blue ridge bank

Bronco believes this is the year for Virginia’s running game to break through

By Jerry Ratcliffe

keytaon thompson

Virginia Cavaliers quarterback Keytaon Thompson (99) runs the ball down the field and scores a touch down during a game against Abilene Christian Wildcats on Saturday, Nov. 21 at Scott Stadium. Virginia wins 55-15 against Abilene Christian. Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference (Erin Edgerton/Daily Progress).

It’s been almost a decade since Virginia’s running game finished in the top five of the ACC. Bronco Mendenhall’s aim is to change that this season.

Cavalier fans have to go all the way back to the surprising 2011 season – Mike London’s best at 8-5 – to find a run game that was worthy of discussion. That year, UVA finished fourth in the conference, hoisted by the powerful legs of Perry Jones.

Since then, Virginia has finished among the ACC’s top 10 rushing teams three times in nine years: seventh in 2012, and ninth in both 2013 and 2020, the latter being the highest during the Mendenhall era. Twice (in 2017 and 2016), the Wahoos were dead last in the league.

During his spring presser, Mendenhall just came short of swearing things will be different this season.

Citing five quality running backs, three quarterbacks that are threats to run, and an experienced returning line, the UVA coach was optimistic.

“This then is the year where Virginia’s run game finally breaks through,” Mendenhall said.

Wayne Taulapapa, who started the bulk of UVA’s games last season, returns along with Ronnie Walker, Jr., who transferred in late from Indiana last season and got some experience late in the season. Then there’s Mike Hollins, who opted out in 2020 due to Covid concerns, and was expected to have a good year. Hollins has returned.

Amaad Foston, who put up big numbers in the Georgia High School ranks, also joins the program as well as Harvard grad transfer Devin Darrington.

With all that competition, it appears that Taulapapa is going to be difficult to beat out for the starting job, but that’s what spring and fall training camps are all about.

“Wayne has been almost unbeatable in every drill of the offseason,” Mendenhall said. “So this is the deepest our running backs have been since I’ve been the coach. That’s five quality running backs and great competition.”

The last two seasons, Virginia’s basic running attack has been led by dual threat quarterbacks Brennan Armstrong (552 yards and 5 rushing touchdowns in 2020), and Bryce Perkins (769 yards and 11 rushing TDs in ‘19). Perkins also had 923 rushing yards and 9 TDs on the ground in 2018, but was short of team leader Jordan Ellis, who finished that season with 1,026 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Last fall, when Armstrong was injured, UVA used backup quarterbacks Keytaon Thompson and Ira Armstead to throw teams off in kind of “wildcat” runs. Both are back, and Thompson, who couldn’t throw the ball all season due to a training camp shoulder injury, is fully healthy now and will be throwing the football according to Mendenhall.

“As you’ve seen the last two years, even in the transition from Bryce to Brennan, we still hovered right around the 30-ish point park offensively, which is a great mark when you’re changing quarterbacks,” Mendenhall said. “I love the capacity and just seeing what’s possible.

“As you already know, the traditional runs for our running backs haven’t been our strength, but our quarterback runs have been very good. When we put those two things together, that’s kind of become our running game. So we would love to see some more production from traditional runs, while we keep the creativity of our quarterback runs.”

There’s the possibility of Armstrong or Thompson, and then there’s the running backs. Mendenhall prefers to have one running back get the bulk of the carries, so he’d like to get more production out of a single back if that’s possible.

“It’s probably the best chance ever in the time I’ve been at UVA,” Mendenhall said. “We have the number of resources, with our offensive line, almost all intact returning with a great new tight end (6-foot-7 Jelani Woods, who was Oklahoma State’s starter last season), and Grant Misch returning. There’s a physical presence.”

The offensive staff had to be creative last season with its running game because it rarely was effective enough to control the ball game, but it’s difficult to contend for a division championship without a reliable running game.

“I’d like to get more traditional without losing the creativity,” Mendenhall said. “I’d like more impact and more production from traditional-ish type of runs.”


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