Virginia’s wide receivers corps will blow some minds this season

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Dontayvion Wicks (3) is congratulated by teammate Billy Kemp IV in the win over Illinois in 2021. (Photo: UVA Athletics)

In Lindy’s annual national preseason college football preview, Virginia’s wide receivers group was ranked as the fourth-best in America. Not shabby when one considers that the three units rated ahead of the Cavaliers hailed from Alabama, Ohio State and Southern Cal.

It’s an elite group, arguably the greatest receiving corps in UVA history. Last year’s unit was strong with the addition of 6-foot-7 tight end Jelani Woods (Indianapolis Colts) and Ra’Shaun Henry.

This year’s group has Dontayvion Wicks, Keytaon Thompson and underrated Billy Kemp, all back from last season, along with 6-7 Lavel Davis, Jr., whom the national media that ranks units apparently forgot about.

Davis stunned the ACC in 2020 when he led the ACC and was second in the nation in yards per catch (25.75), and was the only player in the nation with 500-plus receiving yards on 20 or fewer receptions. He was a freshman, who started seven games, played in eight.

There are others, too, Malachi Fields (presently injured), Demick Starling, and more.

Tony Elliott, having guided Clemson’s offense to the national championship, playoff appearances and ACC titles during his 11-year run with the Tigers, coached some elite receiving units. How does Virginia’s current group compare?

“I’m excited about this group,” Elliott said in a recent interview. “It’s built different than what we had at Clemson. At Clemson, we had a lot of similar guys. There’s a lot of versatility in this receiver room at UVA.

“I think it’s up there. It may not look like it on paper, but man, Wicks is very, very talented. You’ve got Keytaon, he’s a unicorn. We didn’t have one like that at Clemson. And then a lot of people don’t talk about Billy Kemp (told you so), but Billy keeps coming back. He’s a little jitterbug. Starling is a guy that’s coming into his own that can flat out go. So there’s a lot of versatility within the room.”

Elliott is excited about Kemp’s return after suffering a broken leg at the end of last season.

Hmmm. Elliott didn’t mention Davis in that group. Was he hoping if he didn’t say Davis’ name that opponents might forget about him? Not likely.

The Virginia coach had already covered Davis in an earlier question, nothing that after sitting out the 2021 season with an ACL, that the big wideout is near 100-percent healthy.

“I have high expectations of him because of what he’s done in the past on the field, but more importantly because of the character and young man that he is,” Elliott said. “He’s going to have to lead us and he’s going to have to make plays.”

Combine Davis and Wicks and Virginia boasts two of the nation’s most lethal deep threats.

Among all returning Power 5 wide receivers, Wicks ranks first in contested catches (15) and percentage of catches for first downs or touchdowns (84 percent), and second in yards per route run (3.25) and receiving yards per catch (21.1).

He also made SportsCenter’s top-10 plays of the day in two games last season for mindboggling catches against North Carolina and Miami.

Thompson, a former starting quarterback at Mississippi State, is truly the Unicorn. Last season, the 6-4 playmaker took snaps at quarterback, running back, tight end, wide receiver and slot receiver. He had 1,200 yards and five touchdowns, and sometimes seemed impossible to stop.

Kemp was one of Bronco Mendenhall’s favorite players. Listed at 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, Elliott’s description of Kemp as a jitterbug was spot-on.

He’s a versatile playmaker who has accounted for 1,658 yards and eight touchdowns during his career. He’s UVA’s answer to the New England Patriots’ Julian Edelman.

Combined, Davis, Thompson, Wicks, Kemp and Fields have combined for 353 receptions, 4,705 receiving yards, 28 receiving TDs and 17 rushing TDs.

Not sure there’s a group from Alabama, Ohio State or Southern Cal that can match those numbers.

Virginia is the only team to feature two returning receivers with PFF (Pro Football Focus) receiving grades of 95-plus on passes of 20-or-more yards.

“They’re all tough, they’re accountable, they’re competitors, they take pride in special teams, they block,” said UVA wide receivers coach Marques Hagans (also the team’s associate head coach). “They’re all different in their way, but they’re all the same as far as the aspect of what we believe in and who we are as a group.

“Some are tall, some are short, some are quicker, some are more downfield, some get yards in short bursts, but everybody brings something different as far as who they are, but we all add up collectively to be the best we can be.”

The beneficiary of this collection of talent is the team, particularly returning quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who accounted for 427.3 yards per game of total offense last season, missing one game with injured ribs.

Could he ask for a better bunch of targets?

“I don’t know what would be better, so what’s better, I just don’t know,” Armstrong said. “I mean, I really don’t know. These guys … I’ve got five studs out there. I can pick and choose who I want to throw to. I’m pretty lucky, very lucky to have these guys out there with me.”

Lindy’s capped it this way: Wicks, Thompson and Kemp and more are going to have so much fun catching passes from Armstrong with Elliott guiding the UVA offense.

Virginia’s fans are going to have a lot of fun watching this Flying Circus roll up the numbers. Opposing defensive coordinators are going to be losing a lot of sleep.

No wonder Elliott is smiling.