THE TIME IS FINALLY HERE…IT’S GAME WEEK. Please excuse our excitement. We’ve waited a long time to write that sentence. As everyone very well knows by now, your Green and Gold takes on the Cavaliers this Saturday in their house. If you haven’t already bought tickets, or at the very least blocked out your Saturday afternoon, shame on you. But luckily, there’s still time to plan out your weekend.
To hit the ground running this season, we decided to recruit Paul Wiley, who write’s for UVA’s popular “Streaking the Lawn” SB Nation Blog to bring us up to speed on this year’s orange and blue team to the north. So dust off those football jerseys, break out the Tribe car magnets, and get your popcorn ready. LET’S GO TRIBE.
UVA’s new Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall is coming off a rough start, finishing last season with a 2-10 record. Do you see him taking a big step forward with this team in his second year at the helm — and if so, how will they do it?
I am cautiously optimistic about the UVA program moving forward in 2017. The first season of the Mendenhall era was marred by injuries, on top of both sides of the ball having to transition to new systems. The silver lining of those injuries, though, was that lots of young players got experience in 2016. Those players have—by all accounts—become bigger and stronger and faster after a full season and offseason in the new strength program. Players more physically able, and more mentally immersed, and facing a more forgiving schedule: that’s a recipe for progress.
Then-junior QB Kurt Benkert [a transfer from East Carolina] finished last season with 2,552 passing yards, 21 TDs, and 11 INTs. Now a senior, what kind of production do you expect to get out of him this year?
We learned this summer that Benkert played a good portion of last year with a shoulder injury. He’s now recovered from that, and is another year removed from the knee injury that led to his departure from ECU. More than almost any other player, the reports from camp have focused on Benkert’s improvement. There have been several variations on, “It’s like he’s a completely different player.” Hopefully the Hoos won’t need to throw as much in 2017 as they did while frequently playing from behind in 2016. I’d think a successful season from Benkert would look like roughly the same yardage, 25ish touchdowns, and hopefully single-digit interceptions.
Aside from quarterback, who are the Offensive players W&M should watch out for this coming week?
Watch for running back Jordan Ellis (#1). With the departure of now-Baltimore Raven Taquan Mizzell and graduated senior Albert Reid, there’s a vacuum for playing time and carries among the running backs. For the second straight year, Ellis was honored by his teammates with the first choice in the annual jersey number selection. He’s done the work to step into a major contributor’s role. But the focal point of the offense is going to be slot receiver/H-back Olamide Zaccheaus (#4). OZ led the team with seven receiving touchdowns in 2016 and provides a dynamic in the open field that is unmatched elsewhere on UVA’s roster. He’ll get lined up everywhere from wide to the slot to the backfield—maybe even taking some direct snaps—to create matchup advantages and put him in space.
In the same vein, who are some Defensive players that W&M will need to keep an eye on this week?
The Virginia defense will live and die by the performance of the big three: safety Quin Blanding (#3), linebacker Micah Kiser (#53), and defensive end Andrew Brown (#9). Blanding and Brown are the two highest rated recruits of the last ten years for Virginia, and Kiser has been All-ACC twice. They need to orchestrate the other pieces of the defense and provide down-to-down consistency for the entire unit to function cohesively. The big-time disrupters are the OLBs, Chris Peace (#13) and Malcolm Cook (#17). Cook was one of the consequential absentees from 2016, sitting out the season after being diagnosed with a potentially fatal cardiac disease. He spent the season learning at Coach Mendenhall’s elbow, wearing a headset and calling in defensive plays. Now fully recovered, Cook brings athleticism as a converted safety (as is Peace), and will be used as a havoc-wreaking speed demon at the edge of Virginia’s defense.
What do you see as the Cavaliers’ biggest weakness this season?
The lines are still thin, symptomatic of the depth problems across the roster. There are likely to be freshmen called on for support at lots of positions, but an injury here or there could launch those youngsters into starting roles. If Benkert misses any meaningful amount of time, the offense will be handed over to Lindell Stone—a heralded prep quarterback who has reportedly adopted the system quickly, but who is nonetheless a 19-year old with no college experience.
How do you predict UVA will do this year? Any bold statements or win-loss predictions?
The answer above will determine this one. If EVERYTHING breaks Virginia’s way—if the injury bug stays away, if the mental aspect of the game clicks for a few guys—there is the potential for 6 or 7 wins. I think 4 or 5 is more likely. While it’s a little sad that “almost Bowl eligible” would represent a major step forward, it’s the result I think is most probable for 2017.