Addition by addition: The UVA offense might actually be better in 2020
All hope is not lost on the 2020 ‘Hoos.
The offensive line returns the most cumulative starts of any in the ACC. Last year’s leading rusher, Wayne Taulapapa, is back, and the 2 in the 1-2 punch is a 2018 FCS All-American, Towson grad transfer Shane Simpson.
Joe Reed (77 catches, 769 yards, 7 TDs) and Hasise Dubois (75 catches, 1,062 yards, 6 TDs) are gone from the wideout corps, but Terrell Jana, who came into his own midseason in 2019 (73 catches, 878 yards, 3 TDs), is ready to step in as the go-to guy, and there’s talent around him, including another grad transfer, Ra’Shaun Henry, who put up sick numbers in FCS at St. Francis (90 catches, 1,118 yards) last year.
So, OK, Bryce ain’t coming back. But for the first time since Bronco Mendenhall and Robert Anae packed their wagons in Provo and headed east, they have a QB1 that they were able to groom from a pup, redshirt sophomore Brennan Armstrong, and a proven backup in, yes, another grad transfer, Keytaon Thompson.
Thompson knows the Anae offense better than any first-year starter that Anae has had since he landed in Charlottesville.
There’s top-shelf talent in the backfield and at wideout.
The line is as veteran as anything we’ve seen in the ol’ orange and blue dating back to the George Welsh days.
Now it’s just a matter of putting it all together.
“Our offensive philosophy, with all the coaches in our program, is we want to build around the strengths of the quarterback first, and then within that, build around the strengths of the other guys on the field,” quarterbacks coach Jason Beck said.
Thus, it will be imperative to get Armstrong to hit the ground running.
The left-hander appeared in 11 games in 2018 and 2019 as the primary back-up to Perkins, going 17-of-25 for 258 passing yards and two TDs and adding 93 yards on 16 carries on the ground.
He was out several weeks in 2019, and though it might sound odd to say that the offense struggled because the backup quarterback was out, that’s what happened.
Anae’s offense uses the QB in the running game an awful lot – draws, read-options, encouragement to pull the ball down and run in dropbacks depending on the pass coverage.
Without Armstrong in the mix, Anae had to put Perkins under wraps, to reduce the risk of injury that would have exposed the lack of numbers in the QB room.
So when Beck talks about the development at quarterback, he means Armstrong and Thompson, a talented, athletic prospect who fell into the laps of the UVA brain trust after he endured a second head coaching change in three years at Mississippi State in the offseason and decided to start over.
“Coaching has been instrumental in that development of the quarterbacks, identifying what they do, and heading in those directions to bring out their strengths and let them play fast and to the best of their ability. We really do try to focus around what they do best, so they can think less, play faster, and, you know, feel comfortable and get in a rhythm,” Beck said.
Anae has indicated that Thompson will get some playing time in 2020, without signaling how that might be – maybe running some wildcat, having him as a feature in short-yardage packages, using Thompson the way a former Anae/Beck pupil from their days at BYU, Taysom Hill, is used now in New Orleans.
“From our standpoint, it would not be a good idea if one of our better athletes was standing next to me with a clipboard, so we’re looking for opportunities to get (Thompson) on the field and to get him involved,” Anae said.
The key to the whole operation will be the big uglies. Virginia returns all five offensive line starters from the 2019 Orange Bowl, and the line’s 115 career starts leads the ACC.
Reinkensmeyer, a 6’6”, 300-pounder, is the linchpin, with 37 career starts on his resume coming into his senior season in 2020, alongside Chris Glaser (6’3”, 305, senior, 22 career starts), Bobby Haskins (6’7”, 285, junior, 13 career starts), Ryan Nelson (6’4”, 315, junior, 13 career starts), and Olusegun Oluwatimi (6’3”, 305, junior, 13 career starts).
The depth comes with game experience in the form of Ryan Swoboda (6’10”, 300, junior, three starts, 23 games played), Alex Gellerstedt (6’7”, 325, grad transfer from Penn State), and Tyler Fannin (6’3”, 295, junior, one career start).
The strength that is the O line should, in turn, bolster the ground game, which has been a focal point in training camp.
Taulapapa, the incumbent starter, gained 473 yards on the ground and scored 12 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2019, is among the best in the ACC in short-yardage situations. Simpson, the sixth-year senior, is the lightning to Taulapapa’s thunder, gaining more than 2,000 all-purpose yards as a redshirt junior in 2018.
“Our offensive line is stronger and better than they were a year ago. And a year ago, we were OK running the ball. We weren’t great. I’d like to improve,” Anae said. “We do have an addition of a big tight end (Central Michigan grad transfer Tony Poljan) that’s certainly added some things to the program. And Wayne’s back, and Shane’s a fourth-year guy, so we have we have good enough running backs.
“We have a much improved offensive line. We have a better group of blocking tight ends. So, the running part should be something that we do good to really well. I don’t know if we’re ever going to be great right now in the run game. But that might not be our strength. It turned out last year that our strength was a nice balance of everything around the board,” Anae said.
Some runs, some passes to the flat, some to the tight end.
Keep ‘em guessing.
“We think the strength of our unit is 11 guys working together, and for me as a coordinator and us as coaches to put them in positions that they have a chance to be successful,” Anae said. “So that’s our brand of football, so to speak. It is a collective, it is a unified, it is a hard working team effort, cooperation, so to speak, from a team standpoint, and which is why, for me, I love the game, because that’s the best game, when you can have all these guys, there’s so many pieces, and when it comes together, it’s like oh, dang, how did that happen?”
It’ll all come together, basically.
It won’t look the same as 2019, but that may be as much about having more pieces than there were available a year ago.
“You know, I don’t think it will be drastically different in any way,” Beck said. “Brennan is a capable runner and a good runner. He’s obviously not the top end speed, you know, dynamic athlete that Bryce was. But with what we did last year, I think will be more similar than different. It’s just a matter of getting all that experience that left both with Bryce, and with, you know, our wideout in Cali (Reed, now a member of the Los Angeles Chargers), and with new guys trying to get to that level of consistency and execution play in and play out.”
Story by Chris Graham