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LOTHROP: The top 10 Virginia football players we never got to see in an NCAA video game

Ranking the most exciting players in recent years who we should’ve seen in virtual games

It’s been a long seven years, and it will be a few years longer before all is said and done, but students and fans rejoice — Electronic Arts Sports has announced plans to revive the hibernating “NCAA Football” video game. EA produced a version of the game every year between 1994 and 2013 and included the likenesses of legendary amateur athletes from Tom Brady to Johnny Manziel.

The game’s production halted after “NCAA Football 14’s” release in August 2013 due to looming factors that threatened the game’s profitability. EA claims the main reason the game was discontinued is that the major Football Bowl Subdivision conferences were leaning away from renewing their licensing agreements. This would have eliminated school names, logos, stadiums, uniforms, fight songs, mascots, player likenesses and the kitchen sink from future games. The studio guessed, probably correctly, that it would be hard to sell consumers on a game where users could only pit the Charlottesville Horsemen against the Southern Virginia Gobblers for the State Trophy.

A darker reason for the NCAA game stoppage was a class action lawsuit that EA was entangled in at the time led by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon. He and several other athletes filed lawsuits against the manufacturer because their likenesses were being used, yet they weren’t seeing any royalties from the games because of the NCAA’s circuitous rules on amateurism. 

Now though, things are different. Congress is considering legislation that would allow collegiate athletes to legally profit off of their name, image and likeness. This, combined with the homebound young adults rediscovering their old NCAA games, brought a surge in optimism for new installments in the series. This all culminated in the announcement of a newly named “EA Sports College Football,” slated for initial release as early as the 2022 preseason.

These factors combined to take away seven years and counting of potential digital excellence emerging from Scott Stadium. Under Coach Bronco Mendenhall, the Cavaliers have experienced a miniature gridiron renaissance, registering three consecutive non-losing seasons and the program’s highest AP poll ranking since 2007. The team has also had several NFL-caliber talents pass through Grounds over the last few years — the best of whom were never featured in any iconic NCAA video games.

Before we dive into the top 10 Virginia players who would have balled out in a virtual world, it is important to note that the most fun players in college football gaming are generally ones with elite physical tools, not those with great fundamentals — many apologies to Kurt Benkert, an accurate but lead-footed Cavalier quarterback in 2016 and 2017. Additionally, offensive skill position players are generally more enjoyable to use in virtual play than linemen and defenders because they have a higher chance of actually touching the football. Now, without further ado, let’s get into it.

10. Quarterback Keytaon Thompson in the 2020 season

Thompson is possibly the most versatile player on this list. While nominally a quarterback at Mississippi State, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound spring transfer lined up as quarterback, wide receiver and running back throughout last season. This maximized his prototypical size and speed and got the ball in his hands as much as possible. While that didn’t amount to much real-life production, his physicality would be ripe for video game experimentation.

9. Strong safety Juan Thornhill in the 2018 season

So far, Thornhill has had as much NFL impact as anyone on this list, notching four interceptions and reaching two Super Bowls in his two professional seasons. Thornhill possesses exceptional speed — he ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the 2019 NFL Combine — and had a nose for tackles behind the line. The defensive back was also a phenomenal ballhawk, registering 13 interceptions and 26 passes defended in three seasons. It’s not everyone’s bread and butter to control a safety on a video game defense, but Thornhill would have been good enough to alter that mindset.

8. Wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. in the 2020 season

It’s not talked about much, but Lavel Davis is huge — like, 6-foot-7, 210 pounds huge — and somehow still very good at catching passes. Davis’ volume numbers in 2020 weren’t tremendous — 20 catches in seven games — but he made the most of those receptions and converted a quarter of them into touchdowns, with an average of over 25 yards per catch — the most in the ACC. Having a receiver who can catch everything is super fun in these games, and Davis seems to catch everything.

7. OLB Max Valles in the 2014 season

Valles didn’t have much success past his 2014 season in Charlottesville — he was drafted in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, was cut four times and ultimately never played in a professional game. But he balled out in his last season as a Cavalier, the first without an NCAA video game — terrorizing opposing passers, finishing second in the ACC with nine sacks and recording 12.5 tackles behind the line. His muscular frame and quick-twitch speed allowed him to get around offensive linemen with a bevy of moves. If you’re into controlling pass rushers when defending in football video games, Valles would have been a joy to chase virtual quarterbacks with.

6. Quarterback Brennan Armstrong in the 2021 season

Armstrong technically shouldn’t be on this list, but since there won’t be an EA video game until next year at the earliest, we’re counting it. Armstrong has the tools to be a good player on the field and a great one on the screen. The Ohio native is big, fast, strong and smart. He just never managed to put it all together for Virginia this year, except maybe in the victory over North Carolina. But next year, he could make the ballyhooed leap to a very good quarterback. His aggressive, improvisational style of play would translate well into a video game.

5. Wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus in the 2018 season

The real tragedy of the original NCAA games is that they could never include names, and Olamide Zaccheaus is an awesome name. It’s also a shame that we never got the chance to build around such an explosive and versatile player. Zaccheaus spent time as halfback, wide receiver and return man at various points in his career, and in both 2017 and 2018, he totaled over 1,000 scrimmage yards. Though Madden 21 rates his speed at 89 out of 100, they are really underestimating his abilities. In an NCAA game, he would be among the fastest, and therefore one of the most dangerous, players on the field because you could plug him in at any skill position and watch him work.

4. Cornerback Bryce Hall in the 2018 season

Like the safety position, controlling a cornerback in a video game can be tricky, especially for beginners. Hall was good enough that he could have made the position playable for anyone. Hall is not especially large for a corner, but he made up for it with speed, swagger and swatting passes. He stuck to his men well and consistently defended passes that were thrown his way. As a junior in 2018, he led the nation in passes defended with 24 and was unlucky enough to not pick up more than two interceptions. Only his inconvenient position leaves him this low on the list.

3. ILB Micah Kiser in the 2017 season

The best Madden players tend to control the middle linebacker when playing defense because it allows for flexibility and maximum field coverage. Kiser would have been the perfect player to fill that role in a theoretical “NCAA Football 18.” He was capable of being almost anywhere at any time, and it showed — he led the ACC in tackles twice, racked up 19 career sacks and created nine turnovers in three seasons. The future pro could cover tight ends and running backs in man coverage, hold down the middle of the field in zone and stuff big running backs on any given play. The thought of dropping big hits with Kiser on unsuspecting wide receivers sparks joy in me.

2. Wide receiver Joe Reed in the 2019 season

If you never had the joy of using Chicago Bears return man Devin Hester in the Madden games of the late-aughts, that’s quite a shame. If you did, then you probably understand how fun Joe Reed would have been in a video game. Like Hester, Reed combines blazing open field speed with a magic in tight spaces that often led to a massive special teams advantage. In addition to elevating his physical talents, the video game setting would make his perceived flaws — namely, his inability to run complex routes and create space at the line of scrimmage — more or less irrelevant thanks to plays like the legendary four verticals. Reed is exactly the type of player that has been most amplified by these games in the past, to the full benefit of the gamer.

1. Quarterback Bryce Perkins in the 2019 season

Perkins is the undisputed king of this list. He has been one of the most exciting players to grace the home bench at Scott Stadium since Shawn Moore 30 years ago. Perkins used his legs not only to rack up rushing yards — 1,692 in two seasons — but also to extend plays long enough that he could slice up defenses with his big arm. He could make a crisp throw to any level of the field with accuracy and juke a defender out of his cleats in the same breath if he wanted. Like Reed, Perkins would also benefit from the video game deemphasizing some of his weaknesses, which were his consistency and rhythm. This makes him easily the most exciting Virginia player we missed thanks to the extended hiatus of college football video games.

It’s truly sad that we never got to use any of these players, and more than likely never will, in an NCAA video game. However, Virginia football recently notched the 32nd-best recruiting class in the country, including three-star quarterback Jacob Rodriguez. Rodriguez and many others will be center-stage just in time for the projected return of an iconic gaming franchise. In 10 years, let’s hope to see him on a list of the most exciting Virginia players that have been in “EA Sports College Football.”