Virginia QB Benkert healthy again, ready to start the season

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert says he's not the same player he was a year ago.

That player was heavier, injured and admittedly too quick to abandon the pocket. Benkert is now healthy, has lost some weight and shed the brace protecting his surgically repaired right knee.

The incumbent starter's shoulder also is now healed, and in spring practice has also shown off some other offseason improvements.

''I feel like his confidence has been on another level,'' tailback Daniel Hamm said, alluding to how Benkert often looked ''a little rattled'' in the face of pressure last year. ''He's been doing a great job staying in the pocket, making throws. You can just tell in his demeanor he's a lot more comfortable than he was last year.''

Benkert didn't use his injuries as an excuse last season when he started all but two games and the Cavaliers struggled, beginning the Bronco Mendenhall Era with a 2-10 record, but he knew where to focus beyond getting healthy.

''Being able to go back and evaluate last year when I left the pocket too soon, a lot of it did have to do with not being comfortable with the injury, but I spent a lot of time watching Aaron Rodgers in this offseason,'' he said.

It was Green Bay Packers quarterback's footwork that eventually caught Benkert's eye.

''There's sometimes he has 8, 7 seconds just because of subtle movements,'' Benkert said. ''He's not moving more than a yard or two and he's just really good at buying time ... so that's something I've been trying to improve on.''

The pocket awareness, Benkert said, is his greatest area of improvement over last season.

''It's improved tremendously, extending plays and then just little ball security things,'' he said. ''I have two hands on the ball a lot more often when I'm in the pocket now. It's a hard habit to break, but just the ball is everything and that's something I've really been focusing on now and just not making negative plays.''

During practice last week, Benkert demonstrated what he hopes are plays to come.

He effectively sidestepped a rush, took off once when his protection broke down, zipped to the outside and about 35 yards down the left sideline before diving into the end zone to roars from his offensive teammates. It was the kind of willingness to sacrifice his body that wowed teammates early last season, but also what was lost when he was hurt and had a struggling line.

''No matter how hard you try, it's always in the back of your mind and anything that's in the back of your mind clouding what you're doing, it's going to affect you whether you say it is or not,'' he said of injuries.

But not anymore.

''I feel like a new person,'' Benkert said. ''I feel great and I'm really excited for this season.''

Benkert also was able to show off his powerful arm numerous times during that practice, and said it helps having another year in the system used by Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae.

''It's not so much reacting. We're making the plays,'' Benkert said. ''We're not waiting to see what the defense is going to do to dictate it. We know our assignments moreso now than ever obviously, and we're all on the same page.''

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More AP college football: http://collegefootball.ap.org

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