Updated: Grading out UVA Football 2020 season, with an eye on 2021

uva footballThe tl; dr read version of UVA Football 2020: a win, a four-game losing streak, a four-game winning streak, an ugly loss to the rival in the season finale.

Five-and-five should grade out to C, and overall, C feels about right.

It might also feel like a step back for a program that played in the ACC Championship Game and Orange Bowl a year ago.

But when I do my deep dive into the individual grades, I find some room for thinking positive heading into 2021.

Offense

And it starts at the most important position on the field – quarterback.

Who woulda thunk going into 2020 that Brennan Armstrong would represent an upgrade over Bryce Perkins?

And that’s not hyperbole. Armstrong’s Pro Football Focus season grade – 90.3 – is an order of magnitude improvement over Perkins’ 2019 PFF grade of 64.0.

Think about that. Perkins in 2019 threw for a school-record 3,530 yards, had a 134.2 passer rating, led the team in rushing with 769, accounted for 33 total touchdowns (22 through the air, 11 on the ground).

And Armstrong was much, much more productive.

His 2020 numbers: 2,117 yards passing, 138.9 passer rating, a team-best 552 yards on the ground, 23 total TDs (18 passing, five rushing).

Project those numbers out to 14 games: 3,487 yards passing, 909 yards rushing, 37 total TDs (29 passing, eight rushing).

The good news: we’ve got this kid for two more years.

The backfield

Wayne Taulapapa (PFF grade: 71.1), Shane Simpson (67.0) and Ronnie Walker Jr. (56.5) just don’t get used all that much in Robert Anae’s offense.

Combined, they got 165 totes – 39 more than Armstrong’s 126.

Factoring in that 40 of Armstrong’s runs were scrambles: Taulapapa had his number called two more times (88) than Armstrong (86).

This would seem to suggest that Anae doesn’t have much faith in his backs, and when you look at what Armstrong was able to do on his designed runs – 472 yards on 67 carries, 7.0 yards per carry – vis-à-vis the other guys (739 yards on 165 carries, 4.5 yards per carry), you can kinda see it.

Looking at that number for Armstrong again: Perkins ran for 666 yards on 132 designed runs in 2019, 5.0 yards per carry.

Armstrong had to carry more of the load in terms of designed runs.

Get him some help next year, and watch what happens.

Slash

This is how I think of Keytaon Thompson (PFF grade: 65.8), the grad transfer from Mississippi State who battled Armstrong for the starting QB job in camp, then got snaps at wideout, running back, wildcat quarterback, tight end.

Thompson ran for 234 yards and three TDs (averaging 6.0 yards per carry) and had 98 yards and three TDs on seven catches.

The ways in which Anae used Thompson would remind you of how Sean Payton uses a former Anae protégé, Taysom Hill, in New Orleans.

Another year like this one for Thompson, and he might be another Taysom Hill for another NFL team.

Wideouts/tight ends

Balance was the name of the game here, with four guys at 400+ yards through the air in 2020.

Junior Billy Kemp IV (PFF grade: 73.9) stepped in as this year’s Joe Reed/Olamide Zaccheaus, and availed himself well in the role, hauling in 67 passes for 644 yards.

Project that out over 14 games, and you get 94 catches for 902 yards – better than what Reed, now in the NFL, did in 2019 (77 catches, 679 yards).

His 13-game numbers would have been 87 catches, 837 yards – Zaccheaus, also now in the NFL, had 93 catches, 1,058 yards in 2018.

We get Kemp for one more year.

We get 6’7” freshman Lavel Davis Jr. (PFF grade: 65.2) for another three.

Davis averaged 25.8 yards per catch on his 20 catches, five of them going for touchdowns.

He was only targeted 42 times on his 304 pass snaps, so, hey, BA, look in his direction more.

Davis also had five drops, so, kid, get some time in on the JUGS.

Grad transfer Ra’Shaun Henry (PFF grade: 55.5) is returning for 2021. Henry only had seven catches in 2020, but averaged 29.4 yards per catch, and four of the seven went for TDs.

The formula for 2021: Henry and Davis stretching defenses, Kemp working the inside routes – and maybe some more production from junior Tavares Kelly Jr. (PFF grade: 56.3), who had just nine catches on 15 targets for 38 yards in 2020, but we know can do a lot more.

Best wishes to grad transfer tight end Tony Poljan (PFF grade: 71.0) had the fourth-most catches among tight ends in the 2021 draft class (38), and tied for second in the draft class in TD catches (6), and at 6’7”, 265, you’ve got to think he’s going to get some looks from the NFL this spring.

Offensive line

Great news – 85.7 percent of the snaps return next year.

The unit loses one seniors – guards Dillon Reinkensmeyer (PFF grade: 69.7, 376 snaps).

What we get back:

  • Junior center Olu Oluwatimi (PFF grade: 71.1, 718 snaps)
  • Junior tackle Ryan Swoboda (PFF grade: 69.3, 650 snaps)
  • Senior tackle Ryan Nelson (PFF grade: 68.1, 667 snaps)
  • Senior guard Chris Glaser (PFF grade: 67.4, 734 snaps)
  • Junior tackle Bobby Haskins (PFF grade: 67.4, 184 snaps)
  • Sophomore guard Joe Bissinger (PFF grade: 58.4, 382 snaps)

That’s a lot of experience to build out from.

Defensive front seven

The front looked at the outset of the offseason to be a rebuild this spring and summer: the line set to lose 65.7 percent of the snaps from 2020, and the linebacker unit set to lose 55.8 percent.

That’s before defensive ends Adeeb Atariwa (PFF grade: 70.4, 317 snaps, 16 tackles, 8 pressures, 1 sack) and Mandy Alonso (PFF grade: 66.8, 544 snaps, 26 tackles, 23 pressures, 2 sacks) announced today that they would be returning in 2021.

Whew. Can take a big breath now.

Those two will form the nucleus up front, alongside junior outside ‘backer Noah Taylor (PFF grade: 73.9, 535 snaps, 44 tackles, 16 pressures, 4 sacks, 1 INT), sophomore inside ‘backer Nick Jackson (PFF grade: 70.2, 648 snaps, 103 tackles, 24 pressures, 5 sacks) and another returning senior, outside ‘backer Elliott Brown (PFF grade: 65.9, 124 snaps, 7 tackles, 11 pressures).

Key losses:

  • Outside linebacker Matt Gahm (PFF grade: 74.5, 332 snaps, 38 tackles, 19 pressures, 6 sacks)
  • Nose tackle Jowon Briggs (PFF grade: 68.4, 305 snaps, 20 tackles, 14 pressures, 3 sacks)
  • Inside linebacker Zane Zandier (PFF grade: 67.6, 659 snaps, 79 tackles, 31 pressures, 2 sacks)
  • Outside linebacker Charles Snowden (PFF grade: 67.3, 402 snaps, 44 tackles, 17 pressures, 5 sacks)
  • End Richard Burney (PFF grade: 66.7, 245 snaps, 16 tackles, 10 pressures, 3 sacks)

That’s still a ton of experience matriculating.

But it’s much better than it could have been.

Much, much better.

Secondary

Starting corners Nick Grant (PFF grade: 63.7, 634 snaps) and De’Vante Cross (PFF grade: 49.5, 627 snaps) and free safety Joey Blount (PFF grade: 65.0, 260 snaps) are all both taking advantage of the 2020 redshirt rule to return for a fifth season.

Grant had a solid year as the field corner – opposing QBs had 29 completions in 48 throws in 346 coverage snaps for Grant in 2020, for 526 yards (18.1 yards per completion) and two TDs, and a 94.6 NFL passer rating.

Cross will need to improve in his extra year – opposing QBs had 31 completions in 47 throws on 339 coverage snaps for Cross in 2020, for 696 yards (22.5 yards per completion) and five TDs, and a 128.4 NFL passer rating.

Blount missed five games to injuries in 2020. He averaged five tackles per game in the ones he did get to play, and was solid in pass coverage – allowing seven completions in 13 pass attempts in 137 coverage snaps, for 104 yards (14.9 yards per completion) and a 48.2 NFL passer rating.

Other key returners:

  • Sophomore safety Antonio Clary (PFF grade: 61.3, 277 snaps, 24 tackles)
  • Sophomore safety Coen King (PFF grade: 58.7, 317 snaps, 30 tackles)
  • Junior cornerback Darrius Bratton (PFF grade: 56.2, 127 snaps, 8 tackles)

The secondary gets a late boost from the addition of Louisville grad transfer Anthony Johnson (PFF grade: 64.9), who was on the field for 384 snaps in three seasons for the Cardinals, allowing 46 catches on 82 pass attempts in 446 pass coverage snaps, with an NFL passer rating against of 84.3.

Special teams

The return game gets Billy Kemp IV (PFF return grade: 63.6, 14 punt returns, 4 kickoff returns) and Tavares Kelly Jr. (PFF return grade: 57.5, 11 kickoff returns) back in 2021.

Placekicker Brian Delaney (PFF grade: 68.1, 35/36 PATs, 10/13 FGs in 2020) and punter Nash Griffin (PFF grade: 73.2, 42.4 yards per kick/39.0 yards net kick) are losses to graduation.

Kickoff specialist Justin Duenkel (PFF grade: 82.0, 25.0 average field position) is just a redshirt freshman, so, he’s back.

Looking back, and looking ahead

The 2020 team should have been better than 5-5. Bottom line.

The offense has a lot coming back in 2021: a QB who is only going to get better, an experienced offensive line, weapons at wideout, guys in the backfield who know their roles.

The defense had looked to be a work in progress next year before the announcements regarding the returning fourth- and fifth-year players.

Having experience up front and key guys in the secondary back will be a big, big plus.

Story by Chris Graham


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