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LOTHROP: How Bronco Mendenhall can maximize Keytaon Thompson’s talent

Making the most of the backup quarterback

<p>There are many ways for the Virginia coaching staff to involve Keytaon Thompson in this offense, even if Armstrong is the team’s starting quarterback.&nbsp;</p>

There are many ways for the Virginia coaching staff to involve Keytaon Thompson in this offense, even if Armstrong is the team’s starting quarterback. 

Virginia football opened its season with a resounding 38-20 victory over Duke, relying on a balanced offense and several turnovers to defeat the Blue Devils (0-3, 0-3 ACC). Sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong led the way with a rushing score and two touchdown passes to freshman wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. Junior running back Wayne Taulapapa topped 100 total yards and added two more touchdowns on the ground.

On the surface, it looks like the Virginia offense put up solid numbers — five touchdowns, 382 total yards and 25 first downs. However, when adjusted for context, those numbers become less impressive. The Cavaliers averaged an uninspiring average 5.36 yards per play, punted seven times and were held scoreless in the first and third quarters. Armstrong also threw a pair of ugly interceptions, including one where he rolled out to his left and lobbed the ball to a wide-open defender. 

Duke’s defense is not one of the better units Virginia will see this year. Top 25 teams like Clemson, Miami and North Carolina all await. Coach Bronco Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae will need to get creative with how they deploy the offense going forward. The key to unlocking that creativity may be an unlikely player — junior backup quarterback Keytaon Thompson.

Thompson is a graduate transfer who played three seasons at Mississippi State before coming to Charlottesville in the spring. Thompson was recruited out of New Orleans as the No. 7 dual-threat quarterback in the country in 2017 and showed great promise as a runner in college. As a passer, he’s struggled with accuracy. His career completion rate is just 47.2 percent and he’s struggled to find receivers against solid coverage. 

Over the summer, Thompson failed to beat out Armstrong for the starting quarterback job. Mendenhall chose the returning Amstrong due to his years of experience with the playbook and strong rapport with the receivers in an offseason warped by the coronavirus. Armstrong also plays a bit more like former starter Bryce Perkins with his powerful running and good decisions. 

Before Virginia’s season kicked off, Mendenhall subtly signaled that he may still use Thompson in games, even if it's not as the starting quarterback. Against Duke, inside the opposing 20-yard line, Thompson lined up as a wide receiver several times but didn’t touch the ball. He threw one pass, but it was on a trick play. Once the Cavaliers locked up the win and the reserves took the field, Thompson wasn’t among them. Instead, junior quarterback Lindell Stone finished the game. 

This isn’t to say Thompson won’t or shouldn’t be used in this offense. Virginia has plenty of tough games on their schedule. If the offense is going to continue to be inconsistent, they’ll need some creativity to open up space and move the ball. A talented athlete like Thompson can provide that. Here’s how Mendenhall and Anae can use Thompson outside of the normal quarterback position. 

Put him in the backfield with Armstrong

Thompson is a strong runner. At Mississippi State, he averaged nearly seven yards per carry. He was often successful on designed runs up the middle or outside the tackles. Standing at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, he’s big enough to take hits from patrolling linebackers and safeties and fast enough to work around them. 

Last year’s Baltimore Ravens are a good model as the team had some moderate success on plays where their two mobile quarterbacks — Lamar Jackson and Robert Griffin III — and running back Mark Ingram lined up together in the backfield. This setup was nicknamed the “Heisman package” because all three players won the Heisman Trophy in college. This gave them the ability to pass or run with any of the three players via handoff, direct snap or option pitch. If the defense keyed on the run, then Baltimore could make a quick throw with either passer, using the other as a decoy. 

Mendenhall could replicate this concept and create his own “Heisman package” with the threat of a pass from two quarterbacks or a rush from Thompson, Armstrong or Taulapapa. This could be effective near the goal line, where any of the three could power into the endzone or to help the offense move the ball. Mendenhall could also keep things simple and just let Thompson run a direct snap on occasion.

Let him throw

Mendenhall and Anae did let Thompson throw one pass on Saturday — it was just doomed to fail. Leading Duke in the middle of the fourth quarter, Mendenhall called for Thompson to motion into the backfield and throw a long pass down the sideline into heavy coverage for an improbable pass-catcher — Armstrong. Virginia was lucky the ball wasn’t intercepted. 

While it wasn’t executed perfectly against the Blue Devils, this idea has the potential to work for the Cavaliers. Just look at how the New Orleans Saints use Taysom Hill, hybrid quarterback and former Mendenhall protegee. The Saints often line Hill up in a shotgun formation and use motion and play action concepts to spring receivers open for his big arm. This change of pace leads to many big plays week after week. 

Thompson has plenty of arm strength and the velocity he puts on his passes is NFL-ready. But arm strength can only take him so far with his accuracy concerns. If Mendenhall and Anae can run two to three plays per game where they give Thompson a simple downfield option and tell him to sling it to receivers like the physical Davis or speedy junior Billy Kemp IV, Virginia could really catch some defenses off guard. 

Use him as a distraction

Much of Hill’s value to New Orleans is not his actual touches on offense — it’s the threat of his touches. His mere presence on the field, combined with his versatility, makes defenses uncomfortable. They have to be ready for him to do almost anything on any play. That level of discomfort is a big advantage for the offense. The Saints have won over 75 percent of games since Hill’s debut, partly because he adds an extra dimension to their offense despite playing just a quarter of their snaps. 

Mendenhall should be able to emulate how the Saints use Hill with Thompson. Just having him on the field should concern defenses. Utilizing fakes, play-action and read options — where the quarterback decides whether to hand off the ball or run himself based on the defense — would force opposing defensive coordinators to account for Thomspon whether he’s catching, passing or running. 

There are many ways for the Virginia coaching staff to involve Keytaon Thompson in this offense, even if Armstrong is the team’s starting quarterback. Putting the ball in his hands, in any manner, can throw the defense off balance and give the edge to the Cavaliers. Even threatening to give him the ball can help the Cavaliers’ offense. Virginia is going to play a lot of elite defenses this year that are capable of shutting down its offense, but with a little Keytaon and a lot of creativity, the Cavaliers can do some damage. 

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