Kurt Benkert in pole position in UVA QB battle
UVA junior Kurt Benkert has won a quarterback battle before. A year ago at this time, Benkert was the starting QB for Ruffin McNeill at East Carolina getting ready for his first significant college action.
The Cape Coral, Fla. (Island Coast) product went down to injury on Aug. 25 and missed the entire 2015 season, which ended with ECU fading to a 5-7 finish that shockingly cost McNeil his job, and got Benkert to thinking about his own future.
“When Coach Ruff was fired in December, everyone was really upset about it. I knew that I was graduating in the spring, and I was going to go through the spring and see if I had a good feel about the coaching staff, and if I wanted to be a part of that,” said Benkert, who hung around when former Duke offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery took over for McNeill, and put up big numbers in the spring game at ECU, throwing for 216 yards and a touchdown, and adding another score on the ground.
Montgomery was still deciding on who his starter for 2016 would be when Benkert informed him in April that he intended to transfer.
Benkert conceded that “it was not easy for me to decide to leave.”
“I was there for three years, and had built a lot of relationships with a lot of people. It wasn’t an easy decision, but once I made the decision, then it was easy to get it rolling,” Benkert said.
His first contact thereafter was with McNeill, who wasn’t out of work for long, with new UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall hiring McNeill to serve as an associate head coach and defensive line coach.
A dual-threat three-star QB prospect out of high school, the athletic Benkert, who threw for 5,032 yards and 45 touchdowns and added 450 yards on the ground in two seasons as a starting quarterback in high school, would add a different dimension to the UVA offense.
“I have an exciting style that I play with, and I’m a competitor. That’s my biggest thing. I love to compete, and I hate losing more than I like winning,” Benkert said. “We won a lot of games at ECU, and just seeing how Shane Carden, the quarterback before me, did it. He was really successful, and how he made the most of what he was given, just in any situation. His biggest thing was, he was a competitor, and he extended plays. It was nice to learn from someone like that who had so much success.”
Mendenhall inherited an incumbent starting quarterback in Matt Johns, who threw for 2,810 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2015, but the new coach opened up the starting job in the spring, then declared at the end of the spring that he wouldn’t name a starter.
Benkert, who earned his degree from ECU in May, is eligible to play this fall due to that quirky NCAA graduate transfer rule, and he has two years of eligibility remaining, which adds intrigue to the QB competition at Virginia.
Mendenhall told reporters at the ACC Kickoff in Charlotte last month that he likes the idea of Benkert having a chance to grow with the job as a junior and then build on his experience heading into a senior season in 2017.
That sounds like a leg up for Benkert over his two competitors for the starting job, Johns and fellow senior Connor Brewer.
The drawback for Benkert is the relative lack of familiarity with the personnel and the system, though even those limitations are not as pronounced as they could be, given that there is a new offensive system being put in place by offensive coordinator Robert Anae, and the Cavs lack experience at wide receiver.
“The biggest change has been the terminology,” Benkert said. “The plays are all the same that I ran prior. Just trying to get the old signals out of my head so when I see them, it’s a new play now. That’s really the part I’ve been trying to get down. Just so that when they signal it into me, I don’t have to think about, well, what play is it? I can think about what I have to do instead.”
Benkert worked to get himself familiar with the Cavs’ wideouts in informal workouts this summer.
“We’ve been throwing all summer,” Benkert said. “It’s going to be fun. The guys here are really good, they’re talented. Everyone plays a little bit different, and they have different things that they’re good at. That was the biggest focus this summer, trying to make up lost time, and trying to understand who the receivers are.”
Benkert said the hard part to the transition hasn’t been the football.
“That’s the easy part. It’s kind of getting used to life in a different city. And moving, paying to move, all that stuff. That’s the stressful part of it. But football, being around football, that’s the escape from having to move. It’s tough, but the football part is not hard at all,” said Benkert, who earned a degree in finance, and is now working toward a master’s degree in higher education.
“It’s a lot more writing,” Benkert said. “A lot of my undergrad, I took finance, and a lot of it was Excel projects and putting together reports and everything. So now I’m writing a lot of papers, and I hadn’t written a paper in a long time. The beginning of the summer was my first paper, and that was the biggest change. Just two different styles of learning.”
Benkert made it clear that he didn’t decide to uproot himself without the thought in mind that he would be in a position to compete for playing time.
“That’s everything,” Benkert said. “I wouldn’t have gone somewhere I didn’t feel I had the opportunity to play, especially when I had a great opportunity to play at ECU. I didn’t leave because I wasn’t going to play. It was a lot more than that. I came to college to go to college and play football, and I wouldn’t go somewhere I didn’t feel I could play.”
It’s a clean slate for Benkert, and he’s ready to make the most of the situation.
“I’m excited to show people what I can do in a live situation. Just excited to show them what I can do for this team on this field,” Benkert said. “What I did in the past doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to me, it doesn’t matter to anyone. It’s all about what you can do right now. So I’m excited to show people what I can do.”
Story by Chris Graham