Virginia didn’t expect a leadership change after a 6-6 season, but in between the team lost its regular season finale to Virginia Tech and its Fenway Bowl appearance was canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak, head coach Bronco Mendenhall decided to — at least for now – to retire from college football.
Enter Tony Elliott, Clemson’s former offensive coordinator and the man now tasked with keeping the proverbial ball rolling for the Cavaliers, who led Mendenhall to an ACC Coastal title in 2019 at the height of his tenure. Elliott inherits a roster rich in offensive passing talent but lacking in offensive line experience. It’s a unit that hasn’t really established a traditional running game in any of the last four seasons.
Defensively, UVA brings back five starters from a unit that has tended to give up big games over the past two years.
The Elliott era begins on September 3 at home to FCS Richmond, the same state opponents who defeated Mendenhall on his Virginia debut. These new hires are inheriting a program in much better shape than the one Mendenhall took on in 2016. And the expectation is that Elliott – who has spoken about building a “model college football program” – will be better equipped to take off.
See also: Athlon Sports’ College Football Top 25 for 2022
Preview Virginia’s Offense for 2022
Virginia is bringing back most of the firepower from its record-breaking offense, including quarterback Brennan Armstrong and top wide receivers Dontayvion Wicks, Keytaon Thompson and Billy Kemp IV. Also, UVA will get 2020 breakout star Lavel Davis Jr. back after the he missed last season with a cruciate ligament rupture.
Those skill positions are loaded for Elliott’s first season, but the offensive line is a big question mark that could derail the entire product. Virginia must replace all five of its starters with no obvious candidates ahead of time. Senior Derek Devine, who worked at both guard and tackle in the spring, is the program’s most experienced returnee. UVA went into the transfer portal for right tackle Mac Hollensteiner (Georgetown) and left tackle John Paul Flores (Dartmouth). However, Hollensteiner opted to return to Georgetown in June, adding even more concern to the trenches for Elliott in 22.
Elliott has talked at length about bringing more balance on offense and advancing UVA’s lagging traditional running game, but a spring injury to Ronnie Walker Jr. combined with a lack of experience and depth on offense may have undone that progress.
In the end, Armstrong’s running ability could have as much to do with offensive success as his pro-caliber arm.
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Preview of Virginia’s Defense for 2022
The Cavaliers have been struggling on defense lately, and some top playmakers — including Mandy Alonso, linebacker Noah Taylor, cornerback Nick Grant and safety Joey Blount — are gone.
UVA plans to be schematic multiple under new coordinator John Rudzinski, so both three- and four-man fronts are in the plans. The Cavaliers primarily used a five defensive back look in the spring.
Inside linebacker Nick Jackson led the team with 117 tackles last season. A big question will be where Virginia gets its passing rush from. Of the Cavaliers’ 19 layoffs last season, 12 came from players who are no longer with the team. Georgia Tech transfer Chico Bennett Jr., who missed out last season with a knee injury, and second full-back Mike Green are two players who could make an impact in this area.
In the defensive backfield, former Louisville transfer Anthony Johnson returns as cornerback to lead a unit that allowed 21 passes of 30 yards or more, the fifth most in the ACC.
See also: ACC Predictions for 2022
Preview of Virginia’s Specialists for 2022
UVA asked a lot of Brendan Farrell last season. After working primarily as a punter and opening the season without a starting job, he ended up playing placekick and kickoff for most of the year. With Jacob Finn and his 44.2 yards per punt average gone, Farrell might take a look there as well. Freshman kicker Will Bettridge wants to challenge Farrell for extra point and field goal work.
Kemp appears to be the team’s main punt returner again. Kemp and running back Mike Hollins shared kick return duties last season, but UVA would like to get more pop out of that spot this year.
The ACC Coastal division looks to be pretty open once again, but in Elliott’s first season, UVA may be missing a few pieces to capitalize on. The Cavaliers should offer plenty of highlights in the passing game, with Armstrong, Wicks and Davis emerging as true stars. But a lack of offensive line experience, no established running back, and a defense that has yet to prove it won’t be torched for big wins can be too much to overcome.
The schedule is mixed. Playing in Illinois in Week 2 will be an early test, and Old Dominion and Coastal Carolina are both capable Division I opponents. A tough three-game stretch from late October to mid-November when UVA face division opponents Miami in back-to-back weeks , North Carolina and Pittsburgh will probably be the decisive test of the season. The good news? All three of these games are at home.
If Virginia finds a way to protect Armstrong and limit the big-game hiatus, the Cavaliers could surprise people in Elliott’s first season. If not, he might struggle to top his predecessor’s 2-10 debut six seasons ago.