CHARLOTTESVILLE – For Tavares Kelly, playing wide receiver as a freshman last season for the Virginia football team was all about learning from mistakes.
“I gained mostly what not to do,” said Kelly. “It wasn’t about what I can do. I already knew what I can do. I just made a lot of mistakes.”
What Kelly learned was not to rely on his considerable speed to get open, but rather to perfect his route running, study his opponents, break down video and understand defensive schemes.
“Maximize the little things,” is how former teammate turned NFL hopeful Olamide Zaccheaus explained it to Kelly.
With Zaccheaus gone, Kelly is part of a crew of wideouts hoping to team up to replace his production.
How big a role did the 5-foot-8, 190-pound Zaccheaus play last season? He caught 93 passes for 1,058 yards and nine touchdowns, finishing with the most catches in the ACC.
The top four returning receivers this year combined to catch 98 passes for 1,315 yards and 13 scores last season.
“When you don’t have a player like Olamide, which we don’t have, then it simply goes to schematic design, innovation, to distribute those touches among multiple people,” UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
Virginia figures to count on senior Joe Reed, who is missing the spring with an ankle injury; senior Hasise Dubois, who practiced this week with a cast on his left hand; and junior Terrell Jana in the fall.
Kelly gained experience last season, and sophomore Billy Kemp had been emerging this spring as a slot receiver before suffering a left foot or lower leg injury in practice last week. Kemp, a former Highland Springs High School standout, is expected to be out for four weeks, Mendenhall said, including missing Saturday’s spring game at Scott Stadium.
In addition to Reed, UVA expects to get sophomore Ugo Obasi back from injury this fall.
Senior tight end Tanner Crawley will take over for the departed Evan Butts, a senior last season who caught 16 passes, including two touchdowns.
Virginia also is likely to add one or more graduate transfer wide receivers this offseason, Mendenhall said.
“I’ll feel very good about where our receiver corps will be,” Mendenhall said.
That is the group that hopes to fill the void left by Zaccheaus, who also ran the ball 16 times and completed a pass.
“We’re trying to all replace it together,” Dubois said. “We don’t have one person that can replace Olamide. He was a big part of our offense.”
That offense, despite the loss of Zaccheaus and 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Ellis, also a senior last year, hopes to take another step forward in 2019.
Virginia ranked 10th in the ACC in passing, averaging 211.6 yards, and tied for third with 26 touchdown passes on its way to an 8-5 season and a win over South Carolina in the Belk Bowl.
Quarterback Bryce Perkins returns after leading UVA to its best record since 2011 and its first bowl win since 2005. Perkins threw for 2,680 yards and 25 touchdowns, about 40 percent of those yards on hookups with Zaccheaus.
While UVA might not have a do-it-all weapon like Zaccheaus on this year’s roster – though Reed and Kemp both have some of that ability – the team might have a deeper crew of pass catchers. And Dubois has a chance to be a star.
The 6-foot-3, 215-pound New Jersey native is the Cavaliers’ top returning receiver after catching 52 passes for 578 yards and five scores last year.
“The next step for me is basically to take on that leader role, be the No. 1 guy and help the team out,” Dubois said. “My success is going to help the team strive.”