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UVA wideouts: Injuries giving guys opportunities to step up

billy kemp
Billy Kemp IV. Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference.

Guys who accounted for 111 pass receptions in the UVA offense in 2020 – just over half the 221 pass completions – are missing from the receiver corps this fall.

Wide receivers coach Marques Hagans has his work cut out for him.

“It’s unfortunate, you know, with injuries, but it gives guys other opportunities to step up. We’ve just got to continue to keep working. Every day is an opportunity to get better. And that’s what we’re grinding to do every day,” said Hagans, whose group most notably lost Terrell Jana (36 catches in 2020) to graduation and standout freshman Lavel Davis Jr. (20 catches, 25.6 yards per catch) to an ACL injury in spring ball.

The key guy back is the leading pass-catcher, senior Billy Kemp IV (a team-high 67 catches in 2020).

The return of Kemp, the expectations for breakout seasons from Dontavyion Wicks and Ra’Shaun Henry, plus the continued growth of second-year starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong, have head coach Bronco Mendenhall thinking this could be his best offense at UVA.

Hagans is being a bit more measured on that point.

“I think on paper, I think there’s that has a really good chance to be true. However, we got to go out in the field and prove it,” said Hagans, a former UVA QB1 and wideout who played in the NFL for four years before transitioning to coaching.

Having Armstrong, who threw for 2,117 yards and 18 touchdowns in his first full season as the starter in 2020, back is a huge plus for the offense.

“Anytime you get a returning quarterback, that’s huge, and you know, a guy of Brennan’s stature, you know, as a former quarterback, I just love watching him play,” Hagans said. “He’s got a great arm, he’s got a great rapport with the offense, and he’s got a confidence that’s just out of this world. So I’m glad and thankful he’s back. We’ve got to keep him healthy. I’m expecting big things from him, and I think he’s going to be one of the best quarterbacks to go down in program history.”

Kemp is important as Armstrong’s “safety blanket,” as Hagans described him.

“He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve been around,” Hagans said of Kemp. “He’s tough, he’s competitive, he loves to prove that he catches the ball. Some guys receive the ball, they use their body to make catches. That’s not him. He is very arrogant at catching the ball with his hands, which I love. I think that gives us kind of like a sense of a safety blanket with the quarterback because he knows when he gets the ball to Billy, he’s going to get whatever he needs for the situation, and he’s going to come down with the ball.”

Not having Davis, a dynamic wideout who stretched defenses with his size (6’7”) and speed, is a bummer, but Wicks, who missed the 2020 campaign after suffering a season-ending injury in fall camp, has the game-breaking speed to draw attention deep.

“He’s got a lot to prove,” Hagans said. “He’s ready for his opportunity. And every day, he’s showing up prepared, ready to work to be one of the best in ACC, and that’s the standard I’m going to hold him to, and that’s the standard of our group. And so far, he’s made that challenge each day. It’s a long road to go for the rest of camp and throughout the season, but right now, he seems ready for the challenge.”

The star of spring ball, according to observers, was Ra’Shaun Henry, who only caught seven balls in 2020 after transferring from Saint Francis, where he’d had a 90-catch season in 2019.

“I hope he continues to grow from the success that he had in the spring,” Hagans said. “So far, in the offseason, he’s continued to continue to work hard, get his body in the best shape ever. He’s got his body fat down, and he looks really good, he’s in great shape. So now it’s just a matter of taking what he did in the spring, continuing to develop that throughout fall camp, and then throughout the season, making sure that he’s the consistent guy that we can count on, and trust in the ability and the work that he’s put in, preparation, and then just trusting that when the lights come on Saturday, so I’m excited. I’m really glad he was able to come back. I think he’s going to have a big year.”

Story by Chris Graham