As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Virginia football team is facing their own dilemma — albeit a much smaller one. The Cavaliers face the ever challenging task of replacing former quarterback Bryce Perkins, who signed with the Los Angeles Rams as an undrafted free agent in April.
In just two seasons in Charlottesville, Perkins cemented himself as one of the all-time greats for the Cavaliers. In his Virginia career, he passed for 6,210 yards and 47 touchdowns, while rushing for 1,692 yards and 20 touchdowns. By the end of his career, he held the school records for total offense in a single season and a career, rushing yards by a quarterback in a career and passing yards in a single season. Replacing the All-ACC quarterback will by no means be easy, but it is a necessary step to continue the exponential growth Virginia has seen in the Mendenhall era.
The Cavaliers currently have five quarterbacks on their roster — freshman Iraken Armstead, sophomore Brennan Armstrong, redshirt freshman Jared Rayman, junior Lindell Stone and junior Keytaon Thompson. Of these quarterbacks, three have played in NCAA games — Armstrong, Stone and Thompson — with Armstrong's and Stone's appearances coming in limited amounts at Virginia and Thompson's at Mississippi State. While Stone is one of the older quarterbacks, this battle is mostly between Armstrong and Thomspon.
Armstrong has served as the backup for Perkins the past two seasons and has been widely viewed as his heir apparent. In 11 career appearances, he has thrown for 258 yards and two touchdowns in just 25 pass attempts. Although his game experience may be minimal, Coach Bronco Mendenhall recruited him in 2017 and has been grooming him since he stepped onto Grounds. In fact, prior to the pandemic, Armstrong was safely in line to become the starting quarterback, gaining media buzz for his playing style that resembled that of New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill — who spent four of his five years at Brigham Young under Mendenhall’s tutelage. However, that all changed on May 1 when a new player entered the fold.
Thompson joined Virginia as a graduate transfer from Mississippi State with two years of eligibility remaining. Coming out of high school, Thompson was viewed as a top five quarterback in the Class of 2017. In his career, he has thrown for 846 yards and eight touchdowns and has rushed for 672 yards and 10 touchdowns. Although he appeared in 20 games, he has only started two of those. One of those starts came in the 2017 Taxslayer Bowl, in which Mississippi State defeated Louisville 31-27, and Thompson outdueled Lamar Jackson, current Baltimore Ravens quarterback and reigning NFL MVP.
This battle would be intense in any given season, but the COVID-19 pandemic makes it even tougher. For a quarterback new to the program like Thompson, missing key reps in spring practice is sure to hurt. Practice resumed earlier this month in Charlottesville and with the Sept. 7 season opener against Georgia already canceled, the team now has more time to prepare their roster. However, Armstrong has the advantage here in the fact that he is much more familiar with the offense and its personnel.
But Thompson holds the upper hand when it comes to pure talent. Not to slight Armstrong, but Thompson looks to be one of Virginia's best quarterback recruits of all time, as his ability to run fits in seamlessly with the offense that the Cavaliers built around Perkins the past two seasons. Although he has never been a full time starter, Thompson succeeded in the SEC, which is commonly viewed as the best college football conference in the country. His experience and ability to impact the game through the air and on the ground makes him a tempting choice.
Timing and the repercussions of how college football deals with the pandemic will play a big role in this quarterback battle. If the season and schedule stay on course, however, I expect Armstrong to initially win the job. But I fully believe that Thompson is the quarterback of the future and will make the Cavaliers more successful — it’s just that the cancellation of spring practice hurt his starting chances. It was already tough enough that he had to learn a new offense and develop chemistry with his new teammates. He is playing catch-up in a system that Armstrong already knows inside and out.
Nevertheless, I believe both quarterbacks will receive playing time this season, regardless of who wins the starting job. If one stumbles out of the gates, expect to see the other get more game reps. After losing a star like Perkins, the quarterback position will be a bit more fluid and Mendenhall might have a shorter leash with whoever is on the field. The good news for Virginia and its fans is that Armstrong and Thompson both have the talent to lead the Cavaliers to a winning season — and I pray everyday that this season happens so there is a chance to show that.