CHARLOTTESVILLE – Virginia is coming off its best season since 2011 and its first bowl win since 2005. For the first time since the ACC went to a divisional format, the Cavaliers are the preseason favorite to win the Coastal Division.
They have a superstar quarterback returning and a potential first-round NFL draft pick at cornerback.
So while there is plenty to be excited about as coach Bronco Mendenhall heads into his fourth season at UVA, there are also plenty of questions facing the Cavs in their quest for a division title.
Here are five of the most pressing as the team opens fall practice Friday.
1) Quarterback Bryce Perkins is healthy. Can he stay that way?
Perkins gives UVA one of the ACC’s most dynamic offensive stars. It’s been a long time since Virginia could say that. With him behind center, the Cavaliers are considered Coastal Division contenders. Take his dual-threat skill set out of the offense and suddenly they don’t look all that formidable.
Perkins was splendid last season – and he was banged up. He suffered a dislocated finger in the fourth game of the year, a win over Louisville, and had surgery in the offseason. That kept his throwing work load light in the spring. But Perkins and his coaches believe he’s fully healthy now as fall camp opens. Keeping him that way will determine how legitimate a contender UVA is.
Perkins threw for 2,680 yards and 25 touchdowns – tied for the second most in the ACC—and ran for 923 yards and 9 scores last season.
Backup quarterback Brennan Armstrong has progressed after playing in four games – and preserving his redshirt year – last season. Virginia is confident Armstrong could get it through a game or two if needed this year, but he’s not the unique weapon Perkins is.
2) Can the secondary be better despite losing Juan Thornhill and Tim Harris?
Thornhill is in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs and Harris (Varina) is with the 49ers. Still, UVA’s defense – particularly its secondary – looks stout again. That’s thanks, in large part, to cornerback Bryce Hall’s decision to return for his senior season. Hall led the nation in pass break-ups last season and, as a team, Virginia ranked second in the conference in pass defense.
In juniors Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson, the 2017 ACC defensive rookie of the year, the Cavaliers have an experienced and talented pair of safeties. The duo split time starting at free safety last season, with Nelson also seeing time at nickel back.
The question will be, can they find a second cornerback? Juniors Nick Grant and Darrius Bratton are the two most obvious candidates for the spot. Grant has played mostly on special teams the past two seasons but had impressive moments in the spring. Bratton has more experience, having started five games last season as he rotated in and out of the lineup with Harris.
3) Who’s going to carry the ball now that Jordan Ellis is gone?
Ellis logged 430 carries over the past two seasons. No other running back carried more than 32 times total during that span. So with Ellis gone, the Cavaliers’ running backs are unproven, to say the least. Junior PK Kier is slotted to fill Ellis’ spot. He has a similar style to Ellis, physical and grinding but with enough burst to give the run game an explosive element.
If Kier falters, sophomore Wayne Taulapapa opened eyes in the spring. It’s also possible, with Ellis gone, that UVA will spread the touches out a bit more evenly at the running back spot, though Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae have said they didn’t see anything wrong with featuring one back so heavily.
4) Is UVA still thin on the defensive line?
It’s been one of the biggest struggles since Mendenhall and his staff took over before the 2016 season. Virginia hasn’t had any real depth on the defensive line. That started to change, some, last season as young players including Jordan Redmond and Aaron Famui came on. But by the end of the year, with defensive ends Mandy Alonso and Richard Burney both out, the Cavaliers found themselves in the all-too-familiar position of playing shorthanded up front.
With senior Eli Hanback leading the way, Alonso and Burney back, and Redmond, Famui and fellow sophomore Tommy Christ all a year more experienced, Virginia will at least start the year with a full two-deep on its defensive line.
The durable, dependable Hanback (Patrick Henry High School) has played in all 38 games of his college career to this point, starting 36 of those. He can play nose tackle or slide outside to end.
5) With Alex Gellerstedt’s injury, is UVA in trouble up front?
Virginia knew it was losing the right side of its offensive line – guard Jake Fieler and tackle Marcus Applefield – after last season. Both were seniors. Left guard R.J. Proctor, who started five games, opted to transfer to Oklahoma. Still, with the addition of Penn State lineman Alex Gellerstedt, the Cavaliers seemed like they would have the pieces to put together a solid front-five this season.
Then came word that Gellerstedt will miss the 2019 season with a left knee injury and suddenly the offensive line looked a bit more questionable. Left tackle Ryan Nelson returns after starting every game there last season as a freshman. Versatile junior Chris Glaser started eight games at left guard and could remain in that spot.
If sophomore Victor Oluwatimi, perhaps the most intriguing lineman in the program, can fill the center spot, that frees up junior Dillon Reinkensmeyer to man one of the spots on the right side.