Eleven days before the Virginia football team’s season opener at Heinz Field against Pittsburgh, head coach Bronco Mendenhall called the Cavaliers’ backfield a “work in progress.”
The day the Cavaliers returned home from Charlotte after last season’s Belk Bowl victory, the competition to replace workhorse running back Jordan Ellis began. Mendenhall has said many times that he prefers a single back to carry the load rather than doing so by committee, but to this point, no candidate has distanced himself from the rest.
Coming out of the spring, Mendenhall praised sophomore Wayne Taulapapa’s production and named him the favorite. On Tuesday, he was again gushing about the sophomore, who missed last spring because he was finishing a two-year LDS mission in Nicaragua.
“The most consistent running back and most trustworthy and most versatile to this point is Wayne,” Mendenhall said. “He just keeps getting better and better and better.”
Taulapapa (5-9, 210) finished his high school career in Hawaii with 3,279 rushing yards and 52 touchdowns. Mendenhall compared him to junior Lamont Atkins (5-10, 205), who appeared in all 13 games last season, mostly on special teams. He graduated from Lake Braddock High School in Northern Virginia as its all-time leading rusher with 3,656 yards.
“Those two have emerged as all-purpose, all-everything, and on top of whatever role they fill on offense, they’re going to be on special teams as well,” Mendenhall said. “Lamont can block, run, catch and he’s trustworthy, and he just keeps demonstrating that.”
Atkins said the depth chart changes daily, but right now, he’s on the kickoff, punt and punt return units. He fully embraces his role as an all-around back.
“[New England Patriots head coach] Bill Belichick has a saying, ‘The more you can do, the more valuable you are,’” Atkins said. “I pride myself on being able to expand my skills and do a whole lot of things because that just gives me more opportunities to get in and make a difference.”
After the first practice of fall camp, Mendenhall declared junior PK Kier and freshman Mike Hollins (5-9, 200) as the favorites to carry the load. Hollins, a true freshman from Louisiana, continues to impress the coaches with his strength and physicality. He finished his senior year at University Lab with 1,645 rushing yards and 33 touchdowns — all on the ground.
“Each time our first-year, Mike Hollins, touches the ball, he becomes more confident and more physical and more impressive,” Mendenhall said.
Mendenhall also mentioned freshman quarterback RJ Harvey (5-8, 190) as a potential ball carrier after Tuesday’s practice. As a senior at Edgewater High School in Florida, Harvey passed for 1,787 yards, rushed for 1,376 and totaled 48 touchdowns (25 rushing).
“RJ Harvey, at quarterback as well as any other way he can touch the ball,” Mendenhall said while checking off a list of freshmen who have caught the eye of the coaching staff this fall. “He’s a dynamic player in space.”
Kier (6-0, 235) is the biggest and most seasoned of the group, although that experience only includes 32 career carries, but Mendenhall mentioned the only senior in the running backs’ room, Chris Sharp (6-2, 200) as a leader. Sharp appeared in every game last season, mostly on special teams. He caught his first career touchdown pass at Indiana and scored on the ground in a lopsided win over Louisville.
“It’s not necessarily his voice but his presence. He’s committed to everything that we do as a program and loves how we do it,” Mendenhall said. “It’s just steady, where he’s always doing what he’s supposed to do, and when you have older players like that, who are no nonsense and matter of fact about how we do things, it’s a nice partnership for a head coach.”
It’s anybody’s guess as to who will end the season as Virginia’s leading rusher. At this point, Pittsburgh is just going to have to prepare for all of them.