ELDER: Football's offense searching for talent, depth
One of many new elements of Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s arrival last season was the implementation of a spread offense. Led by former Brigham Young offensive coordinator Robert Anae, Virginia was poised to up the tempo and increase the scoring from Steve Fairchild’s pro-style system under former Coach Mike London.
But, like many things in Mendenhall’s first season, the offense did not produce the results many anticipated. Its 22.5 points per game was good for 115th out of 128 FBS teams. Timing was clearly off on routes, the offensive line generated little push and quarterback Kurt Benkert found a knack for taking poor sacks and throwing back-breaking interceptions.
In 2017, the Cavaliers will have to move forward without one of their lone offensive weapons in all-purpose back Taquan Mizzell, who led Virginia with 940 rushing yards and also led the team with 52 receptions. Virginia graduated much of its patch-work offensive line, too.
Now that the team is in the thick of spring practice, former sports editor Robert Elder takes a look at the spring offensive depth chart.
Starter: Kurt Benkert
Key Backup: Da’Vante Cross
After transferring from East Carolina last summer, Benkert beat out Matt Johns for the starting gig. But despite displaying arm talent, Benkert struggled in his first season as a starter, completing just 56 percent of his passes.
Mendenhall expects improvement from the fifth-year senior this season. Benkert was hampered by a left-shoulder injury last year and has shed the knee brace he wore last season after tearing his right ACL in East Carolina’s 2015 training camp.
Dual-threat Missouri transfer Marvin Zanders will arrive this summer, and he will likely serve as the true backup to Benkert. Also expect to see packages sprinkled in for redshirt freshman Da’Vante Cross — the super athletic run-first quarterback.
Starters: Jordan Ellis, Daniel Hamm
Key Backups: Jamari Peacock, Lamont Atkins
With the graduation of Albert Reid and Mizzell, Virginia will have to replace over 90 percent of last season’s net positive rushing yards. To do so, the Cavaliers will turn to junior Jordan Ellis and senior Daniel Hamm.
Both have flashed promise despite rushing for a combined 65 yards last season. Hamm rushed for 136 yards in his 2013 debut against VMI, and Ellis broke a 39-yard touchdown run against William & Mary in 2015.
Early enrollee freshmen Jamari Peacock and Lamont Atkins could also earn time. Atkins was named Virginia Gatorade player of the year for 2016-17, and at 235 pounds, Peacock will provide size in short-yardage situations.
Starters: Doni Dowling, Olamide Zaccheaus, Andre Levrone
Key Backups: David Eldridge, Warren Craft, Hasise Dubois, Joe Reed
Keeon Johnson’s graduation is the only notable change to this group from a season ago. The Cavaliers return the speedy Zaccheaus — who hauled in 51 catches and a team-high seven touchdowns — and Doni Dowling — who led the team with 626 receiving yards.
The Cavaliers have two athletic backups in Eldridge and Craft, both of whom showed promise early in the season. Additionally, Anae might look to utilize his pair of 6-foot-3 sophomores — Dubois and Reed — as redzone targets.
Virginia will need more consistency and big plays from this group in 2017.
Starter: Evan Butts
Key Backup: Richard Burney
Virginia rarely used a traditional in-line tight end last season. Still, Butts has reportedly had a strong offseason, and he caught three touchdowns in 2015.
Burney’s only catch last year was a three-yard touchdown against Duke.
Starters: Jack English, Steven Moss, Jake Fielder, Jack McDonald, Dillon Reinkensmeyer
Key Backups: Ben Trent, Ben Knutson
The line will undergo massive change once training camp begins. After graduating three starters — Michael Mooney, Jackson Matteo and Eric Smith — Virginia will bring in three transfers. Guards John Montelus and Colin McGovern will both come from Notre Dame, and Brandon Pertile will transfer from Oklahoma State.
Montelus is a former top-100 recruit, but he appeared in only six games in his Notre Dame career. Meanwhile, McGovern started eight contests last season. Pertile played just three games the past two seasons for the Cowboys but hopes to carve out time at right tackle in Charlottesville.
Virginia is also bringing in five offensive line prospects in the 2017 recruiting class. The Cavaliers will soon have bodies, but improvement from last season is far from guaranteed.
Losing Mizzell hurts both the running and passing games. Ellis and Hamm have both shown flashes, but neither has produced any sort of consistency.
Further, the offensive line must make major strides, both in generating better push and in pass protection. Anae may have some skilled players to work with at receiver and tight end, but depth, explosiveness and consistency all remain major concerns.
But at the end of the day, much of 2017’s success will depend on Benkert’s improvement. Otherwise, the Cavaliers might be in for another woeful offensive performance.
Robert Elder was the 127th Sports Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @R_F_D_E.