The ACC’s COVID altered schedule meant that Georgia Tech did not face UVA on the football field for the first time since 1981. The series has been back and forth recently, with each team winning two of the last four matchups. Virginia enters Bronco Mendenhall’s fifth season as head coach, and the former BYU coach has certainly stabilized a program that had been in decline under Mike London. The ‘Hoos did take a step back in 2020 after Bryce Perkins captained the team to a combined 17 wins in 2018-2019. With a roster that ranks only 93rd in Bill Connelly’s returning production metric, are they looking at more of the same in 2021?
Zane Zandler and Charles Snowden
The pair of starting linebackers chose not to use their extra COVID eligibility and moved on from UVA. In 2020, their production totaled 123 tackles, including 17.5 for a loss, 4 passes defended, and one forced fumble. The middle level of UVA’s defense was excellent last year, leading the ACC in opponent yards after contact per rush. They will certainly feel the absence of Zandler and Snowden.
After using a stable of guys in the running game last year, UVA loses only Simpson. He gained a respectable 5.1 yards per carry on 54 tries and added 13 catches for 133 yards, producing 3 total TDs out of the backfield. Simpson was solid, but he should be replaceable.
The Central Michigan transfer was a surprisingly key cog for the UVA offense last year. He hauled in 38 catches (for reference, GT TE’s had 11 total catches last year) for 411 yards and 6 scores. Poljan is currently on the Ravens roster, having signed as a UDFA.
The other notable loss among the pass catches is Jana. He posted a 36-423-1 line in 2020 after breaking out for 74 catches for 886 yards and 3 scores in 2019. He’ll spend 2021 trying to catch on in the CFL.
After producing a solid freshman season in 2019, Briggs looked poised to be a long-time anchor in the middle of UVA’s defensive line. After posting 20 tackles, including 4 for a loss, in just 7 2020 games, he chose to opt out of the season and transfer to Cincinnati. This is a loss that UVA was not prepared for entering 2021.
Like most of the conference, UVA returns its starting quarterback this fall. Armstrong got most of the reps last season as QB1, although Mendenhall did experiment with wildcat looks throughout the season. Armstrong’s baseline numbers are solid but not spectacular: 2,117 yards on 59% Completion Percentage to go with 18 TDs and 11 interceptions, plus 126 carries for 552 yards and 5 more TDs. Underneath those numbers lurks a guy poised to breakout this fall. In fact, PFF graded Armstrong as the 14th best QB in the country on a per play basis last year. If that proves to be predictive for this season, UVA has a guy who can carry them to a top 30 or 40 offense nationally.
To go with a returning QB, UVA also returns most of their OL production from last year, with the exception of Dillon Reinkensmeyer. The QB-OL combo gives UVA a great sense of stability on offense this fall.
Keytaon Thompson and Lavel Davis Jr.
The two most explosive weapons in UVA’s 2020 arsenal both return to action. Thompson, who was featured in wildcat looks and as a running back , had 39-234-3 on the ground and 7-97-3 through the air. The freshman Davis added 20 catches for a massive 515 yards and 5 touchdowns (reminiscent of Ahmarean Brown’s freshman season for GT). These two guys give Armstrong some dynamic weapons to deploy.
If Thompson and Davis promise the explosiveness, Kemp provides the stability for this offense. The slot target hauled in a team leading 67 catches for 644 yards last year. He was Armstrong’s safety net and promises to provide that same security this season.
Finally, Jackson returns to anchor the middle of the defense. A preseason All-ACC pick by the media, he racked up 103 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and 2 passes defended last year. He should provide continuity for the solid linebacker play that was the strength of this defense last year.
As Ben mentioned this week, David Hale has been putting out some excellent information to help fans take stock of the various position groupings in the ACC. Here’s the summary:
I wrapped up ranking the ACC position groups last week… here’s how each group looked (though I’ve probably already changed my mind on some)… pic.twitter.com/dqmUqbWQnF— ️♈️ (@ADavidHaleJoint) July 26, 2021
What’s the outlook for UVA this fall?
- Quarterback - 7th
- Running backs - 11th
- WR/TE - 10th
- Offensive Line - 1st -
Virginia's 2020 O-line FBS rank (ACC rank)— ️♈️ (@ADavidHaleJoint) July 29, 2021
Pressure rate allowed: 3rd (1st)
Yards/Rush before contact: 15th (1st)
% runs stopped loss/no gain: 5th (1st)
- Secondary - 14th
UVA gave up explosive plays on 22% of opponent dropbacks. That's horrific. Even worse was the 10.4 yards/target when opposing QBs targeted a WR & 11 yards/dropback allowed when not getting pressure up front. The 2019 struggles could be blamed on injuries but this was BAD.— ️♈️ (@ADavidHaleJoint) July 14, 2021
- Linebacker - 6th
UVA loses 2 really good LBs in Snowden & ZZ but I have faith in Bronco at maximizing this position. Hoos led the ACC in YAC/rush allowed last year & Jackson/Taylor combo provide a good foundation. Jackson had just 7 missed tackles in 2020, 2nd-best % among ACC LBs.— ️♈️ (@ADavidHaleJoint) July 15, 2021
- Defensive Line - 10th
- Special Teams - 7th
UVA has reversed course from a typical Bronco Mendenhall team outlook. In their tale of two seasons last year, UVA went from averaging 23.8 points in its first five games to 43.3 during a four-game winning streak. The defense was mediocre throughout. All signs point to a “meh” defense once again this season, so things will come down largely to Armstrong- is he legit, or is he average? Virginia’s outlook will rise or fall on that question.
GT will face UVA in one of those classic mid-season swing games, travelling to Charlottesville on October 23rd. Though Scott Stadium has largely been a house of horrors for GT going on three decades now, this game looks like a tossup.
Bill Connelly gives GT a 47% win probability in his preseason projections. Are you buying or selling Tech’s chances?