CHARLOTTESVILLE — A year ago, Bryce Perkins spent the spring and fall learning his new teammates’ names and his new team’s offensive scheme.
Now, Perkins knows everyone in the Virginia football program. They know him. And they know what he can do.
“Coming in, I was just trying to establish myself as a football player for this team and a guy that does things right for this team,” Perkins said. “Now that, a year in and more comfortable with the guys, kind of have a foot in with this offense and this team, it’s easier for me to lead other guys.”
After transferring from a junior college last spring, Perkins — who began his college career at Arizona State — arrived at UVA with high expectations. The Cavaliers were replacing a two-year starter in Kurt Benkert and had reworked their offense around Perkins’ dual-threat abilities.
With no other experienced options at quarterback, Virginia’s season hinged on Perkins living up to those expectations. He didn’t disappoint, throwing for 25 touchdowns — tied for second in the ACC — and leading UVA to an 8-5 record and a Belk Bowl win over South Carolina.
As the season went on, Perkins began to emerge as a team leader, first with play and his work in practice, then later, as he became more comfortable, with his voice. This season, Virginia’s coaches want him to elevate that part of his game. They want him to demand more from his teammates.
“The expectations coming from him to our team will have to be more assertive, more aggressive and more straightforward than it was a year ago,” said UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall, whose team opens the season Saturday night at Pittsburgh. “He did that with his play and his ability and became a de facto captain [last season]. Now it’s what he does with that. That’s the next step for him.”
His teammates and coaches said they’ve seen him taking that step, and noted it’s easier this year, now that he’s an established commodity in the locker room.
“I think there’s more of a proven, known factor,” quarterbacks coach Jason Beck said. “Last year, he was trying to gain respect of his teammates and gain trust. He’s just starting from a whole different place this year, having been in those battles together.”
That place allows Perkins to interact with each of his teammates differently, tailoring his leadership style to their personalities, which he’s spent the past year learning.
“That’s what leaders do,” Perkins said. “You have to recognize that not everybody is the same. If you want to get the most out of a guy, you want to get his fullest potential, you got to know how they’re easiest led, how can you relay a message to them in a way they actually get it.”
With Perkins leading the way, an improved offensive line, deeper receiving corps and — potentially — one of the conference’s best defenses, Virginia was the media’s preseason pick to win the ACC’s Coastal Division, something it’s never done since the league broke into divisions in 2005.
Of course, last year’s success also means opponents are more aware of what Perkins can do. The highlight of him hurdling a Louisville defender opened many eyes, and there were plenty of other occasions where his athleticism and competitiveness helped him will broken plays into big gains for Virginia.
In addition to his passing, Perkins ran for 923 yards and nine touchdowns.
The team used his mobility to compensate when the offensive line struggled, rolling him out and away from trouble. And while the results were excellent — Virginia posted its best record since 2011 — Perkins took a beating.
He played most of the season with an injured finger on his throwing hand, a dislocation that required postseason surgery. That was the most serious of a collection of bangs and bumps Perkins played through, starting all 13 games.
Virginia will need him to stay similarly healthy enough to play this season if the program is to keep its upward trajectory.