UVA football QB change: Wrong decision, wrong time

virginia footballUVA football coach Bronco Mendenhall is doing it all backwards. When you’re 2-8, and the season is long since lost, that’s when you replace the veteran starting quarterback with the young guy, to give the young guy a chance to build toward the future.

Mendenhall decided out of training camp to go with Kurt Benkert, a junior, over last year’s starter, Matt Johns, a senior, presumably because Benkert showed that he could handle the job, but he said in interviews that a factor was that Benkert could grow into the job this year, with an eye to next year.

After some early success, including a school-record performance in one of Virginia’s two wins, Benkert has taken a step or more back, throwing three pick-sixes, and putting up a middling completion percentage mired in the mid-50s, in an offense predicated on short, high-percentage throws that should yield a rate more toward the mid-60s.

The time for a change from Benkert back to Johns, who put up good numbers in 2015, aside from an NCAA-high 17 interceptions, was probably after the home loss to Pitt, when the Cavs, at 2-4 at that point, still had an outside shot at bowl eligibility.

Benkert has not been the same since ending the first half of the Pitt game with a picksix. In the roughly five and a half games before that pass, Benkert had thrown for 1,640 yards, completing 59.5 percent of his passes, for 14 touchdowns, six interceptions, and gaining an average of 7.4 yards per pass attempt.

In the roughly four and a half games since that pass, Benkert has thrown for 790 yards, completing 55.1 percent of his passes, with six touchdowns, four interceptions, and gaining an average of 5.0 yards per attempt.

You want to give credit to Mendenhall for giving Benkert some rope to work through his issues, but if you’re inclined to do that, how do you factor in yanking the rug out from under him at this late stage? Especially considering the reasoning that the coach offered to reporters at his press conference on Monday.

“I’m going to allow Matt Johns to start the upcoming game,” Mendenhall said in announcing the decision. “I think he’s earned the chance through not only his career here, but the season in leading our scout team offense and how unselfish he’s been battling his way to back into contention at quarterback. And I think it’s not only the right thing to do, I think it’s the fair thing to do. I think it’s the best thing for our team. I also think it’s the best thing to do for Kurt. I think he’ll grow and develop more so by playing this role for a little bit.”

Interesting perspective there, that Benkert can grow and develop more by accepting the role of being demoted from starting quarterback on a bad football team to sending in the signals to the guy that he replaced who was the starting quarterback on a not-quite-as-bad football team that nonetheless got its coach fired a year ago.

The bad news for Virginia fans is what’s left unsaid here. Naturally, if you’re making this change at this stage of a season, it would be ideal to replace Benkert with a young quarterback, not a guy who you’re basically giving the ball to as a way of saying thanks for hanging around through the coaching change.

But there isn’t anyone further down the depth chart worth giving that shot to. That’s your bad news, in addition to a quick scan of the roster, which reveals that the UVA football program is not quite at its nadir just yet.

In addition to Johns and fellow backup QB Connor Brewer, the program will lose its top two running backs, Taquan Mizzell and Albert Reid, its second-leading receiver, Keeon Johnson, starting offensive linemen Jackson Matteo, Michael Mooney and Eric Smith, starting defensive lineman Donte Wilkins, linebacker Zach Bradshaw, safety Kelvin Rainey, and All-ACC punter Nicholas Conte to graduation.

And then you have to wonder: will Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding, both juniors, and both again among the ACC leaders in tackles, return for their senior season, or explore their options for the 2017 NFL Draft, where both would be likely to hear their names called at the least in the top half of the selections?

Even if one or both of the Kiser/Blanding tandem return, you’re already losing a lot of productivity, and the cupboard seems rather bare in terms of being able to fill the spots being left open, and a quick look at the recruiting for the Class of 2017 shows an awful lot of two- and three-stars in the pipeline.

Back to Benkert: it would seem to make sense to give him more room to grow with Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech finishing up the season to try to build toward 2017. That’s two more games for him to prepare for, to lead his teammates in the huddle through good drives and three-and-outs, to get roughly 70 more chances to read defenses and work through progressions, and with both of those games on the road, to have in the area of 150 chances to originate plays against the backdrop of loud crowd noise.

But, hey, he gets two chances to step back and see how a guy who won’t be in the program next year handles it all, and then it’s time for final exams.

They’re paying Mendenhall $3 million-plus to figure these things out, so he’s obviously smarter than me, is all I can say.

Column by Chris Graham

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