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Five Takeaways from Virginia’s Spring Game

Football played its Blue and White Spring game on Saturday, with takeaways aplenty

The Cavaliers prepare for battle at the 2024 spring game.
The Cavaliers prepare for battle at the 2024 spring game.

Coach Tony Elliott was busy this offseason, shopping for a significant class of transfer portal talent. His Cavaliers also return promising underclassmen on defense such as sophomore cornerback Dre Walker, sophomore defensive end Mekhi Buchanan and sophomore safety Caleb Hardy. Complemented by vetted talent on offense, Virginia could finally emerge from the ACC basement and play ultra-competitive football in 2024. While the season opener is still several months away, a few standouts were found in the Spring Game — a scrimmage where the Cavaliers were divided into the Blue Team and the White Team.

Muskett Wins the Day

Saturday didn’t see much of a battle at the quarterback position — graduate quarterback Tony Muskett far outshined sophomore Anthony Colandrea. On the white team’s first possession, Muskett unleashed a deep arching pass down the left sideline straight into the hands of a wide-open junior wide receiver JR Wilson — who dropped it. It was ugly, but Muskett never lost faith in the wide receiver. 

“I think that’s the first pass he’s dropped all spring,” Muskett said. “Right when [Wilson] came off the field I said, ‘17, I’m right back to you.’” 

On the white team’s following possession, Muskett rolled left and fired a strike that Wilson corralled this time before shaking a Blue Team defender to the ground and jetting off 56 yards to the endzone. This was just one of a few throws Muskett made while on the move, an area of question in his game. He was decisive in his reads and pushed the ball downfield with controlled aggression. It has been a tumultuous year for the Monmouth transfer, with Colandrea taking half of the starts, but Muskett looked in command Saturday. 

Colandrea did not experience the same success. Completing 15 of 16 passing attempts suggests a dominant day, but the degree of difficulty of his attempts was nowhere near Muskett’s. Almost all of Colandrea’s passes were at or just in front of the line of scrimmage. The conservative passing concepts and frequency of run calls made the Blue Team’s offense look as though it was coordinated by an offensive line coach — because it was. 

Virginia offensive line coach Terry Heffernan, coaching out of position as offensive coordinator, kept the training wheels on his quarterback, and as a result, Colandrea played a turnover-free, but snore-inducing brand of football. Colandrea also had a would-be pick-six called back due to a sack by senior defensive tackle Bryce Carter. 

Wide Receivers Galore

Virginia’s receiving room is stacked, providing hope for a successful 2024 season. There are so many capable contributors even the most devoted Cavaliers fan might forget a name or two when reciting them at the barbershop. Out of all of them, however, Wilson was Saturday’s standout. The 6-foot-4 junior carried his strong spring into game action with a three-catch, 79-yard performance. Wilson made multiple grabs and showed off surprising agility after the catches had been made. Junior wide receiver Andre Greene Jr. was another bright spot for the Blue Team. The North Carolina transfer had a somewhat quiet first half due to Heffernan’s painfully conservative offense. 

However, Greene shone in the second half with an impressive 40-yard reception from junior transfer quarterback Gavin Frakes. It was underthrown, but Greene managed to work back towards the football and high-point it. His routes appeared crisp and his one-handed catches on the sideline were mesmerizing. His skillset combined with those of graduate student Chris Tyree, senior Malachi Fields, junior Trell Harris and Wilson make for a special fleet of receivers. 

D-Line Dominance

Graduate defensive lineman Chico Bennett Jr. is back and appears to have regained his old explosiveness. His 2023 campaign was disappointing, and he never quite looked himself after a slew of injuries that hindered his performance, but Bennett certainly looks like his old self now. He was a terror off the edge, showcasing an elite first step and effortless ability to turn the corner on Virginia’s backup tackles. 

Bennett wasn’t the only defensive lineman to pop though. Sophomore defensive tackle Anthony Britton was also very impressive Saturday. He was disruptive in the run game, penetrating and making a tackle in the backfield on the White Team early in the game. His only sack was the easiest play he made all day — Britton was the looper on a stunt play, and Muskett stepped straight up into his waiting arms. He applied pressure rushing from the interior on multiple occasions and finished the game with three tackles. 

After a season in which the defensive line amassed a mere 11 sacks and allowed the third most rushing yards in the ACC, improvement up front will be a welcome development.

Transfer Impact 

Only five of Virginia’s 11 transfers played Saturday, but those who did made their presence known. Graduate defensive back Corey Thomas Jr. was the most eye-catching transfer on defense. His speed was evident as he flew in and snuffed out a Blue Team bubble screen in the first quarter. Later in that same possession, he showed off his coverage ability, breaking on a Colandrea pass, perfectly contacting his intended receiver and dislodging the ball. His play caught the attention of his coaches as well.

“Everyone in our program has been the most impressed by Corey Thomas,” Elliott said. “You look at him physically you’re like ‘Wow.’” 

As for the defensive backfield, the cornerback position is one of the roster’s largest question marks, and two of Virginia’s three transfer corners saw action Saturday in an attempt to answer that question. Graduate cornerback Kempton Shine had the strongest day. His breaks were sudden and he played with a fiery intensity. He logged a pass breakup on a 50-50 ball against Wilson despite being four inches shorter than the receiver. Junior cornerback Jam Jackson also saw extensive action in the game, lining up across from Greene. 

At receiver, Harris also made a couple of impressive plays. His strong hands were on display on a sideline pass from Colandrea. He also had a showing at kick returner, perhaps a way to get him out on the field due to such a crowded receiver room. 

Noah Vaughn makes his mark

Running back is a quiet need for this Virginia squad, and sophomore Noah Vaughn seized this opportunity in Saturday’s game. Vaughn has the best burst of any back in the Cavaliers’ stable. Vaughn was decisive and elusive, darting through the creases created by Virginia’s wide-zone scheme. At 5-foot-8 and 188 pounds, Vaughn can be the lightning to graduate running back Kobe Pace’s thunder. 

“I’m a smaller back, I’ve got to use my eyes and speed a lot,” Vaughn said. “I think I bring a good skill set to the table.” 

With a few months left before training camp — including another transfer portal window lasting until April 30 — Virginia is looking to be significantly better than they were during the disappointing 2023 campaign. Elliott’s job may hinge on the 2024 season, and his new Cavalier squad could be a pleasant surprise in the ACC come August.


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