Virginia could be one of the surer things in the 2019 ACC

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Bronco Mendenhall’s Cavaliers have improved steadily over the last two years and have enough returning talent to continue their ascent.

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

As a pure thought experiment, Virginia’s hire of Bronco Mendenhall was one of my favorites of the 2015-16 coaching carousel.

He had the résumé for a major conference gig, having been a successful defensive coordinator for seven years before winning 99 games in 11 seasons as BYU’s head coach, and he was somehow only 49 years old. He had navigated BYU through its tricky transition to independence and beaten Nebraska, Boise State, Ole Miss, Virginia, Georgia Tech, Washington State, Oregon State, and Texas. Plus, he had gotten used to the always-fraught game of BYU roster balance, in which a healthy percentage of your signing class in a given year won’t show up on campus until after a two-year LDS mission. He had brought stability to a tricky job.

However, his 1997 season as Louisiana Tech’s DBs coach was the only one he had ever spent east of Mountain Standard Time. He would be recruiting and coaching kids from a completely different part of the country, doing so amid strong competition — Clemson’s Dabo Swinney had just found fifth gear, Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher was still dominant, Miami had just hired Mark Richt, Syracuse had just hired Dino Babers, and Virginia Tech had just hired Justin Fuente.

Exactly what would happen when you placed a Western coach (and a lot of his assistants) in eastern Virginia? Would they be able to develop the recruiting connections? Would coaching experience trump geography and tougher competition?

1087862940.jpg - Virginia could be one of the surer things in the 2019 ACCPhoto by Grant Halverson/Getty Images
Bronco Mendenhall

We’re starting to get a pretty good idea of the answers.

  • 2016: 2-10, 83rd in S&P+
  • 2017: 6-7, 69th in S&P+
  • 2018: 8-5, 42nd in S&P+

After stripping the house down to the foundation, Mendenhall fielded Virginia’s best team per S&P+ since 2004 … in just his third season in Charlottesville. And he did it, above all else, with development.

  • Olamide Zaccheaus, once a mid-three-star prospect, had just 800 receiving yards in his first two seasons and left as the school’s No. 2 all-time receiver.
  • Jordan Ellis, also a mid-three-star guy, rushed for 971 yards (3.8 per carry) in three seasons, then for 1,026 (4.8) as a senior.
  • Cornerback Bryce Hall, a two-star recruit, led the nation with 24 passes defensed as a junior.
  • Safety Juan Thornhill, another mid-three-star guy, had at least three tackles for loss and 10 passes defensed in each of his last three seasons and developed into a second-round draft pick.
  • Safety Joey Blount, barely a three-star prospect, earned second-team All-ACC honors from Pro Football Focus.
  • Linebacker Chris Peace, barely even a two-star, earned third-team All-ACC honors as a senior.

The Cavaliers were on the precipice of a 10-win season until unlucky losses to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. They rebounded to pummel South Carolina in the Belk Bowl, then signed by far Mendenhall’s best class yet (34th overall, seventh in the ACC).

If he can turn mid-three-star guys into all-conference performers, what happens now that he’s landing high-threes? Mendenhall made waves by saying UVA had only 27 ACC-level players this time last year, but what happens when he thinks the Hoos have, like, 40?

Granted, there remain plenty of hurdles. The offense was more efficient than it had been in a while but almost totally lacked in explosiveness and easy scores, and that was with Zaccheaus and Ellis. The defense, strong overall (31st in Def. S&P+), gave up a few too many big run plays and now has to replace Thornhill and Peace.

Plus, for all the developmental success, the Hoos still only went 8-5 last year. They failed to capitalize on an ACC that had suddenly fallen apart. They lost three games by four or fewer points. They had Virginia Tech all but beaten, poised to end a 14-year losing streak to their rivals, but Tech recovered two late fumbles (one in the end zone for a TD, and one on the final play of the game in OT) to steal the win. And the best UVA team in more than a decade failed to beat Georgia Tech, Pitt, or Indiana.

UVA is projected to improve slightly this fall, but the ACC isn’t going to stay down forever, and road trips to Pitt, Notre Dame, and Miami could make it hard to get as close to the Coastal Division crown as they got last year. There’s reason for extreme optimism in C’ville, but there’s also reason to worry about a closing window.

2018 virginia trend - Virginia could be one of the surer things in the 2019 ACC

Taysom Hill was rushing for nearly 1,500 yards from the QB position in 2013. He has proven adaptable through the years, but with Bryce Perkins behind center in 2018, his offense skewed more Hill than Beck.

Perkins threw for 2,680 yards, and not counting sacks he rushed for 1,124 yards (6.2 per carry) as well. Ellis lacked in explosiveness, but he and Perkins combined for a 48 percent success rate, and Zaccheaus provided 48 percent as a quick-strike receiving option as well.

1062995578.jpg - Virginia could be one of the surer things in the 2019 ACCPhoto by Michael Chang/Getty Images
Joe Reed

Perkins is back, and maybe that’s enough to maintain this burgeoning identity. But last year’s supporting cast has a lot to prove. Leading returning rusher PK Kier’s success rate was a ghastly 23 percent, and leading returning slot man Tavares Kelly was at 29 percent.

Luckily, Perkins still has Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed. Dubois was another quick-strike option, producing a 59 percent success rate out wide, and if the offense was making a big play, it was likely coming from Reed, who averaged 18.4 yards per catch with a 65 percent success rate. Granted, he had the element of surprise on his side — he only caught more than two passes in two games — but he’s got the athleticism for a breakout season.

Others have explosiveness potential. Junior Terrell Jana caught only 11 balls last year but was second on the team in averaging 13.7 yards per catch, and he sped 64 yards for a touchdown in the spring game. Plus, UVA recently landed a commitment from Richmond grad transfer Dejon Brissett, who averaged 14.2 yards per catch in 2017 and was averaging 19.4 last season before an injury three games in.

1064637122.jpg - Virginia could be one of the surer things in the 2019 ACCPhoto by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images
Hasise Dubois (8) and Chuck Davis (19)

Kier missed most of spring with a concussion, and another developmental story emerged in his absence: sophomore Wayne Taulapapa, a low-three-star recruit, finished spring as the top back. We don’t yet know if Taulapapa stood out because he was legitimately strong, or because no one else stood out, but once you develop a reputation for unearthing diamonds, you get the benefit of the doubt.

Taulapapa, Kier, and whoever else will be running behind a young and reshaped line. The Cavaliers suffered few glitches and negative plays in run blocking, but only 2.5 starters return, and there are no seniors and, including Penn State transfer Alex Gellerstedt, only three juniors in the mix for potential playing time.

2018 acc offense - Virginia could be one of the surer things in the 2019 ACC

Nick Howell has been Mendenhall’s coordinator, in either Provo or Charlottesville, since 2013. Safe to say, they work well together, and they continued UVA’s defensive ascent in 2018 despite having five sophomores and only two seniors among their 10 leading tacklers.

The pass defense was dynamite in 2018. UVA ranked seventh in completion rate allowed and 17th in both passing and passing downs marginal efficiency. Two key members of the secondary, Thornhill and corner Tim Harris, are gone, but Hall, Blount, and Darrius Bratton all return. Only Hall is a senior. This is still going to be a ridiculous secondary.

usa today 11255575 - Virginia could be one of the surer things in the 2019 ACCChristopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Eli Hanback (58) and Zane Zandier (33)

If this is the year the improvement streak ends (and I’m not betting on it) it will be because of specific turnover in the front seven. The Cavaliers had a merely decent pass rush (51st in sack rate, 58th on passing downs), and the only defender with more than 2.5 sacks (Peace, with 7.5) is gone. If a replacement blitzer — Charles Snowden? Zane Zandier? Matt Gahm? — can’t generate steady pressure, and if the run defense suffers even bigger glitches than last year in Peace’s absence (they were 87th in rushing marginal efficiency, 94th on standard downs), then the secondary won’t get as many opportunities to make plays.

Still, you’re going to give the benefit of the doubt to Mendenhall and Howell here, especially considering a lot of last year’s run glitches came because of a revolving door of injury on the defensive line. Eli Hanback was the only regular lineman to play more than nine games, and Peace and nose tackle Dylan Thompson (7.5 tackles in seven games) are the only major front-seven absences. Continuity barely existed last year, and now there’s quite a bit of it. This could be UVA’s first top-20 defense since 2007.

2018 acc defense - Virginia could be one of the surer things in the 2019 ACC

Special Teams

Mendenhall hasn’t yet solved special teams. After producing three straight top-50 units (per Special Teams S&P+) in his last three seasons at BYU, each of his UVA units have ranked between 89th and 96th.

The main culprit last year was place-kicking, but that had somewhat solved itself by the end of the year. A.J. Mejia struggled mightily, going just 1-for-4 on both PATs and field goals, but replacement Brian Delaney didn’t miss a PAT and went 3-for-4 on FGs longer than 40 yards.

The return game’s got potential. Joe Reed is as explosive on kickoffs as he is as a receiver, and Tavares Kelly showed efficiency potential on punts.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug at Pittsburgh 59 1.6 54%
6-Sep William & Mary NR 40.1 99%
14-Sep Florida State 28 -0.5 49%
21-Sep Old Dominion 119 27.9 95%
28-Sep at Notre Dame 12 -13.7 21%
11-Oct at Miami 19 -8.5 31%
19-Oct Duke 65 7.5 67%
26-Oct at Louisville 87 8.1 68%
2-Nov at North Carolina 61 2.2 55%
9-Nov Georgia Tech 89 13.8 79%
23-Nov Liberty 112 24.2 92%
29-Nov Virginia Tech 30 -0.2 49%
Projected S&P+ Rk 41
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 75 / 23
Projected wins 7.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 1.9 (66)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 44
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 2 / 6.0
2018 TO Luck/Game -1.6
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 64% (56%, 72%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 8.9 (-0.9)

I’m not sure of Virginia’s place in the ACC if or when the league begins to bounce back from last year’s sudden crater. But man oh man, do the Cavaliers have an opportunity in 2019. They are projected 41st overall, and their schedule features six games with a projected win probability of 67 percent or higher, compared to just two games at or below 33 percent.

Split the four tossups (at Pitt, Florida State, at UNC, Virginia Tech), and you’ve matched last year’s win total. Exceed expectations offensively, however, and you give yourself a chance at double digit wins. Depending on Miami’s QB situation, that maybe gives you the Coastal crown.

Mendenhall entered a crowded ACC three years ago and, primarily through development and characteristically strong defense, has quickly crafted one of the most interesting programs in the league. The Cavaliers couldn’t take full advantage of their potential in 2018, but the window of opportunity hasn’t closed yet.

2019 acc projection - Virginia could be one of the surer things in the 2019 ACC

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.

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