Continuing To Climb
Last Year’s Coastal Division Champions Are Now Looking For More
By Vincent Briedis
The COVID-19 pandemic has created many unknowns and unique circumstances heading into the 2020 season, but the Cavaliers look to continue the program’s ascension this fall.
One of those unique circumstances came in August when the Atlantic Coast Conference went to a 10-game league schedule. With Notre Dame included for the season, the ACC announced there will be no divisions and the top two teams (out of 15), winning percentage-wise, will face off for the league championship in Charlotte, N.C., on either Dec. 12 or Dec. 19.
Virginia fans have much to be excited about coming off a special 2019 season in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers won the Coastal Division for the first time and made their first appearance in the ACC championship game.
UVA also appeared in its first New Year’s Six bowl game — the Orange Bowl — since the College Football Playoff (CFP) began in 2014, and finished ranked No. 24 in the final CFP poll and No. 25 in the final USA Today coaches’ poll. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s program also got to enjoy its first string of three straight bowl appearances since UVA went to four bowl games from 2002-05.
Virginia loses a few integral pieces to the recent success, including offensive cogs like record-breaking quarterback Bryce Perkins plus wide receivers Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed. The Cavaliers have also seen two of its defensive captains, cornerback Bryce Hall and inside linebacker Jordan Mack, graduate and join Perkins and Reed in the NFL. The squad must also replace stalwart defensive lineman Eli Hanback, who up to this point was the only Cavalier to play in all 52 games (a UVA record) of the Mendenhall era at Virginia.
Despite the loses of Hall, Hanback and Mack, UVA returns a myriad of talent on defense. The 2019 defensive unit set a program record with 46 sacks, which ranked No. 6 in the nation. The Cavaliers return 32.5 of those sacks in 2020, which is still more than the 2019 totals of 95 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams.
On offense, the next generation of UVA playmakers will fill the void left by Dubois, Perkins and Reed, and will do so behind an offensive line that returns everyone from 2019. In terms of returning starts (125), that group leads the ACC.
The Cavaliers also welcome a number of talented first-years, as well as eight transfers (seven graduate transfers), to the fold to pick up the mantle and continue the program’s steady rise with the goal of returning to Charlotte to play for, and win, an ACC championship.
Here is a breakdown of what to look for from the Wahoos this season:
Fourth-Year Linebacker Charles Snowden — An honorable mention All-ACC honoree in 2019, the Silver Spring, Md., native enters 2020 as one of the most dynamic defensive players in the ACC and potentially the nation. The 6-7, 235-pounder notched 72 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, five sacks, four passes broken up and one fumble recovery.
He was named the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week last fall after leading all players with 15 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in a win over Old Dominion. In 2018, he led the nation’s linebackers with nine passes broken up and 11 passes defended.
Snowden is on the preseason watch lists for the Bednarik Award (given annually to the nation’s top defensive player), Bronko Nagurski Trophy (country’s best defender) and Butkus Award (NCAA’s most outstanding linebacker).
Fourth-Year Wide Receiver Terrell Jana — A standout season from the Vancouver, British Columbia, native in 2019 aided Perkins’ record-breaking campaign in passing yards and total offense.
Jana was one of five FBS receivers with 100-plus targets, at least a 70-percent catch rate and an average of 10-plus yards per target in 2019. Jana was No. 2 in the nation last fall for the fewest drops with more than 100 targets. He had one drop and helped Virginia finish No. 1 nationally last fall with the lowest drop rate (1.7 percent).
He made 74 catches for 886 yards and three touchdowns in 2019. He also was No. 4 in the ACC for catches, while his total ranked No. 7 on UVA’s all-time single-season list.
Jana, who is also very involved in the community, is on the preseason watch list for the Wuerffel Trophy, known as “college football’s premier award for community service.”
Fourth-Year Linebacker Zane Zandier — On a defense that prides itself on havoc, Zandier led all Cavaliers with 108 tackles in 2019. The All-ACC linebacker finished fourth in the league in stops, while also notching 12.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. He is one of three Cavaliers with at least five sacks returning in 2020.
Playing most of 2019 with a cast on his right hand, Zandier managed to ignite a Virginia comeback over Old Dominion with a pick-six early in the third quarter. It was the first pick-six by a UVA linebacker in 21 years (Byron Thweatt versus Virginia Tech in 1998 was the last).
This year, he will become the first player in program history (thanks to a new NCAA uniform rule) to wear No. 0.
Third-Year Linebacker Noah Taylor — Also from one of the program’s strongest position groups, Taylor led all Cavaliers with 13.5 tackles for loss in 2019. He was one of three FBS players with seven or more sacks and at least two interceptions last season. Taylor was No. 2 among ACC linebackers last fall with seven sacks, finishing second to teammate Jordan Mack (7.5). Taylor also notched two key interceptions in the Commonwealth Cup victory over Virginia Tech.
Taylor joins Snowden on the preseason Bednarik Award watch list, making UVA the only school with two linebackers that made the cut.
Fourth-Year Safety Joey Blount — Following in his father’s footsteps (Tony Blount), Joey Blount earned All-ACC honors in 2019 after leading the Cavaliers with three interceptions. His 95 tackles a year ago were second on the team only to Zandier.
Blount is one of many battled-tested defensive backs that return for the Cavaliers and was one of eight players in the FBS (one of two in the ACC) in 2019 with at least 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions.
At Virginia Tech, Sept. 19 — With the revamped ACC schedule, the Cavaliers and Hokies meet in September for only the sixth time ever, and for the first time since 1987. This year’s game is the first time since 1970 the two rivals will play in Blacksburg in the month of September.
Virginia is coming off a thrilling 39-30 win over the Hokies in the 2019 battle for the Commonwealth Cup and looks to control bragging rights for a second straight season.
At Clemson, Oct. 3 — Virginia heads to Memorial Stadium for the first time since the 2009 season with hopes of avenging its 62-17 loss to the Tigers in the 2019 ACC championship game. The national runner-up in 2019, Clemson is the preseason No. 1 team in the country per the Associated Press and USA Today coaches’ polls. The Tigers are a clear consensus No. 1 team in all but one preseason magazine (No. 2 by Lindy’s) and will be a challenging early season test for the Cavaliers in their second tilt of the campaign.
At Miami, Oct. 24 — Virginia returns to Miami Gardens for its third contest at Hard Rock Stadium since October 2019. The Cavaliers will try to avenge one of its two conference losses last fall, after the Hurricanes held on late for the win. Miami secured one of the better quarterback transfers when the dynamic D’Eriq King (Houston) decided to play his last season of eligibility for the Hurricanes.
This game with Miami concludes a stretch of four road games in the first five contests for the Cavaliers with the four road opponents all coming off bowl seasons in 2019.
North Carolina, Oct. 31 — The South’s Oldest Rivalry will be played at Scott Stadium for the 125th installment. Mack Brown’s return to Chapel Hill has created a resurgence for the Tar Heels.
This matchup will be an important one because it falls on the schedule after the Cavaliers will have just finished a stretch of playing four out of five games on the road. A UVA win would start a three-game homestand off on the right foot while the program looks to continue its recent success in Charlottesville, where Virginia has won 12 of its last 13 outings entering 2020.
Boston College, Dec. 5 — The Eagles are the only ACC program UVA has never beaten, and the Cavaliers can end that streak on Senior Day at Scott Stadium. Boston College welcomes first-time head coach Jeff Hafley to Chestnut Hill in 2020 after he spent one year as the co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State.
An ACC opponent since 2005, Boston College will make only its third trip to Charlottesville and second in four seasons. The regular-season finale between the programs will be the series’ fifth all-time meeting in ACC play.
Top Position Groups
Linebacker — The linebacker group is one of the deepest returning units for the Cavaliers with the return of Snowden, Taylor and Zandier, as well as experienced fourth-year Matt Gahm and redshirt fourth-year Rob Snyder. Gahm (four career starts) and Snyder (six career starts) add additional starting experience.
Second-year Nick Jackson spot-started for Mack in the middle last fall and gained valuable reps that will benefit the 6-1, 225-pound linebacker heading into 2020. Fourth-year Elliott Brown rounds out a linebacker group that returns 19.5 sacks from 2019.
Secondary — Another deep unit for Virginia is the secondary, which returns 85 career starts. The defensive back crops was the deepest group heading into 2019, but due to injuries it was stretched thin by the time the Cavaliers lined up in the Orange Bowl.
Redshirt fourth-year safety Brenton Nelson brings 30 career starts into 2020 and returns to action after missing the second half of 2019 with an injury. In addition to the All-ACC Blount (17 starts) at safety, redshirt fourth-year DéVante Cross started all 14 games in 2019 while covering the cornerback and safety positions.
Redshirt fourth-year cornerback Nick Grant (14 starts) stepped into a starting position during 2019 preseason camp after fourth-year Darrius Bratton was lost for all of last season. Bratton, who started five games in 2018, returns healthy for 2020. Fourth-year cornerback Heskin Smith (three stars) and third-year cornerback Jaylon Baker (one start) round out the Cavaliers with starting experience in the secondary.
Also look for second-year safety Antonio Clary, who was lost for most of last season with an injury at Louisville, to provide depth. Chayce Chalmers redshirted as a first-year in 2019 but figures into the 2020 plans, while walk-on Coen King also looks to be in the mix for more playing time at safety.
Offensive Line — Seven different Cavaliers started on the offensive line in 2019, and they all return in 2020. In fact, the three offensive players with the most career starts are all linemen: redshirt fourth-year tackle Dillon Reinkensmeyer (37), fourth-year tackle Ryan Nelson (27) and fourth-year guard Chris Glaser (22).
Third-year Olusegun Oluwatimi, an Air Force Academy transfer, made his UVA debut in 2019 and earned All-ACC honors at center. Third-year tackle Bobby Haskins (12) and fourth-year tackle Ryan Swoboda (three) also made starts last year. The group blocked for Perkins, one of two quarterbacks in the nation with 3,000-plus passing yards and 700-plus rushing yards. Perkins also broke the UVA single-season passing record and single-season total offense record behind this line.
Fourth-year center Tyler Fannin returns after missing most of 2019 with an injury, as well as tackle Alex Gellerstedt, who missed all of 2019 with an injury after enrolling at UVA as a graduate transfer from Penn State.
Top Impact First-Years
DL Jahmeer Carter — A decorated defensive tackle out of Archbishop Spalding, the Severn, Md., native was a two-time All-MIAA honoree and the winner of the 2019 Al Laramore Trophy as the No. 1 lineman in Anne Arundel County.
The 6-2, 300-pound defensive tackle looks to be a cog in the middle of the UVA defensive line.
WR Lavel Davis Jr. — Standing at 6-7 and 215 pounds, Davis will be a large target for recently named starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong. The Dorchester, S.C., native earned all-state honors after making 40 catches for 622 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior at Woodland High School.
He also collected 70 receptions for 1,007 yards and 15 touchdowns as a junior. Davis was a three-sport student-athlete in high school, also participating in basketball and track.
DB Elijah Gaines — The Queens, N.Y., native attended Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., where he was first-team All-IAC at the athlete position after notching four interceptions, 20 tackles, 179 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns in 2019.
As a junior, Gaines was named second-team all-state and first-team All-IAC at the athlete position after recording four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns.
DL Nusi Malani — Another big defensive lineman, Malani is 6-6 and 250 pounds out of San Bruno, Calif. He was named the West Catholic Athletic Defensive Lineman of the Year and Bay Area Preps HQ’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 after making 61 tackles (35 solo) as a senior.
Malani added four sacks and caused one fumble as a senior and finished with seven tackles for loss. He helped Junipero Serra High School to the CIF D1-A state final and was in uniform when Serra won the 2017 CIF state championship.
WR Demick Starling — Hailing from Nashville, Tenn., Starling is a talented receiver that caught 34 passes for 454 yards and five touchdowns as a senior in 2019, earning all-region honors.
A speedster at East Nashville Magnet High School, Starling also ran track and was all-state in the 100, 200 and 400 meters in 2019. Starling also played basketball at ENMHS.
Top Question Marks Entering Fall
How do you replace Bryce Perkins at quarterback?
This was the question for Virginia fans the moment the Orange Bowl ended last December. Perkins was a program-changing player that leaves with a multitude of Virginia records.
Third-year Brennan Armstrong enrolled at Virginia the same time as Perkins in the spring of 2018 and was as capable a backup as anyone in the nation the last couple seasons. With three years of eligibility left, the lefty is 17-of-25 passing (68 percent) for 258 yards with two touchdowns over 11 career games. He was officially named the starter Aug. 27.
UVA also welcomes to the mix Keytaon Thompson, a graduate transfer from Mississippi State, and first-year Iraken Armstead, who enrolled early.
Who will step up at wide receiver after the graduation of Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed?
In 2019, UVA had a triple-headed monster at wide receiver in Dubois, Reed and Jana, with the trio all finishing among the ACC’s top 10 in receptions. Dubois and Reed graduated after tremendous careers, while Jana is UVA’s leading returning receiver with 74 catches and 886 receiving yards.
Expect second-year Dontayvion Wicks and Ra’Shaun Henry, a graduate transfer from St. Francis (Pa.), to compete for reps. Third-years Billy Kemp IV and Tavares Kelly Jr. also bring added depth to the receiving corps.
Additionally, the coaches are high on first-years Lavel Davis Jr. and Demick Starling, while UVA also brought in Central Michigan graduate transfer tight end Tony Poljan, who is a big target at 6-7 and on NFL Draft boards for next spring.
What will the kick return game look like with the loss of first-team All-American Joe Reed?
UVA may have lost a first-team All-American in Reed, who is the only player in FBS history with at least 2,700 career kick return yards and a career kick return average north of 28 yards, and one of 10 players in FBS history with 3,000-plus kick return yards.
However, the Cavaliers have brought in two Football Championship Subdivision graduate transfers that earned All-America honors themselves. Shane Simpson joins UVA after earning 2018 first-team All-America honors at Towson as a kick returner. UVA also added graduate transfer D’Angelo Amos from JMU, who earned first-team All-America honors in 2019 at punt returner.
Cavaliers At A Glance
Head Coach: Bronco Mendenhall, 25-27 at UVA (5th year) and 124-70 career (16th year)
2019 in Review: 9-5 overall, 6-2 ACC (1st Coastal)
Last Bowl Appearance: 2019 Orange Bowl vs. Florida (L, 36-28)
Total Wins 2015-19: 29 (4-2-6-8-9)
Returning Lettermen: 48 (19 offense, 25 defense, 4 specialists)
Returning Starters: 15 (7 on offense, 8 on defense, plus, kicker, punter, long snapper and holder)
Passing: QB Brennan Armstrong (196 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT)
Rushing: RB Wayne Taulapapa (473 yards, 12 TD)
Receiving: WR Terrell Jana (74 receptions, 886 yards, 3 TD)
Tackles: ILB Zane Zandier (108)
Sacks: OLB Noah Taylor (7)
Interceptions: FS Joey Blount (3)