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Mendenhall: Key Starter Positions Still in Flux for Week 1

UVA head coach says offensive line and running back order still not finalized

Fall camp has come and gone and there are just five days until UVA football’s first game of the season against William & Mary on Saturday night. UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall released the depth chart for the roster for week 1, supposedly answering a few lingering questions regarding which players will start at certain positions as well as the order of the players slotted behind them on the depth chart.

In a press conference on Monday, however, Mendenhall stated that the competition for starter and backup spots at key positions is so close that even the depth chart should not be considered as a finalized plan for UVA’s season-opener. In particular, the depth chart at offensive line and running back could be altered before gameday.

The Cavaliers have six returning offensive linemen with considerable playing experience, so it was inevitable that one deserving player was going to be left off of the week 1 starting lineup. That player is senior Bobby Haskins, who has played in 35 games over the last three seasons and is currently listed as the #2 left tackle behind Ryan Nelson.

“By the time gameday arrives, he [Haskins] could be in one of those starting spots, it’s that close,” Mendenhall said. “He’s listed as 2 but he’s really one of the five. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is starting on Saturday. It’s that close between [him] and the other five, which is a great position to be in as a coach. I’d feel even greater if it was seven rather than six.”

The Cavaliers have a wealth of veterans returning on the offensive line, with Nelson at left tackle, Olusegun Oluwatimi at center, Joe Bissinger at left guard, Chris Glaser at right guard, and Ryan Swoboda at right tackle. With Haskins in the mix, those six players have combined to start 121 games at multiple positions on the offensive line. It is likely that all six players will get substantial playing time this season. For now, Bobby Haskins is one of the best backups in the country at any position.

At the tailback position, Wayne Taulapapa is listed as the starter after being Virginia’s primary ball carrier (as a running back) in each of the last two seasons. Of course, UVA’s true rushing leaders were Bryce Perkins in 2019 and Brennan Armstrong in 2020, but Taulapapa got the most touches among running backs in both of those seasons.

Bronco Mendenhall says that Taulapapa leads a group of four running backs on the roster who have earned significant playing time, including Mike Hollins, Ronnie Walker Jr., and Devin Darrington.

“And the running backs, wow, it is so close”, said Mendenhall. “Wayne’s experience gives him a more ‘every play role’ in anything we’re doing, just cause we’ve seen him do it all. Mike Hollins adds a dynamic ball carrier emphasis that is really special.” Mendenhall added that Ronnie Walker Jr., a senior who transferred from Indiana in 2020, has a “speed and dynamic component” to his game. Devin Darrington, a grad transfer from Harvard, “might have been the most effective runner through the entire camp that we’ve had,” according to Mendenhall. Not too shabby for the fourth player listed on the running back depth chart.

“It’s really hard to say right now who and how many touches and what roles,” Mendenhall said of the tailback group. “It’s a photo finish as of Monday, even getting to Saturday, so too early to say what the plan is.”

Mendenhall certainly is not going to rush to make any of these final decisions, so it seems we may have to wait and see what happens on Saturday when the Cavaliers take the field at Scott Stadium.