Natural order starting to evolve for Virginia’s QB situation

Beck likes what he sees on Cavaliers’ depth chart

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Virginia quarterbacks Brennan Armstrong (left) and Keytaon Thompson (Photos: UVA Athletics and WSLS).

At long last, Bronco Mendenhall’s football program has a sequential order at the quarterback position.

Virginia fans saw what happened last season when injured backup quarterback Brennan Armstrong couldn’t answer the bell if called upon. Starter Bryce Perkins was limited to what he was allowed to do because it was too much of a risk. If Perkins was injured, and with no healthy backup, the Cavaliers were screwed.

At the end of Kurt Benkert’s junior season and for his senior season, he wasn’t allowed to run as much as he had been accustomed to because of assorted injuries, chiefly a bum non-throwing shoulder.

While the QB depth chart isn’t dramatically better for the 2020 season, there is an order being established for the future.

Armstrong comes in as the favorite to become UVA’s starter, though not guaranteed. He’s a redshirt sophomore and has three years of eligibility remaining. It has been a long time since the Cavaliers have had a quarterback who started for three consecutive seasons.

Graduate transfer Keytaon Thompson is a redshirt junior in terms of eligibility and has two years remaining. He declared last season at Mississippi State as a redshirt season because he played in only one game. Thompson does have starting experience and could give Armstrong a run for his money, although Armstrong has been in UVA’s system for two years.

Lindell Stone is a redshirt junior, but has played little during his UVA career, and while he has been around the Cavaliers’ system, he doesn’t fit Mendenhall’s proto-type at QB. He’s more of a traditional, pocket passer rather than a dual-threat.

Redshirt freshman Jared Rayman, who played for UVA All-American Chris Slade at Pace Academy in Atlanta, is in the rotation.

Then there’s incoming freshman Ira Armstead, who will likely redshirt. He’s a dual-threat out of South Bend, Ind.

Virginia has two QB commits for the Class of 2021, Jay Woolfolk out of Richmond’s Benedictine, and Jacob Rodriguez out of Wichita Falls, Texas.

All that adds up to a nice pecking order for the future so that UVA won’t have to depend on lassoing a transfer quarterback, although the Cavaliers certainly will be open-minded should a talented transfer come their way.

Mendenhall has been fortunate to have landed a couple of talented quarterbacks to help launch his program at Virginia. Benkert was attracted to Charlottesville because he wasn’t happy with the new coaching staff at East Carolina, and former Pirates head coach Ruffin McNeill had accepted a position with UVA’s staff.

Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae was the first to admit at the end of Benkert’s two years in his system that his offense would not have been as good and wouldn’t have progressed as far as it had if Benkert hadn’t dropped out of the sky.

Then came Bryce Perkins out of Arizona Western, who rewrote some of Virginia’s offensive history. Mendenhall often reiterated that his program would not be where it is today had it not been for Perkins.

How many times did we hear him say, ‘We’ll go as far as Bryce Perkins can take us.’

“We knew we needed another guy in the room for competition, for depth and for the stability of our program,” UVA quarterbacks coach Jason Beck said during a recent videoconference. “We had been looking and kind of scouring all those options, weighing the option of taking a transfer. We were really excited when Keytaon came around.”

Thompson was 2-0 as a starter at Mississippi State, but played in several more games. His shining moment came in the 2017 Taxslayer (Gator) Bowl when he led the Bulldogs to a 31-27 win over Lamar Jackson and Louisville. In that game, Thompson tied a Taxslayer Bowl record with three rushing touchdowns.

“[Thompson] is a really good fit for what we do, both in terms of quality of player but also quality of person,” Beck said. “He’s a great fit, will give us great competition between him and Brennan. We free really good about Brennan.”

UVA has five quarterbacks on scholarship right now since Luke Wentz (Germany) is now listed as a wide receiver. That’s not a bad number heading into the season.

“If you sign [a quarterback] every year, you can develop them,” Beck said. “If a guy redshirts, that kind of puts it where you could have five on the roster at a time. If not, you’re sitting at four, and as long as they’re spaced out pretty well and everybody has an opportunity to compete, that’s a good situation.”

In modern football, if a young player ends up starting for three or four years, some of the older players often become disgruntled and seek greener pastures via the transfer portal. That can leave a program thin at the position, a situation many programs are willing to risk if the right players are on the roster.

With three transfers coming to Virginia over the past five years, clearly Mendenhall isn’t against that cycle.

“You’d love to recruit guys that come in their first year and work hard and develop like Brennan has, and have that cycle going year after year,” Beck said. “In the way college football has gone, transfers happen a lot more than they used to and so whether that’s guys coming into your program or transferring out, it just happens a lot more than it ever has before.

“I think that’s kind of the new normal. We just want guys who fit perfect at UVA, guys who want to work hard to compete and give their best.”

It will be interesting to see how the competition goes between Armstrong and Thompson during training camp. Could Thompson push for the starting job despite Armstrong’s experience in the system, or could there be a two-quarterback system, which most fans don’t care for?

Beck said he’s never really experienced the two-QB system but prefers to have one leader that the rest of the team is working around, something that normally works itself out. He will allow the competition to run its course and see how it unfolds.

Meanwhile, Armstrong is taking nothing for granted. He’s at home in Cincinnati and working out with former high school pals.

“He is working hard. He’s training, everything physically,” said Beck, who meets with all his QBs regularly via Zoom conferencing. “He’s put more emphasis on nutrition, studying film, throwing with his buddies. He’s a competitor, he’s confident, he’s been ready to play the last couple of years. He’s just making the most of his time and this opportunity to put himself in a position to be successful.”

At the same time, Beck believes that all the different quarterbacks Virginia now has in its system play a little differently. He was asked if he saw any similarities between Perkins and newcomer Thompson.

“There are some similarities that are intriguing,” Beck said. “With Benkert coming in here as a transfer, with Bryce coming in as a transfer, you have an idea based off the film, based off those conversations. But you never quite know how they are until they get here and things start working themselves out, exactly what their skill set is like.

“So we have an idea with Keytaon that we’re excited about. Good size and athleticism. Good arm, strong arm and a very capable passer. Smart football IQ. There’s a lot of things there that we love and we’re excited about. Until we get him here and really start working with him for those first couple of weeks, we’ll have a much better feel for what his strengths are, and in what direction that will take us.”

Beck said that each UVA quarterback is unique in their own way, but they’re all capable runners, capable passers like Perkins was, and like BYU QB Taysom Hill was for the offense prior to Mendenhall moving to Virginia.

“So not the same kind of cookie-cutter as a certain guy, but just that skillset,” Beck said.

Armstead would probably have gotten a great jump toward learning the system had it not been for the cancellation of spring practice due to the Covid-19 pandemic. He enrolled at UVA early in anticipation of gaining that head start, but alas that plan didn’t work out.

Still, Beck said that the youngster who was raised in the shadows of Notre Dame has gained some benefits by his early enrollment in terms of knowing what it’s like to be a college student.

“He’s comfortable, he’s familiar,” Beck said. “He’s not adjusting to all those things. He knows his teammates and has worked with them and he knows what the program is like day to day, the work ethic and the expectations.

“Guys come in their first year and they have no idea what that is really like, so [Armstead] has experienced all that. When he comes here in fall camp, he’ll be much better prepared and ready to do all that and then continue learning, progressing, excelling as he goes through his first season.”

Sources said that Virginia football plans a return on July 5, so that players can get reacclimated to the routine. The Cavaliers are scheduled to open the season against Georgia at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday, Sept. 7 in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in a prime time, Labor Day matchup.

Comments

  1. Well written and very informative. Fans get less frustrated if they understand the programs strategy. You are doing more than informing, you are teaching us, as well.

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