Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 23 Virginia.
Last year, the Virginia Cavaliers, hand to God, got their shit together. Kind of.
After finishing 2-10 in 2016, head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s first season, the bar was set understandably low for his second go-round. Given the tattered pieces in which Mike London left the program, a quick turnaround was never exactly at the top of anybody’s mind. And yet, there was Virginia, jumping out to a 5-1 start in 2017. Some of the wins were good wins, too, with the Wahoos taking down Duke, UNC, and a Boise State team that would finish 11-3. Unfortunately, unbelievably, devastatingly, the season continued from there.
Virginia finished *gulp* 1-6 during the second half of the season; in four of the games, the Cavalier offense failed to top 15 points. The fall back to Earth, and the following 49-7 shit-kicking Navy gave them in the bowl game Virginia apparently forgot about, was vicious. If there’s an upside, it’s that it provided the rest of the college football world a chance to catch its breath and reconstruct just how the Cavs managed to win five games in the first place.
The improvement of quarterback Kurt Benkert was a big key to the early season success—through the opening six games, he completed 63.7 percent of his passes and racked up 15 scores to just three picks. The second half of the season wasn’t as kind, but it’s a clear example of what this roster can be when it has someone playing at a high level under center. That makes starting over all the more difficult, and exciting.
Junior college transfer Bryce Perkins led Arizona Western College to the NJCAA national title game last season. A dual-threat quarterback that was once with Arizona State, Perkins will be tasked with replacing Benkert’s 3,207 yards, 25 scores, and nine picks from last year. Perkins left Arizona State after injuring his neck and missing nearly four months in his second season—up to that point, he was third on the depth chart and had reportedly been asked to switch positions.
After he got healthy, Perkins made for the junior college program at Arizona West, where he led his squad to the title game last season. Perkins is a dynamic open-field runner, though he’ll likely find the ACC defenders a bit tougher to fight off. If you’re a Virginia fan, seeing a running quarterback that looks like he can take a hit and breakaway join your team should feel nice. Seriously! You can enjoy this one.
So, great, check one quarterback off the list; now all Virginia needs is more than one person for him to throw to. The Cavs are lucky in that they are able to return their most dynamic offensive player this season. Receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, a tough speedster who also fulfills some rushing duties, was the best thing Virginia had going in 2017—the job of the folks behind him on the depth chart will be to create the tiny amount space Zaccheaus needs to breakaway, as Doni Dowling and Andre Levrone and their 1,336 yards and 12 scores from last season are gone.
In their place, kick return specialist and receiver Joe Reed will be the automatic No. 2 option for Virginia; he worked well last season in the role of the deep threat. A speedster with a knack for finding the streams between the defense, Reed has assumed the role of being Perkins’s main deep target after a relatively quiet season (23 catches, 244 yards). He’ll hopefully provide some relief underneath for Zaccheaus, who operates best when catching bubble screens or quick slants and then pulling his arsenal of cuts and jukes to get upfield.
The major impediment to either Zaccheaus or Reed having a productive year lies in the backfield. The Virginia running game needs a major improvement—in 2017, they never topped 171 yards on the ground in a single game, logging only five 100-yard games.
On the other side of the field, Virginia should be fine. Not great, not terrible, but not quite something you can hang your hat on.
The Wahoos run a 3-4 defense, meaning having beefy and athletic linebackers is a must, especially considering their defensive line will be cycling through some younger players. Micah Kiser, the heart of the Virginia defense and the only ACC linebacker not named Luke Kuechly to lead the league in tackles three years in a row, has gone to the big NFL-sized football in the sky. And yet, even after losing 143 tackles from their roster, the middle of the Cavaliers defense should be just fine. Jordan Mack, who registered 114 tackles a year ago, is back on the inside, as are outside linebackers Chris Peace and Malcolm Cook. Peace led all Virginia defenders last season with 7.5 sacks; Cook will be in his first full season as a linebacker, having switched from safety last year.
The secondary will be helmed by Brenton Nelson at free safety and Juan Thornhill in the other safety slot—as a corner in 2017, Thornhill nabbed four interceptions and 12 defended passes. Tim Harris, who missed last season with a wrist injury severe enough to secure a medical hardship pass, will slide back into his role as starting corner to allow Thornhill to make the move.
A wideout that can also be listed as a running back who is really a slot receiver that was also the placeholder for field goals and PATs, Olamide Zaccheaus can do a little bit of everything.
Zaccheaus is going to be Virginia’s best chance at finishing with a winning record this season, because when the ball’s in his hands, he’s the best chance they have at zipping up the field in a hurry. Zaccheaus led the Cavaliers last season with 85 receptions for 895 yards and five scores—that last number will have to tick up quite a few notches if the Wahoos want their offense to cause any defensive coordinators some pregame stress. Still, if there’s any reason to watch a Virginia game, this 5-foot-8 ball of energy is as strong an argument as can be made.
No way. Virginia might come out above .500 this season if they catch some breaks they dropped last year, but an appearance the ACC title game seems to be the next logical Big Goal for this program, one that shouldn’t feel too unrealistic. Let’s not forget, this is the division that allowed Duke to go from the worst program in Division I to a respectable mid-tier squad in five years—anything is possible in the ACC Coastal.
Sept. 8: @Indiana
Sept. 29: @North Carolina State
Oct. 13: Miami (FL)
Oct. 20: @Duke
Oct. 27: North Carolina
Nov. 2: Pitt
Nov. 10: Liberty
Nov. 17: @Georgia Tech
Nov. 23:@Virginia Tech