Armstrong returns to practice, but will he get green light for Miami?

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Keytaon Thompson (Photo: ACC Media Services)

It may be that Virginia fans won’t know if Brennan Armstrong is back at quarterback until game time Saturday night in Miami.

Armstrong — who has missed the past six quarters due to a concussion suffered late in the first half against NC State just over two weeks ago — returned to UVA’s practice on Wednesday morning, but all media has been told officially is that he was “stretching and moving about.”

That report came from offensive coordinator Robert Anae after practice, but that was the extent of the update.

“We’re just waiting for the trainers to give us the clearance to turn him loose,” Anae said. “Still waiting to get the word. You guys need to ask Coach (Bronco) Mendenhall that kind of stuff, it’s probably best to let him address those injury issues.”

The only problem with that is Mendenhall doesn’t address the media after Monday’s press conference, so unless word leaks out, there may not be an official statement. Certainly, Virginia’s staff doesn’t want to tip its hand to Miami for this weekend’s game.

While Armstrong might have already cleared concussion protocol and is working on the game plan against the 10-point favorite Hurricanes, he could also still be hampered by his impairment.

The concussion he suffered was the first of his career, media was told, so normally those require the least amount of time to recover from. Still, there could be complications that would keep the Cavaliers’ starting QB sidelined for another weekend.

Meanwhile, Miami will have to prepare for four — count ‘em, four quarterbacks.

With Armstrong out the second half of the NC State game, senior backup Lindell Stone put the ball up 54 times. It wasn’t enough and UVA lost.

Last week against Wake Forest, Stone started for the first time in his career, but Anae threw a curveball at the Deacons’ defense when he also used Keytaon Thompson and Ira Armstead in the game plan. Thompson, who transferred from Mississippi State, kept Wake off balance with his running ability from a “wildcat” formation. Armstead, a freshman, did the same, but also added a passing threat.

Thompson is a capable passer, but wasn’t able to throw against Wake because of a shoulder injury sustained in training camp.

Stone made UVA’s offense one-dimensional because he can’t necessarily run. Thompson, though, adding a twist, made the Cavaliers a different one-dimensional offense because he couldn’t throw. Armstead could do both, but is inexperienced as a true freshman.

Could it be that if Armstrong can’t answer the bell again this week,  Armstead might be the most logical candidate because of the dual threat?

Anae said the staff is building capacity with Thompson.

“I thought he responded really well [at Wake],” Anae said. “That toolbox begins to grow and expand. We look for more great things out of him.”

But can he throw?

“Well, we’re trying to work there,” Anae said. “He did come [to UVA] as a quarterback, and quarterbacks are supposed to be able to throw the football. So yeah, he may have that shoulder … may be a little funky. But once you get back there, that’s what quarterbacks do, throw the football. So we hope to get that going.”

Anae was somewhat pleased with the three-quarterback system used in Winston-Salem. That ploy seemed to be effective in the first half when the Deacons were on their heels trying to figue out how to defend the three QBs. However, Anae seemed to go away from that in the second half and instead rely on Stone’s arm.

Part of the problem there is that Stone can’t seem to throw deep, which takes 6-foot-7 wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. out of the game plan. It also sends a signal to the defense that with no threat of a run from the quarterback, that it can pin its collective ears back and rush the passer, or simply drop eight into coverage and dare Stone to beat them with his arm.

“Well, with Lindell, we try to get stuff (short passes) distributed because that’s his top skillset,” Anae said. “The other kids, they’ve got skillsets including running the ball, but dang it, we’re not going to expand Lindell’s skill set to run the football.

“So we’ve got that pegged with Lindell. With the other two guys, we are just scratching the surface. Last week was a step forward for those other two and we are just looking forward to Lindell’s best as we move forward.”

Even if Armstrong returns healthy for Miami, it might be a good idea if UVA sticks to the option of putting Thompson and/or Armstead in the lineup for some possible plays that could shake things up.

Miami coach Manny Diaz, whose strong suit is defense, said at his press conference Monday that the rotating QBs presented a challenge. 

Anae wasn’t really buying it.

“I think that’s just defense talk, sheesh,” Anae said. “The game is 11 people, and somebody plays quarterback and somebody plays tight end, so on and so forth. Right now, that’s where our program is. We are at a spot where our starter is hurt and our answers go deeper than just one guy.”

Virginia’s offense still has struggled with ball security avoiding slow starts. Should that continue, the Cavaliers will have little chance of breaking out of its three-game losing streak against a Miami team that seems to find ways to pull out close wins.

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