Three Keys to Virginia Cavaliers Success in 2017
A Nightmare Beginning
Last season, the Virginia Cavaliers opened the season against the Richmond Spiders. The Spiders, only an hour down I-64, were supposed to be an easy win for the Cavaliers. A nice, easy game to start off the 2016 season. Following the first quarter, however, the Spiders weren’t following the script. They held a healthy 13-0 lead after the first fifteen minutes and the 20,000+ fans braving the beautiful Charlottesville scenery were in shock.
Virginia struggled mightily to score on the Spiders and were in disarray on defense. The Spiders moved the ball at will on offense. Cavaliers defenders missed tackles and assignments. This pitiful performance led to a disheartening 37-20 loss in head coach Bronco Mendenhall‘s debut.
A Season of Redemption?
Virginia enters the 2017 season with Mendenhall promising a turnaround for the Cavaliers. With a disappointing 2-10 season behind them, Mendenhall must build a winning culture that strives on values of hard work and perseverance. The Cavaliers play was inexcusable at times last season. Players displayed a lack of fight and hustle in multiple instances. This blame partially lies on the shoulders of former coach Mike London, who instilled a relaxed setting that gave players a little too much freedom.
Enter Mendenhall, who pushes for accountability and picking up your teammates at all times. He does not blame one individual for a loss. In fact, he stresses a loss as a collective loss among the team. With Mendenhall’s leadership shaping the culture, the future is bright for Virginia football. Here are the top three keys for the Cavaliers to have success on the gridiron this season.
Improving the Offensive Line
The Cavaliers offense finished towards the bottom of the ACC in multiple categories, including passing offense (10th), total offense (12th) and rushing offense (14th). The offensive line struggled to protect the quarterback. Kurt Benkert was scrambling under three seconds after the snap. The line couldn’t move people off the ball in the run game. The line was confused during parts of games, as they set blocks on the wrong people for specific running plays.
Mendenhall has immediately addressed this as he has prioritized this position on the recruiting trail. For the 2017 season, Mendenhall signed five offensive linemen and landed two graduate transfer linemen to bolster the position. Both Colin McGovern and Brandon Pertile are projected starters.
Adding depth to this position will help improve the program mightily because there will be players with experience and maturity at this position. Moreover, these same players will also be able to provide veteran leadership and assistance to the younger players. Currently, offensive line coach Garett Tujague, has been using his offensive line drills to perfect the footwork and hand motions of his players.
Consistency at the Quarterback Position
This spring, Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert has been optimistic about his team’s play for the upcoming season. Benkert says he’s fully recovered from his shoulder injury that limited his play last year. A transfer from East Carolina recovering from a torn ACL injury, Benkert did not join UVA until fall camp. He has now spent this entire summer getting to know his teammates and the offense as the unit tries to improve on a disaster season. Mendenhall is pushing him to work and practice at a higher level than ever before. Benkert, as a result, has shed some pounds and has gotten rid of his knee brace that affected his mobility.
Benkert should do better if he builds confidence in the pocket and makes the proper reads. He has an additional year of experience and starts as his foundation to work off. Benkert’s added mobility will be the difference maker on drives, especially after losing two key playmakers on offense.
Rectify Pass Defense
In his last six seasons at BYU, Mendenhall’s defense graded out better than his offense numerous times. Six members of the starting front seven were able to gain four tackles for loss. Middle linebacker Micah Kiser was named second-team All-American in 2016 after finishing atop the ACC and fourth in the nation with 112 tackles in each of the past two seasons. Unfortunately, he is a one-man wrecking ball.
While Kizer was able to set the tone against the run, the Cavaliers pass defense had gaping holes that were nearly impossible to plug up with their personnel. They ranked 89th in pass defense, allowing a 61% completion rate and 13.9 yards per completion. The defense allowed 25 touchdown passes to only nine interceptions from an average group of quarterbacks.
Cornerback position was a major question mark. Injuries played a significant role in the secondary, including starter Tim Harris. This led to the conversion of safety Juan Thornhill and freshman Bryce Hall to take over duties. Although they were able to play okay defense, combining for five interceptions and 11 defensive breakups, they were wildly inconsistent. With a year under their belts and work in the weight room, these players will enhance their play tremendously.
Make or Break Season?
These days, coaches don’t have a lot of time to turn programs around. With the money and marketing thrown behind Power 5 programs, administrators and boosters demand results — and quickly. Last season was unquestionably a disaster for the Cavaliers.
If the Cavaliers don’t show improvement this season, Bronco Mendenhall’s tenure at UVA might be a two act play.
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