DOUGHERTY: How different will Virginia football look this season?

Looking at where the Cavaliers could improve or regress in the 2018 season through analytics

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Bryce Perkins will lead the Cavaliers' offense this season.

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

The 2017 Virginia football team was a hard squad to figure out. Inconsistent play in every phase of the game led to stretches of play where the Cavaliers looked like they could compete with anyone — and others where their lethargic play was difficult to watch.

As if it wasn’t enough of a challenge to gauge Virginia’s strengths and weaknesses last season, the amount of turnover the team has experienced over several months leads to an even murkier picture. With a new quarterback and offensive system, as well as key departures and additions to the defense, the Cavaliers have the potential to be a vastly different team from last season. 

How can we expect different Cavalier units to fare this season? Using the advanced analytical rating system S&P+ — which tracks team efficiency through an adjusted points-per-game metric — we can see where the Cavaliers ended last season in relation to FBS teams in many statistical categories. Looking at roster and scheme changes, we can then begin to forecast potential improvements and regressions for the Cavaliers this season.

Let’s jump in.

Offense

Rushing

S&P+ Rating: 86.2 

FBS Rank: 112 (out of 129)

Per the rating, the Virginia running game was Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s weakest unit in 2017. The team was one of only five FBS teams to average less than 100 yards per ground per game. Senior running back Jordan Ellis — Mendenhall’s cowbell last season — averaged only 3.9 yards per rush, and deficiencies across the offensive line made even third-and-short conversions difficult to come by. 

Luckily for the Cavaliers, they will be getting massive ground support in transfer quarterback Bryce Perkins. Already heralded as one of the fastest players on the roster, the Arizona Western JUCO transfer will bring an instant jolt to the outside running game, opening opportunities for a matured Ellis to bruise through the middle. In contrast to the more static Benkert, Perkins has the ability to turn broken plays into gains and avoid sacks with his legs. The addition of Rutgers graduate transfer Marcus Applefield as a an offensive lineman will anchor an experienced offensive line as Mendenhall sharpens its run blocking.  

Projection: Improvement

Passing

S&P+ Rating: 97.7

FBS Rank: 78

For all the hype Perkins is getting as a runner, he never fully established himself as a prolific passer at any of his prior schools. At Arizona Western last season, he threw seven touchdowns to eight interceptions. Throw in that he will be replacing Kurt Benkert — who set a single-season passing yard record for a Cavalier — and the odds that Perkins can improve this ranking looks more doubtful.

Virginia will return its top pass-catcher from 2017 in senior running back Olamide Zaccheaus, giving Perkins an immediate partner through the air that will help him move the needle. Still, with Mendenhall’s system likely to become more run-heavy, the passing game will likely dampen either way.

Projection: Regression

Defense

Rushing

S&P+ Rating: 104.7

FBS Rank: 50

Taking away Navy’s stampede on the ground in Virginia’s Military Bowl collapse, the Cavaliers mostly held their own in defending the run last season. Leading the charge to that end was inside linebacker Micah Kiser — who led the team with 14 run stuffs — but the Cavaliers have since lost him to graduation. 

Senior linebackers Malcolm Cook and Chris Peace are more than capable of filling Kiser’s void in the backfield, but the front line is in for a huge overhaul. Sophomore defensive ends Juwan Moye and Steven Wright were dismissed from the program at the end of last season, and Mendenhall also loses the services of NFL-bound defensive end Andrew Brown. Of recent note, Ohio State transfer defensive tackle Dylan Thompson is not expected to join the program, and nagging injuries have hit the defensive line during training camp.

A unit with this much uncertainty in plugging the teeth of the defense cannot be relied upon to match last season’s success.

Prediction: Regression

Passing

S&P+ Rating: 105.0

FBS Rank: 40

Virginia’s best unit from last season returns a good deal of its high-potential players. Senior strong safety Juan Thornhill will lead an experienced secondary, having been placed on two preseason award watch lists after breaking up a team-leading 12 passes last season. Playing with him will be sophomore free safety Brenton Nelson, the 2017 ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year, and productive junior cornerback Bryce Hall. The secondary has the looks of a stout unit.

The turnover on the defensive line may raise concerns about pressuring opposing quarterbacks, but Mendenhall will get back some of his best sack artists in the linebacking corps to counteract that. Peace led the team with 7.5 sacks last season and junior inside linebacker Jordan Mack fourth on the team with three. The pair will return as a dangerous blitzing duo.

A disruptive pass defense could once again be the Cavaliers’ best asset in 2018, though a lack of new additions may limit how much its already-lofty ceiling can rise.

Projection: Hold Steady

Special Teams

S&P+ Rating: -0.4

FBS Rank: 96

The story for Virginia’s special teams unit was similar in 2017 to that of prior seasons — solid in the field position game, very mediocre in kicking. Senior punter Lester Coleman earned Second-Team All-ACC honors in his first season as a starter, highlighted by his No. 7 national ranking in punts landed inside the opponents 20-yard line. Meanwhile, sophomore kicker A.J. Mejia was almost automatic from short-range, but failed to connect from any of his attempts beyond 40 yards. S&P+ ranked the Cavalier kicking game 103rd in the FBS in field goal value per kick.

Arguably the biggest surprise for the unit was the kick-return success of junior wide receiver Joe Reed. Reed averaged a solid 29.7 yards per return and scored two kick-return touchdowns, while not once fumbling. Inserting Reed in as a punt-returner could give the Cavaliers a dynamic return game in all facets if he continues to improve.

New special teams coordinator Ricky Brumfield has been working with Mejia over the summer on his leg strength to build up his range for the upcoming season. If he becomes more consistent and gains Mendenhall’s trust, the unit as a whole will look – for the first time in quite a while – very solid.

Projection: Improvement

In sum, Virginia will stand to look most different on offense, where a change in scheme and quarterback archetype will now favor the run over the pass. While special teams seem set to improve if the team sorts out the kicking game, the defense as a whole may regress unless stellar play from the secondary and linebackers can mask deficiencies on the front line. 

The sheer amount of changes to Virginia’s roster could make Mendenhall’s task of returning to a bowl game a tall order, as he faces coaching a fairly different team. His ability to harness his roster’s new strengths will be paramount to the Cavaliers’ prospects of returning to the postseason. 

Alec Dougherty is a Sports Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached by email at a.dougherty@cavalierdaily.com or on Twitter at @aduggs96.

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