Desmond Kitchings: Hard at work building a new Virginia offense
It doesn’t sound like Desmond Kitchings, the new Virginia offensive coordinator, is going to have somebody tracking the number of runs and passes he’s calling in a game.
“We’re not saying we’re going to be 50 percent run, 50 percent pass, but we’ll be balanced enough that if to win the game, it requires us to run the football, that we’re capable of doing that, and obviously, if we have to win the game throwing the ball more, that we’re still capable of doing that as well,” Kitchings told reporters on Wednesday.
The offense of his predecessor, Robert Anae, now at Syracuse, couldn’t run the ball to win games, ranking 14th – dead last – in the ACC in rushing in 2021 (121.8 yards per game).
If you’re looking for a reason why the Cavaliers ranked first in the conference in total offense (514.4 yards per game, nearly 40 yards per game ahead of second-ranked Pitt) and just fourth in scoring (34.6 points per game, nearly seven points less per game than Pitt), you’ve got your reason why.
When the field gets tighter in the red zone, you need to be able to run the ball.
Virginia was fifth in the ACC in 2021 in red-zone TD percentage (63.3 percent), and tied for first – with Clemson, under Tony Elliott as the offensive coordinator – in red-zone drives that produced neither a touchdown nor a field goal (9).
We all remember the last one from among those nine – the goose egg on the drive that stalled out inside the Virginia Tech 10 in the final minute of the 29-24 loss in the season finale, which precipitated the surprise resignation of coach Bronco Mendenhall five days later.
Kitchings was brought in to remedy things to that end, bringing with him experience as offensive coordinator at Vanderbilt and NC State, and most recently a one-year stint in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons.
Kitchings said he loved coaching in the NFL, at the top of the profession, and would only have left the league to go back to college for a handful of guys.
“Tony and I crossed paths probably 16 years ago, and remained in communication with each other, and obviously competing against each other during my time at North Carolina State and (his) at Clemson,” Kitchings said. “There were conversations that, you know, if I were to get a job, or he would get a job, depending on how things unfold in our careers, that we want to be able to work together. So, when this opportunity came about, there’s very few, if many, people that I would have left the NFL to come back to college to work with, and one of those guys is Tony Elliott. So, just cut from a personal relationship, obviously, to come and help him build a program the way that he sees it, the relationship base, and the student-athlete really matters, believing in that approach, we can put together a good product on the field to win here at UVA.”
Elliott has made it clear that he is giving the keys to the offense to Kitchings, but Kitchings is making it just as clear that he prefers a committee approach to building the new offense at Virginia.
“We just completed on-the-road recruiting, so we were very limited in joining together as a staff and talking ball and watching some cutups and those type things, so they’re really focused on that here,” Kitchings said. “The past, going back to last week, and through this week, was open dialogue. You know, I tell them all the time, I don’t have all the answers, and five brains are better than one, so it’s a collective group. And Coach Elliott’s involved with that as well, in putting together the best product we can to help us win games next year.”
Kitchings has also made it a point to get input from the returning starting QB, Brennan Armstrong, who tested the NFL waters after ranking second in FBS in passing yards per game (404.5) in 2021 before deciding to return for his senior season.
“Definitely watched a lot of film, but also a personal relationship where Brennan and I have spent some time together already, you know, even going out to grab a bite to eat, just to get to know each other on a personal level,” Kitchings said. “We believe in just developing relationships with our players. Obviously, he has a high skill set as a quarterback in the ACC. So, very excited about him coming back to play with us for the 2022 season.”
The focus for Kitchings heading into the spring is to get on the same page with Armstrong so that the offense can get up and running as quickly as possible.
“When we look back at Virginia last year and in the years past, they have done a really, really good job of throwing the football, obviously. Brennan has been a big part of that,” Kitchings said. “So, our job as coaches is to try to mesh some of the things that Brennan has had success with, and terminology-wise, limit, try to restrict, his learning curve offensively. So, a lot of conversations going through a past concept like, hey, what did you call this, so it can match. So again, trying to limit his learning curve so that he can be the best player he can possibly be running the offense.”
The temptation would be to open up the playbook for Armstrong given his experience as a Power 5 starting QB, but Kitchings thinks “you have to be a little cautious in that.”
“You know, that’s part of Brennan and I and Coach Elliott getting to learn each other, and, you know, not to say, oh, man, we’ve got Brennan, let’s just go, go, go, right,” Kitchings said. “Obviously, he’s shown the ability to do a lot of things, and that’s what’s really exciting about this time of the year right now, in just feeling like, as a coach, like, we feel confident, hey, this guy has won games with the ball in his hands. Just having that comfort, knowing going out there that whatever game plan, how we put this together, he can go execute it, and then from there, we can build on from that.”
Kitchings can also build from the talent that he has coming back on the perimeter – Keytaon Thompson (78 catches, 990 yards), Billy Kemp IV (74 catches, 725 yards), Dontayvion Wicks (57 catches, 1,203 yards), and Lavel Davis Jr. (20 catches, 515 yards in 2020).
“We’re very talented on the perimeter offensively, you know, with the receiver skill,” Kitchings said. “And KT, whatever he plays, right, he’s a football player, and being able to utilize his skill set in multiple ways. You know, the thing, and I know Coach Elliott has alluded to this as well, but we’re also excited to see what do we really have in the running back room. I do believe there’s some talent there, and these guys get the opportunity to show us this spring what they’re capable of.”
Kitchings praised the work of offensive line coach Garret Tujague to work the transfer portal to land a pair of tackles, John Paul Flores (Dartmouth) and Mac Hollensteiner (Georgetown, to replenish that position group after Virginia lost four starters to the portal in the aftermath of Mendenhall’s departure.
“We didn’t know that we’d have, unfortunately, with the transfer portal, the guys that decided to leave,” Kitchings said. “But again, credit goes to Coach Tujague, he went to work and busted his butt, and he was able to acquire us some guys in our benefit with this transfer portal, you know, which is not something that we want to focus on, because we want to build our roster, as we say, through the draft from high school guys. But this year is unique, where we have to try to supplement with the transfer portal, and some of the guys that we’ve targeted in that group on the offensive line that we’ve been we’ve been able to get to come here and, you know, maybe hopefully a couple more, if necessary. But, you know, I’m excited to get on the field, get on the grass with Coach Tujague. He has a lot of great energy in the room. Players speak highly of him.”
Story by Chris Graham