In the first four years of Bronco Mendenhall’s tenure as head football coach at Virginia, the Cavaliers increased their win total each year from 2-10 in 2016, to 6-7 in 2017, to 8-5 in 2018, to a 9-4 run in 2019 that included an ACC Coastal title and a trip to the Orange Bowl. In 2020, that stretch of continued improvement came to an end as the Hoos went 5-5 and ended the season with a disappointing loss against Virginia Tech. With a brand new season right around the corner and UVA looking to continue to establish a winning football program, it is time to preview the 2021 Virginia Cavaliers football season. In this four part series, we will break down the UVA offense, defense, special teams, and schedule.
Note: This is part one of the four-part analysis of the 2021 Virginia football season. Be sure to stay tuned for parts two, three, and four arriving later this week.
The Virginia Cavaliers offense had an up-and-down year in 2020, averaging over 42 points per game in wins versus just over 19 points per game in losses. Just as the lack of offensive consistency was a reason why the 2020 Cavaliers failed to reach their full potential, the flashes of offensive efficiency shown in victories last season is a big reason why 2021 could be a successful year for the Hoos. At the very least, Virginia brings back a very experienced group with eight starters returning, including all of the starting offensive line.
Brennan Armstrong had some sizable shoes to fill after the dynamic and record-setting Bryce Perkins graduated and went on to the NFL. Armstrong did an admirable job in 2020 stepping in and performing the role of dual-threat starting quarterback, throwing for 2,117 passing yards and 18 touchdowns and rushing for 552 yards and five touchdowns. Armstrong’s accuracy left something to be desired as he completed 59% of his passes and threw 11 interceptions. However, Armstrong showed moments of brilliance as the leader of this offense in his first season starting under center. He was the first quarterback in UVA history with back-to-back games of over 400 yards of total offense and is one of only seven returning quarterbacks in the country with a PFF quarterback grade over 90. If the offensive line can protect Armstrong, there is a great chance that he can make major strides in 2021.
Keytaon Thompson is technically Virginia’s backup quarterback but in reality, Thompson acts as a Taysom Hill-like swiss army knife player. He recorded three total touchdowns (one receiving and two rushing) in 2020 but his most notable contribution was a rush on a fake punt to convert on a late fourth down to seal an upset over North Carolina. Look for Thompson to use his athleticism to play a significant role in the UVA offense once again this season.
The Virginia offensive line returns not just five, but six players with starting experience. There is still some competition taking place in training camp to determine the starting tackles but those six players have started a combined 121 games for the Cavaliers. The offensive line was solid in 2020, ranking No.1 in the ACC (and No. 2 nationally) in tackles for loss allowed and No. 2 in the ACC in sacks allowed. However, Virginia’s rushing game was virtually nonexistent outside of Brennan Armstrong. The O-line will have to set the tone with their blocking in order for the Cavaliers to have a reliable run game this season.
As stated before, the top rusher for the Cavaliers last season was not one of the tailbacks on the roster. It was quarterback Brennan Armstrong who recorded a chunk of his 552 rushing yards scrambling after passing plays got blown up. Senior Wayne Taulapapa led the running back group with 395 yards and five touchdowns in 2020. After rushing for 112 yards and three touchdowns in 2019, sophomore Mike Hollins sat out 2020 and is set to return this season. Ronnie Walker Jr. transferred from Indiana last year and was cleared to play for UVA halfway through the 2020 season. The senior tallied 221 rushing yards and two touchdowns in his time at Indiana and could see some significant touches out of the UVA backfield this year. Again, it will largely come down to the Virginia offensive line to determine if any of these running backs go anywhere when they are given the ball this season.
Billy Kemp IV headlines the Virginia receiver core. The senior slot receiver recorded 67 receptions for 644 yards in 2020, but had just one touchdown catch. Kemp was ranked second in the ACC with 6.7 receptions per game and was an All-ACC honorable mention last season. The 6’7” Lavel Davis Jr. burst onto the scene as a freshman last year, tallying 20 receptions for 515 yards and five touchdowns, making him the only player in the country with over 500 receiving yards with 20 or fewer catches. Unfortunately, Davis suffered an ACL injury in the spring and his timetable for a return is still unclear. Sophomore Dontayvion Wicks is back after missing all of 2020 with an injury. Former transfer Ra’Shaun Henry had seven receptions for 206 yards and four touchdowns last year. Jelani Woods, a 6’7”, 265 pound transfer from Oklahoma State, will be the primary tight end for the Hoos this season. Woods was a two-time All-Big 12 honorable mention and recorded 31 receptions for 361 yards and four touchdowns for the Cowboys. Expect Woods to be a major key in the UVA offense, both as a pass catcher and as a run-blocker.
The Cavaliers lost talented receivers Terrell Jana and Tony Poljan, but there are still a number of capable targets for Brennan Armstrong to throw to this season. If the experienced UVA offensive line can dominate the line of scrimmage to establish a viable rushing attack and give Armstrong time to throw, we could see a lot of wins at Scott Stadium on Saturdays this fall.