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Around the Coastal: The Virginia Cavaliers

Virginia won the Coastal Division in 2019, but the Cavaliers have some big pieces to replace for this season.

Today, CavsCorner.com publisher Brad Franklin gives us an inside look at Virginia in 2020.

Perkins was the heart of the Virginia offense the last two seasons
Perkins was the heart of the Virginia offense the last two seasons (Amber Searls/USAToday)

Three prominent storylines

How good a job does UVa do replacing Bryce Perkins?

There really isn’t any storyline bigger for the Cavaliers and nothing comes even remotely close. In fact, this might be the biggest storyline in the entire division given just how prolific he was for the defending Coastal champs in 2019. Without him, there’s no way the Hoos get to Charlotte and eventually the Orange Bowl. He was able to put together numbers in two years that surpassed Virginia legend Shawn Moore’s four, as Perkins set the school record for total offense at 7,910 yards. It came following a fantastic fall, as the Arizona native set the school’s single-season passing record at 3,538 yards and broke his own single-season total offense record (4,307). Life after Perkins figures to focus squarely on Brennan Armstrong, who was the No. 2 QB for all of last season and would have gone into spring ball as the heir apparent.

How does the loss of spring ball impact Armstrong and Co.?

While replacing Perkins will be a tall task, the idea that Bronco Mendenhall and his staff have to do it without the benefit of spring practices makes it even more tricky. Armstrong was able to play and redshirt in 2018 thanks to NCAA rules and he made some plays in spots last fall. But he didn’t carry anything remotely close to the load he will, meaning those 15 practices would’ve not only helped him tremendously but they would have given the coaches a great deal of film to work off of to help frame his offseason work. Granted, Armstrong was able to get some reps with the 1s in 2019 when Perkins wasn’t able to practice but that isn’t really comparable to this situation. If ever there was a year to have spring ball wiped out, the March and April after you lose arguably the greatest player in program history makes it all the more difficult.

What will the offense look like in 2020?

If you take the two storylines above, you get this one, which is slightly more involved given the loss of talent around Perkins on the offensive side of the ball. While Mendenhall’s defense looks primed for a special season, the offense will not only be missing its QB1 but also a pair of 1,000-yard receivers. Given the differences between Armstrong’s game and that of Perkins, it’s fair to expect some shift in scheme at least in terms of how Robert Anae’s group looks to make hay. Given the experience up front, the Hoos will need to do a better job running the football, a stiff challenge without Perkins.

Three biggest departures

QB Bryce Perkins

Much of this was already explained above but there’s more: Perkins finished his UVa career as one of the school’s all-time greats, leaving Charlottesville with 17 wins under his belt. At 307.6 yards per game, he was the ACC’s leader in total offense, the first Wahoo to do that since Moore in 1990. Needless to say, those types of players don’t come around very often for the Cavaliers.

WR/KR Joe Reed

Not only was he a first-team All-ACC and All-American at kick return but he was also recognized as the 2019 Jet Award winner, presented to the nation’s best return man. He leaves Grounds as the career kick return yardage record holder (3,042) with five kick returns for touchdown. The Charlotte Courthouse native is the only player in FBS history with more than 2,700 career kick return yards and a career kick-return average of at least 28 yards. Oh, and he also caught a team-high 77 passes for 679 yards and a team-high seven scores. Again, those types of players don’t come around very often for the Hoos.

WR Hasise Dubois

The fact that Dubois is third here is a testament to the ways Perkins and Reed impacted things but make no mistake about it: If a team wanted somebody to catch a pass in 2019, there’s probably no one they wanted going out more than Dubois. A 1,000-yard receiver who joined Reed and Terrell Jana as 70-reception guys this past fall, Dubois finished his senior season without a single drop to go with his 75 catches. You heard that right. Needless to say, whether it’s Armstrong or not, UVa’s QB1 could’ve really used a guy like him in 2020.

Charles Snowden has turned into a stud at linebacker
Charles Snowden has turned into a stud at linebacker (Geoff Burke/USAToday)

Three key returners

OLB Charles Snowden

At 6-foot-7, Snowden arrived at UVa a few years ago as a kid without much recruiting fanfare who was known more as a basketball player than anything. Now, he’s poised to wreak more havoc heading into his senior season. An All-ACC Honorable Mention selection, he finished third on the team with 72 tackles (11 for loss) to go with five sacks, four pass breakups, and nine QB hurries. The standard bearer for the Hoos, much more will be asked of him this season given his experience and leadership ability.

OLB Noah Taylor

One of the beneficiaries of all of the attention offensive line’s showed Snowden this past year was Taylor, a 6-foot-5 rising junior was sixth in tackles a year ago with a team-high 13.5 for loss to go with his seven sacks. But he also really made a name for himself, especially in the win over Virginia Tech. Taylor played much of the game in coverage due to injuries and he came up big late against the Hokies, intercepting a pass that put UVa in the driver’s seat. Paired with Snowden again, look for Taylor to create even more chaos in opposing backfields.

WR Terrell Jana

Without Perkins or Dubois or Reed, UVa is going to need a lot of production on offense and if there’s a candidate, it should be Jana. His breakout season was really 2019, when he caught 73 passes for 878 yards and three TDs. Given the uncertainty in the passing game, it’s fair to expect that UVa looks to move Jana around and get the ball in his hands as much as possible.

Rawlings gives Virginia a big target at TE
Rawlings gives Virginia a big target at TE (Nick Lucero/Rivals.com)

Three big additions

CB Darrius Bratton

Technically, this isn’t an addition since the Roanoke native is a rising junior. But the 6-foot, 190 pounder missed all of the past season with an ACL injury he suffered in fall camp. With him, the Hoos would have been much better suited to deal with the losses they would eventually see in the secondary, including the loss of All-American cornerback Bryce Hall. Now, with a healthy Bratton, UVa figures to be in a much better spot given the amount of experience young guys got last fall.

TE Josh Rawlings

UVa figures to have an offense that looks and feels slightly different in 2020 but its main tight end last season, Tanner Cowley, has exhausted his eligibility. Enter Rawlings, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound former three-star recruit from Pittsburgh who enrolled early in January. Given UVa’s relatively light recruiting results in the past few classes at TE, getting Rawlings and then having him on Grounds early was a real boost to the future of the position.

DL coach Clint Sintim

With Vic So’oto headed off to USC (he just missed the cut on biggest departures), Mendenhall had to deal with his first staff turnover in quite some time. Sintim, who starred at UVa and was an All-ACC linebacker during his career, returns to Charlottesville looking to help a group that had already made big gains. The talent is certainly there, as is the depth. But Sintim’s most important role might be on the recruiting trail, where So’oto showed to be one of the best in the region.

This is a key season for Mendenhall after losing his star QB and main offensive playmakers
This is a key season for Mendenhall after losing his star QB and main offensive playmakers (USATSI)

Expectations for 2020

UVa returns a lot of talent from a team that won nine games and the Coastal in 2019. But without Perkins and several others, including ILB Jordan Mack, there’s reason for folks to think the Hoos take a step back this fall.

And that was the case before spring football got wiped off the board. Without it, and given the uncertainty of when/if the Cavaliers can make up for that lost time, it’s hard to see them repeating in 2020.

And yet, Armstrong is probably a more natural fit for Anae’s offense and the offensive line seems much better positioned to be far more consistent this fall given the experience and depth that unit has now. It’s not hard to see why the Wahoos might surprise some.

But that’s not where the program is. After years of sustained growth, the Cavaliers are probably going to need some things to go their way in order to be a factor in the division this season. That starts not only with Armstrong and the WR corps but also at running back, where the Hoos must find a way to create more on the ground.

All told, as of now there are still too many questions that spring would’ve helped us sort out a great deal.