Ahead of the 2023-24 football season, significant change is on the docket in Scott Stadium’s home locker room, as several familiar faces have departed for the pros or other schools. Representing Virginia will be a couple of pro-ready standouts, veterans who have recently earned starting spots and intriguing transfers. In year two of the Coach Tony Elliott era, his impact is more fully felt on the roster’s construction, warranting a closer look.
With junior Jay Woolfolk officially focusing on baseball, senior Tony Muskett was officially named starting quarterback Monday. Muskett, a traditional pocket passing quarterback, is perhaps a better fit for Elliott’s system than Brennan Armstrong was in 2022. His outstanding 157.3 passer rating last season is a significant upgrade over Armstrong’s 109.4 mark. The incoming Monmouth transfer has an underrated strong arm with elite accuracy — his career completion percentage is 64.1, while also never throwing more than eight interceptions in a single season. Behind him, the presumed No. 2 is true freshman Anthony Colandrea. Colandrea performed admirably at the Spring Game and will hopefully thrive as Muskett’s successor in 2024.
The running back room is one of the deepest position groups, though it is unknown who the top rushers will be. Mike Hollins and Perris Jones return experience, while Cody Brown, Xavier Brown and Clemson transfer Kobe Pace elevate the talent. Pace may end up towards the top of the depth chart despite several promising incumbents. Jones should also find himself in the top two on the depth chart, as he led Virginia in yards per carry in 2022 while also toting the most carries. Xavier Brown offers exciting potential, but was recently sidelined with an elbow injury and may arrive as a reinforcement later this season. A sloppy offensive line unit prevented the running game from dominating in 2022, but added help could have this offense become fully committed to the run. Expect the Cavaliers to hold a balanced offense featuring roughly 60 percent run plays.
The receiving corps does not boast a lot of established leaders, but is full of budding talent that will likely be a pleasant surprise in 2023. Northwestern graduate student transfer Malik Washington, junior Malachi Fields and sophomore JR Wilson are the biggest breakout candidates. There may be some growing pains early on, with multiple veteran leaders moving on to the NFL, but expanded reps will likely pay dividends for this athletic Virginia offense towards the end of the season. Patience will be key. Washington is the only Cavalier receiver with more than 20 career receptions, and returning wideouts combined for only 17 catches in 2022.
The tight end group left a lot to be desired last season, as Cavalier tight ends did not score a touchdown in 2022. They will have a long way to go towards contributing this season, but the experience of graduate student Grant Misch and senior Sackett Wood return atop the depth chart along with sophomore Karson Gay to hopefully break out this year after another offseason in Elliott’s system.
The offensive line has undergone a massive transformation over the offseason and will aim to become a strength this year. Sophomore McKale Boley has boundless potential at left tackle alongside a plethora of transfers and valuable recruits. Many will be competing for the starting spots, and the expectation of improvement will be greater after a porous campaign in 2022. A full group of several lineman over 6’3” and roughly 300 pounds should provide the stability a growing Cavalier offense needs. Alongside Boley at left tackle and incumbent junior Ty Furnish at center, senior transfers Ugonna Nnanna and Jimmy Christ could slot in at left guard and right tackle respectively. Junior Noah Josey will likely take the right guard spot. Improvement is both an expectation and a requirement in order for Virginia to be more dangerous offensively.
The defensive line is certainly the most experienced and arguably the best position group the Cavaliers have. Led by All-ACC candidate Chico Bennett Jr., this will be the strength of a Virginia defense that made unprecedented progress in 2022. Aaron Faumui, Kam Butler and Jahmeer Carter will also make a major impact stifling the run. If the defensive line can grow as a pass rushing crew, the Virginia defense has top 25 potential nationally. The addition of freshmen Jason Hammond and Miles Greene will also pay dividends in 2024 post departure of the current talented crop of seniors.
The linebacker room will be a key storyline after the departure of captain Nick Jackson, but it could transform into a conference leader since the Cavaliers boast a variety of talented options. Graduate student Josh Ahern returns as the elder statesman of the group alongside likely starters James Jackson and Stevie Bracey. A few wildcards in sophomore Trey McDonald and true freshman Kamren Robinson could emerge as stars, as both play with a high motor and grit. Robinson was the biggest prize of Virginia’s 2023 recruiting class with a four star rating — it would not be a surprise to see him on the field early and often making game changing plays.
The defensive backs also have more questions than answers as to who will get the reps, but there is significant reason for optimism. Antonio Clary and Coen King are back as the likely starters at safety. Transfers Tayvonn Kyle, Malcolm Greene and Sam Westfall bring experience as vetted Power 5 starters. The additions should hopefully counterbalance the loss of multiple elite starters. A point of concern however is that career interceptions are not abundant within this crew, but continuing to build on an opponent third down percentage of 36.69 percent will more than offset the lack of generated turnovers. That mark was roughly an excellent 7 percent upgrade from 2021.
The special teams unit also figures to be one of the better groups in the ACC in terms of specialists, led by the promising kicker-punter duo of sophomore Will Bettridge and senior Daniel Sparks. Five star true freshman Elijah Slibeck and Darden graduate student Matt Ganyard could also factor into a strong showing. The return game is a work in progress however, illustrated by a poor showing at the spring game with a dropped kick return and minimal yardage gained. True freshman wide receiver Jaden Gibson could be the answer as a returner should Virginia elect to try other options. Coordinator Keith Gaither’s special teams squad will need to do whatever possible to put the Cavalier offense in a good position to score.