After the 2021 season, two football programs with prestige bowl appearances in the last decade had regressed to mediocrity and were without head coaches. Both programs had veteran dual-threat quarterbacks in place and poached respected coaches from rival programs. One of the coaches, Sonny Dykes, led Texas Christian from 5-7 to 13-2 and a national championship game appearance in 2022. Meanwhile, Virginia (3-7, 1-6 ACC) sputtered under newly appointed head coach Tony Elliott.
To describe Elliott’s first year at the helm of the program as tumultuous would be an understatement. It would also be negligent to ignore that the season came to a tragic halt prematurely. On the night of November 13, three Virginia football players — junior receiver Lavel Davis Jr., junior receiver Devin Chandler and junior linebacker D’Sean Perry — were killed, and a fourth, senior running back Mike Hollins, was injured, in an on-Grounds shooting.
Elliott’s performance as a coach cannot just be evaluated by the on field product alone. However, it’s worth analyzing his leadership through the lens of team performance, recruiting prowess and his management of a locker room through crisis.
On The Field
Winning games in a coach’s first season is hard — only one Virginia coach has achieved a winning season in year one since 1929. That being said, there are lots of areas where Elliott’s team needs to improve on to win more than three games in 2023.
In 2021, senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong and his elite skill players scored at least 28 points in nine games. Armstrong and essentially the same skill position group did so only twice in 2022, part of a total offensive meltdown that dropped the offense from 8th to 117th in ESPN’s SP+ metric.
However, Elliott only deserves some of the blame for this offensive underperformance. All starters from 2021’s offensive line were lost to graduation and the transfer portal. The 2022 line was significantly worse, contributing to a dramatically higher sack rate for Armstrong. Additionally, Elliott insisted that the team switch from Mendenhall’s preferred air raid attack to a more pro-style offense. Armstrong struggled with the resulting condensed field and increased pre-snap responsibilities, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns.
On the defensive side of the ball, Elliott and new defensive coordinator John Rudzinski actually engineered a minor miracle. Despite losing its leading tackler, the Cavalier defense jumped from 100th to 49th in defensive SP+ thanks to stellar seasons from junior linebacker Nick Jackson, fifth-year edge rusher Chico Bennett Jr., graduate student corner Anthony Johnson and junior corner Fentrell Cypress II.
The team only won three games, but three games were lost by seven combined points. Realistically, the Cavaliers were not so far from bowl eligibility. There’s still a lot that Elliott needs to fix on the field, but the building blocks of a moderately successful team were in place.
On the Trail and in the Portal
Those building blocks are now leaving, though — Virginia football is in the midst of potentially its largest ever talent drain. A laundry list of starters have entered the transfer portal, including Armstrong, Jackson, Cypress, senior receiver Billy Kemp IV and sophomore tackle Logan Taylor, leaving the Cavaliers with problems at a number of positions. Elsewhere on the roster, Johnson, talented senior wideout Keytaon Thompson and sophomore wideout Dontayvion Wicks will go pro.
This year’s traditional recruiting class is ranked 65th nationally, and contains no four or five-stars. It ranks second-to-last in the ACC, and also skews heavily towards wide receivers and defensive linemen, two roster areas that are already relative strengths. The weakest position on the team, offensive line, has only received one high school reinforcement.
The transfer portal still has months to develop, but early returns include Monmouth’s junior quarterback Tony Muskett and Clemson’s junior tailback Kobe Pace. Recruiting services predict that the Cavaliers will gain quality starters from the crop of transfers, but replacing proven commodities like Armstrong and Cypress will be an uphill battle.
The attrition found in the roster was extended to the coaching staff as well. Offensive line coach Garret Tujuage left in December to take the same position at NC State, and Virginia alumnus and associate head coach Marques Hagans departed for State College to become Penn State’s wide receivers coach. Suddenly, Elliott not only has to restock his roster, but also his colleagues.
In terms of roster talent, 2023 looks bleak. On the recruiting trail, there’s nowhere to go but up.
In the Locker Room
Through the first several months of his tenure, Elliott’s impact on the team spirit was hard to spot — players committed more inadvisable penalties and made more senseless decisions than usual. Towards the end of the season, the atmosphere around the team seemed toxic with few stories of positive player development. However, that all changed very quickly. After the tragic events of Nov. 13, suddenly football didn’t matter. Elliott’s response to tragedy would be the lasting impact of his debut season.
The head coach’s response was sublime. Less than 48 hours after the shooting, Elliott and Athletic Director Carla Williams sat before the press and answered questions for nearly half an hour, sharing treasured memories of each player. In speaking about how the team was mourning together, he exuded the presence of a strong leader. Five days later, he spoke at the mass celebration of life for the three players, outlining a plan to draw the team tighter together. In those moments, Tony Elliott was exactly the right man to lead Virginia football. Now, the question becomes whether he can lead the Cavaliers out of crisis and into prosperity.
Elliott has a tough offseason ahead of him, and he needs to get a lot right to justify the five years and $21.8 million left on his contract. The quarterback situation needs to be solved, a broken offense needs to be fixed and a group of young men needs to be healed. However, the program's new $80 million facility will open in 2024 — a huge boon to the recruiting and development that are so crucial to Elliott’s potential effectiveness — and his returners have already been through some of the worst things a team can encounter. The only way to go is up. To paraphrase Virginia basketball coach Tony Bennett, “Joy comes in the morning.”