The return of students to Charlottesville and the start of fall semester courses means that another event is right around the corner — football season. The Cavaliers kick off this year’s slate of games with a Sept. 3 matchup against Richmond, and a lot has changed within the program in the past year. So whether you’re a first-year student looking forward to your first chance to pack Scott Stadium for a real game or a returning student just looking to get more into Virginia athletics, here’s what to expect from this year’s squad when it takes the field for the first time.
A new era of coaching begins
Undoubtedly the biggest change Virginia football has undergone since the past season was hiring Tony Elliott as its new coach. Following the surprising resignation of Bronco Mendenhall at the end of the season, the Cavaliers embarked on a coaching search that eventually landed on Elliott, formerly the offensive coordinator at Clemson. Elliott brings championship pedigree to the program, having won two national titles with the Tigers during his time on staff. The new Virginia coaching staff is not entirely made up of Clemson transfers, though — it includes a mix of returning assistants and hand-picked successors by the new man in charge. He looks to continue success at the highest level here with the Cavaliers, recently detailing a plan that ultimately ends with Virginia winning the national championship.
Outside of coaching, Elliott has wasted no time embracing both Virginia fans and culture. On his first Coach’s Corner on Aug. 23, he mentioned that players and staff would now stay on the field at the end of each game to sing the “Good Ol’ Song” with fans, a tradition that had fallen by the wayside under Mendenhall. In addition, in an effort to drum up excitement for the coming season, Elliott and football players handed out free ice cream to students on the South Lawn to celebrate the first week of class. Overall, it seems Elliott is passionate about creating a closer bond between the football program and the greater University community.
Both familiar and new faces take the field
The quarterback is the most important position in football, and Elliott could not have asked for a better starting point in that regard. Senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong is returning for his third season as the starter for Virginia. Armstrong had a prolific season last year, finishing third in the nation in passing yards and earning third-team All ACC honors. The senior from Ohio also has the majority of his receiving corps returning, with fifth-years Keytaon Thompson and Billy Kemp returning along with junior wideout Dontayvion Wicks. When one also factors in junior Lavel Davis — who had an outstanding season in 2020 but missed last year with a torn ACL — the Cavaliers’ passing attack should be feared yet again.
The question for Virginia, however, will be how much time Armstrong will actually get to throw to his receivers. The offensive line from last year lost four major starters, including Remington Award finalist Olusegun Oluwatimi, who transferred to Michigan. This means the line will have an entirely new look in 2022, which could be concerning given that the offensive line is typically the unit that takes the longest to gel anyways. Having success up front is key to any good offense, so the hope is that the new set of bodies on the line will perform well enough to let a potent passer in Armstrong reach his full potential.
Virginia’s defense lost some pieces from last year’s unit as well. Gone are three of the top four tacklers from 2021, but senior linebacker Nick Jackson returns to retain his role as the leader of the Cavalier defensive front. On the defensive line, junior nose tackle Jahmeer Carter will be the head of a unit that saw an influx of talent from the transfer portal, with the most notable being graduate student edge Kam Butler, a highly sought-after transfer from Miami, Ohio. And finally, senior cornerback Anthony Johnson will be the leader of the secondary, a unit that lost some key pieces but also has promising young talent moving up the ranks. Defense was not Virginia’s strong suit last season, but with both a new defensive philosophy and leaders at all three levels, the Cavaliers will hope to improve in that regard in 2022.
Scouting the opponent
Virginia starts off the season with an in-state foe in Richmond. The Spiders are an FCS team, meaning they play in the level below the Cavaliers, but even a game like this should not be taken for granted — Richmond actually beat Virginia in 2016. That being said, the Cavaliers are at a different level now, even with a new coach in Elliott, and should be able to win this game handily. Typically, a player of Armstrong’s caliber — especially at the quarterback position — is enough to get by an FCS opponent without too many issues, which is what the Cavaliers hope to do. It also gives the team the chance to iron out some wrinkles before it faces a fellow Power Five opponent in Illinois the following week. While the game may not be the closest on Saturday, the first football game of the season coupled with the dawn of a new era in Scott Stadium should create an atmosphere in which the excitement and buzz is tangible.