR spots and an H-back. Over the past two years, the H-back has been Olamide Zaccheaus and Billy Kemp/Tavares Kelly, but those guys are all really WRs. The depth chart does not differentiate between different positions and WRs might line up in different positions from play to play.

Having to replace Reed and Dubois isn’t easy. Terrell Jana is going to be the top guy, but there’s very little set behind him.

WR: Terrell Jana (Sr), Demick Starling (Fr)
WR: Ra’Shaun Henry (Sr), Nathaniel Beal III (R Fr)
WR: Ugo Obasi (So), Lavel Davis Jr (Fr)
H: Billy Kemp IV (Jr), Tavares Kelly Jr (Jr)

Jana, of course, keeps his spot. He lined up largely on the inside, especially early in the season.

Jana is on the inside on Bryce Perkins’ left side. This is an up route on the sideline in combination with Dubois also running an up. Jana lets Dubois pass him, which draws in the defense and then Jana settles in right behind the CB in the open spot.

This time, Jana is on the outside on Perkins’ right side. This is a scramble drill and Jana does a great job of getting all the way across the field to help his QB out.

There’s a lot of youth on this depth chart. The addition of graduate transfer Ra’Shaun Henry really helps, but there’s still only four WRs with playing experience and only Jana is truly a proven contributor at the ACC level. Henry is the top candidate to replace Reed in the rotation lineup.

Tell me that doesn’t look a little like Reed out there.

Dontayvion Wicks was expected to have a chance to replace Dubois in the lineup. He’s got the size and looked good in limited opportunities last season, but he’s out with an injury and will not be back this season. That leaves yet another hole. A couple of candidates are sophomore Ugo Obasi and true freshman Lavel Davis.

Obasi has been praised by the coaching staff and actually saw the field as a true freshman before missing all of last season with an injury. At 6’5”, Davis has tremendous size for the position. He’s also been praised during the preseason and looks to have carved out a role in the offense, whether he starts or not.

Kemp and Kelly will likely be listed at H-back again, but they’ll also be on the field together a lot. Kelly could be used in the Joe Reed role some, on the WR screens and maybe in the backfield some. He’s shown hints of being dynamic with the ball in his hands.

That is some serious speed and quickness.

Kelly is also a top candidate to replace Reed on kick returns, along with Shane Simpson. Kemp seems likely to retain his role as primary PR.

We’ll be back with a look at an offensive line that’s returning all of its starters from last year.

Kickoff for the 2020 Virginia Football Season (!) will be on September 19 on ABC at Virginia Tech. Kickoff time will be either 3:30 or 7:30 p.m. ET, to be announced following games played on September 12.