‘Just let Brennan be Brennan’ might be UVA’s best strategy

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Brennan Armstrong led the game-winning touchdown drive and set the school’s all-time passing record in the process. (Photo by Michael Bruder)

Nobody is harder on Brennan Armstrong than Brennan Armstrong.

Coach Tony Elliott admittedly pushes his star quarterback hard every day in practice. No doubt offensive coordinator Des Kitchings and quarterbacks coach Taylor Lamb do the same. Former coordinator Robert Anae had a reputation for being extremely hard on his quarterbacks.

Still, Armstrong is his own worst critic.

Last Saturday, after leading Virginia to a game-winning, 56-yard drive in the final 55 seconds to beat Old Dominion, Armstrong was happy with the win, but remained frustrated. Standing in a small interview room at Scott Stadium, still in his jersey and eye-black, he could have been boastful.

Just minutes earlier, he had leapfrogged Matt Schaub as Virginia’s all-time career passer with 7,504 yards. It was the 20th time in Armstrong’s career that he had passed for 200 or more yards, which tied him with Schaub as the school’s all-time leader in that category.

Numbers have never meant a lot to Armstrong, who is more team-goal oriented and wants to win, so the mention of the records didn’t get a great deal of attention from him.

“I mean, it’s cool,” Armstrong said. “I’ll remember it when I’m like 30. When I look back I’m going to think that’s pretty cool, but not right now.”

His numbers don’t come close to matching last year’s fast statistical start, when he led the nation in passing for much of the season, in addition to total yardage. He’s presently No. 51 in FBS in passing yards (710 yards, two touchdowns, three interceptions).

The slower start can be partially attributed to a new, more structured offensive system that hasn’t clicked, and partially to a brand-new, inexperienced offensive line, which has seen Armstrong already pressured 45 times in three games, the most of any FBS quarterback in the nation.

To counter that rush, Elliott decided to max-protect against ODU, to send only three receivers on pass routes as opposed to four, or even five. In addition, Kitchings used more play-action plays to freeze the safeties and linebackers and give the receivers more time to run their routes.

As a result, Armstrong showed flashes of the 2021 Armstrong. As Elliott and Kitchings said, let “Brennan be Brennan.”

Armstrong hasn’t exactly thrived in the structured offense, but when he was able to “wing it” Saturday, the left-handed QB appeared more comfortable, even though after the game he kept mentioning his frustration.

“I guess for me right now, it’s just like, try not to be frustrated, like so frustrated with the outcomes,” Armstrong said. “I guess I’m super hard on myself. I just need to find joy again because I’m so trying to be perfect out there. I’m so used to being that high-powered offense that when I don’t feel it and I don’t have it, it just frustrates me. I’m trying to learn and go and be a leader of this team. This is my final season.”

Still, Armstrong looked at his best when he was playing loose.

“You’ve got to be able to wing it,” the QB said. “You’ve got to have that chemistry with [receivers]. Not everything is going to go great and you never know what your opponent is going to bring, so being able to wing it is a good thing. Those were some good plays winging it after the play kind of broke down.”

While the chemistry with his receiving corps has been solid, Armstrong is struggling to connect with his top receiver, Dontayvion Wicks, who was third-team, All-ACC last season when he had a breakout campaign.

In 2021, Armstrong linked up on 61.3 percent of his passes to Wicks for a 21.1 yards-per-completion percentage, nine touchdowns and only two interceptions, and a 128.5 passer rating.

After three games this season, those numbers are drastically different. He has completed only 33.3 percent of his targeted pass attempts to Wicks, for only 12.9 yards per completion, no TDs, one pick and a mere 36.2 passer rating.

On the winning drive, Armstrong was only 1 of 3 passing, a huge, 30-yard completion to Lavel Davis Jr. to the ODU 33. He targeted the dangerous Wicks in the end zone twice, drawing a pass-interference call on the first one for a first down at the 5. The next try was incomplete, followed by Brendan Farrell’s winning field goal.

Still, Armstrong confidently moved the team down the field under extremely difficult conditions in UVA’s two-minute drill (only 55 seconds), including a 13-yard scramble to the ODU 20.

Elliott has to measure Armstrong’s ability to function at a high rate within the system as opposed to perhaps more spectacular success winging it.

“Well, that’s the challenge,” Elliott said. “Truth be told, because you know what we’re installing is a little bit more detailed progression reads and a little more structure, where as Brennan is used to just kind of freelancing it.

“Part of it is up front we’re not where we need to be, compared to years past, particularly last year when we had veteran guys who could give him as much time as he needed for guys to pop open.”

So Elliott would tell Armstrong on the sidelines to not make things too complicated, just play football. It’s just football.

“We are asking him to do a little bit more from a game-management standpoint and that’s areas where we asked him to grow,” Elliott explained. “Don’t try to be a hero, throw the ball out of bounds. But there’s other times that you want him to play (freelance). DeShawn (Watson) and Trevor (Lawrence) had that in them, that they were able to just make plays. So it’s a slippery slope. I can’t take that away from him, but at the same time, I want to help him so that he doesn’t put himself in a bad position as well.”

Kitchings said he and Elliott and Lamb all talked to Armstrong during game week because they noticed he was pressing.

“We just said, ‘Hey, buddy, just be Brennan,’” Kitchings said. “‘Don’t try to be anybody else. Play your ball. We will call the game. We’re trying to protect you and let you take some shots down the field early in the game. You may miss some shots, and that’s fine.’

“So we probably got a little out of rhythm because we weren’t tying to dink-and-dunk early on. We took some shots and let him be Brennan.”

Perhaps going forward, that may be Virginia’s best course. Just let Brennan be Brennan.