It was not the kind of first year Bronco Mendenhall envisioned when he took over as the football coach at Virginia, but his Cavaliers were extremely competitive despite what their 2-10 record said.
“Our team is improving,” the head coach said. “We are making slow and steady steps toward building a program of significance and consistency. I like the culture, and I like the execution that’s starting to manifest, in addition to the culture, and I think we have the makings and the foundational element of what a good program might look like with time, which will be needed.”
The biggest loss for Virginia off of last year’s team was running back Taquan Mizzell. He rushed for 940 yards last season on 5.0 yards a carry, with 4 touchdowns. He was also a presence in the receiving game with 52 catches for 404 yards and 2 more scores.
The Cavaliers also have to replace three starting offensive lineman in Eric Smith, Michael Mooney and Jackson Matteo.
“Every area of the program in taking over isn’t in the exact same spot that I thought coming in,” Mendenhall said. “The amount of work that it’s going to take is something that I’m invigorated by, but it’s going to take everything myself and my staff has within the time frame that we all want to win and have success in, and so it’s just simply the perspective of not only what we currently have, what the ACC looks like, and what it’s going to take to accomplish our goals.”
That of course starts at quarterback where Kurt Benkert is back after a solid first season as a starter. Benkert threw for 2,552 yards and 21 touchdowns last season.
“Kurt is throwing the ball very, very well,” Mendenhall said. “He’s making very good decisions, and he’s improved his game from a decision-making and game-management standpoint. I would say significantly he’s trending upward, and he’s healthy, and he’s more fit. So significant progress, which needed to happen; significant improvement, which needed to happen, and I’m comfortable with what I’ve seen from him, and I really like the direction he’s going.”
Early enrollee and all-purpose back Lamont Atkins looks to make an impact early. The running back position has a good battle with Jordan Ellis being the frontrunner with competition from Atkins and senior Daniel Hamm. Also in the race is early enrollee Jamari Peacock.
On the offensive line, look for Ryan Nelson to possibly make an immediate impact when he makes it onto campus. Also Notre Dame transfers John Montelus and Colin McGovern could make a run for starting spots as well.
“It’s not an accident that we targeted, number one, that many and at that position,” Mendenhall said. “It’s one of the biggest holes we have to fill in our program currently to provide the stability and the progress that we’re going to need, and so we have two players actually coming from Notre Dame, which I’m excited about, Colin McGovern, which was a starter for Notre Dame most of the season. I like his versatility.”
Defensively Virginia brings back star linebacker Micah Kiser. He totaled 134 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 2016. He was one of the country’s best tacklers last season. Safety Quin Blanding is returning as well after a monster year.
Quin had 120 tackles at the safety position and 2 interceptions.
Overall, the defense should be similar to last season with the only major competition being for the nose tackle position. Sophomores Juwan Moye, Osiris Crutchfield, James Trucilla and Christian Brooks will all be in competition for that spot.
“We’re much more clear now of what has to happen now that we’ve seen a point of reference, an entire year’s body of work,” Mendenhall said. “So we’re excited, invigorated, and absolutely know it’s possible, but also it’s going to be difficult, challenging, and we’ve got to get our roster managed correctly so we can practice and have enough depth to where we can develop the team the way we want.”
—Photo Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports