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Defense tops offense in Virginia football spring game

Cavaliers’ defense looks poised for another great year

<p>Sophomore running back Wayne Taulapapa stood out Saturday in the competition for the starting running back job.</p>

Sophomore running back Wayne Taulapapa stood out Saturday in the competition for the starting running back job.

The Virginia football team played its spring game Saturday at Scott Stadium on a beautiful day in Charlottesville. The game was a culmination of 15 spring practices and featured a mini-game along with some drills.

“It was a physical day, and that was our intent,” Coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “Emphasis on running the ball, stopping the run, with some play-action mixed in. We wanted to get one more day of contact.”

The offense played against the defense with a unique scoring system. The offense scored points for touchdowns, field goals, first downs and efficient plays. The defense scored points for turnovers, sacks, third- or fourth-down stops, tackles for a loss and inefficient offensive plays.

The defense beat the offense 78-69, using a strong early start to overcome a late run by the offense. Sophomore quarterback Lindell Stone led the offense’s late push, sparking a couple late scoring drives.

“Lindell Stone came in and did a really nice job moving the team at the end,” Mendenhall said.

In addition to Stone’s solid play in relief of senior transfer quarterback Bryce Perkins, redshirt freshman quarterback Brennan Armstrong’s long touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Terrell Jana was a highlight for the offense.

Mendenhall was complimentary of Jana’s performance in the spring practices. With Olamide Zaccheaus gone, Jana stepping up will be crucial for the Cavaliers in 2019.

“Terrell Jana has been really valued by his peers in terms of leadership,” Mendenhall said. “He’s been one of the bright spots from spring from an offensive perspective, and we needed that at receiver.”

It was the defense, however, that dominated the day, especially early on.

“The defense played stronger, and with more intent and culture and passion than our offense did today — more physical, and the turnovers were forced,” Mendenhall said.

Ranked in the top 25 in the country last season in yards allowed per game, the defense looks poised for another great year in 2019.

A major reason for this is senior cornerback Bryce Hall’s decision to return to Virginia, rather than leave a year early for the NFL Draft. Before making his decision to return, the All-ACC First-Team cornerback was projected to be an early round pick.

“Bryce wants more for our program, he wants more for himself,” Mendenhall said. “He has very specific goals, and he knows he can improve. He loves feedback. He’s not satisfied yet.”

Hall had an interception on the first drive of the game, and will lead a group of defensive backs depleted by the departure of Juan Thornhill and Tim Harris, both of whom were drafted.

“I’m glad [Hall] came back because he’s making me a better player every single day,” Jana said. “He’s the best, best in the nation.”

Other highlights from the day included a pick-six by senior linebacker Jordan Mack and two touchdowns from sophomore tailback Wayne Taulapapa.

With Jordan Ellis graduated, there is going to be a competition for starting running back, and Taulapapa’s play in the spring has him in the lead, according to Mendenhall.

That said, much could change in the lead-up to the season with junior tailback PK Kier coming back from injury and running back Mike Hollins coming in as a freshman.

Despite several players not playing due to injury — including junior safeties Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson, junior offensive tackles Chris Glaser and Dillon Reinkensmeyer, junior linebacker Matt Gahm, senior wide receiver Joe Reed and Kier — and a new recruiting class coming in this summer, Mendenhall was encouraged by what he saw in the spring practices. However, he did stress the continued urgency of preparation in light of the Cavaliers’ difficult early schedule.

“Overall, I’m encouraged,” Mendenhall said. “It will have to be an accelerated pace because of who we open with, where we open and just the nature of our early season schedule.”

The Cavaliers, 2019 Belk Bowl champions, open the season with a tough road test Aug. 31 against Pittsburgh at Heinz Field.