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Previewing Virginia football’s 2021 roster

An experienced core of players will aim to propel the Cavaliers to a strong season

<p>Junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong's development over the offseason will be crucial to the Cavaliers' success in 2021.</p>

Junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong's development over the offseason will be crucial to the Cavaliers' success in 2021.

Despite enduring a rocky, pandemic-plagued 2020 season that ended with disappointment in a blowout loss to in-state rival Virginia Tech, the Virginia football team is ready to bring a spark back in 2021. As a program that was picked to finish fifth out of seven teams in the ACC Coastal Division, the Cavaliers may not be the most talented, but they possess elite coaching and an experienced roster capable of making a splash in the college football world.

The Offense

Virginia possessed a middle-of-the-pack ACC offense in 2020, scoring just over 30 points per game, but the Cavaliers have potential to boast one of the strongest and most consistent sides in the conference with 10 returning starters from last season’s finale against the Hokies — including the entire offensive line made up of senior tackles Ryan Nelson and Ryan Swoboda, senior guard Chris Glaser, junior guard Joe Bissinger and senior center Olusegon Oluwatimi. 

The five starting offensive lineman have an astounding 109 total games started among them — and coming off a season in which they allowed the fewest tackles for loss in the ACC, this unit is capable of being one of the best in the nation. At the heart of all good teams is the ability to control the trenches, and Virginia certainly has that ability on the offensive side of the ball.

However, the single most crucial player in the progression of the offense from last year to this year will be junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong. In his first season at the helm for the Cavaliers, Armstrong put together a solid but inconsistent campaign. In nine games played, he threw for over 2,100 yards and 18 touchdowns while leading the team in rushing yards at 552. He showed a fearlessness and grit throughout the season that gave Virginia fans hope he would develop into the next great Cavalier quarterback. Nonetheless, he needs to be more accurate this season after completing under 59 percent of his passes and throwing 11 interceptions — more than one per game — last season. Armstrong will have a solid supporting cast around him, and his development as an accurate passer will prove to be a key in Virginia’s success this season.

The only two skilled players on last year’s offense that will not be taking the field this year are former wide receiver Terrell Jana and tight end Tony Poljan. The duo ranked second and third on the team in receptions last year, respectively, each recording over 35 catches and 400 yards. However, the Cavaliers return 2020’s leading pass-catcher in senior wide receiver Billy Kemp, who notched 67 catches last year — nearly 30 more than Jana — primarily on shorter routes run out of the slot receiver position. He will likely continue to do a lot of the dirty work across the middle, while sophomore wide receiver Lavel Davis hopes to build on his spectacular freshman campaign by continuing to stretch the defense vertically. After suffering an ACL injury in spring practice, it appeared Davis would not be able to play until late in the season, but according to Coach Bronco Mendenhall, Davis is ahead of schedule and could see the field much earlier than expected. There’s no specific timetable for the lanky receiver to return to action, but the sooner the better for Virginia. Outside of Kemp and Davis, the Cavaliers will receive pass-catching contributions from senior wide receiver Ra’Shaun Henry, sophomore wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks, junior transfer tight end Jelani Woods and even Keytaon Thompson — a senior quarterback and wide receiver hybrid capable of hurting opposing defenses in a number of ways.

At running back, senior Wayne Taulapapa will likely handle the bulk of the workload. However, it is expected that Mendenhall will employ a running back by committee approach with Armstrong and Thompson also getting in the mix, so it would be a surprise to see Taulapapa or any other running back having a breakout season.

The Defense

Virginia struggled on the defensive end a number of times last year but looks poised to make strides in the right direction this season. The Cavaliers will be lining up six players on defense that are making use of their extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19, forming an experienced core on that side of the ball. 

Crucially, three of those six players — senior free safeties Joey Blount and De’Vante Cross and senior cornerback Nick Grant — are in the secondary. Virginia finished 2020 dead last in the ACC in defense against the pass, allowing over 300 yards a game and a whopping 9.4 yards per attempt — more than a full yard per attempt than any other team in the conference. The three seasoned veterans, along with senior cornerback Darrius Bratton, hope to give stability to the troubled unit this season. 

The linebacking group will be anchored by junior inside linebacker Nick Jackson — the only Cavalier to be selected to the preseason All-ACC team — and senior outside linebacker Noah Taylor. Jackson is poised to make a name for himself on the national scale this season after finishing with 105 tackles in just 10 games last season, putting him third in the conference in that category. In Taylor’s time at Virginia, his lankiness has posed a special challenge for opposing offenses, as he’s recorded an impressive 22 tackles for loss over the last two seasons. He will be without his running mate in former outside linebacker Charles Snowden, but Taylor’s experience, size and strength give him a good shot at a standout season and earning a spot in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Moving to the defensive line, the Cavaliers will be spearheaded by two more players using their extra year of eligibility in senior defensive ends Mandy Alonso and Adeeb Atariwa. The two veterans have combined to start 55 games and helped lead a front that finished fourth in the ACC against the run and sixth in total sacks. Sophomore defensive tackle Jahmeer Carter along with junior defensive tackle Aaron Famui are slated to handle most of the work in the middle. Despite losing key pieces in former defensive end Richard Burney and defensive tackle Jowon Briggs, Virginia’s front line should be able to hold their own this season.

Special Teams

Following the graduation of former kicker Brian Delaney and punter Nash Griffin, the special teams unit was bound to be led by new faces in 2021. After a competitive offseason for the newly open spots, sophomore kicker Justin Duenkel was just announced the starting place kicker and kickoff man with sophomore Brendan Farrell backing him up at both positions. Graduate student Jacob Finn — a transfer from Florida who led a unit that ranked third in the FBS in punting net average — will handle punting duties with Farrell also as the backup in that spot. 

The Cavaliers lost several important players from last year’s squad, but they still return 17 starters and crucial experience at several key positions — not the least of which is at quarterback. If Armstrong can demonstrate solid development as a passer, and if the secondary can improve from being the worst unit in the conference, Virginia certainly has the potential to exceed the media’s expectations and fight for the ACC Coastal Division crown.

The Cavaliers open their season in Charlottesville against William & Mary Saturday evening. An “Orange Out” is scheduled for Scott Stadium with the Virginia faithful wearing orange to the contest. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m., and the game will be televised on ACC Regional Sports Network.


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