Virginia flexed its versatility on offense in Saturday’s blowout 42-14 victory over Illinois. Seven different players got carries in the rushing game, while ten players recorded receptions, including starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong.
Through the first two games of the season, five players on the UVA roster who were originally recruited as quarterbacks have been involved in the rushing game, the receiving game, or both.
Brennan Armstrong threw for 405 yards and five touchdowns against Illinois, but also ran the ball five times for 32 yards and had one reception on a trick play - Armstrong handed the ball off to Jacob Rodriguez (a freshman quarterback), who pitched the ball in a reverse to receiver Dontayvion Wicks who threw it to Armstrong on the backside for 18 yards.
Keytaon Thompson, who transferred from Mississippi State before the 2020 season as a quarterback, has made the full transition into the designation of “football player” on the depth chart. Thompson had four carries for 24 yards and a touchdown, as well as five receptions for 68 yards against Illinois.
Ira Armstead, who is listed as the backup quarterback on the depth chart, had four carries and a reception in the game on Saturday.
Jacob Rodriguez, who is the fourth-string quarterback, was involved in the trick play versus Illinois and had three rushing attempts for 31 yards in the season-opener against William & Mary.
Even Jelani Woods, who had a monster performance at tight end on Saturday with five receptions for 122 yards and a touchdown, was a highly-recruited quarterback out of high school.
The idea of utilizing quarterbacks as versatile athletes in the offense goes all the way back to Bronco Mendenhall’s time as head coach at BYU, when Taysom Hill became prototype #1 for dual-threat quarterbacks and for using quarterbacks in other roles in an offense.
“With Taysom, he was a great runner, probably the best athlete on our team running the ball. He was the best thrower. He was probably the best receiver or tight end or running back,” Mendenhall said. “And so this thought of “what if there was someone else that could throw it to him? Why does he have to play quarterback every play? Or if we have someone else that’s anywhere similar, why do they have to just watch until we need another quarterback?”
Hill threw for 6,929 yards and 43 touchdowns and also ran for 2,815 yards and 32 touchdowns in his career at BYU from 2012 to 2016. He went undrafted in the 2017 NFL draft and eventually landed with the New Orleans Saints heading into the 2018 season. The Saints listed Hill as the third-string quarterback but have used him at a variety of positions throughout the past three seasons, including as a kickoff returner, running back, and tight end.
Sound familiar? It should.
Bronco Mendenhall has effectively applied the Taysom Hill model to the UVA offense in the past few years. Bryce Perkins and Brennan Armstrong have completely embodied the idea of the dual-threat quarterback, leading the Cavalier offense in both passing and rushing. After transferring from Mississippi State, Keytaon Thompson transformed from a quarterback into the “Swiss Army Knife” football player that has been so effective in the past couple of years that Mendenhall is now looking for other quarterbacks to play a similar role.
“And coming to Virginia, and it has been evolving over time, just looking at what resources do we have, who can we bring to UVA,” Mendenhall said. “And most of the time, the best high school football players are playing quarterback… and so as many of those guys as we can get, while we are training and developing them to be quarterbacks, they just really seem to have a great feel for the game. And they’ve probably thrown and caught more balls than any other position from youth sports all the way on. And so we’re just letting them play football.”
Players like Ira Armstead and Jacob Rodriguez are learning that they can play meaningful snaps in important roles in the Virginia offense, despite losing the starting quarterback battle. In an era of college football in which a talented player usually transfers to another school if he does not win the starting quarterback position, this system is paying huge dividends for the UVA football program in terms of retaining talented athletes and putting them on the field as often as possible.
Not to mention the fact that having so many players on the field at the same time who each pose a threat to throw, carry, or catch the ball on any given play poses serious challenges to opposing defenses.
“It just puts pressure on them to decide what they want to do,” quarterback Brennan Armstrong said. “you don't know what's really going to happen, you don't know how they're going to address it. I mean it just puts a lot of pressure on the players out there to quickly make a decision on what they want to do.”
As a former defensive coordinator, Mendenhall noted that the unpredictability of Virginia’s offense will make the preparation process much more difficult for opponents before they face UVA.
“We all have the same amount of time and it's a race. And if you can't name something, it's harder to have the resources to prepare for it,” said Mendenhall.
Keytaon Thompson believes that the sky's the limit this year for the Virginia offense, which has totaled over 1,100 yards and scored 85 points through the first two games of the season.
“We just have a lot of playmakers all over the place and I really feel like we can be a special offense this year with the plethora of weapons that we have,” Thompson said after the victory over Illinois. “I think we can be one of the most explosive offenses in the country.”
That offense will be put to the test when the Cavaliers hit the road for a primetime matchup in Chapel Hill against North Carolina on Saturday night.