Preview 2017: Virginia Cavaliers
Previewing and looking ahead at the Virginia Cavaliers season – and what you need to know.
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What You Need To Know About The Virginia Offense
Offensive coordinator Robert Anae came over from BYU with head coach Bronco Mendenhall, but his offense didn’t work quite as well as it needed to with a defense that couldn’t hold its own.
There were some positives here and there, but the O finished 112th in the nation in yards and 115th in scoring. There’s just enough talent returning, though, to expect some semblance of improvement if the front five is better.
The line struggled in pass protection and couldn’t seem to generate much of anything for the ground game, and now three starters have to be replaced along with both of the top running backs.
The passing game that wasn’t efficient enough – but averaged close to 240 yards per game – has weapons to improve in a hurry. The top two receivers are back for veteran quarterback Kurt Benkert to throw to. The Cavalier quarterbacks threw for close to 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns, but the 16 picks were a problem and they weren’t accurate enough.
The offense should be able to come away more, but for any sort of improvement, the Cavaliers have to …
Biggest Key To The Virginia Offense
Find a running game. Benkert should be just good enough to carry the offense at times, but it would be nice to have some semblance of a ground attack to steady the ship.
Taquan Mizzell and Albert Reid are gone after combining for 1,420 yards and 11 touchdowns, but the Cavaliers failed to hit the 200-yard rushing mark on the year, only ran for two touchdowns or more three times, and never seemed able to take control of games to give the defense a break.
There’s not going to be any rushing production from the quarterbacks, so the hope will be for a few breakout players to emerge, like Jordan Ellis, the leading returning rusher with just 61 yards and a score.
What You Need To Know About The Virginia Defense
It should’ve been better, and now it should be improved considering what’s coming back.
How can a defense give up 447 yards and 34 points per game – and be as consistently bad as this one was – with linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding as the anchors?
There was little production against the stronger ground games and nothing happening against the teams that wanted to throw. But there’s hope.
Start, again, with Kiser and Blanding, who should’ve and could’ve been top 50 draft picks and will almost certainly go in the first round next year. Including Kiser, three starters are back in the linebacking corps of the 3-4 alignment, while three starters are back in a secondary that couldn’t seem to come up with picks against anyone but Duke.
The front three could use more beef on the inside, but the decent-sized ends should make up for it. But somehow, the defense has to generate more pressure and start making more big things happen. The D just needs to get off the field.
Biggest Key To The Virginia Defense
Can the secondary finally start to stop someone? With three starters back – including an All-America safety in Blanding – can’t the Cavaliers start to be better against the decent passing teams?
They came up with five interceptions against Duke, and just four in the other 11 games, while getting hammered for 300 yards or more six times. The times the Cavs weren’t getting hit through the air, they were getting crushed on the ground. Now the defensive backs have to come up with more plays.
Virginia Will Be Far Better If …
The defense is able to not break so much after it bend. Offenses had few problems scoring whenever they got the chance. There were only two close losses that could’ve gone the other way, but still, it mattered that Oregon converted all five of its scoring chances – four with touchdowns – inside the red zone. That was the norm, as teams came away with scores 38 times in 41 trips inside the 20.
Best Virginia Offensive Player
QB Kurt Benkert, Sr. – The Cavaliers need the 6-4, 230-pound Benkert to start stretching the field more and crank up an offense that went absolutely nowhere at times. He threw 11 picks, brings no mobility, and was too off in several game, but he threw 21 touchdown passes – Virginia’s two wins came with his two 300-yard passing days.
The former East Carolina Pirate has the experience and the skills, but now he has to get the offense to move. With Missouri transfer Marvin Zanders leaving, it’s all Benkert’s gig.
2. WR Orlamide Zaccheaus, Jr.
3. WR Doni Dowling, Sr.
4. RB Jordan Ellis, Jr.
5. OT Jack English, Sr.
Best Virginia Defensive Player
S Quin Blanding, Sr. – If you want to argue that Micah Kiser is the team’s best defensive player – and maybe the best in the ACC – no debate here. It’s splitting hairs, but an elite safety is a bit harder to find than a brilliant all-around playmaking linebacker.
An all-time elite tackler, Blanding came up with over 100 stops in each of his three seasons – 358 in all – with six picks and just enough plays behind the line to be one of the league’s greatest all-around defensive backs.
At 6-2 and 215 pounds, he’s got ideal size to be used like an extra linebacker, with just enough range to be used in any situation in the secondary. He and Kiser will be first rounders in next year’s NFL Draft, but first, they’ll be the stars for a defense that should be stronger around these two.
2. LB Micah Kiser, Sr.
3. DE Andrew Brown, Sr.
4. LB Chris Peace, Jr.
5. CB Juan Thornhill, Jr.
Key Player To A Successful Season
OT Jack English, Sr. – It’s all going to start with an offensive front that has to be far better. The line allowed 36 sacks and paved the way for just 3.6 yards per carry. Unfortunately, this could still be an issue with just two starters returning, meaning English has to be fantastic at one of the tackle spots.
The 6-5, 300-pounder worked over the last two seasons at left tackle, and now he has to be a stronger force in all phases. He’s not going to be a true anchor who’ll blast away, but he has to grow into a star pass protector.
The Virginia Season Will Be A Success If …
It gets to six games and a bowl. That’ll mean it’ll have to be four wins better, far tighter, far stronger offensively, and able to win the 50/50 games it couldn’t last season. This year’s team should be good enough to beat Connecticut, Boston College, Duke and Indiana at home – at least it needs to be – and pull off an upset at some point against a Georgia Tech or even a Virginia Tech. And forget about any dreams of a bowl without starting out hot against …
Key Game To The Virginia Season
Sept. 2 vs. William & Mary – Virginia, come out roaring. It wasn’t just that the Cavaliers started out last season with a 17-point loss to Richmond, it was the 0-3 start that included a loss to a miserable UConn team, too.
The Cavaliers get the Huskies again this year, but at home. Having to play Indiana in Charlottesville is easier than having to go to Oregon – even a bad Oregon – like they did last season. Come out hot, rip through the FCS team on the slate, and kick off 2017 with a far different tone than they did in 2016.
2016 Virginia Fun Stats
– Fumbles: Virginia 14 (lost 10) – Opponents 19 (lost 8)
– 2nd Half Scoring: Opponents 207 – Virginia 124
– Field Goals: Opponents 16-of-21 – Virginia 5-of-10