Virginia football enters this new season with tons of roster turnover induced by the departure of Bronco Mendenhall and subsequent hiring of Tony Elliott as head coach. After Mendenhall’s departure, several key players transferred and others graduated and moved on to the National Football League. Meanwhile, Elliott brought an influx of Football Championship Subdivision talent through the portal and will focus on promoting internal talent, particularly in the trenches on the offensive and defensive line.
Through all the turnover, the team's main identity from 2021 should carry over — a creative and dominant offense led by senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong and a defense that could be anywhere from below average to downright abysmal.
For the third straight season, Virginia’s offense will run through Armstrong. After speculation about his future, the signal caller returns after a year leading the ACC with a school record 4,449 passing yards. He also added 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and was widely considered one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Now, in his final year, Armstrong has a chance to crank up his efficiency and become a top-five quarterback in the nation. If that happens, the Cavaliers have a chance to be college football’s best offense.
Armstrong’s backup will be sophomore Jay Woolfolk, who also moonlights as Virginia baseball’s fireballing closer. Woolfolk saw minimal action on the gridiron as a true freshman backup. His only start was in place of an injured Armstrong against No. 7 Notre Dame and their stifling defense, and he put up mediocre numbers — 18-33 passing for 196 yards and two interceptions with 15 rushing yards. Virginia certainly hopes that Armstrong can remain healthy this season, but in-game experience for Woolfolk last year — even though it was not all that impressive — bodes well for his development as a backup option should he be needed.
Rounding out the depth chart is junior Jared Rayman, who’s only college game experience is on the field goal unit. Waiting in the wings are three-star freshmen Delaney Crawford and Davis Lane, both high school track stars and potential future dual-threat quarterbacks. It’s unlikely that any of these three will see much if any time at quarterback this year.
Even after the departures of key players like running back Wayne Taulapapa via the transfer portal and tight end Jelani Woods through the draft, the playmaking corps is still in good hands. Senior Keytaon Thompson is a swiss army knife who former Coach Bronco Mendenhall designated not as any specific position, but as a “football player.”
Thompson lined up to great effect at running back, receiver, tight end and even quarterback, where he put up a team-leading 1,237 total yards on 117 touches. He’ll be joined by safe-handed graduate student receiver Billy Kemp IV and senior receiver Dontayvion Wicks, an explosive pass catcher. On top of Armstrong's three favorite targets returning, six-foot-four sophomore receiver Malachi Fields and six-foot-seven junior receiver Lavel Davis Jr. will add a pair of big bodies for the star quarterback to target on late downs and in the red zone.
After Taulapapa’s transfer to Washington, junior running back Mike Hollins is expected to take on the majority of the team’s carries. In 2021, he was third on the team in carries and averaged 4.2 yards per rush. The Louisiana native also caught 16 balls out of the backfield and should add decent receiving value. Hollins’ backups will be the unproven trio of senior Perris Jones, redshirt freshman Amaad Foston and sophomore Miami transfer Cody Brown. All three are getting plenty of hype out of camp, but Jones seems to be getting the most traction and could even usurp Hollins as the starter.
Finally, NFL-bound Jelani Woods will be replaced at tight end by senior Grant Misch and junior Sackett Woods Jr. The pair have a combined six catches for 26 yards and are unknown entities.
Last year's line was a solid unit, ranking middle of the pack in sack prevention and well above average in run blocking via Football Outsiders. Most of that line transferred away after Mendenhall’s resignation, leaving Elliott without last year’s top six linemen, ushering in a completely new group.
This year's line is a piecemeal of FCS transfers — Lehigh’s sophomore lineman Andrew Canelas and Dartmouth’s graduate student lineman John Paul Flores — and inexperienced Cavaliers. Sophomore linemen Logan Taylor, Ty Furnish and Noah Josey all project to see significant snaps. Junior tackle Jonathan Leech will likely protect the left-handed quarterback’s blindside at right tackle, and senior Derek Devine will hope to finally break out in his final season of eligibility.
This new offensive line, while full of potential, is not yet as talented as the 2021 unit. This may put more pressure on Armstrong to extend plays with his legs as much as he did in 2020 — not an ideal situation.
Like the O-line, the front four saw a huge influx from the transfer portal. The unit lost sack leaders Mandy Alonso and Noah Taylor, leaving big shoes to fill. Kam Butler — a three-time All-MAC graduate student defensive end — joins the line as a graduate transfer from Miami of Ohio, where he registered eight sacks and 14 tackles for loss in 2021. He’ll be joined by another pair of graduate transfer rotational edge players in Jack Camper and Paul Akere. Returning players like senior Chico Bennett Jr., junior Ben Smiley III and sophomore Mike Green should round out the pass rush rotation, but all three are inexperienced and project as average defenders at best.
Inside at defensive tackle, junior Jahmeer Carter and senior Aaron Faumui return a combined 5.5 tackles for loss (TFL) and one sack. Backing them up will be sophomore Olasunkonmi Agunloye and another graduate transfer from South Carolina, Devontae Davis. All four of these players need to step up to avoid repeating 2021’s putrid performance against the run.
The 4-2-5 base defense Virginia will most likely play leaves room for two main linebackers — a mike, or middle linebacker, and a will, a linebacker that lines up on the weak side of the formation. The starting mike linebacker will be star senior Nick Jackson, who is coming off of a season where he led the team in tackles and finished third in tackles for loss. His backup, junior Josh Ahern, saw limited time last season but still picked up 2.5 TFL. The will spot will be manned by a pair of redshirt juniors — Hunter Stewart and D’Sean Perry. Stewart recorded 3.5 TFL and two sacks as a backup in 2021. Perry only recorded one tackle in seven games, but he still projects as a contributor in 2022.
Virginia’s pass defense was fairly solid in 2021, only giving up 240 passing yards a game. However, that was partly because they were so easy to run against, giving up the eighth-most yards per game in the country. Now that team’s dynamic safeties, Nick Grant and Joey Blount, have moved on to the NFL. Luckily, all three of last season’s starting corners — seniors Coen King and Darrius Bratton and graduate transfer Anthony Johnson — return and should help Virginia’s pass defense towards respectability.
At safety, senior Antonio Clary will now step up and start at free safety after three years backing up Blount and Grant. Alongside him at strong safety will be junior Chayce Chalmers, another longtime rotational piece in the secondary. Junior Fentrell Cypress II and sophomore Langston Long will plug gaps around the back of the secondary and play on passing downs, but they’re both young and undeveloped. This whole unit needs to step up and make sure the defense can keep up when the offense inevitably starts a track meet.
Last season saw kicking duties split between juniors Brendan Farrell and Justin Duenkel. Duenkel began the season as the main field goal taker, but was superseded by Farrell and didn’t kick after the Wake Forest game in late September. Farrell went 11-13 on field goals with a long of 43 yards and didn’t miss an extra point all season. Despite being listed as a punter, he should start the season as the presumptive lead kicker, while an ACL injury has left Duenkel out in the cold. Freshman phenom Will Bettridge is the highest rated kicker to ever step on Grounds, and may compete for reps if Farrell falters or gets hurt.
The punter will likely be Louisiana Monroe and Minnesota junior transfer Daniel Sparks. Sparks averaged 44.6 yards per punt and placed five kicks within the 20 in 2020, and seems a solid replacement for Jacob Finn.
Kemp, Hollins and junior transfer wide receiver Devin Chandler look likely to return most kicks and punts for the Cavaliers this year. Senior Lee Dudley will return to a starting role at long snapper that he hasn’t held since 2019.
Virginia’s offense projects to be elite, with Bill Connelly’s SP+ metric forecasting them as seventh best in the nation and top in the ACC. However, the same metric pegs them as the 112th best defense in the country, ahead of only Duke in the ACC. This is a recipe for an exciting team that’s going to score more than Virginia basketball, but also a frustrating team that will be unlikely to pull away from inferior teams. SP+ ranks the Cavaliers 55th in the country and ninth in the ACC. Armstrong and co. should have no trouble living up to their billing, but the defense needs to step up.