Virginia football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Cavaliers, best players and season prediction.
What You Need to Know About the Virginia Offense
Develop a capable quarterback. That’s the overriding edict for a program looking to play fast and with hastened tempo under new coordinator Robert Anae.
The first-year staff has already gotten a good look at seniors Matt Johns and Connor Brewer, without coming to a resolution, and East Carolina transfer Kurt Benkert arrives this summer. The quarterbacks will get plenty of support from RB Taquan Mizzell, who’ll mesh nicely with a philosophy that wants to ram the ball with authority right at opposing defenses.
WR Doni Dowling appears poised for a breakthrough junior season after being slowed a year ago by his recovery from knee surgery. Anae remains concerned about the depth and the execution of his O-line, though the guards got a boost from the addition of North Carolina graduate transfer Jared Cohen.
Still, at the end of the day, how well UVA ultimately handles the offensive transition heavily depends on the summer fallout of the battle involving Johns, Brewer and Benkert.
Biggest Key To The Virginia Offense
No rush to anoint a QB. Bronco Mendenhall’s first quarterback in C’ville is … yet to be determined. Unlike most schools that narrow the competition in the spring, the Cavaliers’ list of contenders actually grew after landing East Carolina transfer Kurt Benkert in May. Benkert will be joining a pair of seniors, well-travelled Connor Brewer and incumbent Matt Johns, who’ll need to cut down on his mistakes to keep the job. Based on spring results, Mendenhall and coordinator Robert Anae are in no hurry to name a starter just yet.
What You Need to Know About the Virginia Defense
UVA was dreadful on defense last year, ranking last in ACC scoring D. But last season was last season. And this season, brings renewed hope and enough returning talent for Bronco Mendenhall to slowly turn things around. Mike London left behind a well-stocked cupboard for his successor, including first-team all-star FS Quin Blanding and LB Micah Kiser.
Mendenhall, a coordinator without the title, began installing a new 3-4 look in the spring, a project that’ll continue in earnest in August. And while question marks most definitely loom, the Cavs have impressed their new head coach. Senior Donte Wilkins has so far looked like a natural at the nose, one of the most important positions in a 3-4 alignment.
DE Andrew Brown and SLB C.J. Stalker are a couple of former London gems hoping to start performing like blue-chippers in 2016. And if Juan Thornhill can build on his offseason, and Tim Harris finally delivers as a senior, there might be promise after all at cornerback.
Above all else, the Hoos must operate with tighter fundamentals, because a lack of talent is not this group biggest stumbling block.
Biggest Key To The Virginia Defense
Alignment shift. A new staff means a new base defense, as the Hoos will move from the 4-3 to a 3-4. The change could launch the careers of two linemen, senior Donte Wilkins and junior Andrew Brown. Wilkins was lights out during the spring at the nose, arguably the most important position in this system. Brown is the former five-star gem from the 2014 recruiting class who’s pining to bust out as a strongside defensive end. Both players could vie for All-ACC honors and for the attention of pro scouts in 2016.
Virginia Will Be Much Better If …
quarterback play improves. Poor play from behind center felled Mike London’s regime in Charlottesville, and it’s been an issue in these parts for far too long. In fact, the Hoos haven’t finished higher than No. 6 in ACC passing efficiency since 2010. And last year, they threw 18 interceptions, three more than any other team in the league. If UVA is to move forward as an offense and a team, it needs Matt Johns, Connor Brewer or Kurt Benkert to direct the attack with consistency, accuracy and a dearth of costly mistakes.
Best Offensive Player
Senior RB Taquan Mizzell. The Cavaliers don’t want Mizzell to have to do everything for the offense in 2016. But he can, if needed. And he proved it a year ago, leading the team with 671 rushing yards and 75 receptions. Mizzell possesses the diverse skill set of a back who can continue to play on Sundays, and his toughness between the tackles will nicely suit a new staff that wants to run the ball assertively.
Best Defensive Player
Junior LB Micah Kiser. It’s also easy to make an argument here for junior FS Quin Blanding. However, Kiser was a revelation in 2015, topping the team in tackles, stops for loss, sacks and forced fumbles. He plays with tremendous anticipation and closing speed, and he won’t quit on a play until the whistle blows. As an inside linebacker in Virginia’s new 3-4 defense, Kiser will once again be in a position to make a ton of plays, out in space and in opposing backfields.
Key Player to a Successful Season
Senior QB Matt Johns, senior Connor Brewer or junior Kurt Benkert. Folks can talk about O-line depth or receiver replacements for Canaan Severin, both of which matter. But none of it will make a difference unless one of the three veteran quarterback contenders serves as a positive complement to backs Taquan Mizzell, Daniel Hamm and Albert Reid. As the Cavs install an up-tempo attack, they’ll need competency and accuracy from behind center now more than ever.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
the Cavaliers qualify for a bowl game in Bronco Mendenhall’s first season—just the second postseason invitation in the last nine years. It’s not as unattainable as recent history might make it seem. Virginia won four games in 2015, and five of its losses were by a touchdown or less. And not has Mendenhall brought more discipline and accountability to C’ville, but he and his staff have also inherited a roster of talent deep enough to make a run at bowl eligibility in 2016.
Nov. 26 at Virginia Tech. True, it’ll be an intriguing battle of first-year head coaches, Bronco Mendenhall vs. Justin Fuente, but it’ll be much more than that for the visitors. The Cavaliers are hungry for a breakthrough moment against the Hokies, which have won 12 in a row in this instate rivalry. If Mendenhall can end the dry spell in his debut season, it’ll send his rebuilding plan into hyperdrive, while signaling to top recruits in the commonwealth and the fertile mid-Atlantic region that UVA is turning the corner.
2015 Fun Stats
– Interceptions thrown: Virginia 18 – Opponents 4
– Sacks: Virginia 27 – Opponents 21
– Third-down conversions: Virginia 43% – Opponents 37%