It was a rough first season in Charlottesville for Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall in 2016. The Cavaliers finished 2-10 overall and in last in the ACC Coastal Division with a 1-7 record. To add insult to injury, Virginia suffered a season-opening 37-20 loss to Richmond from the FCS ranks.
Mendenhall knew the Cavaliers job would be a tough rebuild because of the lack of talent former head coach Mike London left, but he might not have envisioned it being this difficult.
With Virginia set to open spring practice, Mendenhall will look to lead the program in a positive direction. To get there, there are several areas that will need to be addressed prior to the spring game on April 29.
5 Storylines to Watch During Virginia’s Spring Practice
1. How much can QB Kurt Benkert improve this spring?
In his first season after transferring from East Carolina, Benkert was inconsistent as Virginia’s starting quarterback. He did throw for 2,552 yards and 21 touchdowns, but he completed just 56.2 percent of his passes and had 11 interceptions. He also was benched and replaced by backup Matt Johns in the Cavaliers’ 31-17 loss to Georgia Tech.
Despite his benching and his play late last season, Mendenhall said on a pre-spring practice conference call last week that Benkert is the leader to start the season under center against William & Mary on Sept. 2. Mendenhall also said Benkert injured his shoulder against UConn in Week 3 and was never the same after that.
The play of Benkert will determine how much improvement the Cavaliers can make in 2017. With questions in the backfield and along the offensive line, Virginia needs Benkert to increase his productivity and limit the mistakes that he made a season ago.
2. Running backs
Virginia will have to replace arguably the best player on their roster in Taquan Mizzell. He is the only player in ACC history to record more than 1,500 career rushing yards and 1,500 career receiving yards. Mizzell was the Cavaliers’ leading rusher and receiver (receptions) in 2016, so he will have large shoes to fill.
Mendenhall said he he likes what he has seen in Daniel Hamm and early enrollee Jamari Peacock. Hamm only had three carries a season ago, but he played a lot as a punt and kick returner. As a senior at Yulee (Fla.) High, Peacock rushed for 1,876 yards and 33 touchdowns.
3. Offensive line
Last season, the Cavaliers’ offensive line was among the worst in the FBS. In 12 games, Virginia’s offensive line gave up 36 sacks. Only two other ACC schools (Syracuse, Louisville) gave up more per game as the Cavaliers ranked 113th in the nation in this category.
Virginia will have 11 scholarship offensive linemen to work with this spring. The rest of the eight linemen on the roster won’t enroll until the summer. Offensive line coach Garrett Tujague will have his hands full in putting this group together.
The Cavaliers will need to replace three starters up front, as center Jackson Matteo, left guard Michael Mooney and right tackle Eric Smith have exhausted their eligibility.
For a head coach that comes from a defensive background such as Mendenhall, watching the Cavaliers’ defense in 2016 had to be tough to stomach. Virginia finished 93rd in the country in total defense (446.6 ypg) and fared even worse in scoring defense (99th, 33.8 ppg). Needless to say one of Mendenhall’s top priorities this spring is to improve on defense.
One positive towards that goal is the unit does have experience with nine starters returning. The Cavaliers also have senior leaders to rely on in linebacker Micah Kiser, who led the ACC and finished third in the FBS in tackles, and safety Quin Blanding.
5. Special teams
Virginia will open spring practice without a kicker on the roster. Incoming freshman Brian Delaney is expected to be the Cavaliers’ kicker this fall, but he won’t enroll until the summer.
One of the few bright spots for Virginia last season was its return game. Joe Reed (25.1 ypr) and the aforementioned Hamm (9.8 ypr) both finished in the top 25 nationally in kickoff and punt returns, respectively.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Virginia in the ACC
The good news for Virginia is there’s nowhere to go but up following a disastrous first season under new head coach Bronco Mendenhall. The 2016 Cavaliers lacked talent and was very young, so some improvement should be expected after experiencing a lot of growing pains.
Having QB Kurt Benkert healthy throughout the season will be key if Virginia wants to have any hopes of sneaking into a bowl game in 2017. The biggest concern on offense will be up front, as three starters along an offensive line that did not perform very well last season have to be replaced.
While Mendenhall says the team has made great strides from last year, it will be hard for the Cavaliers to crack the six-win mark to qualify for a bowl. There’s a possibility Virginia could be 3-0 heading into their game at Boise State on Sept. 22, but the schedule gets with the start of ACC play. Home games with Duke and Boston College present an opportunity to get to five wins, but the Cavaliers will still need an upset or two to reach bowl eligibility and will likely bring up the rear in the Coastal Division once again.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.