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Bronco Mendenhall isn’t entirely wrong about Virginia’s roster

Mendenhall says he has only “27 ACC-caliber football players” this year. You need a few more than that.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Virginia
Juan Thornhill
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

In a profession full of unique individuals, Mendenhall is a particularly unique coach. He gives books to his players and calls himself “an introverted, deep thinker who is in an extroverted entertainer’s job.” He says things like “I want to play the worst power-five team that we can play,” and “I believe we have 27 ACC-caliber football players on our roster today,” in public. He’s an old-school, Dan Devine-style worrywart of a coach.

He’s also a pretty good coach. He got his first defensive coordinator gig, at Snow College, at the age of 25. By 30, he was a Pac-10 DC. By 37, he was a head coach. He engineered four straight ranked finishes, five 10- or 11-win seasons, and 11 consecutive bowl games as BYU’s head man despite carrying the program through independence.

Then, seemingly on a whim, despite having coached almost his entire career in either the Pacific or Mountain time zone, he moved across the country. The Cavaliers had been to one bowl in nine years; he got ‘em back to the postseason in year two. You know, despite the apparent total lack of ACC-level talent.

He did it with a burst. On paper, UVA wasn’t any better in 2017 than it had been when going 2-10 in 2016. The Cavaliers improved only from 88th to 85th in S&P+, after all. But they carved out as much of a tactical advantage as they could, for as long as they could.

Virginia in 2017

Category First 6 games Last 7 games
Category First 6 games Last 7 games
Record 5 W, 1 L 1 W, 6 L
Avg. score UVA 29, Opp 20 Opp 36, UVA 17
Yards per play UVA 5.3, Opp 4.7 Opp 5.9, UVA 4.5
Avg. percentile performance 73% (54% off, 74% def) 25% (29% off, 38% def)

The offense was awesome for basically two weeks, averaging 8.8 yards per play against UConn and 6.4 in a strangely dominant win at Boise State. The defense had its ups and downs all year but was particularly good in tight wins over Duke and UNC. (It was also excellent in allowing only 10 points against Virginia Tech, but the Hokies allowed 10 fewer than that.)

After a 5-1 start, the advantages disappeared. The offense had one final burst in a 40-36 win over Georgia Tech but otherwise averaged just 13 points per game in the Hoos’ final six losses. They averaged a paltry 3.4 yards per play in their final two games and got humiliated, 49-7, by Navy in the Military Bowl.

The bowl itself was the victory, though. Mendenhall and his staff wrung out every ounce of talent they could, won three tight conference games, and ended a bowl drought.

Now Mendenhall has to take on an even harder job: filling the roster with talent. He’s taking the long-term approach of trying to develop mid-three-star recruits into four-star performers, which makes sense at a school like Virginia. Previous coach Mike London was able to land some star talent, but depth and development were seemingly non-existent.

The talent probably won’t be where it needs to be in 2018. UVA has to replace quarterback Kurt Benkert, two of its top three receivers (including Andre Levrone, one of the only true big-play threats on the roster), three starting offensive linemen, and four of its top six defensive linemen.

The back eight of the defense could be stellar, and the offense still has efficiency guys like slot receiver Olamide Zaccheaus and tight end Evan Butts.

But whether it’s 27 guys or a few more than that, the Cavaliers aren’t where Mendenhall needs them to be. We know he can max out what he’s got — he did it last year, and he did it in Provo — but it’s going to be a difficult job for a while longer.

NCAA Football: Virginia at Pittsburgh
Bronco Mendenhall
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports


2017 Virginia offensive radar

Benkert wasn’t amazing, but he was maybe the best thing the UVA offense had going for it last year. He got the ball out of his hands quickly, and until the disastrous final two games of the season, he was completing 60 percent of his passes with a 130.5 passer rating that, while not amazing, was on pace to be the best from a UVA starting QB since — and this is not a misprint, I promise you — Marques Hagans’ 135.5 in 2004.

The late-season plummet brought those numbers down, and it was primarily because UVA’s run game went from bad to tragic. In the VT and Navy games, leading rusher Jordan Ellis rushed 21 times for all of 46 yards, dragging down an already poor average. The Cavaliers finished 112th in Rushing S&P+, and coordinator Robert Anae, already pretty pass-prone, basically abandoned the run altogether.

UVA ran just 45 percent of the time on standard downs (127th in FBS and 15 percentage points below the national average) and 29 percent on passing downs (103rd, six percentage points below). In essence, Zachheaus became the most effective rusher, with 140 targets, 27 carries, and 1,077 combined yards out of the slot.

NCAA Football: Virginia at Miami
Olamide Zaccheaus
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Still, Benkert spread the ball around well. Zachheaus, Doni Dowling, and Levrone combined for 323 targets, but five other guys were targeted between 21 and 39 times. Five of these eight total targets — Zaccheaus, Butts, Y receivers Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois, and Ellis — are back. Granted, they combined to average just 9.3 yards per catch, but there’s efficiency potential here. And Reed’s kick return ability (29.7-yard average with two scores) hints at some explosiveness.

You still need a QB, though. It’s not immediately evident UVA has one. Sophomore Lindell Stone had his redshirt torn off to go 2-for-9 with two INTs against Boston College and wasn’t heard from again. (He could have benefited significantly from the new redshirt rules.) He was evidently beaten out this spring by JUCO transfer Bryce Perkins. Perkins, a former Arizona State signee, completed 63 percent of his passes and rushed for 353 yards in 10 games for Arizona Western last year, nearly helping to lead the Matadors past East Mississippi in the NJCAA title game.

Perkins’ mobility could make this more like the offense Anae crafted for Taysom Hill at BYU. The Hoos can only hope Perkins is as proficient as (the healthy version of) Hill, who combined 2,938 passing yards with 1,344 rushing yards in 2013.

He could at least distract defenders a bit more for Ellis, who didn’t find much room to run and didn’t do much with the room he had. In 12 games, he topped five yards per carry just once, averaging almost exactly 5 against UNC (27 carries, 136 yards). He averaged just 3.2 per carry over his final six games.

Ellis was clearly the only back Mendenhall and Anae trusted — he had 215 carries, and the No. 2 back had 26 — and this year’s primary backups (Chris Sharp, PK Kier, Lamont Atkins) combined for all of 17 carries and 72 yards. So you figure Ellis will get a lot more touches.

Perkins’ mobility could also be vital for helping out a revamped line. Center Dillon Reinkensmeyer returns, as do four players who spent part of the season in the lineup; Rutgers transfer Marcus Applefield will come aboard, too. Size isn’t an issue — the six guys with starting experience average 6’5, 308, and that’s without mentioning 6’10 redshirt freshman Ryan Swoboda — but we’ll see about talent.

The best-case scenario for this offense:

  • Perkins gets the read-option game going.
  • Anae finds a nice misdirection rhythm with guys like Zaccheaus and maybe other small, quick options like redshirt freshman Shawn Smith or amazingly-named incoming freshmen Ugo Obasi and Wooby Theork-Youmans.
  • This opens up room on the interior for Ellis and maybe the 225-pound Kier.
  • Reed starts to get open deep.

That’s conceivable. But Perkins pretty much has to be not only decent, but awesome. And this offense was really, really bad with a lot of these same pieces last year.

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Virginia
Joe Reed
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports


2017 Virginia defensive radar

It doesn’t take nearly as many ifs to make something of this defense. First, Mendenhall’s got a history — per Def. S&P+, he produced three top-20 defenses at BYU, plus a fourth as New Mexico’s coordinator. Plus, he and coordinator Nick Howell engineered a solid turnaround last season: the Cavaliers improved from 78th to 43rd in Def. S&P+.

They pulled that off despite a tiny rotation. Only three linemen, five linebackers, and five defensive backs made 10 or more tackles. I guess there are a couple ways to spin that.

  • On one hand, they can do damage with almost non-existent depth. And at linebacker and DB, at least, depth should only improve this year.
  • On the other hand, two of those three linemen, and two of three backups, are gone. You do need more than warm bodies up front, and Mendenhall and Howell have to craft a lineup out of newcomers or guys they didn’t trust enough to put on the field last year.

The newcomers could be pretty good, at least. Ohio State transfer Dylan Thompson and JUCO transfer Cassius Peat, a one-time Michigan State signee who boasted offers from Florida State, Oklahoma, and USC, could plump up the talent level at end nicely. Tackle depth will remain a mystery, though, as junior Eli Hanback (5.5 TFLs) was basically the only guy in the middle last year.

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Virginia
Chris Peace (13)
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

A Mendenhall defense sill always be defined by its linebackers, though, and UVA’s could be pretty good. Leading tackler Micah Kaiser is gone, but everybody else, from seniors Chris Peace and Malcolm Cook (combined: 14.5 TFLs, 9.5 sacks), to juniors Jordan Mack and Chris Moore (combined: nine TFLs, three sacks), to sophomore Charles Snowden, are back, and freshmen Noah Cross and Javar Garrett were among the most well-regarded signees in UVA’s February haul.

UVA was 24th in linebacker havoc rate (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays) last year, and most of the reasons for that total are back. They will only need so much assistance from the line to make this a pretty good front seven.

The pass defense was the strength of last year’s defense, both because of a nice pass rush and good work from the DBs. We’ll see if the run defense labors with the new guys up front, but in pass situations, UVA should be even better thanks to a couple of key returns.

Cornerback Tim Harris was a star recruit for London and combined three TFLs and seven passes defensed back in 2015. He was dealt a season-ending shoulder injury in mid-September 2016, then suffered a season-ending wrist injury one week into 2017. If he can stay in the lineup, and if Myles Robinson’s return sticks (he left the team last year but has come back), then UVA will have one of the better sets of CBs in the ACC. Senior Juan Thornhill (4.5 TFLs, 16 passes defensed) could thrive at either safety or corner, and junior Bryce Hall (three TFLs, 10 PDs) is a keeper, as well.

At safety, Quin Blanding is gone, but sophomore Brenton Nelson was a breakout star in 2017, and either Thornhill or another sophomore, Joey Blount, could thrive next to him.

Virginia v North Carolina
Bryce Hall
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Special Teams

UVA’s special teams unit was pretty solid, but [trigger warning, UVA fans] it had the same problem the basketball team had against UMBC in the NCAA Tournament: couldn’t make 3-pointers. They were good in returns, and solid in the punting game, but freshman A.J. Mejia had a definitive range — he was 8-for-8 on FGs under 40 yards but 0-for-4 beyond 40. The Cavaliers’ offense needs all the help it can get, so expanding that range would be wonderful.

Reed and punter Lester Coleman are back. That’ll provide a nice baseline, but we’ll see if Mejia can become more of a weapon.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Richmond NR 21.3 89%
8-Sep at Indiana 58 -5.5 38%
15-Sep Ohio 68 1.6 54%
22-Sep Louisville 29 -7.6 33%
29-Sep at N.C. State 37 -10.5 27%
13-Oct Miami 13 -15.7 18%
20-Oct at Duke 40 -9.0 30%
27-Oct North Carolina 51 -2.1 45%
2-Nov Pittsburgh 45 -2.9 43%
10-Nov Liberty 115 13.5 78%
17-Nov at Georgia Tech 53 -6.8 35%
23-Nov at Virginia Tech 21 -14.8 20%
Projected S&P+ Rk 73
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 108 / 32
Projected wins 5.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 0.0 (69)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 61 / 54
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -1 / -5.1
2017 TO Luck/Game +1.6
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 61% (50%, 72%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 6.1 (-0.1)

The schedule will make it a lot harder to burst out of the gates this time around. S&P+ projects the Hoos 73rd and has them as either a favorite or small underdog in five games (at home against Richmond, Ohio, UNC, Pitt, and Liberty), but three of those come within the last five games.

They’ll need to win those five and pull an upset — perhaps at Indiana, Duke, or Georgia Tech, or at home against Louisville — to reach the postseason again. And that’s with the defense projected a healthy 32nd.

To see success, then, the offense will have to overachieve for more than two weeks this time.

Team preview stats

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