Elliott: ‘Biggest mistake last year is coaching staff assumed too much’

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Virginia head coach Tony Elliott speaks at the 2023 ACC Kickoff in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, July 26, 2023. (Photo by Nell Redmond/ACC)

CHARLOTTE — Tony Elliott believes the biggest mistake he and his offensive staff made in their first season at Virginia was assuming too much.

Inheriting one of the nation’s most explosive offenses from 2021, the former Clemson offensive coordinator brought a system to UVA that just never clicked with returning personnel. A Brennan Armstrong-led until that had produced 516 total yards and 34.6 points per game staggered and sputtered to astonishing lows.

As a result, the Cavaliers finished 103rd out of 131 FBS teams in total offense (344 ypg) and No. 126 in scoring offense (17 points per game). Along the way, they were equally inefficient in a number of other offensive categories: No. 125 in first downs, No. 116 in pass-completion percentage (.543), No. 119 in red-zone offense, No. 102 in rushing offense and No. 121 in sacks allowed (34 in only 10 games).

In other words, Virginia’s offense was putrid, explaining a 3-7 record in Elliott’s first year as a head coach.

During Wednesday’s ACC Football Kickoff, Elliott reviewed what went sideways last season and how he plans on fixing it heading into a challenging 2023 schedule. Armstrong and a host of playmakers have exited the program, either transferring or turning pro, leaving Virginia with mostly a new cast of chess pieces for offensive coordinator Des Kitchings to move around the board.

UVA ranks No. 123 out of 133 FBS schools in returning offensive production (only 40 percent) according to research by ESPN’s Bill Connelly, which leaves Kitchings and Elliott with some work to do.

“The biggest thing you notice is that the cohesion was not there,” Elliott said in looking back. “You could tell that on any given play, at times there was a guy or two or more that just weren’t on the same page. And what was the result of that? Not fully understanding what we’re doing.

“And you drill down further, they didn’t understand the terminology. They didn’t understand the defensive recognition. So there was a lot of components.”

Elliott will be running the same offensive system this season, but decided to simplify things, which he believes led to better execution during spring drills.

“Let’s take the assumptions out, because I think that’s where we’re at,” Elliott said. “Myself and the coaching staff made a mistake. We assumed that things were understood or known and they weren’t, and rightfully so because they were taught a different way. We assumed some things were understood.”

This year, the staff has scaled things back and taught the system at the speed in which the players can handle the load. Now, they’re seeing more players on the same page, which leads to better execution.

“So when they have execution, they’re excited about the execution and that drives the hunger for more, so they’re eager to absorb more and you can add more to their plate,” Elliott said. “Fun football is executing and scoring points. There’s a bunch of ways to get there, and that’s what fun is. But it starts with us making sure that we don’t make assumptions.”

Elliott observed from spring that his team was having more fun because they were executing.

“So instead of a two-yard run, now it’s a six-yard run and the guys are excited and you can point that out,” the coach said. “But the difference is now everybody’s on the same page and pulling in that same direction, a more simple, simplified, but same system. What you’ll see is the same system, but cleaner execution.”

Elliott believes the North Carolina game last year (a 32-28 loss) was a perfect example of how his offense can work.

“Right out of the gate, right down the field. The guys had success. They were into it, they were having fun with the back-and-forth,” the coach said. “Then you go out the next week and you’re not on the same page and you throw the ball in the wrong direction for the wrong read (in a loss to Pitt).”

In that game, Armstrong was picked off on his first two pass attempts — both returned for touchdowns within a span of 11 seconds — as Pitt took a 28-0 lead after the first quarter and went on to win 37-7 in what would be the final game of the season for Virginia.

Elliott truly believes the second edition of his UVA offense will execute better, leading to more success and hopefully more fun.

No more assumptions.