The work done by Brennan Armstrong during the COVID-19 pandemic
solidified his role as a leader and UVA’s starting quarterback
By Jim Daves
Shelby, Ohio, with its population of just more than 9,000, would hardly be considered a hot spot for UVA football recruiting, but it’s the place the Cavaliers found current starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong.
And thanks to the dogged determination of several UVA assistant coaches, Armstrong found his way to Charlottesville and is now filling the role of quarterback and team captain in what is considered just his second-year season.
Like most youngsters growing up in the Buckeye State, Armstrong dreamed of one day donning the scarlet and silver of The Ohio State University and leading his team to victory in the fabled “Horseshoe” in Columbus.
“If you’re an Ohio guy,” Armstrong said, “you grow up watching and pulling for Ohio State.”
Even though Armstrong had a stellar high school career, that dream was not going to become a reality.
“I was one of a group of four quarterbacks that got to throw in front of [then-Ohio State head coach] Urban Meyer,” Armstrong recalled of attending a summer football camp. “That was a really neat experience. But they had offered a quarterback already and he committed, so they had basically shut it down.
“I was like, whatever. I just kept cruising along with my recruitment.”
And there were other suitors.
Armstrong could pass and run, and was rated Ohio’s top dual-threat quarterback entering his senior season. That combination made him stand out to a number of schools, including Virginia. The Cavaliers were in search of exactly that type of signal-caller to run head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s preferred style of offense.
With strong interest from Iowa State, Rutgers, North Carolina and Virginia, Armstrong opted to commit to first-year head coach P.J. Fleck at Minnesota in February 2017, just after his prep junior season.
Armstrong was impressed with how Fleck had turned around a dormant program at Western Michigan before joining the Big Ten’s coaching fraternity. It was a narrative he was familiar with.
A starter as just a ninth-grader, Armstrong helped Shelby High School improve from 2-8 to 5-5 to 11-2 during his junior campaign. At the time, he wanted to end his recruitment and concentrate on some unfinished business — winning a state title as a senior for a community that loves its football.
The city of Shelby describes itself online as: “A tight-knit community that fiercely takes care of its own, and a football town whose stadium, smack in the middle of town, speaks to the Friday night lights as the religion that it is in this community.”
“I was going to work my butt off in the offseason, and that’s when I started to grow into a leadership role. … I thought I got way stronger over the quarantine. I think the guys saw the commitment I was willing to make.”
Armstrong, who was also an exceptional left-handed high school pitcher and center fielder, followed the local teams such as the Cleveland Browns and Indians, and Cincinnati Bengals and Reds. But the quarterback he admired the most competed on a faraway field.
“Growing up, I guess my role model would be [Seattle Seahawks quarterback] Russell Wilson,” Armstrong confessed. “He was coming out of college, and I was kind of growing up. He’s just a great quarterback improviser, he’s a great distributor and a great leader. I just think he has all those traits that can make an entire team better.
“And, yeah, he also played baseball. So I always looked up to him for that, too.”
Baseball was actually Armstrong’s first love when it came to sports. He recalls playing it as a 7-year-old and not taking up football until the fifth grade. He also believes his time on the diamond is what jump-started his competitive nature.
“I always go back to saying the pitcher’s mound is where it really started,” he said. “It’s just you, mano-a-mano. There’s the batter and you. I’m going to be better than you or you’re going to be better than me, and we’ll obviously see who is better after the event.
“I just think that competitiveness just comes from playing a lot of baseball and spending a lot of time with sports when I was young. I was in the competitive world for a long time.”
Armstrong coordinated his high school classes so that he would be able to graduate in December 2017, sacrificing his senior season of baseball, in order to enroll in college early and begin competing at an even higher level.
But then a curveball came his way. Minnesota offered another quarterback the opportunity to join its program in the same recruiting class as Armstrong.
“I think we saw his film from his sophomore year,” recalled quarterbacks coach Jason Beck, who worked with offensive line coach Garett Tujague in UVA’s efforts to recruit Armstrong. “We kind of found out about him pretty early. He and his parents came down and visited, and we started from there.
“He just kind of fit what we were looking for and we liked what we saw.”
Because of the strength of the relationship that grew between Armstrong and the UVA coaches, they kept an eye on him, even after his commitment to a Big Ten opponent.
“We heard that maybe there was some pressure to make a decision and it might have been an emotional decision at the moment when he committed,” Beck said. “I thought he really liked us and that we had a great relationship. I thought he was really leaning more towards us, so [the commitment to Minnesota] kind of came as a surprise.
“We let some time pass, kind of let it calm down and then reached back out, just to open a dialogue. And he was responsive and still felt really good about us. So that kind of kicked up the recruiting. He talked to Coach Mendenhall a lot. I think he liked the plans Coach had for the program and Brennan wanted to be a part of that.”
While leading his team to a 13-1 record and an appearance in the Division IV state semifinals, Armstrong knew he had undergone a change of heart regarding his college decision, but he opted to keep it to himself, trying not to distract from his team’s goals. In late November 2017, he announced he had decommitted from Minnesota and would instead sign with the Cavaliers and enroll at UVA in just six weeks.
“I knew wherever I went, it was going to be a grind and you were going to use a lot of energy to get where you wanted to be,” Armstrong said. “I wanted to be somewhere I liked the people I was going to be around while doing that.
“I just loved what they [the UVA coaches] said. I loved what it sounded like. I could picture it and I believed in it. That was another huge impact on me because, going back to my high school career, it didn’t start off pretty. Then my junior and senior year, that’s when it really kicked into gear. I kind of knew how that felt and I just wanted to do it again.”
Armstrong admits that growing up in Ohio, he was very unfamiliar with UVA.
“Coming here as a mid-year,” he recalled, “was a little out of sorts, just trying to get used to what everything was going to be like.”
Fortunately, when he arrived on Grounds, living several rooms down from him in his dorm were the gregarious duo of defensive lineman Mandy Alonso and safety Joey Blount. They welcomed him with open arms.
“I was quickly embraced by the guys on the team,” Armstrong noted. “And it was just nice having those guys right next to me, too. I would be able to go to their room and hang out and see what they’re up to. And that quickly built into really good friendships. So, yeah, I got welcomed in pretty quickly.”
That spring Armstrong found himself playing behind transfer Bryce Perkins, another dual-threat quarterback. In 2018, Armstrong appeared in four games, twice being forced into action when Perkins went down with an injury. The second of those appearances came at Georgia Tech, where he tossed a pass to Joe Reed near the UVA sideline. The current Los Angeles Charger darted 56 yards for what proved to be Armstrong’s first scoring pass.
Last season, he played in seven contests and completed 15 of 20 passes.
With Perkins off to the NFL, Armstrong prepared himself to be UVA’s starting quarterback during winter conditioning. Then the unexpected happened. In mid-March, before the Cavaliers could hold spring practices, the university sent all of its students home for distance learning while the COVID-19 pandemic shut down college sports.
“Through the winter, I was just pushing myself as hard as I could in the weight room and running to establish that assurance for my teammates of, ‘Hey, we’re going to be good,’” Armstrong explained. “I was going to work my butt off in the offseason, and that’s when I started to grow into a leadership role.”
The veterans on the team took note and added Armstrong to their group of Task Unit Leaders. When in-person learning ended at the university and the players returned to their homes, Armstrong made a pledge to himself to find a way to get better, both physically and as a leader.
“I told myself what I would always do was just that, continue to work,” he explained. “I thought I got way stronger over the quarantine. I think the guys saw the commitment I was willing to make.”
They did. Once the team returned to Grounds in July, Armstrong was not only named the starting quarterback early in camp, he was voted as one of the squad’s captains.
“He really showed his leadership and his drive and his determination every day during winter workouts,” said sixth-year defensive end Richard Burney, also a team captain. “He knew ever since Bryce Perkins was leaving, he had to step up and be a leader. So we saw that come out of him in winter workouts.
“And whenever he was out there commanding the offense, that same leadership came out and it showed.”
“Quarterback is the most important position on the field, so a leadership role is assumed there, and he’s never backed down from it,” co-captain and linebacker Charles Snowden added. “He does not try to say too much. He just does what he knows he needs to do. He’ll lead by example, but in the heat of battle, he’ll get a lot more vocal and rally guys around him.”
That competitive nature is something Beck mentioned to the media during the team’s prolonged fall camp.
“One of Brennan’s greatest strengths is his work ethic,” said Beck, who played quarterback at BYU. “He’s a competitor. You know, he’s kind of a fighter. Bryce was very calm. Brennan’s more intense on the field. And so I’d kind of describe him as a fighter.
“Just day to day, how he carries himself, how he competes, how hard he works, I think is what set him apart, where they voted him a captain, and he leads through that.”
It is a trait other players welcome in the quarterback.
“I like that a lot. I like when we have a quarterback that’s very fiery and about that action,” UVA center Olusegun Oluwatimi said. “Brennan is very tough. He doesn’t say too much, he just leads with his actions and he’s very loose.”
“I think he’s always been skilled and he’s always had talent,” wide receiver Terrell Jana noted. “The main thing is just his leadership, his confidence, just the ability to take control of an offense. Before, he could come into a game and make plays, but now he is able to set other people up for success, which I think is a huge part of evolving.”
Knocked out of the NC State game in just his third start and sidelined for a week with a concussion, Armstrong looks at that experience as very impactful.
“It was 5:30 in the morning and I was getting up, but I wasn’t going to practice,” he remembered. “Practice at 5:30 in the morning is not fun. But it was weird not to be there with my teammates.
“It made me think about how much time you really have to play this game. You really don’t know what your future is. It could be cut short at any time, even before you think it might get cut short. I think I took the game for granted a little bit and I won’t do that anymore.
“When I returned to practice, I went out there with a good attitude. I was genuinely happy to be there. I wasn’t going to take anything for granted, because you don’t know if you’ll even be there in a week. It really opened my eyes a lot.”
The experience is just part of the twists and turns that got Armstrong to UVA and are part of his journey here.
“He has a lot to learn and plenty of room to grow. I think he can be a really good player for us,” Beck said of his maturing quarterback, who could be a four-year starter for the Hoos. “That is very unique, that he could be our guy for a couple of years. Things could get pretty exciting around here.”
Just like they did in Shelby, Ohio.