UVA looks to rebound, rebuild from subpar 2020
The loss in Blacksburg that ended UVA’s COVID season at 5-5 was painful, to say the least. Especially painful for Mr. Everything Keytaon Thompson.
“I don’t know if you know, I broke my ribs in that last game. That was really painful,” Thompson told reporters at the 2021 ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte on Wednesday.
He couldn’t move or work out for weeks after the game, which was salt in the wound, considering the bitter taste for what went down.
“That was all I was really able to think about, was our rival game, being at that game for a long time. Of course it sat with me. It’s motivated me throughout this offseason to push myself, be the best that I can be. I’m looking forward to the next game,” Thompson said.
The loss to Virginia Tech was motivation for everybody in Bryant Hall as the Cavaliers worked in the offseason with the goal in mind to put themselves into position to defend their 2019 ACC Coastal Division title.
UVA got out to a 1-4 start, getting a late start with the planned season opener with the Hokies pushed back due to COVID, then losing starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong in the loss to NC State, which carried over into a road loss at Wake Forest.
The team rallied to win four straight, including an upset of North Carolina, to get over .500, before laying the egg down in Southwest Virginia in the finale.
The .500 finish was a break in the progress seen under coach Bronco Mendenhall in his fifth year in Charlottesville.
“I’m not sure where to put the COVID year right now other than in its own category,” said Mendenhall, whose first UVA team, in 2016, went 2-10, improving to 6-7 in 2017, 8-5 and a Belk Bowl win in 2018, then the quantum leap to 9-5 and the division title and Orange Bowl berth in 2019.
“Really I would view it as if we were going to a play where we’ve seen act one, four years, with the COVID not necessarily being intermission, but some different category, now act two is coming, which is the next four years,” Mendenhall said. “I think aggressive success, incremental improvement, and now to apply the learnings from the COVID year will really determine the next four years, including the one coming up.”
He has as key building blocks a veteran offensive line, what he views as the best ground game he’s had since taking over the reins, and a returning QB1, junior Brennan Armstrong, who threw for 2,117 yards and 18 touchdowns in his first season as a starter in 2020.
Armstrong also led UVA in rushing with 552 yards last season.
“Yeah, I would say just a lot more comfortable,” said Armstrong, who is in his fourth year in the program, including a redshirt year in 2018. “We got our five O-line returners. A lot of chemistry being built in the spring ballgame, just spring practices. Yeah, just games under my belt. I think games under my belt helps a lot.
“Just a huge jump from first to second year already, just through spring ball, having that time with the receivers, just the guys. Yeah, just a lot, lot more comfortable,” Armstrong said.
The key for 2021 will be on the defensive side of the ball. The Cavaliers were 10th in the ACC in total defense (442.9 yards per game) last season, and were 15th, dead last, in the conference in pass defense (304.4 yards per game) and pass defense efficiency (154.6).
Injuries to key players, including safety Joey Blount, forced Mendenhall and his defensive staff to shuffle and reshuffle the secondary, and things never really meshed.
Good news on that front: Blount, among others, got healthy in the offseason, and in his case, he was actually able to take part, fully, in spring practice, for the first time since arriving at UVA.
“I think 2020 was crazy for everybody, but I may have had a crazier year with football, like you stated. I dealt with bad injuries to my legs. That kind of prevented me from playing in my senior year,” Blount said. “But nonetheless, with everything going around, trying to stay mentally sharp, I knew I was not just by myself, but with the team. I was really trying to influence and encourage all the guys stepping up to positions they were playing, first-time starters, playing in positions that I played in.”
Story by Chris Graham