UVA relying on Kurt Benkert to grow in year two at QB

Kurt Benkert had an up-and-down year as a first-year starting quarterback at Virginia.

kurt benkertThe senior comes into year two with a much firmer grasp of the system and the personnel, and a healthier body.

“I think playing through that difficulty really kind of showed me who I was and what I could take as a player and kind of helped push me to my limits. I’m really looking forward to playing and starting the season healthy and getting through it that way. It was something that was difficult, but I got through it, and I was really happy I was able to do that,” Benkert told reporters at the 2017 ACC Kickoff.

You knew about the knee that he blew out in 2015 while he was still at East Carolina. You might remember that he suffered a left-shoulder injury in the loss at UConn in Week 3 last season.

Coach Bronco Mendenhall said Friday that the shoulder injury was a bit more than the program had let on at the time.

Benkert conceded Friday that the injury did have an impact on his play, but stressed that the issues with the shoulder and the knee are behind him.

Just as important to his development is that he was able to get in a full spring practice, something he didn’t have heading into the 2016 season, since he transferred in the summer after deciding to transfer out of ECU following spring ball earlier that year.

Benkert put up good numbers in 2016, throwing for 2,552 yards and 21 touchdowns in 10 starts, but he also threw 11 interceptions and completed just 56.2 percent of his passes, borderline acceptable in an offensive scheme that is based on a short-passing game.

The game experience, spring ball and months of film study give Benkert a better foundation heading into 2017.

“I would say across the board, just having a more increased understanding through the receivers, the offensive line, not really just being on the basic level of understanding what (offensive coordinator Robert) Anae is trying to have us do, and understanding the whole concept and how the defense is going to try to stop each play. I think we’re really growing and getting to that point and not just at a basic level like we were last year,” Benkert said.

Mendenhall had talked at the 2016 ACC Kickoff about what was then an unsettled quarterback situation at the time, with incumbent starter Matt Johns, a rising senior, and Benkert, a grad transfer with two years of eligibility remaining, offering two very different prospects for his first year in Charlottesvile.

What Mendenhall said at this time last year that he liked about Benkert was the chance to build around a player who could continue to grow into his role beyond one season.

“When I first saw him, even though he had his knee brace on and he came in for fall camp, instantly there was a presence and the ability to make every throw. Those are the two things I noticed first,” Mendenhall said Friday. “What was also clear at that time is his mobility was not back, and his understanding in a brand new system was going to take time. So all those things were apparent at the beginning.

“What I see at this point — and I’m now taking and moving back to spring practice — he’s more mobile, he’s more accurate, he’s more confident, he’s certainly healthier, and will need to remain so for us to continue to move the program forward, at least in year two the way we would hope. He’s critical to that. And so that’s a unique challenge now as the head coach is to design systems to make sure he can remain healthy, confident, and capable in practice and in the games but still have the aggressive edge in terms of play calling and utilizing him that allow us to have the advantage we need competitively.”

Benkert is up for the challenge.

“Spring was really big for us, but I think the biggest part is just understanding who’s in the offense, who I’m throwing the ball to, who’s in front of me, what the running backs can do, and just really understanding personnel, and that just takes time and it takes a lot of extra time outside of the two hours here and there that we’re required to be there. There’s been a lot of extra work put in behind the scenes, so we’re looking forward to it paying off,” Benkert said.

Story by Chris Graham