A look inside the QB room: Brennan Armstrong sets expectations way high for 2021
Brennan Armstrong, his first spring as QB1 at Virginia under his belt, has set a high ceiling for the Cavalier offense in 2021.
“I think we can be the best offense in the ACC, honestly, with the weapons we have, the line that’s back, the running backs, the depth we have at running back, which will allow them to run even harder and do different things, and the skill sets we have in the backfield, too,” Armstrong said last week after UVA’s quasi-spring game.
Armstrong (Pro Football Focus 2020 season grade: 90.3) put up solid numbers in his first season as the starter in 2020, throwing for 2,117 yards and 18 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions, while completing 58.6 percent of his passes, and ranking seventh in the ACC in pass efficiency (138.9).
The Shelby, Ohio native also led Virginia in rushing with 552 yards, though the hope for coach Bronco Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae is that the ‘Hoos can get some of that burden off him with the development of more of a traditional run game from tailbacks Wayne Taulapapa (PFF 2020 season grade: 71.1), Ronnie Walker Jr. (PFF 2020 season grade: 56.5), Mike Hollins (PFF 2019 season grade: 72.1) and true freshman Amaad Foston.
A focal point in the spring was the development of the tailback run game, an effort that was enhanced by the natural inclination to not have your QB1 exposed to anything resembling contact.
Armstrong noted after last week’s quasi-spring game that he still has his feet with him, that he can still scramble – Pro Football Focus had him down for 205 scramble yards in 2020, an average of 24.1 scramble yards per game, which compares favorably to the 24.9 scramble yards per game that his predecessor, Bryce Perkins, averaged in 2019.
What Anae and Mendenhall would like to see more in 2021 is Armstrong using his feet to extend plays for his receivers, tight ends and tailbacks to get downfield.
Armstrong is all-in as far as that goes, actually.
“The receivers and I are starting to get more comfortable with the scramble drill, and if I could take off anywhere, you know, start to get down the field in different spots, just also being smart,” Armstrong said.
Being smart is Armstrong referring to the 11 INTs, which came in spurts – two in the season-opening win over Duke, two more in the loss at Clemson in Week 2, another two in the dispiriting L in the finale at Virginia Tech.
“Not turning the ball over is the biggest thing. It’s just essential,” Armstrong said. “Decision-making, quick thoughts in my head, when you know, something happens, a play breaks down, and I’ve got to scramble, do something, but just, you know, when something’s not there, don’t force it. Just move off, get to another play, just scramble and use my feet.”
This time last year, in addition to having to prepare for his first season as QB1 without spring, and via Zoom, there was also the prospect of having to win a competition for the spot, when it had seemed for the past couple of years, as Perkins’ understudy, that he was the QB1-in-waiting.
Armstrong would go on to win the job in camp, and his top challenger, Mississippi State grad transfer Keytaon Thompson (PFF 2020 season grade: 65.8), ended up being utilized by Anae in a slash role, as a wildcat quarterback/wideout/tight end/tailback, to great success (234 yards and three TDs on the ground, 98 yards on seven catches and three TDs as a receiver/tight end).
Thompson partially tore the labrum in his right shoulder in camp last summer, but he noted at the start of spring practice last month that he expected to be physically capable to throw with the kind of volume that a QB would need to by the start of training camp in July.
It’s not sounding like Mendenhall and Anae want KT to be limited to being a QB2, though, particularly now that the Cavaliers have lost 6’7” sophomore Lavel Davis Jr. (PFF 2020 season grade: 65.2) likely for the season to a torn ACL.
“Based on our depth at receiver, and the different skill sets we have, we really like (Thompson’s) ability to catch the ball, and we think we actually need another pass catcher,” Mendenhall said.
Thompson is “long, and he’s got such a great catch radius, and he’s a tough matchup for linebackers or safeties, so we like that,” Mendenhall said. “And so yeah, you’ll probably see an increased volume in the receiving part, with even expanded roles in the other parts. But yeah, probably, if you’re looking at if the percentage dial shifts anywhere, it’s probably going to shift slightly more to the receiving area.”
The battle for QB2, then, comes down to Ira Armstead (PFF 2020 season grade: 73.7), who got 33 snaps as a wildcat QB and at wideout in his freshman season, spring enrollee Jacob Rodriguez, a three-star recruit from Wichita Fallas, Texas, and another three-star recruit, Benedictine (Richmond) dual-threat QB Jay Woolfolk, who will be on Grounds this summer.
“Jacob and Ira, I would list side by side coming into the fall,” Mendenhall said. “While Ira has been here longer, Jacob took way more reps the spring, was healthier, and probably is farther along in the mastery of the offensive content, and that is to his credit. So Ira and Jacob going into the fall, and then Jay Woolfolk arrives as well.
“Both Ira and Jacob, they both were injured, and man, playing quarterback, you have to be a durable player. Brennan took five gazillion reps (this spring), and he was struggling at the end with arm and his different body injuries, and so we’re anxious for Jay to come as well,” Mendenhall said. “I put him right side by side with the other two. We need a productive durable player that can step in and be the number two. I’m really not willing to name it yet, because it’s too close to call.”
Back to Armstrong: he’s “excited” for a regular summer to get more time with strength and conditioning, drills with his wideouts and tight ends, to get sharper in advance of training camp.
“This is just the beginning of the offseason, we just got through it,” he said last week after the spring game. “You know, we have a big summer workout coming up, workouts and then fall camp, but we have a lot to improve on. But I’m super excited where we’re at now. We’ve just got to continue to get better.”
Story by Chris Graham