Benkert helping turn the tide for Cavaliers
Talented junior growing with Virginia’s offense
After the turbulent period that was the 2015-16 college football season, everyone who paid any sort of mind to the Virginia football program knew it needed to undergo significant changes.
Since 2010, under then-head coach Mike London, the Cavaliers sported a combined 27-46 record. The loss to Virginia Tech at the end of last season, which sent the Hokies to their 23rd straight bowl game appearance, seemed to be the last straw for all Virginia alumni, students and the athletic department alike.
Change quickly ensued, as London was relieved and former Brigham Young coach Bronco Mendenhall was brought on to head the new-look Cavaliers.
However, one of the bright spots of that disappointing 2015 season was the passing offense. Under then-junior quarterback Matt Johns, Virginia was third in the ACC in passing yards with 2,810 — good for third all-time in school history.
But enter Kurt Benkert, who was mystery man among most Virginia fans until last spring.
Benkert, a native of Cape Coral, Fla., committed to East Carolina out of high school and redshirted his freshman year. Described as a “drop back/pro style quarterback” by ESPN Recruiting Nation, Benkert’s talents would’ve translated well into East Carolina’s offense that was fifth in the country in total yards per game in 2014.
In that same year, Benkert appeared in just three games as a backup to Conference USA offensive player of the year, quarterback Shane Carden, compiling 58 passing yards and adding 23 yards on the ground to go along with two scores.
Before the 2015 season, Benkert was named the starting quarterback for the Pirates, but a torn ACL derailed these plans. A year later, he transferred to Virginia as a graduate student.
Immediately thrown into a heated quarterback battle with Johns and senior Connor Brewer, Benkert didn’t shy away from the spotlight, but rather embraced his role as the underdog.
“We push each other a lot, we hold each other accountable, made sure we we’re all doing the best that we could and getting as much work in, because at the end of the day we have to have a good season here at U.Va.,” Benkert said.
Mendenhall took as long as he could with the decision of who his next quarterback would be, as he was constantly pestered by media to give up any sort of clue who he was going to roll with on opening day against Richmond, but he never budged.
On Aug. 24, a mere 10 days before the start of the season, Mendenhall deemed Benkert the starter.
“I’ve really been impressed with how he’s moved the team,” Mendenhall said. “When I look at a quarterback, what I look first and foremost for is ‘Do they move the team into the end zone?’ Because points determine outcome. Kurt has been the one consistently and [who] can continue to be consistent in moving our team forward regardless of the type and caliber of opponent we play.”
As a result, expectations were high for this relatively unknown player, and through six games, it looks as though Mendenall made the right decision.
Benkert’s first game in the Cavalier orange and blue impressed Mendenhall, as he went 26-34 for 264 yards with three touchdowns to one interception. Although two of his touchdowns came in the final quarter, with Virginia trailing 30-7, the potential shone nonetheless.
Although Virginia is giving up an average of 32.3 points per game through the first six contests — good for 94th in the country — the offense has been not too far off at 28.3 points per game. Much of this is attributed to Benkert’s big arm and his ability to drive the ball down the field, something that was lacking in Virginia’s conservative offensive scheme under London.
This season, Mendenhall is deploying more aggressive play calling, one he thinks is more suited for Benkert’s talents.
“I like to win, and I like to be aggressive in doing so in terms of game management,” Mendenhall said. “I'm pushing every boundary that I possibly can to help the program and the young men that I'm coaching and our team to have that mindset.”
This aggressive and vertical attack has helped Benkert throw for 1,733 yards and 14 touchdowns, and seven interceptions, through six games. He even broke the program record with 421 passing yards against Central Michigan and also added five touchdowns to go along with it.
“Man, it was the best feeling,” Benkert said after the win. “It’s definitely a lot of hard work that’s paid off … and just going through everything we’ve gone through, and how close we are as a team, it’s awesome, man. It’s really awesome.”
With a new head coach comes new offensive schemes, defensive schemes and new philosophies. It takes time, usually multiple years, to completely change the culture of a program. With Benkert as his lead dog, Mendenhall feels comfortable with what he has going.
“Man, I'm glad he's here,” he said. “I think he's helped our team. I think he has great potential, and I think he's a very good quarterback who is learning and growing every game just like our entire team is.”