As we countdown to kickoff in September, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team opponent preview each week over the spring/summer. This week, we’re previewing Syracuse’s matchup with Virginia on Sept. 23 with their major storylines.
The Virginia Cavaliers were a strange team in 2021.
A record-setting year for quarterback Brennan Armstrong ran parallel to the 105th ranked rushing offense in the country, averaging barely over 100 yards per game. A team that scored at least 30 points in nine games couldn’t score a touchdown in a 28-3 loss to #9 Notre Dame at home. A 6-2 start to the season became a 6-6 final record with a bowl game matchup forfeited due to Covid issues.
BRONCO MENDENHALL OUT, ELLIOT IN
Most of those factors probably contributed to the surprise resignation of head coach Bronco Mendenhall in early December. While Mendenhall stated it was due to 31 straight years of coaching football and the toll that takes, he also clarified he wasn’t retiring and hadn’t ruled out taking another coaching job.
A week after the announcement, the team hired Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliot, who had an uphill battle from the start. A half dozen commits flipped their allegiance after the Mendenhall news, and several players departed in the transfer portal as well.
The biggest win for Elliot, however, was convincing his star quarterback to hold off from the NFL for one more year. In 11 games (Armstrong missed the aforementioned Notre Dame matchup), he threw for 4,444 yards and 31 touchdowns against 10 picks, and added nine scores on the ground.
To put it bluntly, Armstrong was the offense for the Cavaliers, and keeping him around sets a solid formation with which Elliot can build the next phase of Virginia football.
» Related: Previewing SU’s game against Purdue
OFFENSIVE LINE REFOCUSED
The area of the team that could have the biggest impact on next year’s success is the one that took the biggest hit in the offseason- the offensive line. Thanks in part to the Mendenhall decision and the now-normal flow of players in the transfer portal, Virginia lost their top six offensive lineman from last year- Olu Oluwatimi, Chris Glaser, Ryan Swoboda, Ryan Nelson, Bobby Haskins and Joe Bissinger.
Of the players left, coach Elliot has taken a particular shine to one of last years reserves, Jonathan Leech. Having appeared in two games last year, Leech suddenly finds himself the elder statesman in the offensive line war room. Elliot spoke at length after the spring game about Leech’s embrace of his new role, and he seems ready to set an example for the incoming players.
As a whole, the group is in for a slight change in philosophy. With new faces at the “big three” coaching positions- head coach, offensive coordinator (Des Kitchings), and defensive coordinator (John Rudzinski)- the team will try to build off last years success while throwing new wrinkles into the mix.
One way that will affect the line is in the run game. Although it led to big numbers for Armstrong, Elliot felt the team passed too often last year, and the imbalance led to Amrstrong taking 30 sacks in 11 games, including being knocked out of the BYU game and missing the following matchup against Notre Dame. A focus on run-blocking should help an entirely new unit of players gel together with the simplicity of the scheme and take some of the heat off Armstrong in big moments.
On the surface, it’s hard to imagine the Cavaliers winning more than six games with the amount of turnover they’ve had on both the roster and in the coaching staff, but with how it is at any level of football, if you have an elite quarterback, you’ve got a shot. Virginia should be set up to compete in every game they play next year, and at least matching last year’s win total seems realistic.
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