Jelani Woods: Unstoppable force over the middle for UVA offense

Jelani Woods
Jelani Woods. Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

Jelani Woods was selected by his Virginia teammates to pick his jersey number in the first round. His choice: 0.

The reason: “I want to make a statement, that nobody can stop me,” said Woods, a 6’7”, 265-pound tight end who comes to UVA as a grad transfer from Oklahoma State.

A big target, Woods, a two-time All-Big 12 honorable mention tight end, didn’t get many targets at OSU – just 45 total in three years at Oklahoma State, catching 31 balls (four drops) for 361 yards and four TDs.

Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae tweaked his offense in 2020 to better utilize the tight end in the passing game when the ‘Hoos picked up 6’7”, 260-pound Central Michigan transfer Tony Poljan, who got 6.1 targets per game last season, more than doubling what tight ends Tanner Cowley and Grant Misch saw coming their way in 2019, and nearly three times what Cowley and Evan Butts saw in 2018.

Head coach Bronco Mendenhall has said that Woods might be the best player on the 2021 UVA roster, which is saying a lot for a guy new to the program.

Anae said what stands out most about Woods, a former top prep quarterback, is “his competitiveness, and his effort, and his who he is, before what he does, it’s who he is.”

“To come in and make an early impact like he’s done, he’s already made a mark. He is part of the leadership on this team, and the University of Virginia and our fan base should be very excited for the leadership,” Anae said.

Woods looks forward to putting the wrinkles that Anae has developed for him in the offense into action this season.

“He’s very brilliant when it comes to, you know, the different mismatches and things he puts together,” Woods said. “I feel like me moving around the whole offense, it helps, and the creativity that he does bring, it helps broaden my, you know, aspect to the offense. And I feel like it creates a potential benefit for us, and just the mismatches that it can create and everything of that nature.”

Having a big pass catcher on the inside to occupy underneath coverage and safeties should open things up for wideouts like Billy Kemp IV, Dontavyion Wicks and Ra’Shaun Henry, and all-purpose threat Keytaon Thompson, who will line up sometimes at wildcat quarterback, sometimes at tailback, sometimes at tight end, sometimes on the outside.

“I’ve never seen some of the formations and just the different calls and things that he comes up with daily. It’s been awesome,” Woods said. “Just seeing this all over the field, me and Keytaon right beside each other or Keytaon sometimes being a quarterback or running back. And then me even sometimes being that running back or receiver or in line, it just gives a broad perspective of you know what the offense is going to look like.”

And then there’s the aspect of Woods and Thompson on the field with second-year starting QB Brennan Armstrong effectively meaning there are three guys with rifle arms and sets of eyes to scan over what the defense is doing.

“Brennan’s chemistry, I would say it’s pretty much like 100 percent,” Woods said. “Since the spring we came in, we locked in with him. And then we were, during the off times, we were getting together and learning and stuff, and then talking about just the different routes and stuff that we run with Coach Anae and just developing those until now. And we’re right now probably, like, 150 percent, because since I used to be a quarterback, I kind of see exactly what he sees. And he’s like, we always talk about it after the play or when we’re in the locker room, whatever, we bring it up, and it’s just been it’s been great.”

Back to the jersey selection thing. It was definitely new to an old guy coming in as a grad transfer from a place that doles out jersey numbers the way everybody else does.

“Once I heard about it, Coach Mendenhall, he told me, and I embraced it. I understood exactly why he does it,” said Woods, who welcomed the pressure of having to earn a jersey number, because it meant he would have to earn the respect of his teammates.

“That was, like, the most, that was really the achievement that I wanted,” Woods said. “I just wanted to show them that I’m all in from day one. And I can work as much as possible to know to gain their respect, gain a trust, and then show that, you know, I’m with them, I’m a brother as well, even though I’m a transfer.

“I would say having the team select me in the first round was, you know, a great lesson to how, like you said, how far I came,” Woods said. “I respect their decision of doing that. Because I feel like I can say we all been working hard. And you know, I had to gain the respect of my teammates first and foremost. So just to hear to put my name in in the first round, just let me know that I’m heading in the right direction, pretty much, I’m bringing a potential benefit to the team and offense.”

Story by Chris Graham

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