Anae said Virginia’s running game should be best during Bronco era with Wahoos

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Virginia’s Wayne Tualapapa drags ODU’s Calvin Brewton over the goal line for a touchdown (Photo by John Markon).

No sooner had Virginia’s first Coastal Division championship football season ended than Bronco Mendenhall pointed toward the future.

One of his priorities for the 2020 UVA campaign was to take the running game to the next level. There’s really no reason that shouldn’t happen with the team’s entire starting offensive line returning along with its top rusher, a promising underclassman and a transfer from Indiana.

“The run game is all about being physical,” Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae said this week during a video conference call with media. “We do need a better balanced run attack and I do believe that’s the direction we’re headed.”

UVA had one of the worst running games in the country for most of last season and finished No. 117 out of 130 FBS teams in rushing. While the Cavaliers had some decent running performances later in the season, there’s no question that if Virginia wants to defend its Coastal title, the ground game must improve.

Of UVA’s 1,697 yards rushing last season, 769 of those came from now-departed, dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins, who accounted for 11 of the offense’s 28 rushing TDs. Perkins ran the ball 227 times out of Virginia’s 442 overall rushing attempts. He actually gained more than 1,000 yards rushing but was sacked for 277 yards, which took away from his total.

Wayne Taulapapa, who will be a junior this fall, was the principle ball-carrier outside of Perkins and gained 473 yards rushing, and was most lethal down close to the goalline. Mike Hollins, who will be a sophomore, was intentionally held back as a rusher, but looks to have a promising career.

While the Cavaliers saw reserve running backs PK Kier and Lamont Atkins leave the program last month, Virginia potentially added depth on Friday when Hopewell native Ronnie Walker Jr. transferred to the program from Indiana. Walker hopes to gain a waiver that would allow him to play this coming fall.

“I think Ronnie Walker is one of the greats to come out of Hopewell High School, and there’s a couple of them,” Anae said, referring to Walker’s younger brother, TreVeyon Henderson, a rising senior at the school who recently committed to Ohio State.

UVA offensive coordinator Robert Anae speaks with the media Friday.

“We look forward to having a Virginia native be a part of the University of Virginia,” Anae said. “When we first got here, we went hard [toward recruiting] and the team hadn’t shown much on the field. Then, coming off an Orange Bowl invitation and being in the (ACC) championship game, a young man wants to be close to family because you know, especially a time like this family means everything.

“We feel that’s a huge blessing for our program. We hope that the waiver goes through because that kid is coming home during a time like this, but we hope all that stuff gets cleared and Ronnie’s ready to play next fall.”

Anae was referencing the COVID-19 virus pandemic in terms of families being together.

Walker had 27 carries for 80 yards rushing last season for the Hoosiers to go along with 12 receptions for 112 yards and a score. He had slipped to No. 3 on Indiana’s depth chart behind Stevie Scott and Sampson Jones.

Anae also pointed out that to run the ball just to run the ball is pointless, something that UVA fans have been familiar with and frustrated by over the past several seasons.

“We have spent four years recruiting and developing our offensive line, and going into this season we’re at the best spot in that regard with depth,” UVA’s OC said. “There’s going to be competition for the guys up front. For the most part they now have a couple of years of experience.”

Anae went on to say that the running game appears to be in the best shape during Mendenhall’s era, which is headed into its fifth season at Virginia.

He also said that with Perkins, Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois being the main figures gone, Virginia is not changing its offense.

“It will be similar, but not exactly the same is the best way to answer,” Anae said. “Nothing lines up exactly. From top to bottom, nothing will totally be exactly the same. I will say there are things that guys in the program have demonstrated pretty good competency, and so there will be things that will look a little different next year.”

Because of the pandemic lockdown, Anae bemoaned the fact that Virginia hasn’t been able to develop quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who has three years of eligibility remaining after getting mostly spot duty last season. Anae said there hasn’t been any growth for Armstrong with the absence of spring practice, where most quarterbacks advance their game in 11-on-11 situations.

“Brennan is a program vet, and if we can deliver on what we claim to be, which is a developmental program, then that applies to the quarterback,” Anae said. “Just take a look at the huge questions when Kurt Benkert came into the program (transfer from East Carolina). 

“You know, ‘What are we going to do? Can we manage that position?’ And [Benkert] developed. The same question was asked about Bryce Perkins (who transferred from Arizona Western Community College).”

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