One of the teams on the rise in the ACC coming into the 2019 college football season is the University of Virginia. The Cavaliers are FSU’s first ACC opponent this season and projected by many prognosticators to compete for, if not win, the Coastal division this year. With that in mind, the Osceola wanted to give you the skinny on UVA with a summer scouting report.
One of the reasons for Virginia’s upward trend has been the arrival of former BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall who has gone 16-22 in his three seasons in Charlottesville. Mendenhall is one of the more underrated coaches in college football in my opinion. He has taken UVA to bowl games the last two seasons, the first time that has happened since the 2004 and 2005 seasons. Last year UVA won eight games and it was the school’s first winning season since 2011 and only its second since 2007. The Cavs have won 14 ballgames over the last two seasons, which is more than they won in the four seasons prior to 2017.
Mendenhall was 99-43 at BYU in 11 seasons (2005-2015), never having had a losing season and won six of 11 bowl games. He recorded double-digit wins in five of those eleven seasons in Provo. Prior to Mendenhall taking over the Cougars program, BYU had three consecutive losing seasons and have already had one losing season since he left for Charlottesville (the Cougars went 4-9 in 2017). My point is the man can coach football and he has UVA trending in the right direction heading into 2019.
He has also maintained consistency within his coaching staff throughout his career. Virginia is one of just five ACC programs that aren’t replacing at least one coordinator position heading into 2019. Offensive coordinator Robert Anae was with Mendenhall for all but two seasons at BYU and is heading into his fourth year at UVA. Defensive coordinator Nick Howell has been with Mendenhall his entire college career. The same can be said for co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga. In fact, only two of his on-the-field coaches at UVA didn’t spend time with Mendenhall while he was at BYU.
Heading into 2019, Virginia’s on-the-field staff has a combined 67 seasons working under Mendenhall since he became head coach at BYU in 2005 (Mendenhall is entering his 16th season as a head coach). Compare that to FSU’s on-the-field coaching staff which totals a combined 24 seasons working under Seminoles head coach Willie Taggart who is entering his tenth season as a head coach.
Why is this important? I will give you a few examples of why I think continuity is important in a coaching staff.
A coaching staff’s experience together, particularly when taking over a new program, can be a huge benefit in implementing the expectations and culture the head coach wants on and off the field. It is also a huge benefit in installation of both the offensive and defensive systems. A staff with experience together better understands the nuance of their schemes. This isn’t just important in the infancy of a coach taking over a program but year-in and year-out. The head coach and other positions coaches have a clear understanding of how the same scheme is being taught both in position meetings and on the practice field. They also know exactly how the head coach wants a particular fundamental taught.
The benefit in recruiting is also important. The longer a staff has been together the better they know what their counterparts coaching another position are looking for in a prospect. It also establishes long-term relationships with the high school coaches in each assistant coach’s assigned recruiting regions, which may help a program find that hidden gem or under-recruited prospect.
And there is certainly a family atmosphere established in programs where the coaching staff has been together for an extended amount of time. There are more examples for sure, but I think we all get the picture.
Mendenhall is also beginning to recruit well. His 2019 recruiting class ranked 34th in the country by 247Sports and seventh best in the ACC. His staff has done a great job of developing talent if you base UVA’s upward mobility off its recruiting rankings. His 2018 class ranked 59th in the nation and 11th in the ACC by 247Sports, 58th and 12th in 2017 and 63rd and 13th in 2016. The Virginia program is getting a bigger return on its investment than many of its ACC counterparts.
The Virginia offense does lose two of its top playmakers from a year ago. Gone are running back Jordan Ellis and his 1,026 yards and 10 touchdowns and first-team All-ACC wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus who caught 93 passes for 1,058 yards in 2018. It must also replace two offensive linemen and their starting tight end from a year ago.
They do however return dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins (6-3, 210 pounds). The senior was dynamic in 2018 throwing for 2,680 yards while completing 64-percent of his passes and throwing for 25 touchdowns versus just nine interceptions. He also rushed for 923 yards and nine touchdowns on 212 carries and this includes yardage lost when he was sacked. Perkins finished number one in the ACC and number 13 in the nation in points responsible for with 206. He also set the UVA single-season record for total offense with 3,603 yards. He joined Oklahoma Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Kyler Murray in being one of two players last year to throw for more than 2,600 yards and run for more than 900 yards in 2018. To steal a quote from the Dire Straits song, Walk of Life, “oh yeah, the boy can play.”
The Osceola spoke to one assistant coach from a rival ACC school on the condition of anonymity about the Cavaliers. That coach was more than impressed with the UVA signal caller.
“He has great vision and he can throw the ball but if you let him run with the ball, he will kill you. He can hurt you with his arm, but he will really kill you with his legs,” said the coach.
Perkins is a game changer that plays with savvy.
“He is very instinctive; he is a difference maker. It’s like he has eyes in the back of his head, he is very elusive, and he can make you miss,” said the coach. “You must keep him in the pocket. He has great pocket-awareness. If you don’t keep him in the pocket, he will make you pay more times than not. He is a difference maker running the ball but he still does a good job of keeping his eyes downfield when he is flushed from the pocket. He is looking for a chance to make a big-play downfield first. If that’s not there he will run with it.”
The replacement for Ellis at running back is expected to be junior PK Kier (6-0, 235 pounds) who will get plenty of opportunities in an offense that ran the ball 58-percent of the time last year. Kier played in all 13 games last season but saw limited opportunities with the ball in his hand, carrying it just 26 times for 80 yards. Junior Lamont Atkins (5-10, 205 pounds) and sophomore Wayne Taulapapa (5-9, 210) are expected to compete with Kier for playing time in Virginia’s one-back system in fall camp.
It will be hard to replace the loss of Zaccheaus at wide receiver, but UVA’s base offense utilizes three wideouts and returning starters Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois, both seniors, will be asked to step up in 2019. Dubois (6-3, 215 pounds) is the biggest target and the most productive of all the returning wideouts. Last season he caught 52 passes for 578 yards and 5 touchdowns. Reed (6-1, 215 pounds) is considered UVA’s deep threat in 2019 coming off a 25-catch season a year ago that saw him average almost 19 yards per reception. Junior Terrell Jana (6-0, 190 pounds) and sophomore Tavares Kelly (5-8, 160 pounds) are competing for the third wide out spot after combining for 21 catches last season.
Tanner Cowley (6-4, 240 pounds) is expected to be the starter at tight end and is experienced with 12 starts in 38 games played over three years. Last season Cowley caught four passes for 68 yards. The tight end must be versatile in Virginia’s offensive system as they will line up on the end of the line, flexed out as an inside receiver or lined up in the backfield as a fullback.
The strength of the Cavs offensive line will be on the left side where sophomore tackle Ryan Nelson (6-4, 310 pounds) and junior guard Chris Glaser (6-3, 300 pounds) return. Nelson is talented but young. He did start every game as a redshirt freshman last year for an offense that averages 173.2 yards per. Glaser saw action in all 13 games last season with seven starts. He has a combined 12 starts in 18 games over two seasons.
Junior Dillon Reinkensmeyer (6-4, 300 pounds) is expected to line up at right guard or right tackle after having started 12 games at center last season. He has appeared in 26 games over the last two seasons including 24 starts. Last year Reinkensmeyer registered 50 knockdown blocks and graded out at over 90-percent in pass protection. Air Force transfer Victor Oluwatimi (6-3, 305 pounds) is expected to start at center allowing Reinkensmeyer to move to the right side of the line. Oluwatimi, a redshirt sophomore, has not taken a snap in a game since he was a senior in high school in 2016.
The line is big but not huge and should be improved in 2019 according to the rival coach.
“They have some size on their offensive line, but I don’t think they move very well, they were young and inexperienced, but they got the job done for the most part,” said the coach. “They weren’t as fundamentally sound as some of the groups we faced but some of that is because they were young. I think the offensive line will be better this year, they have some talent and that will help them break-in some inexperienced running backs.”
Virginia must replace five starters from a squad that ranked 20th nationally in total defense a year ago. The Cavaliers do return three of its four linebackers and two members of it secondary that ranked 16th in the nation allowing just 181 yards per game through the air.
The bad news for opposing offenses in 2019 is the Cavaliers may better on defense according to the rival coach.
“Their defensive coaches do a good job, they really do. That is what our offensive coaches said before and after we played them. They have some good coaches over there and I think they will only get better this season. They are really good at linebacker,” said the coach.
Upfront the Cavs must replace two starters from its 3-4 scheme. Nose tackle Eli Hanback (6-4, 300 pounds) is the only returning starter on the defensive line. In fact, he is the most experienced player on the UVA defense having started in 36 career games including 12 starts from a year ago. Hanback finished with 46 tackles and was credited with two sacks. He is a highly productive player having totaled 140 tackles in his first three seasons. Junior Mandy Alonso (6-2, 290 pounds) and sophomore Aaron Faumui (6-1, 280 pounds) are the projected starters at defensive end. Alonso played in five games last year, starting in all five of those matchups. The Miami native has appeared in 20 career games with nine starts and has totaled 35 tackles in his career. Faumui appeared in 13 games in 2018 with four starts while totaling seven tackles and one sack as a true freshman.
The strength of the Cavalier defense is at linebacker where Virginia returns three of four starters. The most productive of the group is inside linebacker Jordan Mack (6-2, 230 pounds). The senior started all nine games in which he played last season and was still second on the team in tackles totaling 66 stops and six tackles for a loss despite missing four games. Mack has started 31 games in his career. He was fifth in the ACC in tackles as a sophomore in 2017 totaling 114 stops in the only season he played in all 13 games. Inside linebacker Zane Zandier (6-3, 230 pounds) returns for his junior season after finishing fifth on the team in tackles last season with 63 stops. Zandier made eight starts last season and has played in 25 of 26 career games.
Charles Snowden (6-7, 225 pounds) is the most experienced and productive outside linebacker on the Cavs roster. As a sophomore last year, Snowden finished with a career high 61 tackles (7th best on the team) and finished second on the team in tackles for a loss with 7.5. Junior Matt Gahm (6-3, 225 pounds) or sophomore Noah Taylor (6-5, 205 pounds) project to line up at the other outside linebacker spot.
The secondary returns three player who started games last season, cornerback Bryce Hall (6-1, 200) safety Joey Blount (6-1, 190 pounds) and safety Brenton Nelson (5-11, 180) and they are a productive and opportunistic group.
Hall, a senior, started 13 games last year and totaled 62 tackles. He also had two of the 17 passes Virginia picked off last season which ranked 11th nationally. Hall also led the nation with 22 pass breakups. His play in 2018 earned him second team Walter Camp All-American and FWAA All-American honors. Hall has started in 33 games in his career including every game the last two seasons and is projected to be a first or second round pick in the 2020 NFL draft.
Blount, a junior, was fourth on the team in tackles last season with 65 stops. Nelson, also a junior, started 12 games last season and totaled 41 stops. Darrius Bratton (6-0, 195), a junior, is expected to start at the other corner spot and will most likely be tested early and often by opposing offenses. While not listed as a returning starter he did see action in all 13 games last season and was credited with five starts.
Junior Brian Delaney (5-10, 200 pounds) returns as the Cavs placekicker and will also take over the punting duties. Delaney was 12-16 on field goals in 2018 with his longest made attempt coming from 46 yards. He also handled kickoff chores last year where 47 of his 72 kicks ended up being touchbacks. He did not see action as a punter in 2018.
All games are important but much like the Boise State game, the contest against UVA is crucial because it is the ACC opener for the Seminoles. A win in Charlottesville would likely mean FSU has started the season either 3-0 or 2-1 (FSU opens with Boise State in Jacksonville and then plays Louisiana-Monroe at home).
You can also make an argument that with the exception of Clemson this will be FSU’s toughest ACC opponent in 2019. Virginia is ranked 25th by both Athlons and Street and Smith magazines 2019 preseason polls. The only other opponents ranked by both publications on FSU’s schedule are Clemson and Florida.
There are also the optics of this game. A win for FSU against what is supposed to be one of the top-tier team in the conference would certainly give the Seminoles some confidence heading to the teeth of its ACC schedule. It would also fire-up the FSU fan base and bring some energy to Doak Campbell Stadium for a two-game home stand against Louisville and North Carolina State.
The Cavaliers are trending in the right direction coming off their 2018 campaign and a win against FSU would go a long way in validating last years’ success. It would also give them a ton of confidence heading into their game at Notre Dame two weeks after the Seminoles visit Charlottesville. For most of the ACC, beating FSU anytime is a signature win and is used as a benchmark for those programs to see how they stack up against one of college football’s most visible brands.
This will be a big early season game for both programs. A win for either squad would be huge and will likely have a significant impact on the direction each program heads in 2019.