As Virginia Football gears up for summer training camp on Friday, here are 5 things to keep in the back of your mind, while the countdown to the September 2nd Kickoff at Scott Stadium begins.
1) Quarterback: Kurt Benkert looks to have secured the QB1 spot. As a graduate transfer, he split time last season with returner Matt Johns. Benkert threw for 2,552 yards, averaged 232 yards per game, and held a 56.2 completion percentage. He sports a strong, solid arm that could make for some explosive offensive plays this season. Now fully recovered from a knee injury he suffered at the beginning of his 2015 season at East Carolina, Cavalier fans can expect to see him run a little more aggressively this season. That combination could make Benkert a dangerous leader of this offense.
2) Running Back: A critical replacement this offense needs to find quickly is someone to step in for Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell, who signed as a free agent with the Baltimore Ravens in April. Albert Reid also graduated, leaving Virginia without their two primary ball carriers from the 2016 season. Coach Mendenhall is relying on Daniel Hamm, a rising Senior, and Jordan Ellis, a rising Junior, to step into those positions. Hamm carried the ball 3 times for 4 yards and one touchdown; whereas, Ellis ran 14 times for 61 yards and one touchdown. This is all in comparison to Mizzell’s 940 rushing yards and five touchdowns. The coaches do expect to see some playing time from their several incoming freshman Lamont Atkins, PK Kier, and Jamari Peacock. Atkins was named Virginia’s Gatorade player of the year, as he rushed for 1,904 yards and 31 touchdowns for Lake Braddock High School. There is a lot of talent that could potentially fill this position, which is a good sign.
3) Defense: Coach Ruffin McNeill left Virginia for Oklahoma in early June. Vic So’oto will step into his role, having shadowed him this past year as a graduate assistant. His familiarity with the program is a positive sign for the team. All-Americans Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding announced that they would return for their final season. The two take the top spots in the conference’s total tackles. The team and fans are happy to have them back, as they will help the entire unit try to better their defensive rank in the conference. Last year, they ranked 12th in total defense out of 14 teams. They’ll also have to replace an experienced nose tackle in Donte Wilkins, an important position to complete the defense.
4) Special Teams: This could be the most interesting unit, as it goes from not having many options last season to having several quality ones. First off, a new arrival on grounds, Brian Delaney. Delaney was ranked by 247Sports.com as the fifth ranked kicker in the country. He oversaw punting and kicking duties at Westfield High School in Chantilly, Va. Coach Mendenhall mentioned at ACC Media Days that Delaney might already be solid enough to take over for this team in the fall. It was also announced at Media Days that Andrew King would return to the team for his redshirt junior season. Last year, he was not on the roster after a violation of team rules. King has a big leg, knocking in a 55-yard field goal as a high school player. Redshirt Freshman Nash Griffin is the only kicker who has experience in the Bronco Mendenhall Era. Whoever wins the spot, it will be comforting for all to know that there are options and experience in this position.
5) Schedule: The team kicks off the 2017 season on September 2 against in-state foe William & Mary. That might be the only relatively easy game the Cavaliers face, as a long stretch of competitive teams follows. Their non-conference schedule is composed of Indiana, UConn, and Boise State. The Hoos also face an ACC schedule that includes Louisville, Miami, and Virginia Tech. It’s not an easy road to a six-win season and a hopeful bowl berth. If they can do well early and secure some wins, the team showed last year that it’s difficult to count them out in any ACC conference game.
Virginia has 36 days of hard work to figure out all the questions and improve their strengths. But Hoo’s Counting?