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College Football Preview 2019: 23. Virginia Cavaliers

23. Virginia Cavaliers

A budding star at QB and a superb defense place Virginia as the favorites in the ACC Coastal

Bryce Perkins, Virginia
Offense: The Cavaliers' offense was mediocre at best in 2018, ranking 10th in the ACC in scoring offense and total yardage. They will miss 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Ellis as well as All-ACC wide out Olamide Zaccheaus, but their is still enough left in the cupboard for Virginia's offense to actually improve in 2019.

Senior Bryce Perkins returns to Charlottesville after notching nearly 3,500 yards of total offense and scoring 34 total TD's. A former Arizona State transfer, Perkins adjusted quickly to the UVA offense and the numbers speak for themselves. He adds a dynamic playmaker that the Cavaliers just simply haven't had at the position in years past. It isn't unreasonable to think Perkins can have an even bigger year with more comfortability in the Bronco Mendenhall offense. He could be a legitimate Heisman dark horse if the dominoes fall right.

Jordan Ellis is a tough player to replace and outside of Perkins, UVA's top returning rusher is junior P.K. Kier, who had just 80 yards a year ago. Kier is the favorite to become the new feature back, but he will face some heavy resistance. Sophomore Wayne Taulapapa could really push him, particularly after a strong spring. At just 5'9", Taulapapa is a burner whose only real action has been on special teams since the start of his UVA career. Freshmen Seneca Milledge and Mike Hollins could also push for carries.

Zaccheaus was Perkins' security blanket last fall, catching 93 passes and going over 1,000 yards. The Cavaliers do still have talent returning behind Zaccheaus, namely Hasise Dubois & Joe Reed. Dubois had 578 yards a year ago and is very reliable, while Reed is more of a downfield threat, with 18.6 yards per catch. Sophomore Tavares Kelly could be a possible breakout candidate with serious playmaking potential. He had 142 total yards in very little usage. The tight end position will have to be retooled, with senior Tanner Cowley likely to slide into the starting role.

Virginia's offensive front was very inconsistent a season ago and they had an interesting off-season. Three important contributors are gone, with veterans Marcus Applefield & Jake Fieler graduating and R.J. Proctor transferring. Juniors Dillon Reinkensmeyer and Chris Glaser are going to be looked at as the anchors of the unit, likely to start at both guard positions. Depth is really a concern with this group, with youngsters looking like they'll have to step up and play meaningful snaps.

This could definitely be an intriguing year for offensive coordinator Robert Anae and the Cavaliers' offense. While there are certainly question marks, they have one of the ACC's best quarterbacks and a receiver corps with serious upside. The running game was how UVA moved the ball the best in 2018, but more pressure will be on Perkins to pick up the slack through the air with Ellis now departed.

Defense: Bronco Mendenhall has long been known as a defensive guy, and his influence was seen with the Cavaliers' Top 20 group last fall. Virginia was especially stingy defending the pass, allowing 183 YPG, which was 16th in the country. Enough returns for the defense to once again be one of best in the entire land.

They'll run a 3-4 look that leans more heavily on their linebackers up front. That could be good for a Virginia squad that has a pretty thin D-Line. Veteran Eli Hanback is returning, as the mainstay in the middle will be crucial to their rush defense. However, both end spots are up for competition at the moment, with guys like senior Richard Burney and junior Mandy Alonso the early favorites.

This group of linebackers may be the greatest strength of the Cavs, no matter the side of the ball. They are strong on the inside, with senior Jordan Mack and junior Robert Snyder, as while as on the outside where junior Charles Snowden takes charge. Mack is UVA's top returning tackler with 66 in 2018, and he should have a big final year in Charlottesville. Snowden is one of the top playmakers on the defense, putting together a stat-line of 62 tackles, two interceptions and eight pass deflections. However, it isn't unreasonable to think he might end up being overshadowed by the likely starter at the opposite OLB spot, sophomore Noah Taylor. Taylor wasn't used a ton beyond special teams as a freshman, but he had a tremendous spring and the coaching staff believes he is ready for a huge season.

Senior cornerback Bryce Hall has already established himself as one of the premier defensive backs in the country and should be a high NFL Draft selection next spring. The physical defender is incredibly rangy, a superb athlete and is very flexible. He had a whopping 21 passes defended last year, almost ensuring teams will try and throw away from him at all times. That may put more pressure on junior Darrius Bratton, expected to take up a starting gig with Tim Harris now gone.

Even without safety Juan Thornhill, one of the leaders of the entire defense, UVA has to feel good about the safety positions heading into '19. Joey Blount technically is not a returning starter but was third on the team in tackles last year, with 63. He'll be joined by another junior in Brenton Nelson, who had 41 tackles and eight passes defended himself. Keep an eye on junior De'Vante Cross, who made the switch from receiver to defensive back and could surprise some people.

Co-defensive coordinators Nick Howell & Kelly Poppinga are going to enjoy themselves with this group of defenders. They have a lot of versatility to work with and the return of every important linebacker should ensure the rush defense takes a step forward (47th in NCAA in '18). It certainly looks like a unit that could assert itself as the best in the ACC, particularly with Clemson rebuilding on that side of the ball.

Special Teams: Brian Delaney took over placekicking duties early last season and hit 12 of 16 field goals. He is back to once again handle the ever-important job. No punter has stepped up to fill the void left by Lester Coleman (41.8 yards per punt) but the return game has potential.

Bottom Line: 2018 was the best Virginia season in a decade, with the Cavaliers winning their most games since 2011 and hanging in the Coastal Division Title chase. The thing is, it may just be the beginning for Mendenhall and this UVA team, who will have significantly raised expectations this fall. Perkins is the real deal at quarterback and should keep the offense humming, even with some notable absences. And then there is the defense, which has an argument to be one of the Top 10-15 units in the entire land. Add in a schedule that gets their last three games at home, including hated rival Virginia Tech, and there is no wonder why UVA looks like the Coastal favorite. Even if that is too lofty, this team certainly looks ready to beat Tech, who holds a decade-and-a-half winning streak over them. 

Team Projections
Projected Record: 9-4 (6-2 ACC, Loss in Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB Bryce Perkins
Defensive MVP: CB Bryce Hall
Breakout Player of the Year: RB Wayne Taulapapa
Impact Freshman: Jeffrey M'ba, DT

Five-Year Trend
2014: 5-7 (3-5 ACC)
2015: 4-8 (3-5 ACC)
2016: 2-10 (1-7 ACC)
2017: 6-7 (3-5 ACC)
2018: 8-5 (4-4 ACC)

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