Elliott goes in-depth on what’s wrong with UVA’s passing game, how to fix it, takes some blame and praises KT

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Keytaon Thompson hangs on for a reception against ODU’s Shawn Asbury. (Photo by Michael Bruder)

The deep ball. If there’s a key element missing from this year’s offensive attack for Virginia, it’s the “bomb.”

Tony Elliott firmly believes that if Brennan Armstrong can connect on the long ball early that it will back defenses off and open things up for the Cavaliers offensively. Yes, there are other issues, but the deep ball could be a cure-all.

“Right now we just haven’t really connected on the deep balls, so what opponents are saying is, ‘OK, if that’s the case, we’re going to sit on the short throws, break on those, then we’re going to make you prove to us you can throw the ball down the field,’” Elliott said in preparation for Saturday night’s game at Duke (7:30 p.m., Regional Sports Network).

Virginia certainly has the deep threats in Dontayvion Wicks, Lavel Davis Jr. and Keytaon Thompson. It has a strong-armed quarterback in Brennan Armstrong. That combination bombed UVA’s opponents all season long in 2021, but it has primarily been missing from this year’s offense.

Why?

A couple of things. In the first four games this season, the coaches have required Armstrong to throw on rhythm. It’s a new system, a new philosophy. Last year, in Robert Anae’s passing attack, Armstrong would sit back in the pocket with an experienced offensive line protecting him and wait for things to unfold, having his choice of open receivers.

It’s not all Armstrong. The completely new O-Line — which should get better as the season progresses — has allowed too much quarterback pressure, but the receivers have some work to do also.

“We’ve got to do a better job at receiver of winning on routes, running to win, stacking defenders and giving the quarterback more room for error,” Elliott said.

UVA’s receivers are running their routes too close to the sidelines as opposed to working back to five yards from the sidelines. Fans have seen lots of passes completed out of bounds or incomplete because Armstrong is being forced to throw in a small window on the sideline with a small completion-success rate. The receivers are making it easier for defenders to cover those sideline patterns.

“We’ve got to give the quarterback the ability to throw it over the top, fade [the defender], if you get on top, throwing it to the back shoulder,” Elliott said. “What [opposing defenses] are saying is, ‘OK, will you be patient enough to nickel-and-dime us down the field?’”

Elliott was transparent in noting that he was at fault in Saturday’s loss at Syracuse for being perhaps too aggressive with some play calls.

“There are a couple calls in the game where I thought I might have been a little bit too aggressive,” Elliott said this week. “I understand that. I’ve been in that position. When you’re trying to get something going for your guys, trying to manufacture the play, you’re going to be aggressive.”

Elliott said he went through a similar problem early in the 2018 season at Clemson, when the Tigers couldn’t connect on the deep ball.

“You’ve just got to keep throwing them,” the coach said. “All it takes is a little bit of confidence. You hit one or two of those, everybody’s confidence is going to be up and that will open up some other things.”

Elliott doesn’t think his offense is far off, and pointed to an incompletion to Thompson on third-and-7 on UVA’s first drive at Syracuse, leading to a missed field goal. The Orange blitzed Armstrong on the play.

“If we hit that touchdown throw in the first drive to KT, we’re just a little bit high again,” Elliott said. “Brennan is trying to get it over the defender. We’re not far off.”

Had Virginia scored there and tied the game at 7-all, it could have had a positive influence on the remainder of the half, as the Cavaliers trailed 16-0 at halftime.

Still, Wahoo fans are wondering why the passing game is struggling after so much success a year ago with virtually the same passer and catchers that were threats to score from anywhere on the field.

“So where we started offensively is letting Des (Kitchings, offensive coordinator) do his deal,” Elliott said. “I know what it’s like to be an offensive coordinator and have somebody kind of over your shoulder. That’s where we started.

“Now, as we’re progressing, we’re seeing to kind of back off just a little bit. I didn’t realize, I don’t think the staff realized, how drastic of a transition it was from the system. We have to back off and go as they can absorb it.”

Elliott decided to just get the ball in the hands of the guys and let them go make plays.

So it appears that the offensive braintrust is adjusting to the existing personnel rather than forcing the new system down their throats, choosing to teach and build as they go, but allowing Armstrong and company to just go play football.

That’s where Thompson comes in. The former Mississippi State quarterback, now turned receiver and in his third and final season at Virginia, is someone who needs as many touches as reasonable.

Over the 2021 season and so far this season, Thompson averages 9.9 yards every time he has touched the ball. A stud at 6-foot-5, 216 pounds that can make defenders miss, Thompson can be a one-man wrecking ball.

This season he has 290 yards receiving on 26 catches (11.2 yards per reception), and 10 yards rushing on only two carries (and a touchdown). Last season, he averaged 9.8 yards per reception (78 catches for 990 yards and a TD), and 6.3 yards per rush (39 attempts for 255 yards and four TDs).

Plus, he’s tough to bring down. He ranks third in the ACC in yards after the catch (141 yards). He has caught at least one pass in 18 straight games.

“KT, he’s just a football player,” Elliott said, harking back to former coach Bronco Mendenhall listing Thompson’s official playing position as ‘Football Player.’

“He’s got savvy. He knows, because I get on him all the time. It doesn’t look pretty all the time, but it’s effective,” Elliott said.

The coach calls Thompson “the old man,” and kids the grad student, “I don’t know how the old-man moves are working, but you make guys miss, so we’re going to keep getting you the ball in space.”

Elliott is hoping that Thompson’s efforts will inspire his other receivers to pick up their game.

“It’s just like the running-back room, man, we’re going to feed the hot hand,”  the coach said. “Right now, KT is the guy in that receiver room.”

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