BLANK: Paving the path to success

Virginia’s Saturday win over UConn showed progress, path forward

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Junior strong safety Juan Thornhill and Virginia put on a strong defensive effort against Connecticut last weekend. 

Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

On Sept. 17, 2016, Virginia lost to Connecticut, 10-13, after missing a game-tying field goal as time expired. A year later when they played again, the result was much different, as the Cavaliers were up 24-0 at halftime and rolled to a 38-18 victory.

While the dominant play against an FBS team itself was enough for fans at Scott Stadium Saturday, it also showed how Virginia can become a more consistently competitive team.

In the 2016 matchup, then-junior quarterback Kurt Benkert threw for 241 yards, an interception and no touchdowns in the loss — part of an up and down season for the first-time starter. His 2017 performance against Connecticut was a marked improvement, as Benkert threw for a school record 455 yards and three touchdowns. 

This effort was the latest in a series of improved performances from Benkert this season, who seems to be benefiting from experience. The quarterback has showed the ability to learn from his mistakes. In the week two game against Indiana, Benkert had significant struggles with accuracy on his deep throws. Against Connecticut, all three of his touchdowns came on passes thrown more than 20 yards downfield.

Not only does improved performance from Benkert bode well for the team this season, but it shows fans the improvements Coach Bronco Mendenhall has made in his tenure thus far. Mendenhall has striven for consistency with Benkert at quarterback, and focused on succession-planning at the position in a way former Coach Mike London never was able.

This improved consistency has not gone unnoticed. Former wide receiver Darius Jennings commented on twitter that the offense looked better settled with a single player at the helm. 

Benkert’s isn’t the only remarkable turnaround that was apparent against Connecticut. The secondary was one of Virginia’s weakest units in 2016. This year, it has been much better, holding up despite the season ending injury to senior cornerback Tim Harris. In his stead, junior Juan Thornhill had to switch to corner from safety, and redshirt freshman safety Brenton Nelson, a former walk-on, started in Thornhill’s place.

Both players have excelled in their new roles. Thornhill was ranked by Pro Football Focus — a leading statistics website that grades film of each player for every play — as Virginia’s best player going into the Connecticut game, and Nelson made the site’s National Team of the Week for his performance against Connecticut.

This too is a sign of Mendenhall’s success. Nelson shows an ability to find meaningful help from unheralded players, and Thornhill shows that touted players already in the program are improving. Virginia has often had stars like senior safety Quin Blanding — who has more career tackles than any other returning FBS player — but this quality of depth is new under Mendenhall.

Stability at quarterback and improved development and depth can both be seen in the success of the Cavalier’s wide receivers against Connecticut. Nine players caught passes for the Cavaliers, and three wide receivers — junior Olamide Zaccheaus and seniors Doni Dowling and Andre Levrone — each had over 100 receiving yards, the first time that has happened for Virginia in program history. Last season, the offense had to rely on Taquan Mizzell, who led the team with 52 receptions, despite being a running back.

The effects of improved depth, development and experience were visible all across the roster, with similarly positive results found at wide receiver.

This created a pleasant viewing experience for Cavaliers fans Saturday, but more importantly showed the ways in which fans could identify systematic improvements under Mendenhall early in his second season. If Mendenhall continues to bolster his team in these ways, focusing on succession-planning and depth, sustained success and excitement may well follow.

Jake Blank is a Senior Associate Sports Editor and Sports Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He

can be reached at j.blank@cavalierdaily.com or on Twitter at @Jake_33.

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