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2020 Virginia football: The big preview

The defending ACC Coastal Champions look to build off a decade-best 9-5 season in 2019

<p>Senior cornerback Nick Grant and senior outside linebacker Charles Snowden hope to secure the Commonwealth Cup one last time before leaving Grounds.&nbsp;</p>

Senior cornerback Nick Grant and senior outside linebacker Charles Snowden hope to secure the Commonwealth Cup one last time before leaving Grounds. 

Following an off-season dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia football looks to improve on a 2019 season that saw the Cavaliers defeat rival Virginia Tech, win the ACC Coastal division and secure an Orange Bowl appearance. However, this year’s Cavalier squad will look noticeably different from the 2019 team, as Virginia loses stalwarts in quarterback Bryce Perkins, wide receivers Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois, linebacker Jordan Mack and cornerback Bryce Hall to graduation. Along with the changes in the personnel, the Cavaliers’ schedule will also look different. Due to the pandemic, Virginia will play a conference-only 10-game slate that includes challenging road games against Virginia Tech, Florida State, Clemson and Miami. 

The breakdown

Offense

With the loss of All-ACC quarterback Bryce Perkins, Virginia was already in a tough position under center. However, with the pandemic cancelling spring workouts, sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong and junior quarterback Keytaon Thompson only had an abbreviated summer session to develop rapport with the offense. While Armstrong had the edge on Thompson during fall camp due to his familiarity with the team, Thompson clearly beats Armstrong out talent-wise. The New Orleans native was the fifth-ranked dual-threat quarterback out of high school and showed flashes of excellence at Mississippi State. Watch for Mendenhall to bring Thompson in if Armstrong struggles with the offense early. 

At the skill positions, Virginia returns 2019 starting running back junior Wayne Taulapapa, but loses two All-ACC honorees in wide receivers Reed and Hasise Dubois. Taulapapa will be joined in the backfield by Towson graduate transfer Shane Simpson, who was an FCS All-American in 2018 before injuries marred his 2019 campaign. While Taulapapa posted 12 touchdowns in 2019, he often struggled to get involved in the option and to create big plays on the ground or off screens. Simpson should fill this role nicely, providing the Cavaliers’ run game with a new dimension due to his speed and pass-catching abilities. Junior Indiana transfer Ronnie Walker Jr. should also see action in the backfield if his waiver appeal is approved by the NCAA. 

Out wide, Reed provided the Cavaliers with exceptional speed on screen and slant plays, while Dubois had the one of the surest pairs of hands in the nation — dropping zero passes in 2019. Stepping up in their place will be senior wide receivers Terrell Jana and Ra’Shaun Henry. Jana served as Virginia’s third option behind Reed and Dubois, posting 73 receptions and 878 yards receiving in the 2019 season. The Vancouver native has shown a strong ability to find seams in the opposing defense, and should make Thompson and Armstrong’s jobs a little easier. Henry, on the other hand, is a graduate transfer from FCS school St. Francis, where he earned first-team All-NEC honors in the 2019 season. Like Dubois, Henry can sky over defenders and absorb hits while holding onto the ball. Yet despite the addition of Henry, Virginia is still thin at the wide receiver position due to the loss of sophomore wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks to a season ending injury. For Jana, Henry and a supporting cast that includes junior wide receiver Tavares Kelly Jr. and freshman wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. to fill the shoes of Reed and Dubois, the Cavaliers will certainly have to be creative in the passing game. 

At tight end, the Cavaliers lose Tanner Cowley, but return sophomore Grant Misch, who played in all 14 games for Virginia last season. Yet the presumptive starter for Virginia is graduate transfer Tony Poljan, who appeared in 37 games over three seasons for Central Michigan. Poljan brings a quarterback’s intuition to the tight end position for Virginia, as he played quarterback for the Chippewas in his first two seasons in Mount Pleasant. Finally, Virginia returns all five starters from last year’s offensive line, including All-ACC junior center Olusegun Oluwatimi. The Cavaliers had trouble protecting Perkins at times last year, but the increased chemistry in the offensive line should pay dividends this coming season. 

Defense

Virginia loses three starters from last year’s Virginia Tech tilt coming into the 2020 season, namely seniors in inside linebacker Jordan Mack and right end Eli Hanback, as well as junior safety Chris Moore, who transferred to Georgia State as a graduate transfer. Perhaps the biggest loss for the Cavaliers, however, is All-American cornerback Bryce Hall, who suffered a season ending ankle injury against Miami. 

In the front seven, while the loss of Mack and Hanback is a substantial one, they are replaced by two seasoned players in senior inside linebacker Rob Snyder and senior right end Mandy Alonso. Following a 2018 season that saw him start seven times for the bowl-eligible Cavaliers, Snyder suffered a season ending injury four games into the 2019 season. If he can stay healthy, Snyder’s hard-nosed mentality should improve an already solid Virginia run defense that was 40th in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game in 2019. Like Snyder, Alonso provides a bevy of experience, having already played in 34 games for the Cavaliers. The Florida product showed up big in key moments throughout the 2019 season for Virginia, including the Commonwealth Cup-clinching sack and forced fumble this past November. 

Rounding out the front seven is an extremely experienced cohort of players that has a cumulative 75 total defensive starts. Outside linebackers junior Noah Taylor and senior Charles Snowden puzzled opposing offensive lines last year with their exceptional length and speed and could find themselves receiving first-team All-ACC honors by season’s end. Senior inside linebacker Zane Zandier led all Cavaliers with 108 tackles last season, and time and time again proved his ability to plug the gap and stop dynamic running backs. Senior left end Richard Burney has had a career plagued with injury, but after being awarded the first jersey number selection of the year, Burney is poised to have a breakout season. Finally, sophomore nose tackle Jowon Briggs — the highest ranked recruit of the Mendenhall Era — has the potential to be a defensive anchor for Virginia and could enter the All-American conversation by his senior season. 

Looking at the secondary, Virginia fell victim to numerous injuries throughout the season, having lost cornerbacks Hall and Darius Bratton, as well as safety Brenton Nelson. This year, however, sees the return of Bratton and Nelson alongside an experienced trio of seniors in cornerback Nick Grant and safeties De’Vante Cross and Joey Blount. With the three injuries last year, health is clearly a point of concern for the Cavalier secondary, but if they can stay healthy, their experience and disciplined play could guide Virginia back to the ACC Championship. 

Games to watch

At Virginia Tech, Sept. 19

As is the case every year, Virginia’s 102nd tilt with Virginia Tech has implications for both ACC ranking and state bragging rights. With Armstrong making his first career start, this game is more ideally positioned for the Hokies, who have an established quarterback in junior Hendon Hooker. On the defensive side, the Hokies had All-ACC junior cornerback Caleb Farley opt-out of the season, while the Cavaliers return an experienced defense that found answers for Hooker in 2019. Overall, look for this game to be a tough fight that goes down to the wire. 

Vs. No. 18 North Carolina, Oct. 31

As Coach Mack Brown’s team has soared from sleeper to dark horse ACC contender, the Cavaliers’ home match-up against North Carolina will prove if the Cavaliers are truly worthy of an ACC Championship berth. With loads of young four and five-star talent marshalled by 2019 ACC Rookie of the Year, sophomore quarterback Sam Howell, the Virginia defense should have their hands full with a Tar Heel offense that averaged just over 33 points per game last season and returns 10 of 11 starters. 

Vs. Louisville, Nov. 7

Coach Scott Satterfield surprised ACC experts last season by leading Louisville to an 8-5 record — including one against Virginia — and a Music City Bowl win. As more of his recruits come into the Cardinal program, Satterfield has all the makings of a coach who could restore Louisville to its glory days of Lamar Jackson and Teddy Bridgewater. Furthermore, with its position at the tail end of the season, this game could make or break the Cavaliers’ hopes of a second consecutive ACC Championship berth. 

Prediction

The ACC schedulers did Virginia no favors this season, as the Cavaliers face a brutal road slate that features consecutive road games against Virginia Tech and Clemson. With plenty of new faces on the offensive side of the ball and a new quarterback in Armstrong, it’s easy to question the Cavaliers ability to repeat their Orange Bowl appearance. On the flip side, Virginia returns numerous experienced players on defense that could stifle dynamic offenses in North Carolina and Wake Forest. 

Finally, given that the divisions have been dissolved for this one-of-a-kind 2020 season, the Cavaliers face an even tougher path to the ACC Championship game with a 10-game conference-only schedule. I predict that the Cavaliers will go 7-3 this season, with away losses at Clemson and Miami and a home loss against North Carolina. 

The Cavaliers kick off their 2020 campaign in a battle for the Commonwealth Cup against Virginia Tech Sept. 19 in Blacksburg at Lane Stadium. 

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