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Trial by fire: The debut of Brennan Armstrong

Virginia’s starting quarterback and captain will undoubtedly experience a season like no other starting off with a game against Duke

<p>Sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong beat out Mississippi State graduate transfer Keytaon Thompson for the starting job this summer.&nbsp;</p>

Sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong beat out Mississippi State graduate transfer Keytaon Thompson for the starting job this summer. 

As former Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins’ back-up the past two years, sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong has appeared in just 11 career games — the same number of games as Virginia’s current 2020 schedule. As he takes over this year, the stakes are already high for Armstrong’s inaugural game as starter, as the Cavaliers face ACC foe Duke Saturday to kick off their season. Despite the newfound pressure of being the Cavaliers’ leader in a global pandemic filled with uncertainty, Armstrong is confident and excited about the highly-anticipated season to come.

“I’m just grateful that my teammates are around me,” Armstrong said. “Super excited.”

In 2018, Armstrong appeared in only four games in order to retain his first year at Virginia under NCAA redshirt regulations. Last season, Armstrong played in seven games, completing 15 of 20 passes and passing one touchdown. Following this season, Armstrong will have two years of eligibility remaining.

Overall, Armstrong has rushed 16 times for 93 yards and is 17-of-25 passing for 258 yards. The sophomore will undoubtedly live up to his dual-threat title and is sure to bring a lot to Virginia’s offensive line as the Cavaliers’ first left-handed QB1 since Jemeel Sewell’s 2009 career.  

Armstrong’s coaches have high praise for his leadership, confidence and throwing abilities. In a Sept. 8 press conference, offensive coordinator Robert Anae described Armstrong as a “very tough-minded, competitive person” whose drive translates into his powerful arm on the field. Compared to Perkins, quarterbacks coach Jason Beck does not anticipate severe differences with Armstrong stepping into the QB1 role. 

“I don’t think it will be drastically different in any way,” Beck said. “Brennan is a capable runner and a good runner. He’s obviously not the top end speed dynamic athlete that Bryce was, but with what we did last year, I think we’ll be more similar than different.” 

On the other hand, Sophomore Wide Receiver Dontayvion Wicks sees some more specific minor differences between the two’s skill sets. 

“Brennan and Bryce differ because Brennan is more of a pocket passer with a dominant arm and he’s also good at running,” Wicks said. “Bryce was a dual-threat, but he was more dynamic with his feet.” 

Although Armstrong brings a new playing style to the field, Armstrong himself agrees that this year’s offense “looks similar to last year.”

Furthermore, Armstrong was also recently chosen as one of the team’s four captains. Despite some difference in playing styles on the field, Armstrong said in a Sept. 5 press conference that he has learned a lot from Perkins especially in terms of leadership and time management. 

“The one thing I picked up with [Perkins] was he did not let a lot of time go to waste,” Armstrong said. “When we have school, we have school, but when we didn’t, [Perkins] was trying to get with the receivers [and] things like that.”

During his work with both quarterbacks, Beck recognized some differences between each player’s leadership styles. While Perkins was described as ‘calm,’ Beck emphasized what a ‘fighter’ Armstrong is. When asked if his coaching would change due to Armstrong’s fiery and emotional nature, Beck was not concerned.

“He’s gonna give it everything he has, so it’s just a matter of making the adjustments, [recognizing] what’s happening on the field and what adjustments we want him to make from there,” Beck said.

So far, Armstrong has shown immense initiative on and off the field. Stepping into both the QB1 and captain roles with the pandemic looming, a season up in the air and the additional competition of junior transfer quarterback Keytaon Thompson, who came to Virginia after three seasons with Mississippi State, would have intimidated any player, but not Armstrong.

Armstrong was appreciative of the competition and acknowledged that Thompson’s coming in to learn a new offense would’ve been difficult for anyone. 

“I was lucky enough to have two years under my belt, coming in with a lot of confidence, knowing the offense,” Armstrong said. “The competition was great — it makes everyone better — so you can’t ask for much more than that.”

Coach Bronco Mendenhall named Armstrong the starting quarterback following practice Aug. 27. Mendenhall told NBC29 that the quarterback decision was the main force behind a team-oriented practice structure during preseason and that reps were “close to being even.”

Ultimately, Armstrong’s starting position was ascribed to his “experience in the system” and “knowledge of everything we do,” Beck said. 

In respect to both leading and starting, Armstrong feels honored and grateful that his teammates recognized the time and effort he’s put into the program the past two years, as well as during the offseason. 

“It’s a tremendous honor,” Armstrong said on the ACC Network’s daily show — Packer and Durham. “I’ve worked so hard in the offseason, and just having my teammates see that and them choosing me to be a captain to lead the team … it’s a great feeling.”

After every ACC team’s schedule was reshuffled, Virginia Tech was set to be the Cavaliers’ opponent for their season opener until the game was postponed two weeks ago. This year would have been just the second time in history the two rivals would have met to open the season. Now, Virginia and Virginia Tech are slated to play each other Dec. 12 to end their regular seasons.

Despite daunting road games later in the schedule — Florida State, Clemson and Miami — Armstrong remains faithful and headstrong. Two years ago, when Armstrong imagined succeeding Perkins, he realized he could’ve been opening the season against Georgia, as Virginia was scheduled to play the Bulldogs Sept. 7 in the 2020 Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game.

“I was kind of preparing in my head the whole time that it was going to be a big game for us and a huge step for the program,” Armstrong said. 

The absence of “Tech Week” — what the team calls the week of the annual faceoff against Virginia Tech — on top of losing spring practice, quarantining and following new safety, contact tracing and health procedures creates a new “context for the urgency of this season” junior cornerback Nick Grant told The Daily Progress.

COVID-19’s hand in the late start to the season will unquestionably bring uncertainty into every aspect of the game Sept. 26, but with Armstrong in the QB1 position, perhaps a little more faith in uncertainty is all we need right now. 

Virginia opens their 2020 campaign in Charlottesville, facing Duke Saturday at 4 p.m. The game will be broadcast on the ACC Network. 


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