This team stinks: UVA football 2017 season preview

UVA football is coming off its second 2-10 season in four years. This year’s team might be the worst in program history.

And yeah, that’s saying a lot.

uva footballBut it’s hard to figure how things can get better. Coach Bronco Mendenhall has his starting quarterback from last year, Kurt Benkert, and a pair of second-team preseason All-Americans, linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding, as building blocks.

Benkert, though, was benched late in his first year as the starting QB, after putting up pedestrian numbers in offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s passer-friendly scheme (most notably, a 56.2 percent completion rate, in an offense predicated on short passes).

And as good as Kiser and Blanding are (ranked 1 and 2 in the ACC in tackles in 2016), the defense that they anchored still gave up 446.6 yards and 33.5 points per game, both 12th in the 14-team ACC, which makes you think that, maybe, just maybe, their gaudy tackles stats might be more a bit skewed by the lack of talent around them, than it being the case that the stats are an indication of their own relative merits.

Kiser and Blanding, as long as they stay healthy, will continue to rack up tackles, the question being, how far downfield?

Benkert, for his part, has less to work with on the offensive end. Virginia lost its top two running backs (Taquan Mizsell and Albert Reid) and two of its top four receivers (Mizzell and Keeon Johnson) from a year ago.

The offensive line couldn’t give Benkert time (allowing 36 sacks, tied for 11th in the ACC) or clear lanes for the backs (UVA gained 3.5 yards per rushing attempt, 13th in the ACC), and not even Mendenhall seems to think it’s going to get better this year.

“I think we’re deeper at offensive line than we were a year ago. What that performance is going to look like yet, we don’t know. We’ll find out. That will really determine where we go from there,” was all the coach could offer in his weekly press conference on Monday.

Remember the optimism of 2016, when it was assumed that Mendenhall, who had won 99 games in 11 years at BYU, would come in and take a Virginia program that seemed a play or two away from breaking through in Mike London’s last two seasons (finishing 5-7 in 2014 and 4-8 in 2015) back to bowl contention?

Gone.

A reporter raised the issue with the coach, point blank, at Monday’s presser, telling Mendenhall he didn’t remember him being pessimistic last year, as a preface to getting him to talk about how he feels heading into year two.

“I think more educated is the way to say it,” Mendenhall said. “I have a clear reference point where our program is, what it needs to move forward, where we’re going, at what stage. I don’t remember much about last year. I remember a few moments of the opening game. It’s like, Oh, this is who we are, this is where we are, this is how we are. That was all really valuable information. Then trying to take that knowledge and accelerate it and apply it into our program.

“So I just feel more clear about where we’re starting from. It doesn’t mean that one game won’t change my mind in terms of that reference point, but I’m clearer than I was a year ago.”

One issue is what happens if Benkert goes down. He may not be Johnny Unitas, but at least he’s taken a snap in a college football game. QB2 on the depth chart for the opener on Saturday is true freshman Lindell Stone, a three-star recruit, with De’Vante Cross, a wide receiver, the emergency guy at No. 3.

Which is to say, the offense isn’t likely going to build much, if at all, from a woeful 2016 (352.9 yards and 22.5 points per game, both 12th in the ACC) even if Benkert is healthy and takes every snap in 2017, and if something happens to Benkert, well …

Don’t expect the unexpected. This team is going to stink.

Don’t be fooled by what looks like a favorable early-season schedule. William & Mary isn’t Richmond, picked seventh in the 12-team CAA in the preseason, but the best you’re going to be able to do as a UVA fan is put down a W in light pencil next to W&M.

Then it’s Indiana at home in Week 2. Not exactly the class of the Big 10, sure, but the Hoosiers went bowling a year ago.

UConn, in Week 3, was bad enough a year ago (3-9) to get its coach fired, and still beat a worse Virginia team at home.

Then it’s Boise State, then the ACC, with six games against the Coastal, five against teams that went bowling in 2016, plus Louisville and Boston College (both of which also played in bowls).

This team may win one game, and put the emphasis on may.

But don’t worry about the seat getting hot for Mendenhall, not as much because his bosses understand the mess that he inherited from London, who inherited his own mess from his predecessor, Al Groh, but more because, I mean, come on, the UVA football ship has long since sailed.

The program is where Duke was for the longest time, actually, where the UVA program itself was roughly from the 1950s until the 1980s.

There’s a reason the students used to show up to games with the guys in ties and the girls in Laura Ashley dresses.

It was better to pretend that the drubbing at Scott Stadium was the warm up for a night on Rugby Road than it was to act like you actually cared about what was going on in the game.

Today’s kids are much smarter than their peers from yesteryear, just skipping the football game altogether.

Seems like a good idea to me. I have to have better things to do on Saturdays.

Column by Chris Graham

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