Led by former quarterback Bryce Perkins, 2019 was a defining year for Virginia football. The season’s accomplishments included snapping a 15-year losing streak to in-state rival Virginia Tech, winning the ACC Coastal Division for the first time and playing in a New Year’s Six bowl. However, with Perkins — one of the most impactful players the team has seen this decade — leaving the program, the burden of leading the 2020 Cavaliers will fall on his successor, sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong.
From a small town in central Ohio, Armstrong was a highly-touted recruit and had a storied high school career where he played football, basketball and baseball at high levels. As a first-team All-State selection, Armstrong led Shelby High School’s football team to win its first regional championship and earn its first appearance in the state semifinals.
Less than three months later, he enrolled at Virginia in January 2018 and started working out in spring practices. The commitment to entering college football as an early enrollee meant that Armstrong had to sacrifice his senior seasons of basketball and baseball — a cost he was willing to pay in order to start working on his skillset as Virginia’s future quarterback.
“I don’t regret missing them, given the opportunity I had to come early to U.Va., which I wanted to take to its full advantage,” Armstrong said. “Baseball, that was one thing I was very sad about, but I knew coming in early to U.Va. was the right thing to do, and so I just stuck with it.”
During Armstrong’s first two years at Virginia, much of the confidence he’s developed in his abilities comes from practicing against defensive stars like Juan Thornhill and Bryce Hall — a starting safety for the 2019 Super Bowl champions and a 2020 NFL Draft prospect, respectively.
Hall at one point referred to Armstrong’s play-making ability as “annoying,” signaling the level of frustration that Armstrong’s skills caused the star cornerback during practice.
“I guess you could say [my playmaking ability is annoying], but it’s funny because I look up to [Thornhill and Hall] and [compete] against them all the time,” Armstrong said. “It’s a compliment. I just play and that’s how I do football — when I get out there, I try to be as creative as I can be and make the plays I can make.”
The high praise for Armstrong doesn’t just come from his defense, as Perkins also notes Armstrong’s impressive talent, specifically his combination of instincts and throwing ability.
“He has the best feel for the game I’ve seen in awhile,” Perkins said. “He just feels areas and spaces so well that he’ll throw a ball and you’ll think, ‘How did he complete that?’ He has a live arm and he’s a natural gun-slinger. His feel for the game is through the roof.”
However, Armstrong’s development as a starting quarterback took a hit when Virginia Athletics canceled all athletics events, including annual spring practices, due the COVID-19 pandemic. Spring practice is generally a quarterback’s first opportunity to work with the receivers and offensive line that will play alongside him in the fall.
“[Spring practice] was going to be huge for us,” Armstrong said. “With the receivers coming, [graduating] guys leaving, guys stepping up and me having to step up at the QB position — yeah, it would have been huge. [Spring workouts] are different … because you can actually get live reps with no defense out there and create a connection and chemistry ... but we’ve just got to work with what we’ve got and keep going forward.”
Going forward, without the ability to train with his team and at facilities on Grounds, Armstrong aims to find creative, safe ways to work out while back home in Ohio.
For instance, he’s been able to use a friend’s garage gym for early morning lifts every day. However, while these workouts give Armstrong some much-needed consistency in his daily routine, filling the extra free time he now has is still somewhat of a challenge. Between working out as he normally would and attending online classes, Armstrong finds comfort in this new environment by sticking to a firm routine.
“For me, it’s all about having a set routine,” Armstrong said. “When we’re in school we have a set routine, and here at home I now have a set routine … It’s a different mindset, I try to take [the situation] for what it is and be creative and do things I normally wouldn’t ever do.”
Now fully integrated as the team’s leader, Armstrong also makes sure to connect with his teammates so that they maintain strong chemistry even when they’re not all together in Charlottesville.
“I’m constantly talking to [senior wide receiver] Terrell Jana — he’s a big leader in the receivers group,” Armstrong said. “I just want everyone to know that, ‘hey I’m working and I hope you are too’ and not have anyone get too down because of the situation.”
While virtual leadership is one thing, Armstrong will have to be a present and vocal leader when the Cavaliers are back in their locker room and on the field — something the often-reserved quarterback has been preparing for and thinks he’s ready to take on.
“I can see [myself being vocal] becoming a thing,” Armstrong said. “I grew up always doing the work, grinding through everything, that’s how I came in [to Virginia] — I didn’t have much to say, I was a young kid, and now, once I step into a leadership role, I obviously will talk more, I think it’s my job to talk more.”
Yet Armstrong is wary of trying to do too much, too soon as a leader.
“[My leadership] will happen, but I don’t want to force anything,” Armstrong said. “I don’t like to force things upon other guys or anything like that. It’s easier if it comes naturally.”
Bryce Perkins still thinks Armstrong will be ready to go for when the season starts, even without spring practice because of his attention to preparation. Perkins noticed how badly Armstrong has wanted to play during the two years he backed up the Cavaliers’ signal-caller in 2018 and 2019.
“I think he’ll be super prepared, especially with these last two years,” Perkins said. “He’s been itching to get in, and one thing about Brennan, there was one moment where he didn’t practice for about two weeks, and he came back and started killing the guys. He’s a ball player for sure, and everything just comes natural to him. Even without spring ball, he’s super prepared and ready to take the field.”
Coincidentally, Armstrong’s preparation is something that the former backup picked up from Perkins himself.
“I learned a lot [from Perkins],” Armstrong said. “I tried to take away the preparation thing. I wanted to see how an older person prepared for a football game, especially in college since high school is a lot different … Obviously, watching him on the field was great and fun, but you know, my biggest thing was just seeing how he prepared for the games.”
Armstrong’s two predecessors have been opposites in playing style. Kurt Benkert, the 2017 starter for Virginia, was a pocket-passing quarterback who set the single-season passing record for the Cavaliers. However, Perkins, the 2018 and 2019 starter, was a dual-threat option who made just as many plays with his speed and running ability as he did with his accurate throwing of the ball.
While Armstrong played more like Benkert in his high school days, he doesn’t think that Perkins’ running game is too much to ask from him, but he knows his style is different.
“I run the ball harder [than Bryce], and I try to avoid contact,” Armstrong said. “I don’t have the top-end speed like Bryce, but I think I have the shiftiness in the middle between tackles to pop out of there and get the yards I need to get and get the first downs we need.”
Virginia football fans will likely want to see elements of the 2017-2019 quarterback play that drove the team’s success, but Armstrong will be a different type of quarterback, both in his playing style and demeanor.
For fans of the program and team, the hope is that even this different style will still lead to the same success the Cavaliers have enjoyed in recent years.