Under Coach Bronco Mendenhall, three different players have possessed the title of Virginia football’s first-choice starting quarterback — Kurt Benkert in 2016 and 2017, Bryce Perkins in 2018 and 2019 and Brennan Armstrong this year. Now that Armstrong has completed his first full season as Virginia’s starter, let’s see how his 2020 performance — in terms of both team success and individual production — stacks up to Benkert and Perkins’ first seasons at the helm.
The quarterback position is arguably the most important on the football field. While there are plenty of other factors that affect a team’s performance — including coaching and the defense — the quarterback is still responsible for leading their team to wins.
In a unique coronavirus-affected season, Armstrong — after backing up Perkins for two years — overcame a rough 1-4 start and ultimately led the Cavaliers to a 5-5 season. The combination of an abnormal preseason, a tough early-season schedule and the loss of several key players were all likely factors that led to Armstrong and Virginia’s bad start. However, after losing at Miami Oct. 24, Armstrong fueled a four-game winning streak including big wins against North Carolina and Boston College. Although Armstrong couldn’t take down Virginia Tech in the season finale, he definitely ended the year on an upward trajectory.
While a 0.500 record may not be the most impressive, the circumstances certainly didn’t help Armstrong. For starters, Virginia generally schedules around four non-conference regular season games but could only play one this year due to the pandemic and ACC rules. Additionally, Armstrong missed a very winnable game against Wake Forest due to injury, Virginia’s Nov. 28 meeting with lowly Florida State was canceled and the Cavaliers declined to participate in a bowl game. These were all opportunities for Armstrong to win more games.
Based on record alone, Perkins had a more successful debut season than Armstrong, leading Virginia to an 8-5 record in 2018 — his first year in Charlottesville. After transferring from Arizona Western College, Perkins helped the Cavaliers earn their first winning season since 2011 and first bowl victory since 2005. While it's difficult to compare 2018 and 2020, it's hard to argue against the fact that Perkins led Virginia to its best season of the decade — at that point in time — in his inaugural season as a Cavalier.
In stark contrast, the 2016 Benkert-led Virginia football team fared far worse than its 2018 and 2020 counterparts. Benkert’s only wins in 2016 — which was also Mendenhall’s first year coaching Virginia — were against MAC program Central Michigan and ACC bottom-feeder Duke. Although Benkert’s situation wasn’t ideal as he was thrust into the starting role during a transition to a brand-new coaching staff, the East Carolina transfer’s first season as Virginia’s first-string quarterback was clearly worse than either Armstrong’s or Perkins’. The lone bright spot of Benkert’s 2-10 season — the worst overall record in the ACC that year — was that many of the Cavaliers’ losses were heartbreaking, single-digit defeats.
In the air
Armstrong has never been known as an elite passer and that clearly showed in 2020. His season was full of both flashes of potential and reprehensible miscues. On the positive side, the left-handed quarterback passed for 235 yards and two touchdowns per game — better than both Benkert in 2016 and Perkins in 2018. On the other hand, Armstrong threw 11 interceptions in just nine games while completing a subpar 58.6 percent of his passes.
As mentioned before, Armstrong’s season was defined by inconsistency. Sometimes his passes were right on the money like his 90-yard touchdown throw against Abilene Christian while, at other times, he made shocking mistakes like his pair of interceptions against Virginia Tech.
Perkins’ passing statistics were surprisingly similar to Armstrong’s 2020 numbers. In 2018, Perkins threw for 2,680 yards and 25 touchdowns — which equates to 206 yards and 1.9 touchdowns per game. Despite nearly identical production, Perkins was more accurate than Armstrong over the course of their first seasons as Virginia starters. Perkins completed 64.5 percent of his passes — third-best in team history — and was picked off just nine times in 13 games. While Perkins may not have been far-and-away better than Armstrong from a passing perspective, his improved accuracy gives him the edge.
Compared to Armstrong and Perkins, Benkert is a more traditional pocket passer and his volume reflects that. In 2016, Benkert attempted 406 passes — 138 more than Armstrong in 2020 and 57 more than Perkins in 2018. All those pass attempts translated to 2,552 yards and 21 touchdowns. The highlight of Benkert’s 2016 season was his offensive explosion against Central Michigan that saw him throw for a program-record 421 yards along with five touchdowns.
Like Perkins, Benkert’s per-game production was also extremely similar to Armstrong’s numbers. Over 11 games, Benkert averaged 232 yards and 1.9 touchdowns through the air. However, unlike Perkins, Benkert had serious accuracy issues. He completed just 56.2 percent of his passes and threw 11 interceptions in as many games. Although Benkert likely had more raw arm talent than both Perkins and Armstrong, his inability to throw the ball with precision during his first year at Virginia was problematic.
On the ground
Armstrong may not be the most explosive athlete, but he is a tough, physical runner who isn’t scared of contact. Armstrong’s legs were arguably Virginia’s greatest weapon this past season as the Ohio native led the team in rushing with 552 yards while also adding five scores on the ground. Over the course of the 2020 season, Armstrong averaged 61 rushing yards per game and 4.4 yards per run. There’s no doubt that Armstrong’s running added an extra dimension to the Cavaliers’ offense. Defenses simply couldn’t ignore Armstrong’s ability to punish them with his legs — just take his 60-yard touchdown run against Boston College as an example.
While Armstrong is a capable runner, Perkins is a truly gifted physical specimen. Nicknamed the ‘Thor-terback’, Perkins frequently made superhero plays even in his first year in Charlottesville. From improvised scrambles to designed runs, Perkins tore apart defense after defense with a dynamic combination of strength, speed and agility.
His rushing numbers speak for themselves. In 2018, Perkins rushed for 923 yards and nine touchdowns, which ranked first and second, respectively, that year among ACC quarterbacks not playing in a triple-option offense. He also rushed for over 100 yards four times and ran in two touchdowns three times. Regardless of how you look at it, Perkins was a far more prolific runner during the 2018 season than Armstrong last year.
If Perkins is the exemplar of a dual-threat quarterback, Benkert is the opposite. During his time at Virginia — and especially in 2016 — Benkert was essentially a nonfactor in the running game, lacking mobility and speed. In his first season starting for the Cavaliers, Benkert ran for a grand total of -94 yards and zero touchdowns. While Armstrong and Perkins were legitimate threats on the run, Benkert was nothing more than a liability.
Who was the best first-time starter?
Now, we move to the all-important question — overall, how well did Benkert, Perkins and Armstrong perform relative to each other in their first seasons as Virginia’s starting quarterback?
From a statistical standpoint, Benkert clearly fell short of the other two. His per-game passing numbers were almost indistinguishable from Perkins and Armstrong’s, but Benkert won less games and his rushing statistics paled in comparison.
On the other end of the spectrum, Perkins seems to have played the best of the three during his inaugural season as a Virginia starter. The junior college transfer won the most games, threw the most accurate passes and outran the other two Mendenhall era quarterbacks by a substantial margin. On top of that, he set Virginia records in both total offense — with 3,603 yards — and touchdowns — with 34 total scores.
Finally, Armstrong’s first year under center falls somewhere between Benkert’s troubled first season in 2016 and Perkins’ historic first season in 2018. That being said, in a year where the Virginia football program faced never-before-seen challenges and conditions, Armstrong’s performance was frankly impressive, even if he couldn’t match Perkins’ lofty standards.
Moving forward, the more important storyline is how Armstrong will perform in his second season as starter — assuming he’s given the spot. In their second years, Benkert became the first Virginia quarterback ever to surpass 3,000 passing yards and Perkins led the Cavaliers to a win over rival Virginia Tech, a Coastal Division title and a spot in the ACC Championship game and Orange Bowl. We’ll have to wait and see if Armstrong can make a similar jump in 2021.