After rough opening practice, Mike Hollins is working hard to win UVA’s running back job

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Mike Hollins (Photo: UVA Athletics)

With the bulk of August training camp ahead, the starting job at running back is there for the taking and veteran Mike Hollins is throwing everything he has at winning the spot for Virginia’s opener against Richmond on Sept. 3.

Hollins, a 5-foot-9, 208-pound tailback from Baton Rouge, La., has been waiting for his turn for a while. He had limited touches as a true freshman in 2019, returned home to Hawaii and sat out the 2020 season due to the world-wide pandemic, and was a backup to three-year starter Wayne Taulapapa in 2021 in Robert Anae’s pass-happy offense.

With Taulapapa having transferred to Washington, the position is wide open between Hollins, Ronnie Walker Jr. (who transferred from Indiana last year but is currently sitting out of camp mending a leg injury), Miami transfer Cody Brown (who came in after spring ball), senior Perris Jones, sophomore Amaad Foston and a handful of true freshmen.

Hollins knows what it’s going to take for him to emerge as the starter.

“Be consistent,” Hollins said after a recent practice. “That’s it, consistently stacking days on top of each other. If I do that, with my talent, I believe I can at least lead the [running backs] room. Being a leader plays into that. That’s the way to the top.”

What aggravated Hollins was his start to camp. The first practice, he cramped up midway through drills and had to sit out, which got him promptly called out by Tony Elliott. Hollins hadn’t hydrated properly, not realizing that water isn’t enough, but electrolytes are a key ingredient to battle the blazing 90-degree temperatures that greet the Cavaliers daily in camp.

Nutritionists have helped Hollins prepare better so to avoid a repeat scenario, something he would rather avoid in future practices. All he could do that evening was to get vocal and support the offense from the sidelines, a measure of leadership in itself. Being called out by the head coach, though, particularly on the first day of practice, is not something a player wants to be remembered for.

Fast forward to Monday night’s practice and Hollins made it through without any snags. Elliott, who has coached some good running backs during his time at Clemson, has kept a watchful eye on Hollins, mostly because he wants to see if this kid has what it takes to make UVA a threat on the ground.

“Mike’s made it through practice consistently since [the cramping episode], but I still challenge him,” Elliott said. “He’s talented, but he’s got to become more detail oriented.”

Elliott said that with Walker and Foston out and with Brown trying to learn the offense that Jones has been the brightest light among the running backs in early fall camp, because he’s been doing “the little things.” The coach is hoping Jones’ performance will push Hollins and others to move forward.

“I anticipate Mike’s going to turn it on because he’s going to see that the best guy is going to play,” Elliott said. “I told the team, and I told Perris in front of the team, that if you want the job, go take the job. I don’t care if you came here as a walk on. If you’re the best guy, then it’s going to be your job.”

Elliott said he hopes that sent a message to the entire running backs corps.

“I hope that lights a fire in Mike,” the coach said. “We need him to be his best in order for us to establish the run. We’ve got to have multiple guys playing at a high level.”

One of those guys who could develop into a threat is Brown, a high school star from a solid program in the Atlanta area, who signed with Tennessee, but transferred to Miami after a coaching change, then left Miami for UVA after another coaching change.

“For Cody, it’s a little change of pace coming here, but he’s very talented,” Elliott said. “Still learning the playbook, still has to work on the details, need him to catch the ball a little bit better. I think a lot of it is that everything is just spinning for him right now with new terminology. He wasn’t here in the spring, but he’s a one-cut and get down the hill kind of guy with some violence. We’ve just got to get him going in the right direction.”

Elliott expressed a desire for a more balanced offense, but don’t expect it to be almost 50-50 run-pass like at Clemson last season. The Cavaliers are blessed with a brilliant passer in Brennan Armstrong and a fleet of elite receivers.

As new offensive coordinator Des Kitchings said last week, “when we’re in situations where we need to run the ball, we need to produce.”

Expect that to be UVA’s more realistic goal behind an unproven and inexperienced offensive line rather than a dominant run game like back in the days of George Welsh.

From 1985 to 2000, Virginia produced nine 1,000-plus yard rushers, guys like Barry Word, Marcus Wilson, Terry Kirby, Tiki Barber, Thomas Jones and Antwoine Womack. Two of those, Barber and Jones, went on to become two of the top 25 rushers in NFL history before they left the game.

In the 20-plus years since those days, UVA has only had three running backs to post 1,000-yard seasons: Alvin Pearman (2004), Kevin Parks (2013) and Jordan Ellis (2018).

Last year, UVA’s running game was an embarrassment. Taulapapa led the Cavaliers in rushing with a mere 324 yards and had the fewest carries by a UVA running back (62) since 1963. No surprise that Virginia finished No. 105 out of 130 FBS schools in rushing with 123 yards per game, boosted by Armstrong’s running ability and Keytaon Thompson’s versatility as a back and receiver.

Because the offense has been so pass oriented for the past several years, Hollins welcomed a change of philosophy.

“It just makes me hungry, makes me want to shine when I get the ball, to get the right to carry the ball,” Hollins said. “I’ve been doing that all spring. As hungry as I am and that receiving corps and Brennan and the offensive line coming together, I’m very excited. I want all [the running backs] to shine, but I’ll get mine, too.”

Elliott has run a high-tempo offense in camp, something the players have had to adjust to, but Hollins is fine with it.

“It especially takes it out of you in the heat, but it only makes us better, and should make the games easier than practice,” the running back said. “When we’re out there struggling in practice, you know it’s going to be easier in the stadium.”

He realizes that Elliott has been pushing him hard, but understands the rationale behind it.

“I think he sees the potential,” Hollins said. “He acknowledges the potential and he won’t let me settle until, like he says, empty the tank. He loves to say that because he says that’s how you reach your full potential. You never want to take a talent or a gift for granted and I appreciate that.

“You don’t grow if you’re not uncomfortable every day. I believe he has a good balance of pushing, loving, leading. I appreciate it. I love being pushed, I love being coached because it only makes you better.”

Hollins not only pushed himself on the field, but also off. He plans to graduate in three-and-a-half years come December with a double-major (African American studies and American studies), then pursuing his master’s.

Elliott has had to push guys to be their best during his career at Clemson. While most of the Tigers’ backs during their domination of the ACC were solid, some had to be prodded.

“Rod McDowell (2013) was a guy that I had to get there,” Elliott remembered. “He was a guy that played behind Andre Ellington, and so it’s different when you go to practice every day and there’s a big separation and you know you’re the No. 2 guy. So, I had to push him to be ready to transition and he was able to get it his senior year and have a great year.”

Ellington was Clemson’s leading rusher in 2011 and 2012, with 1,000+ yards each season. McDowell managed to rush for 1,025 when he took over the job the following year.

Elliott said all backs are different, but he believes Hollins has what it takes.

“Mike’s going to feel it … this cat is just too talented not to perform for us at a high level.”

Wahoo Nation is waiting.