BLANK: Football has a consistency problem
The first column I wrote this season was about the need for a consistent option at quarterback. Former coach Mike London was notorious for his inability to find an effective signal caller, but with coach Bronco Mendenhall and junior quarterback Kurt Benkert, I found reason for hope. Mendenhall’s teams at BYU always featured stability at quarterback, and in selecting an underclassman, I thought he could provide Virginia with some of this same permanence.
Unfortunately, consistency is the exact opposite of what we’ve seen under center so far this season. That’s not to say the play has always been poor, as at times Benkert was quite inspiring. Benkert is an immensely talented quarterback, with mobility and arm strength to spare, and he has the most passing yards of any Virginia quarterback through their first 10 starts. The individual game highs are even more impressive, as Benkert threw for a school record 421 yards along with five touchdowns in a win over Central Michigan. It was certainly possible to watch drives, quarters and games where Benkert seemed like the best quarterback the Cavaliers have had in years.
While the highs were exhilarating, the lows were just as cringe-worthy. Benkert seems to have regressed in recent weeks. Based on ESPN’s measure of quarterback play, after playing his best two games in Virginia’s only wins, Benkert has produced his four worst performances in the five weeks since, failing to hit even 200 yards of total passing the last two weeks.
When Benkert was benched towards the end of the Miami game this weekend, initial reports made it sound like a senior night gimmick, similar to a temporary late-game benching earlier in the year. Monday, however, Mendenhall announced that senior quarterback Matt Johns, last year’s starter, would replace Benkert going forward. Instability in Benkert’s play has led to uncertainty in who is at the helm going forward.
While Mendenhall justified the decision in the name of developing Benkert for next year, doubt over the quarterback’s future emerges. The 44-yard pass Johns threw to junior wide receiver Doni Dowling, demonstrating Johns’ fiery brand of leadership, punctuated that uncertainty.
Additionally, the issues plaguing Benkert are emblematic of bigger problems the program faces. The season has been a disappointment, with the team as a whole mimicking Benkert’s rollercoaster ride and inconsistency.
While playing College Football Playoff contender Louisville and earning the team’s first road win in years against Duke, Mendenhall’s squad showed signs of being a program on the rise. The team has fallen flat in most other games, however, failing to put up a fight against an FCS school in Richmond to open the year and getting obliterated by rival North Carolina at home. It has been difficult throughout the year to predict which version of Virginia football, or its quarterback, will show up on any given Saturday.
Coaches and players alike maintain the program is going in a positive direction. Despite all the positive rhetoric surrounding the program, the results are inconclusive.
One possible explanation for the program’s slow start is that Mendenhall didn’t have the ability to bring in his own personnel and instead was stuck with what London left him. While this argument is appealing, the benching of Benkert, the only major contributor on the team Mendenhall brought to the program, for Johns doesn’t particularly dovetail with the theory.
Nonetheless, there are reasons to be hopeful looking forward.
The Cavaliers are young, and potentially return much of their best talent, on both offense and defense. While the beginning of the Mendenhall era has been indisputably frustrating, transitions take significant amounts of time, and the team has already shown sparks of success. In this light, inconsistency at the all-important position of quarterback is just one sign of a long road ahead to arrive where the program aspires to go, and it's possible fans have already seen glimpses of what that could look like.
Hopefully this tumultuous start will be forgotten in the long run. Combining Benkert’s raw talent with a full offseason program could work wonders for his abilities and consistency, and his benching may be remembered as nothing more than a fond send off for Johns. Until then, the roller coaster ride seems likely to continue.