2019 Virginia football: The big preview

Cavaliers enter season with high hopes

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As Coach Bronco Mendenhall enters his fourth season with Virginia, the Standard is no longer new.

Mariana Fraser | Cavalier Daily

After a successful 8-5 season that culminated in a blowout win in the 2018 Belk Bowl, the Virginia football team is gearing up for the 2019 season. Despite finishing on a high note last year with their 28-0 rout against South Carolina, the Cavaliers have room to improve in conference play, losing their last three ACC games en route to a third place finish in the Coastal division. They will look to take the next step this year. With the team in the full swing of fall camp and the season opener at Pittsburgh only a few weeks away — Saturday, Aug. 31 — it’s time to preview the season ahead.

What to expect

Offense

While Virginia didn’t have an elite offense last season — ranked in the bottom six of the ACC in both scoring and total yards — the Cavaliers made up for it by controlling the tempo of the game, leading the conference in third- and fourth-down conversions. 

In 2018, the Virginia offense was led by then-junior quarterback Bryce Perkins, then-senior wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus and then-senior running back Jordan Ellis — the trio led the team in passing, receiving and rushing yards, respectively. 

With the latter two players graduated and signed with NFL teams, Coach Bronco Mendenhall and the Cavaliers will have to replace a pair of stars for the offense to continue running smoothly. 

In the passing game, senior wide receivers Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed are set for expanded roles in 2019. In addition, junior wide receiver Terrell Jana should see more targets and sophomore wide receiver Tavares Kelly could be used in a similar way to Zaccheaus — catching passes from the slot and out of the backfield. Ellis’ potential replacement is less clear, however. Junior running back PK Kier appeared to be the natural fill-in going into the offseason, but a concussion that sidelined him in the spring allowed sophomore running back Wayne Taulapapa to emerge. Besides those two, freshman running back Mike Hollins has already impressed in fall camp and will also compete for Ellis’ workhorse role.

Virginia’s offensive line will also be crucial this season, especially if the Cavaliers want to continue to dominate the tempo of the game through a bruising running game. Three starters have left, and a combination of experienced players — juniors Dillon Reinkensmeyer and Chris Glaser — and young talent will have to step up.

At the end of the day, it’s Perkins’ offense, and the Cavaliers will go as far as the senior dual-threat quarterback can take them. After setting a school record in 2018 for total offense in a single season — 3,603 yards — Perkins will look to have an even more impactful season in 2019.

Defense

The Virginia defense had a dominant season in 2018. The Cavaliers fielded the third-best defense in the conference, allowing just 330.5 yards and 20.1 points per game. 

Virginia is losing multiple key defensive players from last season, including two former starting defensive backs and NFL draft picks — Juan Thornhill and Tim Harris — as well as linebacker Chris Peace, who led the team in sacks last season.

That said, the Cavaliers have plenty of returning talent going into the new season. In the secondary, NFL draft prospect and senior cornerback Bryce Hall returns and junior safeties Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson will be back. There will be a competition for the other starting cornerback job, with junior cornerback Darius Bratton having the advantage going into fall camp.

A trio of returning linebackers — senior Jordan Mack and juniors Charles Snowden and Zane Zandier — were all among the top-seven leading tacklers last season. The linebacking core and secondary should continue to be strong points for the Cavaliers’ defense.

The defensive front will feature a mix of veterans — including junior defensive end Mandy Alonso, senior defensive end Richard Burney and senior defensive tackle Eli Hanback — and youth. Incoming freshmen defensive linemen Jowon Briggs and Ben Smiley III are promising, and the future of the front seven looks bright.

Keys to the season

Convert in the red zone

Virginia’s biggest weakness last year was its red zone offense. The Cavaliers scored on an ACC-worst 74 percent of their red zone trips and just 52 percent of their trips culminated in a touchdown.

In close games in ACC play, this is especially important. Late in the games against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech last season, the Cavaliers’ failure to get six points in the red zone hurt them. Against Georgia Tech, they had the ball in the red zone two times in the game’s last five minutes, but came up with field goals on both trips. Against Virginia Tech, Virginia had the chance to put the game away with the ball on the Virginia Tech 11-yard line and under 4 minutes to play. Again, the Cavaliers had to kick the field goal. Both games ended in overtime losses. Virginia must flip the script this season and convert in the red zone, especially when it counts.

Protect the quarterback

Considering how important Perkins is to this team, the Virginia offensive line has to minimize the amount of times Perkins is sacked in 2019. While the offensive line did a decent job last year, Perkins was still pressured often and frequently had to use his athleticism to get out of trouble. 

Besides preventing a costly injury to the Cavaliers’ playmaker, a strong offensive line can help elevate Perkins’ game. With a clean pocket, Perkins can improve his passing production and rushing game — he averaged 4.4 yards per game on the ground last season.

Key players

Bryce Perkins

After transferring from Arizona Western Community College last season, Perkins made an immediate impact for Virginia as a dual threat quarterback.

He passed for 2680 yards and 25 touchdowns, finishing the season with a 64.5 percent completion rate and a passer rating of 147.5.

In addition to that, Perkins contributed 923 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns — second-best on the team in both categories. Perkins’ unique ability to hurt opponents both with his arm and legs makes him one of the most dangerous players in college football.

With some experience under his belt, Perkins is ready to improve upon his record-breaking junior campaign.

Bryce Hall

Hall is the star of the Cavaliers’ highly-touted secondary, and passed up on the NFL Draft to take his game — and his team — to the next level.

Last year, Hall led the country with 22 pass breakups and was tied for first with 24 passes defended. Additionally, he posted 62 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.

With a long 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame and excellent speed, Hall has all the physical tools to thrive as a tackler and a ball hawk. Look for him to get more interceptions this year and improve in his run defense.

The bottom line: Can Virginia win the ACC Coastal division?

At one point in 2018, Virginia was in the driver’s seat of the ACC Coastal. Then, the Cavaliers lost three consecutive conference games to fall behind Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech to end the regular season. This year should have a different outcome.

Virginia was picked to win the Coastal this season for the first time since the ACC split into two divisions in 2005, and the Cavaliers have what it takes. With an elite defense, one of the best playmakers in the country in Perkins and a plethora of incoming talent, Virginia has the personnel to win the Coastal.

Beyond that, the Cavaliers have the mentality to achieve their goals. Coach Bronco Mendenhall came to Charlottesville in 2015 trying to set a New Standard for Virginia football. After reaching bowl games in consecutive seasons and winning a bowl game last year for the first time since 2005, the Standard is no longer new.

In 2019, Virginia football knows The Standard. Now the Cavaliers must play up to it.

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