The top 10 Virginia Cavalier football players you need to know for the 2016 season.
LB Micah Kiser, Jr.
With an opportunity to start in the middle for the first time, Kiser performed like a seasoned vet in 2015. He soared from reserve to First Team All-ACC with team-highs in tackles (117), stops for loss (13), sacks (7.5) and fumbles caused (3). Kiser is a stout 6-2, 240-pounder who wastes little movement in pursuit of the ball. And that single-minded focus has also helped him become a very dangerous pass rusher from his spot on the field.
FS Quin Blanding, Jr.
Blanding continued to show why he’s one of the premier young defensive backs in America. And a candidate to leave school early at the end of his junior year. A year after debuting as the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year, he was named to the all-league first team for making 115 tackles, including a team-high 68 solos. While always learning and improving, the 6-2, 205-pound Blanding is on the verge of becoming a complete safety, including in the classroom and in the local community.
RB Taquan Mizzell, Sr.
Bronco Mendenhall favors power backs. He and the staff will have to work around the speed and versatility of Mizzell this season. The 5-10, 195-pound playmaker did everything short of throwing passes last season to help keep the chains moving. Mizzell not only led the Cavaliers with 671 yards and four scores on the ground, but he also set an ACC record for a running back with 75 receptions for 721 yards and four more scores. He has soft and big-play potential when the rest of the cast is providing proper support.
C Jackson Matteo, Sr.
An unsettled O-line in Charlottesville will look to Matteo as its leader this fall. He blocked rather well in 2015, particularly considering it was his first season in the starting lineup. After struggling in the opener with UCLA, he was very steady the rest of the way, going an entire year without allowing a sack. And at 6-5 and 290 pounds, Matteo is unusually big and strong for a player at his position. He’s poised to contend for all-league honors this fall.
QB Matt Johns, Sr.
The good news is that the Hoos have a returning starter at quarterback. But Johns must make a quantum leap from his junior year for the offense to be effective. True, the senior is experienced, and at 6-5 and 210 pounds he looks the part in the pocket. However, Johns wrestled with consistency, accuracy and turnovers in 2015, completing 247-of-403 passes for 2,810 yards, 20 touchdowns and a whopping 17 interceptions. Unfortunately, UVa is light on alternatives to No. 15.
SS Kelvin Rainey, Sr.
The Cavaliers should be worried about their cornerbacks. Safety, though, will be a defensive strength. Rainey started all 12 games at strong safety, laying the groundwork for what he hopes will be looks from NFL teams. The 6-1, 195-pound veteran finished third on the squad with 68 tackles, including three for loss. Still, big plays eluded Rainey, and missed tackles will need to be cleaned up in this final season.
DL Andrew Brown, Jr.
Among the new staff’s highest priorities will be to coach up Brown, the one-time mega-recruit of Mike London who has yet to approach his ceiling. The potential and time are still there for Brown, particularly now that he’ll be mentored by Ruffin McNeill. However, the 6-4, 280-pounder has made just 10 tackles in his first two seasons, raising worries that he’s on the verge of becoming a bust.
LB Zach Bradshaw, Sr.
Bradshaw missed a pair of games in 2015, yet still ranked fourth on the team with 53 tackles. He’s an experienced Cavalier with three letters, starting nine games a year ago, including seven at weakside. Bradshaw has ideal size, 6-3 and 235 pounds, for the position and the quickness and anticipation skills to be an effective blitzer off the edge.
OT Michael Mooney, Sr.
Mooney was gearing up for his best season in Charlottesville when a leg injury ended his junior season in the fifth game. He was playing pretty well at the time as the Cavaliers’ blindside protector at left tackle. The 6-6, 290-pound Mooney brings 14 career starts and a hunger to rebound from 2015 into his final season with the program.
P Nicholas Conte, Sr.
UVa will have uncertainty in a bunch on areas this season. The punting game doesn’t figure to be one of them. Conte’s first season as a regular was an unbridled—and unexpected—success in 2015. His average of 44.7 yards per attempt not only led the ACC, but it also earned him honorable mention all-league, a designation he’ll look to surpass this fall.