Armstrong waits for his chance to be ‘the guy’ at QB for UVA

By Scott Ratcliffe

Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong (Photo: UVA Media Relations)

Spring football practice is a time for new leaders to step in and get adjusted to their new role, something that is especially important when replacing a star and team leader.

That was to be the scenario for Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who is champing at the bit to get his chance to lead the Cavaliers offense as the new starter, after learning for two years behind Bryce Perkins.

Unfortunately for Armstrong, his teammates and athletes at every level across the country, things have indefinitely been put on hold to attempt to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Head coach Bronco Mendenhall and his staff are doing everything possible to maintain a system and structure amidst the current circumstances, and that includes daily communication with his staff, his players, strength coaches, nutritionist and more.

 “That would’ve been a huge step for us, just to connect with wide receivers and just get real-time reps,” the left-handed Armstrong said, adding that while he can still go throw a bunch of footballs, it’s just not the same as going up against a talented defense every day.

“It sucks, but we’re just going to work with what we’ve got going forward,” he said.

UVA quarterbacks coach Jason Beck communicates daily with Armstrong via web-conferencing technology, as Armstrong is able to send video of throwing for evaluation and feedback. The two get together regularly through Zoom or Skype, Armstrong said, to go over film together and share their thoughts in real time, trying to keep things as close to “normal” as they can.

Armstrong said their already-tight relationship has only grown stronger during the crisis. He loves the fact that he can give his own personal thoughts to Beck, who will apply those ideas.

The red-headed signal-caller agrees with a few of his current and former teammates, who have stated in interviews this week that this is all just another challenge for Mendenhall.

“Nothing’s going to throw him off,” said Armstrong, who explained how the coach has been finding ways for everyone involved to stay productive.

“He’s doing the best he can, and I think he’s on top of everything,” said Armstrong.

While finding a gym in his hometown of Shelby, Oh., is obviously difficult (the state is under a stay-at-home order), Armstrong and his younger brother, who’s a high-school sophomore, have been working out every morning in a garage-gym at a friend’s house, complete with a squat rack, bench rack and other equipment.

“That’s been very convenient for us,” Armstrong said.

A screenshot of Armstrong during his online chat with the media Friday.

Armstrong added that he recently took an eight-mile bike ride, something he normally wouldn’t do, just attempting to find different ways to stay in shape. He throws passes to a few former high-school teammates, who are also home from their respective schools.

He had a specific regular schedule on Grounds, but now he’s doing the best he can to stick to his normal routine at home. Armstrong pointed out that he’s had some previous reps with UVA’s first-team offense, particularly in fall camp when Perkins wasn’t at 100 percent, which he said were “huge” in terms of what’s to come. He said his mindset heading into this redshirt-sophomore season will be a little different than the previous two years, but that overall, he’s always been ready to assume the starter role if called upon, and that part hasn’t changed a bit.

“I always prepared to be ‘the guy,’” explained Armstrong. “Even if something did happen [to Perkins], if nothing happened, I was always preparing to be ‘the guy.’ Now that I am stepping into a role where I’m ‘the guy,’ a little bit’s changed in a sense of the role, stepping in and being more of a leader, but other than that I’m preparing, I’m doing what I do like I’ve always done.”

The preparation aspect is something he said he took away most from Perkins. Armstrong said he really wanted to get a good idea of what all went into a college quarterback’s game-week rituals, noting how different a level it is than in when he played in high school.

“Obviously watching him on the field was great and fun, but my biggest thing was just seeing how he prepared for the games,” Armstrong said of Perkins’ amazing athletic ability.

Armstrong said he runs a little bit harder than Perkins, a la former Mendenhall product Taysom Hill, who is now thriving in a unique role in the NFL. Armstrong said he’s watched film of Hill with Coach Beck, even while Perkins was still on the roster, and said the coaches see a similar, hard-nosed running style. Virginia is expected to keep much of the same offensive schemes in place, but Armstrong isn’t sure what wrinkles may be added to cater to his own skillset.

“I’m actually really excited to see how it works,” he said. 

Armstrong admires Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, both on and off the field, particularly for his creativity and ability to extend plays on the fly.

“He runs when he needs to and picks up first downs when he needs to, but his main goal is to distribute the ball,” Armstrong said of Wilson.

Armstrong, who wore jersey No. 98 as a redshirt freshman and No. 10 last season, is pondering a return to his high-school number, 5. With every jersey number up for grabs each preseason, we’ll have to wait and see what he decides to roll with.

He has appeared in 11 games over his brief Wahoo career, completing 68 percent of his passes (17 for 25) for 258 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He’s also carried the ball 16 times for 93 yards, an average of 5.8 yards per tote.

His career highlights include rushing four times for 50 yards against Louisville in 2018, when he registered his first touchdown pass — a 56-yarder to Joe Reed — in relief of Perkins against Georgia Tech a few weeks later.

Since he didn’t play more than four games that season, he was able to redshirt and gain an extra year of eligibility, thanks to a new NCAA rule that was adopted the same year.

Armstrong posted his most successful passing numbers in late-game duty against William & Mary back in the 2019 home opener, when he went 9 for 10 for 103 yards. His second career touchdown toss went to rising second-year receiver Dontayvion Wicks in UVA’s 55-27 win over Liberty in late November.

Those were just brief flashes of Armstrong’s capabilities, and unfortunately Wahoo Nation will have to wait a little longer for their next glimpse. Armstrong said he plays with emotion, and is excited to get his chance to show Cavalier fans what he brings to the field.

“Once I get into it, I get into it,” he said.

As a senior at Shelby High School, Armstrong led his team to a state semifinal appearance (the first in school history) and a 13-1 record, throwing for 1,933 yards and 30 touchdowns while rushing for 1,105 yards and 22 scores. In one game as a junior, Armstrong accounted for 549 yards (358 passing, 191 rushing) and an eye-popping nine touchdowns (five through the air, four with his legs) in a record-tying 83-82 loss to Tiffin Columbian.

His teammates already know what he can do.

“Brennan Armstrong is as crafty as they come,” said UVA linebacker Charles Snowden. “He knows who he is, he’s obviously not as explosive as [Perkins], but he knows that and he’s okay with that. He’s still a gifted runner, gifted thrower, he’s shown great leadership qualities thus far. The meetings we have, he’s always the first one up there. He’s not an overly vocal guy, but he talks when he needs to, the guys respect him, and I think he’s a good football player and I think he’ll be able to lead this team.”

Armstrong believes that although his current vocal-leadership skills may be a work in progress, he’s ready to take on such challenges.

“Once I step into that role, I obviously will talk more,” he admitted “I think it’s my job to talk more. It will happen. I don’t want to force things, I don’t like to force things on my other guys or anything like that, it just needs to come naturally. If things need to be said, I’ll say them, but other than that I’m just going to keep grinding and just set a good example,”

Soon-to-be NFL cornerback Bryce Hall said that more often than not, it was challenging to face Armstrong in intrasquad scrimmages and practices.

“Brennan gave us a lot of headaches,” Hall said earlier this week, regarding going up against Armstrong in practice. “I think it was very annoying, just from a defensive perspective. When plays break down, he was able to make things happen with his feet, and I think that’s a whole different threat that a mobile quarterback brings, is the ability to extend plays with their legs and their athleticism. I think Brennan Armstrong does a really good job of doing that — creating and extending plays, just with his feet and his athleticism.”

A media member pointed out Hall’s recent remarks and asked what he thought about the “annoying” comment. Armstrong took it as a compliment and simply said, “I just play.”

The southpaw’s also got the vote of approval from his predecessor, Perkins.

I wouldn’t be worried at all if I were a Virginia fan,” Perkins said of Armstrong taking over the job. “He’s a great playmaker, he can move. He has a cannon for an arm, a natural gunslinger. He sees the field so well. I would be encouraged because he’s back there.”

The ‘Hoos are losing not only Perkins, but also his top two targets in receivers Reed and Hasise Dubois, who combined for 152 catches, 1,741 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2019 alone. Never fear, says Armstrong. He believes the receiving corps is “still very strong,” as he put it.

“[Dubois and Reed] were our two guys, but you’ve got Terrell Jana back, I’m really excited about [Billy Kemp IV], I’m excited about [Tavares Kelly Jr.] and I’m excited about Wicks,” Armstrong said. “Honestly, I’m not worried.”

Armstrong said he and Jana keep in touch quite often.

“Me and him are always bouncing ideas back and forth, just kinda keeping up with each other,” he said.

If and when the season finally does roll around, Armstrong is eager to face a couple of the country’s top teams in Georgia and Clemson early on, while adding that although the long losing streak is over against rival Virginia Tech, there’s still one more box to check off — winning at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg.

“That’s another thing we’ve got to do this year,” said Armstrong, along with winning a bowl game to end the season on a high note.

Have patience, Virginia football fans. Brennan Armstrong really has a chance to be something special.

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