Pitt and Virginia kick the season off this weekend in a pretty important game. Had a chance to get some perspective on the Cavaliers from Caroline Darney of SB Nation’s resident Virginia blog, Streaking the Lawn. Below are my questions with her answers.
How much will the secondary be impacted by the injury to Darius Bratton and what do you expect from his replacement Joey Blount? Is that an area of concern?
Obviously the hope is not a lot, but it’s brutal any time a player comes up with a season ending injury (first and foremost for them, then the impact it has on the team). Bratton was expected to be a contributor, but Joey Blount is a very capable in the safety position on the field. Expect to see a lot of Nick Grant, a third year corner, to step in for Bratton. Grant has put about 30 pounds on since he got to Charlottesville, and he’s been one of the guys that has gotten a lot of attention in the off-season...even before the Bratton news broke. There isn’t as much depth in the secondary now, but the group of Hall, Grant, Blount, and Brenton Nelson is one that I’m still very high on.
Were there any unexpected moves on Virginia’s announced depth chart?
Not particularly. There weren’t many answers given in the land of running backs, but for the most part the depth chart matched what was expected. First year Jowon Briggs was named a starter on the defensive line, which is huge, but he’s been a player that has earned a lot of praise since he arrived on Grounds. Briggs, a 6-1, 295 pound defensive tackle out of Cincinnati, is one of the most highly rated recruits that Mendenhall has snagged in his first four seasons. Hearing he is better than expected has been a nice treat.
Offensively, the talk is about the losses of running back Jordan Ellis and receiver Olamide Zaccheaus. How much concern is there with finding adequate replacements for them?
Any time you lose players like Zaccheaus and Ellis, it’s concerning. It’s also the way of the world when it comes to college athletics. Zaccheaus was the most versatile and explosive player on the offense, but I’m excited about Tavares Kelly and Billy Kemp. Both are a little on the shorter side, but have incredible speed. As mentioned above, we didn’t gain much clarity in the running back position with the top six guys basically listed as “or” in the strong back and big back positions, but Wayne Taulapapa has gotten a bit more chatter as of late. I think we’ll all be learning together who the no. 1 guy is at running back come Saturday night. It’s a crucial role (duh), so there’s a vacuum for one of these younger players to step into.
Bryce Perkins has been a solid quarterback for Virginia and is a real handful as a dual-threat guy. What are his vulnerabilities?
Perkins had a couple of super reliable options last season, namely the two guys we already talked about in Zaccheaus and Ellis. OZ was the kind of receiver/back that would take seemingly hopeless situations and turn them into huge gains. Will Perkins have that support, or will he have to create more with his feet? There were times last season - especially early on - where he made some questionable decisions. Namely, holding onto the ball too long, or abandoning the pocket before he needed. Overall, he finished the season as a solid decision maker, but if you can get pressure on him early and frequently, he may get rattled and make some hasty choices.
What are your predictions for Virginia for the season? Do you expect them to win the Coastal or, if not, who’s your pick there?
I don’t know if “expect” is the right word to use with Virginia and winning the Coastal because Virginia fans have long learned not to expect good things on the gridiron, but I think this team has what it would take to do so. This team brings back a solid core - especially defensively - and was a couple bad bounces away from being a 10-win team last year. I’m going to take Virginia to win the Coastal, but that’s terrifying to type.
How do you see Saturday’s game shaping up?
It feels weird to say, especially in a game against Pitt, but I think Virginia will come away with a win here. Games between these two teams have always been...weird...but I think the new offensive coordinator paired with Virginia’s tough defense (especially passing D) will give the Hoos the advantage. I’m torn on this game being the first because on one hand, it’s fun and exciting to have a meaningful game right out of the gate. On the other hand, it’s a bummer to have to work the early season kinks out in a game that has a huge impact on the race in the Coastal. I think it’ll be close, but I’m going to take Virginia 24-17 and winning on a defensive stop.