Grad transfers have made a significant impact on Virginia football this season

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Ra'Shaun Henry

Virginia’s Ra’Shaun Henry (17) and Terrell Jana (13). Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

The transfer portal has been very good to Virginia the past few years, particularly in the pandemic-plagued 2020 season.

Seven players beamed themselves into Charlottesville and they’ve all made an impact on the Cavaliers, who take a four-game winning streak to Blacksburg on Saturday night to take on rival Virginia Tech.

Bronco Mendenhall has been grateful for all the work these players have put in to help give UVA a 5-4 record, climbing out of a four-game losing slump early in the season.

“The expectations are pretty simple,” Mendenhall said this week when talking about what he desires from transfers. “When we bring in a graduate transfer, we expect him to start, contribute immediately and have a great academic experience here at UVA.

“If a graduate transfer comes in and they don’t start, that’s not meeting expectations on our part or the players part. If they’re not exceptional in the classroom, that would be the same. I can address at least the on-field performance and I think we are accurate in almost every case right now of the grad transfers we brought in. We target them because of a need or deficiency, or depth or some immediate need, and this year I think our staff did a really nice job. Those players have really helped us.”

It would be difficult to point to the one transfer who had the most impact, but running back Shane Simpson, a former consensus FCS All-American from Towson University, would make a strong argument.

Simpson came when his conference postponed football until the spring, and he ended up contributing in every game, starting the Cavaliers’ win over Boston College.

Simpson has 52 rushing attempts heading into the season finale in Blacksburg, and 256 yards, a 4.9 average per carry. He’s also scored two touchdowns rushing.

Simpson also had an impact as a receiver with 10 catches for 129 yards and a touchdown. He also has four kickoff returns for a 34.2 average per return, with a longest of 73 yards.

Keytaon Thompson, a transfer from Mississippi State, came to UVA as a dual-threat quarterback, but due to a training camp injury to his shoulder, has not been able to throw the ball. Still, offensive coordinator Robert Anae has found clever ways to make Thompson a strong threat with the ball in his hands.

Thompson has played “wildcat,” getting direct snaps from the center, he has played running back, he has played receiver, and he has made cameo appearances at QB. Virginia fans have particularly enjoyed watching Thompson line up in the backfield, go in motion, only to rush up under center for quarterback sneaks that have kept opposing defenses off guard.

Thompson has 37 rushes for 232 yards to his credit, a 6.3 average per carry, and three rushing touchdowns. He also has six catches for 87 yards, a 14.5 average per reception, and two touchdowns. His longest catch went for 56 yards.

Ronnie Walker, Jr., who transferred from Indiana, but didn’t play until late in the season due to the NCAA rejecting early appeals for his eligibility, got a late start, but still got in some work.

Walker had 23 rushing attempts for 66 yards and a 2.9 average.

All up the yardage of those three backs and it accounts for 554 yards on the ground and five touchdowns. Add their combined receptions and there is 16 catches for 216 yards and three TDs.

Virginia had two other transfers making an impact at the receivers positions. Tight end Tony Poljan, who came in from Central Michigan, hauled in 33 catches for 345 yards (10.5 per catch) and scored five touchdowns along with picking up several key first downs that kept drives alive. He has averaged 38.3 yards per game.

Ra’Shaun Henry, a wide receiver transfer from St. Francis (Pa.), didn’t catch nearly as many passes as Poljan, but man, did he ever make them count.

Henry, who helped fill the gap as a deep threat during the abscences of freshman sensation Lavel Davis, Jr., caught six passes for 200 yards (a whopping 33.3 yards per catch), for four touchdowns. His first four receptions as a Cavalier all went for scores. He has been good for 25 yards per game.

Add up the four transfers receiving totals and you’ve got 55 catches for 761 yards and 12 TDs.

Defensively, UVA had only two transfers, both from James Madison University after the Dukes closed down their football operations for the fall. Both defensive lineman Adeeb Atariwa and defensive back D’Angel Amos have been key contributors to the Cavaliers efforts, particularly with UVA experiencing key injuries and other issues in its secondary and defensive front.

Amos, a safety, is the third-leading tackler on the defense with 47. He also has three tackles for loss, two interceptions, four passes broken up, and a blocked kick.

Meanwhile, Atariwa, who has played defensive end, has 13 tackles, two tackles for loss, two quarterback sacks and a QB hurry. He has been a significant addition to that banged up D-Line.

Thompson has been a true crowd pleaser because UVA fans and opposing defenses never know where he’s going to make a difference.

“Keytaon each game seems to do something else we haven’t seen him do yet,” Mendenhall said. “We have him for an entire, another year and it’s going to be really fun just to see where he goes from here.”

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