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ANDERSON: Five storylines to watch after Virginia football's spring game

After a fair number of new faces joining and veterans leaving, what will the 2021 team look like?

<p>Freshman running back Amaad Foston — an early enrollee for the Cavaliers — impressed many with his pass catching abilities Saturday.</p>

Freshman running back Amaad Foston — an early enrollee for the Cavaliers — impressed many with his pass catching abilities Saturday.

Virginia football had its spring game Saturday, concluding its session of offseason practices. It was the first time since the 2019 Commonwealth Cup that Scott Stadium held a sizable amount of fans, and although attendance was still limited, the atmosphere was completely different than the 2020 season. The Cavaliers also got to show off some of their newest pieces, and plenty of athletes gave Virginia fans much to be excited about. With that being said, let’s take a look at a few of the storylines surrounding the Virginia program heading into the 2021 season.

Transfers will play a large role in the team’s success next year.

In a year where a record-breaking number of athletes entered the transfer portal in football, Virginia added only five transfers to the 2021 roster. But the small number should not be associated with a small impact on the team, as the two transfers that played in the spring game this year look to have a sizable influence on the team’s success. Junior tight end Jelani Woods is simply a monster of a human being. At 6 feet 7 inches tall and 275 pounds, he stood out from the minute he stepped on the field and did not disappoint once play started. Woods moves with the fluidity of a lanky wide receiver and will immediately be one of junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong’s favorite targets. On the defensive side of the ball, junior cornerback Anthony Johnson also looks to break into the rotation of defensive backs, and he may have played into a starting role on Saturday. Johnson brings an air of physicality to the Virginia secondary, making a couple of strong hits during the full game period. Look for both transfers to play a lot during Saturdays in the fall.

The secondary looks to be vastly improved.

It was no secret that the Virginia secondary was a weak spot of the team last year. Ravaged by injuries, the defensive backs struggled mightily on the way to giving up the most passing yards in the ACC. But there is plenty of reason to believe that this year’s secondary will exceed expectations, and it all stems from one major factor— experience. The top six players in the rotation will all be juniors and seniors, with Johnson, senior Nick Grant and senior Darrius Bratton likely starting at the cornerback position and North Dakota State transfer senior Josh Hayes also getting plenty of playing time. All four bring loads of game time with them, and a more physical style of play mentioned earlier should have a dramatically positive effect on the Cavalier defense. At the safety positions, senior Joey Blount returns yet again, and senior De’Vante Cross moves back to his more natural position. A lot of the woes last year involving the secondary stemmed from players having to start in positions other than the one they were most comfortable with. But with everyone healthy and ready to go, look for the defensive backfield to be much improved.

The wide receiver core should not be underestimated.

Earlier this spring, Virginia received awful news — dynamic sophomore receiver Lavel Davis Jr. would be lost for most, if not all, of the next season with a torn ACL. With perhaps their most exciting player out for 2021, it would be understandable if people saw the wide receiver corps as a dud. In the spring game, however, the offense seemed set to prove any doubters wrong. The top four pass-catchers of Woods, senior Keytaon Thompson, sophomore Dontayvion Wicks and senior Billy Kemp IV will be a force for the Cavaliers in 2021. Wicks, who was hurt last year, looked just as potent as many hoped he would be, which is an incredible sign for any player coming back from injury. Thompson seems to have fully embraced his slasher role on offense, and he was nearly untouchable in the spring game, racking up yard after yard and making defenders miss regularly. And finally, Kemp is as reliable as ever, where he will always be a weapon in the slot and off of screens. While the addition of Davis might have given Virginia the best set of receivers in the ACC, there is still plenty to like about the Cavaliers’ passing offense moving forward. 

Who will fill the starting spots at linebacker?

Another cause for concern for next year’s football team was how the Cavaliers would fill the hole at linebacker left by two fan favorites. With Zane Zandier and Charles Snowden both graduating, a myriad of players could be next up to fill the roles they played. Senior Elliot Brown and sophomore Josh Ahern seem to be getting the most press about filling out the rest of the starting lineup, but it would be wise not to count out a lineup of hungry young players, all of whom played well on Saturday. Redshirt freshman Sam Brady and sophomore Hunter Stewart seemed to be getting a fair amount of run at the inside linebacker position, with Brady in particular having a strong spring game. As for Snowden’s position on the outside, redshirt freshman Jonathan Horton and sophomore D’Sean Perry seem to be popular picks to fill the void. No matter who ends up starting for the Cavaliers in the fall, Virginia always seems to have a strong linebacker corps, and there is no reason to expect that 2021 will be any different. 

The running back rotation will be a topic to watch.

Once sophomore Mike Hollins announced he would be returning to the team after opting out of the 2020 season, many Virginia fans were excited with the potential of the running back room for the fall. Hollins, along with senior Wayne Taulapapa, senior Ronnie Walker, Harvard transfer Devin Darrington and early enrollee Amaad Foston, would make up perhaps the deepest set of backs in the Coach Bronco Mendenhall era. During the spring game, it was also evident that each player had different skills that would help the team win. Taulapapa was — as usual — reliably getting two yards when the team needed one, and Hollins showed the combination of burst and strength that excited the Cavaliers his freshman year. A nice surprise, however, was the addition of Foston to the lineup. Already crowned by Mendenhall as the best pass-catcher of the five, the early enrollee danced his way into the endzone during the spring game on a pretty wheel route from Armstrong. The versatility of the running back room, along with rumbles from inside the program that coordinator Robert Anae plans to use the position more in the pass game, has created an air of excitement around the position group for the first time in a while.

Virginia kicks off its 2021 campaign against in-state FCS opponent William & Mary at Scott Stadium Sept. 4. Kick-off time and television information is to be determined.

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