Defense Dominates In Virginia Spring Scrimmage

By Jerry Ratcliffe

UVA senior Bryce Hall (left) intercepts a pass in Saturday’s spring scrimmage (Photo courtesy UVA Media Relations).

Saturday was all about spring football at Virginia, but it was also about Aug. 31 and perhaps even Sept. 14.

With personnel numbers handicapped by players recovering from injuries and surgeries, the Cavaliers couldn’t conduct the traditional spring game and opted for a scrimmage situation, mixed with drills. With football alums on hand after honoring the late Hall of Fame coach George Welsh in a memorial earlier in the day, there was plenty to get excited about in a physical exhibition.

Still, Bronco Mendenhall, who hopes to return Virginia to the glory days of Welsh, couldn’t help but peek at the looming future with a sense of urgency.

“Overall I was encouraged by what I saw,” the Cavaliers coach said. “It will have to be an accelerated pace because of who we open with, where we open, and the nature of our early-season schedule.”

With the new ACC Network coming this August, the conference and ESPN elected for its teams to open with league games in order to make a splash on college football’s first weekend.

Virginia will open at reigning Coastal Division champion Pittsburgh, a team that owns a four-game winning streak against the Cavaliers, on Aug. 31. Two weeks later, UVA will host Florida State, a program it hasn’t faced since 2014.

“Urgency is the bottom line,” Mendenhall said. “We are racing against the clock to be ready for our opener.”

There was reason for Mendenhall’s concern. Virginia has never won at Pittsburgh (in five visits) and the last three meetings were one-sided affairs in the Panthers’ favor, including a 31-14 Pitt win at Heinz Field in 2017. Last year, at Scott Stadium, Pitt manhandled UVA with a physical running game featuring David Hall, who gashed the Cavaliers for 229 yards rushing (12.1 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. In 2016, Pitt won, 45-31.

Perhaps that was the reason the coaching staff’s intent Saturday was an emphasis on its own running game and stopping the run.

“We wanted to get one more day of contact,” Mendenhall said.

As most of the 15 spring practices, defense ruled the day, which on one hand Mendenhall was glad to see. On the other hand, he was concerned about the offense’s slow starts.

“The defense played stronger and with more intent, and culture, and passion, and more physical than the offense,” Mendenhall said. “Offensively, we responded late, but too late and not enough. This spring in general, when we begin scrimmage or competitive work, our defense is usually starting faster. We don’t have time to warm up.”

Saturday’s scrimmage bore out the coach’s observations as the defense created three turnovers, including a pair of interceptions by senior cornerback Bryce Hall and the other by senior linebacker Jordan Mack, who returned his pickoff 55 yards for a touchdown.

The defense also forced and recovered a fumble as it won the scrimmage by a 78-69 score in a complicated scoring system.

Virginia’s offense did respond toward the end of the scrimmage with all three quarterbacks, Bryce Perkins, Lindell Stone, and Brennan Armstrong, contributing. Statistics were not kept in the scrimmage.

Perkins, who missed part of the offseason after undergoing surgery to repair ligaments in his pinky finger of his non-throwing hand, threw both of Saturday’s interceptions.

“The first one, I just tried to give [the receiver] a jump ball. I left it short, left it hanging,” Perkins said. “The second, I got hit on my arm a little when I was releasing the ball. Just got to be better. Can’t have those.”

Despite those hiccups, Mendenhall was pleased with his starting quarterback’s progress.

“I didn’t see any ill effects of the injury on his throwing,” the coach said. “We were cautious on the volume (of passes) because he hadn’t been throwing much prior. He improved every day during the spring.”

Because Perkins missed some offseason time, Mendenhall said the quarterback’s summer (voluntary workouts) become even more important, not only for Perkins’ progression but the team’s progression.

“I think it’s similar to his summer coming from junior college to here,” Mendenhall added. “There is an urgency [for Perkins] that I have to prove to the team and the world that I can play quarterback, to that it’s basically now can you lead us to a conference or a division championship.”

One of the spots that Mendenhall was pleased about in his offense was the emergence of junior wide receiver Terrell Jana, who hauled in a couple of Armstrong’s passes during the day. The coach said that Jana, a product of nearby Woodberry Forest School, has been one of the bright spots of spring drills.

“We needed that at receiver and I’m excited about it,” Mendenhall said about a position that is vacant of a proven playmaker.

One of the school’s most productive receivers in program history, Olamide Zaccheaus, is gone, and while several receivers return, none of them have yet exhibited that they can replace those kind of numbers. Jana, sophomores Tavares Kelly, Billy Kemp and Ugo Obasi, junior Chuck Davis, and seniors Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois are the chief candidates to make an impression. Another receiver, Ben Hogg, isn’t expected to return to action until August.

Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Grant Misch has moved from linebacker to tight end, a move that Mendenhall said has worked well.

In terms of running back, a newcomer has bolted into the spotlight during the spring and has moved into the No. 1 spot on the depth chart heading into fall camp.

Wayne Taulapapa, a sophomore from Honolulu, has had an impressive spring and got lots of work Saturday. Junior PK Kier suffered a concussion in early spring and has been sidelined since.

“Wayne has been the most productive,” Mendenhall said. “He will be our running back coming out of spring going into fall, with the competition reopening again with PK, Mike Hollins coming, etc.”

Hollins was the top-rated running back in Louisiana last fall and chose Virginia over Alabama, Georgia Tech and others.

Mendenhall said there were four offensive linemen that missed the spring scrimmage due to injuries and is anxious to have them back in the fall.

“We still need a stronger presence at the offensive front in terms of movement at the point of attack and more consistency in protection,” he said. “Bryce takes some pressure off our front because he is so mobile but we still need to improve.”

Come fall, Virginia will have 17 offensive linemen on scholarship, which has taken the staff three years of recruiting to bring those numbers up to speed.

The coach also reported that junior Brian Delaney, who moved into the starting place-kicker’s role late last season and kept the job, has won all three of UVA’s kicking responsibilities: kickoffs, placements, and punter. Mendenhall said that after charting the statistics in all three categories throughout the spring that Delaney emerged as the leader in all three.

“I really liked Nash Griffin (a junior from Indianapolis), but a couple of bad kicks, a couple of bad days … it doesn’t take much,” Mendenhall said.

Asked if he was concerned about one player holding down three jobs with the threat of injury affecting all three positions, Mendenhall replied affirmative.

“Totally,” he said, drawing laughter from media in the post-scrimmage chat. “But it is great for the scholarship count. It’s going to be based on what mood I’m in when I wake up. Kicking is numbers-driven and [Delaney] is the leader in all three.”


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