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Virginia set to face Richmond in football season-opener

The Cavaliers look to build on the New Standard they set last year

<p>Senior linebacker Chris Peace will be the leader of a revamped Cavalier front seven as they prepare to take on Richmond in the home opener.</p>

Senior linebacker Chris Peace will be the leader of a revamped Cavalier front seven as they prepare to take on Richmond in the home opener.

Virginia returns to the football field Saturday night for a clash under the Scott Stadium lights against in-state foe Richmond.

The Cavaliers had a successful campaign last season. They finished 6-6 and returned to the postseason, playing against Navy in the Military Bowl. A lot of their success can be attributed to Coach Bronco Mendenhall, now in his third year at Virginia. After the Cavaliers went 2-10 in his first year, Mendenhall engineered an incredible turnaround last year — with Virginia gaining its first bowl berth since 2011.

But question marks remain.

After a whopping 49-7 loss to Navy in the Military Bowl, and a recruiting class lacking in four and five-star talent to replace the substantial departing stars, Virginia is again the underdog.

Mendenhall emphasized transparency on the state of the program in at a ACC Kickoff media event in July.

Mendenhall said the Cavaliers had “just 27 ACC-caliber players,” recognizing how difficult the rebuilding process would be, and challenging his players to rise above the New Standard they set last year in returning to the postseason.

“My message is very simple: I’m not going to pretend a player is currently an ACC player if his numbers say that he’s not,” Mendenhall said at the event. “But what is clear is: Get to work. This is what you have to do, and by this time, we need you to do it. And so hopefully that number changes and grows, and they know exactly where they stand.”

Mendenhall noted the importance of this honesty, brutal as it may seem. 

It’s hard to know where you need to grow from unless someone tells you where you are,” he said.

This unique, New Standard mentality is what drove the Cavaliers to have such a successful season last year. They are determined to move forward with just the same grit this year.

“I would say everyone is completely bought in,” senior linebacker Chris Peace said at the ACC Kickoff media event. “I would say … this year and last year I’ve never seen so many guys bought in. When I first came here, it was just a lot of half and half here, half and half there, and just a lot of people dragging their feet. I don’t think anybody on this team is holding anyone back or this program.”

Virginia has a lot of work to do to challenge for a postseason berth this year. The Cavaliers graduated several key position players, including linebacker Micah Kiser and defensive end Andrew Brown to the NFL Draft. They also lost second team All-American safety Quin Blanding and single-season passing yards leader quarterback Kurt Benkert, who were both signed as free agents by NFL teams.

Replacing these leaders and talents will be difficult, but the Cavaliers have already made steps.

First, they brought in junior transfer quarterback Bryce Perkins, who should immediately come in and provide a spark for Virginia’s offense. Perkins is a junior college transfer, who played with Arizona Western last year after initially signing with Arizona State. Perkins posted impressive numbers last year for Arizona Western, completing 63 percent of his passes and rushing for 353 yards en route to a NJCAA championship title.

Perkins’ dynamic rushing ability will offer Virginia’s offense a new and exciting dynamic, after two years under Benkert’s pocket-passing stewardship. The pressure is on for the junior to deliver right away.

"Even though he'll be our starting quarterback for the first time … for us to succeed it will have to be like he's been our starter longer than that," Mendenhall said. "I think his work ethic will allow that. He's one of the strongest, fastest and best athletes that I've coached and so there isn't a play where if he's running with the football that can't go all the way."

Virginia is not without returning talent, however. A loaded linebacker core consisting of seniors Peace and Malcolm Cook, juniors Jordan Mack and Chris Moore, sophomore Charles Snowden, and solid recruits puts the Cavaliers in good position. Their secondary should also be strong, with returning senior safety Juan Thornhill leading the way.

On offense, senior running back Jordan Ellis should lead the charge again, and senior wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus should explode a year after cracking Virginia’s single-season record for receptions with 85.

It will be no easy task for the Cavaliers’ experience and influx of talent to come together to produce the magic of last year, but with the New Standard mentality, anything seems possible.

Despite Richmond’s FCS status, Virginia’s opponent Saturday night will be no pushover. Mendenhall knows as much, having begun his career with a 37-20 loss against Richmond at Scott Stadium.

This year’s Richmond team, however, shouldn’t be as daunting a foe. Though the team finished 6-5 last year, the Spiders are now without star quarterback Kyle Lauletta — who was selected in the 2018 NFL Draft by the New York Giants.

That said, it will be a great first test for Perkins and company as the Cavaliers enter the third year of the Mendenhall era.

Kickoff begins at 6:00 p.m. from Scott Stadium Saturday.