Last week, Virginia offensive coordinator Des Kitchings said that competition for the starting running back job was "wide open". On Monday, head coach Tony Elliott confirmed that the job will go to the best player and that a surprising candidate has emerged as a frontrunner: 5'8", 180-pound senior Perris Jones, who joined the UVA football program as a walk-on back in 2018.
"Perris has actually been the guy that's been trying to separate himself by doing the little things right," Elliott said of the UVA running back competition on Monday.
Jones has spent the majority of his career filling roles on Virginia's special teams unit and as a running back on the scout team in practice. This year, however, the senior has caught the eye of the new UVA coaching staff beginning back during spring football. Jones stole the show at the UVA spring game, amassing 129 yards on nine carries, including an explosive 75-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage in the second half.
Jones has continued to impress this fall and is apparently pushing junior Mike Hollins, who came into camp as the presumptive favorite to get the bulk of UVA's carries this season.
The 5'9", 208-pound Hollins is the most experienced of Virginia's running backs, as he had 49 carries for 213 yards and two touchdowns last season. Elliott has high expectations for Hollins, but he has not had the strongest start to camp, cramping up on the first day of practice last Wednesday.
"[Hollins] is battling for a starting job. The best availability you can have is availability. Mid-practice, he cramps up and he's not able to finish practice," Elliott said on Wednesday.
Hollins has been able to get through the three practices the team has had since then without any cramping issues, but Elliott is still hoping to see more from him.
"I'm still challenging him. He's talented, but got to become more detail-oriented," Elliott said on Monday. "I anticipate that Mike's gonna turn it on because he's gonna see that the best guy is gonna play."
Elliott told the running backs unit that the player who performs the best in practice will earn the starting job and specifically mentioned that Jones' status as a former walk-on is irrelevant.
"And I told the team, and told Perris in front of the team, 'If you want the job, go take the job. I don't care if you came here as a walk-on. If you're the best guy, then it's going to be your job."
Elliott has a great deal of experience coaching running backs. He spent most of his time at Clemson in charge of the Tigers' running back unit and coached great players like Travis Etienne, Andre Ellington, and Wayne Gallman. On Monday, he talked about needing to find different approaches to coach each individual running back in order to get that player to respond and reach his potential. Elliott specifically mentioned former Clemson running back Roderick McDowell as someone who needed to have a fire lit under him in order to perform at his best. Elliott believes a similar approach is needed for Mike Hollins and the push from Perris Jones will hopefully motivate Hollins to take it to another level in practice.
"So, hopefully that'll light a fire in Mike," said Elliott. "We know we need Mike. I just need him to be his best. In order for us to establish the run, we got to have multiple guys playing at a high level, not just one... So, Mike's gonna feel it this camp because he's just too talented not to perform for us at a high level."
Watch Elliott's comments on the UVA running back competition below:
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