Virginia made significant improvements in Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s second season. The Cavaliers went for one conference win to three, increased their win total from two to six and made it to a bowl game for the first time since 2011. A big part of the Cavaliers’ success was their defense. Going from 93rd nationally in total defense in 2016 to 40th nationally last season was a huge improvement and Virginia returns six starters from that unit. On offense the team will be starting a new quarterback in junior Bryce Perkins and returns five starters.
Team strengths: The defensive secondary. The Cavaliers finished second in the ACC and seventh nationally in pass defense. Three starters return in the secondary. Bryce Hill, Brenton Nelson and Juan Thronhill were a trio of ball hawks and combined for 174 tackles, including 9.5 from behind the line of scrimmage and nine interceptions.
Team weaknesses: Rush offense. Virginia struggled mightily on offense last season, finishing dead last in the ACC in scoring, rushing and total offense. The Cavaliers were horrible at running the ball, averaging only 9.5 rush yards per game and finishing 128th nationally . Expect much of the same this fall with only two starting offensive linemen returning up front.
Players to watch: Running back Jordan Ellis, wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, linebacker Jordan Mack and safety Thornhill. Ellis led the team in rushing last season with 836 yards on the ground and six scores. He also caught 22 balls for 137 yards and a receiving touchdown. Zaccheaus led the team in catches and reception yards with 85 receptions and 895 yards and five touchdowns. He’ll be the go-to wideout for Perkins this fall. Mack is the teams’ leading returning tackler with 114 stops last season, including seven for loss and five sacks. Thornhill will be the leader in the secondary this fall. The senior tallied 63 tackles last season, including 4.5 for loss and four interceptions.
The schedule: Manageable. Virginia gets Louisville, Miami, North Carolina and Pitt at home. The Cavaliers should be able to split road games at Indiana, NC State, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.
My take: The Cavaliers will need to lead on its experienced defense once again this season as the offense struggle to find its’ way through the ACC gauntlet. This team will go as far as the defense can take them, so expect Virginia to battle it out for bowl eligibility.