BLANK: Cavaliers may finally be able to play to their potential

sp-FootballFeatureBenkert-NZugris

Senior quarterback Kurt Benkert will look to help Virginia remain undefeated this weekend as they get ready to take on Indiana. 

Nick Zugris | Cavalier Daily


Although Virginia football’s 33-year streak of having a player selected in the NFL draft came to an end this past spring, it wasn’t due to a lack of talent on the roster.

This year’s senior class was ranked the 33rd best in the country and sixth in the ACC by recruiting service 247sports when it entered the program in 2014. Throughout the seniors’ time in Charlottesville, however, the team hasn’t played as well as its talent level would suggest.

The website FiveThirtyEight, which specializes in statistical analysis, created a model that quantifies this shortcoming. They use talent level — measured by recruiting — to try and predict performance on the field, and then compared the actual results to what the model predicted. Few teams fared worse than Virginia in this measure of how well their talent performs, as the Cavaliers ranked 115 out of the 128 teams measured, and last in the ACC.

For Virginia, the key driver missing in their quest to play at the level fans expect of a flagship ACC school hasn’t been the talent on the roster, but rather getting the most out of the guys on the team.

Fixing this requires a holistic effort — one that requires improved performance from everyone ranging from players to coaches to trainers, and potentially even better facilities. It also requires improvements at head coach and quarterback to help ease the task of those around them. 

In his time on Grounds, Coach Bronco Mendenhall has reshaped the Virginia football program in numerous ways to fit his image and “earned, not given” mantra. While these efforts have been discussed and viewed through various lenses, they amount to creative efforts to sustainably maximize the production of his players.

Football is an art, not a science, but it requires putting players in situations where they can succeed, letting them gain experience and helping to develop them throughout their time on Grounds. Improving player performance also has the added benefit of attracting more talent in the future as recruits factor in the progress of those who committed before them when making their decisions.

Senior quarterback Kurt Benkert can also ease the burdens on those around him. Instability and poor performance at the quarterback position over the years has hurt Virginia’s stable of position players. Instability hampers the chemistry between wide receivers and quarterbacks, limiting their production and hurting confidence. Likewise, poor performance limits the type of plays that can be called, and keeps wide receivers from getting results on well-run routes. Additionally, running backs face added pressure when defenses don’t respect the passing game.

Saturday’s win over William & Mary showed progress from both Mendenhall and Benkert. 

Mendenhall’s efforts were demonstrated by the improved depth and resiliency of his players. The lack of turnovers showed a more disciplined program and improved play from the secondary — even when senior cornerback Tim Harris was lost to a wrist injury — showed that players were being put in situations where they could succeed. Junior safety Juan Thornhill, who switched positions this offseason, recorded career highs in both tackles and tackles for loss, such that Mendenhall called his play the most impressive performance on defense. 

Benkert, having spent a full season at Virginia and unhindered by the shoulder injury that affected him for much of last season, threw for three touchdowns and 262 yards. He also helped showcase the diverse skillset of the Virginia receiving corps, allowing speedsters like junior halfback Olamide Zaccheaus and sophomore wide receiver Joe Reed to make plays in open space, and senior big play threats — wide receivers Doni Dowling and Andre Levrone — to take chances on deeper routes.

While it’s hard to make definitive judgments from one game against an FCS opponent, Saturday marked progress in Virginia’s efforts to better develop talent. 

This perspective also provides another framework through which Virginia’s games this season can be viewed. Even if Big 10 opponent Indiana proves too tough to beat this weekend, signs of improved player development and quarterback play can serve as a signal to fans that the Cavaliers won’t be too tough to beat for long.

Jake Blank is a Senior Associate Sports Editor and a Sports columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at j.blank@cavalierdaily.com or on Twitter at @Jake_33. 

related stories