PATEL: Way-too-early predictions for Virginia football next season

The Cavaliers had a successful season in 2019, but face several challenges heading into 2020

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Junior wide receiver Terrell Jana finished with a career-high 74 receptions for 886 yards.

Emma Klein | Cavalier Daily

The Virginia football team just finished one of its most successful seasons in program history, capped off with its first victory over Virginia Tech in 15 years and its first appearance in the Orange Bowl in program history. 

Coach Bronco Mendenhall has led a monumental program turnaround, taking Virginia from a 2-10 season in 2016 to a 9-5 finish in 2019. With the football team’s unbroken growth mindset and clear improvement every season since Mendenhall has been at Virginia, there is plenty of optimism that Mendenhall will lead Virginia to take an even bigger leap in 2020. 

With Virginia coming off an encouraging performance in the Orange Bowl, it is a great time to take an early look ahead to the 2020 season.

Virginia’s defense will lead the ACC Coastal in total defense

In 2019, Virginia’s defense finished No. 48 in the nation in total defense, giving up 371.9 yards per game. That places the Cavaliers fourth in the ACC Coastal, behind Miami, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech. Considering the significant injuries the defense had to overcome in 2019, these statistics have to have Cavalier fans excited for 2020.

Before the season even began, projected starting sophomore cornerback Darius Bratton went down with a torn ACL leaving junior cornerback Nick Grant to fill his position. However, things got worse still when Virginia played Miami midway through the season, and All-American senior cornerback Bryce Hall injured his left ankle covering a punt, ending his season. All of a sudden, Grant was thrust into the number one cornerback role, and junior safety De’Vante Cross was converted to cornerback to fill the hole left by Grant. To make matters worse, junior safety Brenton Nelson — who was moved to starting safety to fill the void left by Cross — went down for the season just weeks after Hall, leaving junior safety Chris Moore to take over. 

Despite all that, only Hall leaves the program as a senior. Bratton should be back to start opposite Grant, who should see significant improvement after a full year as a starter. With his new experience as a cornerback, Cross will likely see time all over the secondary, spending time at nickel corner or at safety with junior Joey Blount — an All-ACC returning starter — and Nelson. 

Up front, junior linebacker Rob Snyder, an impactful player who was sidelined by injury for most of the year, will return to the Cavalier lineup. He will take over for graduating senior linebacker Jordan Mack and work with fellow junior linebacker Zane Zandier, who led the team in tackles for loss with 12.5 last season. Freshman linebacker Nick Jackson — who showed potential in the Orange Bowl — will join the rotation with an offseason of development. On the outside, sophomore linebacker Noah Taylor and junior linebacker Charles Snowden combined for 12 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss. The two lengthy, athletic players will return to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.

Virginia’s offense may regress as it aims to establish a new identity

Virginia’s main struggles next season will come with the offense, where the Cavaliers will have to replace several key starters, none more important than senior quarterback Bryce Perkins, who accounted for 78 percent of the total offense in 2019. Perkins led the ACC in yards last season, accounting for 4,307 total yards — 769 of which were on the ground. His dual threat ability kept defenses guessing all season long. In total, Perkins scored 22 times in the air and another 11 times on the ground. With Perkins as the focal point of a dangerous offense last season, replacing him will be no small task.

Look for redshirt freshman Brennan Armstrong to step up next season as the starting quarterback. In 2019, Armstrong played sparingly, only completing 15 passes and throwing one touchdown. However, in the time he played, he displayed dual-threat abilities and an ability to command the offense. With a full offseason to get practice with the team, Armstrong will look to establish Virginia’s offense as a threat in 2020.

One of the reasons Perkins was so successful in 2019 was because he had one of the best receiving corps in the country. Senior wide receivers Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois and junior wide receiver Terrell Jana all recorded at least 74 catches on the year, with the two seniors together exceeding 1,000 total yards for the season. However, Reed and Dubois will both be leaving the program, giving way to a young group of receivers led by Jana. The junior wide receiver proved he can handle number one receiver duties going forward, posting 13 catches for 188 yards and 2 touchdowns in his final games against Clemson and Florida, two premier defenses. In addition to Jana and other experienced players, the Cavaliers have great young talents. Freshman wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks and sophomore wide receiver Billy Kemp IV — who caught 9 passes for 66 yards against Clemson after an injury forced Reed to miss the game — stand out in particular.

One of the reasons Virginia’s offense struggled to produce at times during the 2019 campaign was because of the lack of a running game. The Cavaliers lacked a workhorse running back like they had in 2018, when Jordan Ellis rushed for 1,026 yards. This year, the leading rusher — sophomore running back Wayne Taulapapa — only managed 473 yards. Perkins alone accounted for 45 percent of the running game’s production, so his departure will create a hole in the running game as well as the passing game. A name to keep an eye on is freshman running back Mike Hollins, who averaged 5.3 yards per carry in a limited role as a freshman this past season. If Hollins can use this offseason to continue to build upon his natural talent, the running game could potentially form a potent duo in Taulapapa and Hollins next year. Returning an experienced and talented offensive line will certainly help the running game’s success in 2020.

The Cavaliers will fall short of an appearance in the ACC Championship Game

Mendenhall led the Cavaliers to their first ACC Championship Game appearance in 2019, but there will be significantly more obstacles for the Cavaliers to hurdle if they wish to achieve the same feat in 2020.

Winning the ACC Coastal will be a significantly harder task next season than it was this season. The Cavaliers’ holes on offense will leave them figuring out how to adjust, while other programs will come into the season with their foundation already set. Virginia Tech returns most of its starters, including sophomore quarterback Hendon Hooker, who ascended to the top spot this past season. Similarly, North Carolina will return its star freshman quarterback Sam Howell, who will look to build on his first season and contend for the Heisman Trophy in 2020. Also, Florida State’s new coach Mike Norvell — who led Memphis to a Cotton Bowl appearance last season — will have the Seminoles ready to return to a bigger stage in 2020.

While no team has clearly stepped ahead of the pack in the ACC Coastal, there are several teams huddled at the top, which will make it difficult for the Cavaliers to emerge for a second consecutive year, as they figure out how to make the offense successful without Perkins at its center.

To make matters more difficult for the Cavaliers, they are scheduled to play Georgia at a neutral site in Atlanta and Clemson away. While it is enticing to envision a potential upset against a Georgia team that will also lose key pieces on offense, it is the first game of the season for a Virginia team that will have plenty of new faces on both sides of the ball. Clemson will return star sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence for another season, making that game a significant challenge. While upsets can happen, both games will be undeniably difficult for Virginia to win. It is clear that Mendenhall has his eyes on the future, and scheduling games against premier opponents will allow the program to grow significantly, even if the results do not show up immediately.

The 2019 program set the standard for Virginia football, and an even brighter future is on the horizon. Even if 2020 doesn’t quite match the accomplishments made by the team this past season, Mendenhall has Virginia poised for success down the road.

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