CD Sports Roundtable — Football, fall sports near mid-season

Answering the hottest questions about various Cavalier sports teams

sp-bryce-perkins

Junior quarterback Bryce Perkins has shown he can change the game for Virginia, but the rest of his offense needs to find consistency.

Andrew Walsh | Cavalier Daily

The CD sports staff takes a look at the state of Virginia football during the bye week and other fall sports in its first roundtable discussion of the year.

What is going well for Virginia football, and what needs to be improved?

Alec Dougherty, Editor: Things were a lot clearer before the N.C. State loss, but Virginia has shown flashes of both great and poor on both sides of the ball. The passing offense had looked efficient before that game with junior quarterback Bryce Perkins getting comfortable throwing, and both the rushing and passing defense had period of complete lockdown play. The loss to the Wolfpack revealed what Virginia needs to improve on — general consistency. In particular, the team’s rushing offense needs to put consistent pressure on the defense. In Virginia’s losses, starting senior running back Jordan Ellis received only 12 and 13 carries, respectively, as the team abandoned the rushing attack and put pressure on Perkins. The Cavaliers have to commit to running the ball more often and more effectively in order to sustain offensive flow. 

Jake Blank, Editor: Bryce Perkins has been an undoubted bright spot for Virginia, the line play on both sides of the ball has not. Perkins’s ability to scramble has covered up inconsistent pass protection, but Coach Bronco Mendenhall attributed Virginia’s struggles in the running game Saturday to the offensive line. The defensive line, ravaged by injuries in the offseason, has performed valiantly. However — particularly with junior end Richard Burney’s season-ending injury — the defensive line will need to step up and create more consistent pass rush.

Emma D’Arpino, Senior Associate: The second half performance and the mentality of the team in the second half has been good. When the Cavaliers were losing to Indiana and N.C. State at halftime of each game, they came out in the second half and made the game contestable, which is promising to see. However, as already mentioned, the Cavaliers have room for improvement in establishing a more consistent offense. 

Zach Zamoff, Senior Associate: The New Standard is gradually becoming a reality. While Virginia still struggles to compete with Top-25 caliber teams like N.C. State because of the Cavaliers’ youth and lack of depth, Virginia has undeniable talents at multiple positions. Bryce Perkins, of course, is a standout. Senior wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus has had one of the best seasons among wideouts in the nation — his quickness with the ball can change games. On the defensive side of the ball, senior safety Juan Thornhill and junior cornerback Bryce Hall have cemented their status as some of the most-skilled secondary players in the ACC. Sophomore outside linebacker Charles Snowden is an emerging prospect. But Virginia lacks the depth to compete for a conference title. They need more consistency on both sides of the ball against the best teams — better play from offensive and defensive lines is key to establishing this consistency.

What does Virginia football need to do to have a successful season?

AD: At this point, making and winning a bowl game has to be the goal for the Cavaliers — and it shouldn’t be too much of a mountain to climb. Virginia has a stretch in which they play ACC bottom-dwellers North Carolina and Pittsburgh in consecutive weeks before facing non-Power-Five foe Liberty, all of which are at Scott Stadium. The team needs to do exactly what it did against Louisville — blow struggling teams out of the water. Banking on squeaking out road wins against Virginia Tech, Duke and Georgia Tech the rest of the way cannot be a reasonable expectation. If the Cavaliers can take care of business against teams they’re favored in, they will achieve a chance for bowl-game vengeance.  

JB: There will be a subset of fans that won’t consider a season a success until we beat Virginia Tech, but I would argue that proving competitive throughout ACC play is the key indicator. While the Cavaliers finally won an ACC road game last year, they faded dramatically in the second half of the season, where the majority of conference play takes place. Proving they can play through an ACC schedule as a dangerous competitor will be a successful year.

ED: In his Sept. 24 press conference, Mendenhall said, “It took the whole first year to have even a basic idea where the program and our team was. We made some inroads in year two to address that appropriately. That showed in the record. Year three we're more clear than we were in year two of what has to happen and why.” So, I think the standard for success this year has to reflect that by showing improvement from last year. Getting to a bowl game and not just beating, but dominating teams at the bottom of the ACC are keys to making year three better than last year. 

ZZ: Virginia needs to take another step in the right direction — whether that means winning a bowl game or finishing with a better record than last year — and pick up at least one win against a top-25 caliber opponent. The Cavaliers have consistently played well against inferior competition, especially this year, and this is a good step — certainly from Mendenhall’s first season. But to take the program to the next level, and imbue it with the confidence to challenge opponents like Virginia Tech, Virginia needs a win that surprises. While these are certainly high standards for a very young team led by a quarterback in his first year in the program laden with injuries, I believe in this Cavaliers team. Maybe this is the year the Hokies finally go down.

Who has been your favorite Cavaliers football player to watch this year?

AD: Perkins has been a really fun addition to the team, but Olamide Zaccheaus has been electric when he is on his game. Zacchaeus has topped 100 receiving yards in three games thus far and has delivered jaw-dropping moves after the catch to weave through defenders. The senior has found a knack for shiftiness and making defenders miss on their first take, reminiscent of how former Penn State star running back Saquon Barkley used cuts and jukes to complement his lighting fast speed. If he builds more consistency in all of Virginia’s remaining games, he could be an easy choice for the All-ACC team at his position.

JB: Perkins is the obvious answer, but watching Charles Snowden turn his raw athletic abilities as a six-foot-seven former basketball player into impact in ACC football games has been cool to see. Whether the sophomore linebacker can build upon his performance against Louisville that earned him ACC Defensive Player of the Week is one of Virginia’s most interesting story lines going forward. 

ED: In addition to Perkins, Zaccheaus and Snowden, sophomore linebacker Zane Zandier’s improvement has been fun to watch. Zandier particularly shined against Louisville, where he had one of the biggest stops of the game as he had two solo tackles and one assisted tackle to keep Louisville from getting from Virginia’s three-yard line into the end-zone. Zandier will definitely be crucial to a Virginia defense that is overwhelmed by injuries and how he responds to the increased responsibility will be worth tracking.

ZZ: Bryce Hall has been a stud this year. In a secondary that has been inconsistent, Hall has had an incredible season. Along with 23 total tackles so far this year, Hall already has an interception, a sack, and 10 passes defended. Last year, Hall led Virginia with 10 passes defended. He has already equalled that mark this year, placing him fifth among all NCAA FBS players. Hall has a natural instinct for the ball, and has made game-changing plays to save the Virginia defense. His play will be critical in ACC play.

What Virginia fall sports team has the best chance of winning an ACC or national title?

AD: Though they have a gauntlet of conference games yet to play, the undefeated No. 5 Virginia men’s soccer team has looked rock solid at the beginning of the season, led by a stout defense. The Cavaliers have conceded only one goal in seven matches and lead the nation in goals allowed per game. Anchoring the defense has been redshirt sophomore goalie Colin Shulter, leads the nation with a .966 save percentage in his first college season. The offense has found its footing as of late, scoring two goals in team’s last three games after a slow start to the season. The team’s next few games will build up to a brutal end to the season in which it will face current No. 1 and No. 4 ranked Wake Forest and North Carolina, respectively. If the Cavaliers come out of that stretch with two victories, they will be renowned as legitimate title contenders. 

JB: Men’s soccer is probably the best bet, but I wouldn’t doubt Field Hockey after a 2017 ACC regular season championship last year. This year’s younger squad has gotten off to a slower start, but certainly shouldn’t be doubted as potential ACC champions going forward.

ED: No. 6 women’s soccer has a lot of talent on their roster that could lead them to winning a title. They’ve only dropped two games this season — one to Clemson in overtime and one to Virginia Tech in bad weather conditions. Besides that, they have been solid throughout the season and have picked up impressive road wins over No. 15 Duke and No. 24 Penn State. While the ACC is always a challenge, players like senior midfielder Betsy Brandon, junior defender Phoebe McClernon, sophomore midfielder Taryn Torres, and freshman forward Rebecca Jarrett can certainly take the Cavaliers far. 

ZZ: I like Virginia women’s soccer as having the best chance. The No. 6 Cavaliers are (9-2-0), with their only two losses — at Clemson and at Virginia Tech — coming by narrow margins at the hands of difficult ACC opponents. Virginia’s attack is led by experience and youth. Senior midfielder Betsy Brandon has four goals and an assist on the year, and electric freshmen Alexa Spaanstra and Rebecca Jarrett have seven goals and four assists combined. Virginia’s dynamic offensive attack will take this Cavaliers team far, and their youth means that their potential has yet to be reached. This week will be a critical stretch in ACC play, with two road games coming up at Louisville and at Notre Dame.

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