Can Virginia finally gets its ground game going in 2021?
Bronco Mendenhall thinks this is the year that Virginia finally gets a strong ground game, with a backfield that he feels is the most talented he has had in his six years in Charlottesville.
The guy who has impressed the most in the offseason and through spring practice is junior Wayne Taulapapa, who led the tailbacks in 2020 with a modest 388 rushing yards and five TDs.
UVA will have to account for the production of departed grad transfer senior Shane Simpson (278 yards, 5.2 yards per carry), but again, modest numbers there.
The leading rusher in 2020 was actually the starting quarterback, Brennan Armstrong (552 yards, five TDs on the ground), continuing a disturbing trend.
QBs Armstrong, Lindell Stone, Keytaon Thompson and Ira Armstead accounted for 53.9 percent of the Cavaliers’ rushing yardage in 2020 – a ratio that is actually up from the Bryce Perkins era of 2018-2019.
The 2018 run game got 44.3 percent of its yards from the QB position; the 2019 run game got 46.1 percent from the QBs.
With 11 of the 12 offensive linemen who took snaps for Virginia in 2020, accounting for 90.3 percent of the snaps taken by the O line group last year, back this fall, the hope of Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae is that they’ll be able to generate more on the ground from the backs.
Taulapapa, for one, thinks the running back room is ready to step up.
“We want to change this program around continuously. In the running back room, the best way to do that is by traditional runs, by hard runs, by chunky yards. And so that’s something that we all look forward to. That’s something we’ve talked about, bringing that mindset each and every day,” said Taulapapa (Pro Football Focus 2020 season grade: 71.1).
Taulapapa has earned his reps – he led the tailbacks with 453 offensive snaps in 2020, 58.2 percent of the total – by his versatility.
His 78.6 pass blocking grade makes him invaluable as a protector on pass plays, and he also led the group with an 80.1 run grade – with a group-high 268 yards after contact and 12 runs of 10+ yards in 2020.
Competing with Taulapapa for the starting tailback job is Ronnie Walker Jr. (PFF 2020 season grade: 56.5), whose season was oddly curtailed by the NCAA’s dawdling on his eligibility after he transferred last spring from Indiana.
Walker ended up only getting into three games, but, good news, he didn’t lose the year of eligibility, and now he’s getting a spring to get acclimated to the Virginia offense.
It was a frustrating 2020 for Walker, but he sounds to be taking the positive from the experience.
“I was very motivated just watching my brothers go out there and do their thing,” Walker said. “You know, while they were playing and stuff, I was still working on my game, you know, helping the defense out. I was on the scout team helping them out, giving them the best reads that they can, because I’m just playing against the best defense even though I’m working on my game as well.”
In addition to Taulapapa and Walker, the running back room gets back Mike Hollins (PFF 2019 season grade: 72.1), who opted out last season, and spring enrollee true freshman Amaad Foston, who has been earning praise from the coaching staff this spring.
Taulapapa feels the depth is pushing everybody to work harder and get better with an eye on being more productive in the fall.
“We treat each other as a family, but it comes to competing,” Taulapapa said. “We’re all working hard to help each other out when we see something that maybe we might have messed up on. We’re all in there together, trying to fix it, watching film together, working out together. What we want to do is push this running back room to the highest of its limits. And each of us are working towards that competing and helping each other.
“The line has been working really hard, and especially all the other running backs in the running back room trying to compete with one another, trying to help each other out. At the end of the day, whatever they want from us is what we have to do, is what we have to perform. And so, looking forward to it and really excited about it,” Taulapapa said.
Story by Chris Graham