In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
No. 82 Virginia
After spring practice, Bronco Mendenhall called his 2018 Virginia team "significantly different, not only physically but mentally." And that's happened even after losing senior leaders at each position.
Their two wins in 2016 tempered expectations for 2017 and beyond but a bowl appearance and strong showings vs. Miami (FL) and Virginia Tech have raised those expectations once again. And while there's reason for optimism in Charlottesville, a mini-rebuild season might be on tap.
2017 Record: 6-7 (3-5, ACC)
"No one expected Bronco Mendenhall to deliver Virginia's second 10-win season in program history but few saw the two-win, lose-to-Richmond season coming," I wrote in the Cavaliers' 2017 preview.
Even fewer saw last year's six-win, beat-Boise State (on the road!) season coming. Virginia won six despite playing 17 freshmen and a putrid run game.
Head Coach: Bronco Mendenhall (3rd Year, 8-17)
Bronco Mendenhall's Virginia tenure got off to brutal start when they were walloped by Richmond in the 2016 season opener. They limped through the season but rebounded nicely with six victories last year, their most since 2011.
“I think what Coach Mendenhall is doing [is] teaching us how to be, and teaching everyone how to be winners, and how to finish and how to compete and how to give maximum effort,” special teams coordinator Ricky Brumfield said in April. “And I think that if we can get the guys to play with pride and passion, then we’re going to be pretty good.”
QB Kurt Benkert, RB Daniel Hamm, WR Doni Dowling, WR Andre Levrone, DE Andrew Brown, LB Micah Kiser, S Quin Blanding
The headliners are All-ACC First-Team defenders Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding. Kiser led the conference in tackles each of the last three seasons and was a two-time team captain. Kiser, Blanding and defensive end Andrew Brown were key in leading big strides for Nick Howell's unit that ranked seventh nationally in passing.
Kurt Benkert is also gone after starting all but two games the last two years. He threw for 46 touchdowns and nearly 6,000 yards the last two seasons.
Returning Offensive Players
RB Jordan Ellis, RB PK Kier, WR Joe Reed, WR Olamide Zaccheaus, TE Evan Butts, OL Dillon Reinkensmeyer, OL Jake Fieler, P Lester Coleman
Benkert is out and JUCO transfer Bryce Perkins is in. This section is reserved for returning players but Perkins is too big of a piece to bury in Player Additions.
Players and coaches were drooling over Perkins all spring. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound three-star prospect spent 2015 and 2016 at Arizona State (redshirted in 2015 and missed 2016 with an injury) and last year at Arizona Western Community College.
"Just watching him in drills and seeing the things he's able to do, he's impressive," receivers coach Marques Hagans said after their first spring practice. "Just from an athletic standpoint, he's very, very impressive."
He's a dual-threat quarterback who will allow Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae to go back to the system they ran at BYU that thrives with a big quarterback capable of running while keeping his eyes downfield in search for a home run.
"At this point, it’s his job to lose,” Mendenhall said after naming Perkins their starter in April. “He has moved the team most effectively, and I think not only does he have the coaches’ trust, but he has the team’s trust.”
Perkins' No. 1 target is senior Olamide Zaccheaus (below), a 5-foot-8, 190-pounder who led the team receiving a year ago. He's terrific in space but the staff has said he needs more consistency. Joe Reed is one of the best return men in the country.
Virginia could occasionally grind out yards on the ground but they were mostly terrible at running the football, averaging 3.2 yards per carry, 125th in the FBS. Jordan Ellis is still the No. 1 back after averaging fewer than four yards on 215 attempts last year but sophomore PK Kier may cut into the senior's opportunities. At 6-foot, 225 pounds, Kier is bigger than Ellis and has been lauded for his offseason work.
"As a physical running back, as someone that's moving the chains and kind of an heir apparent or cut in a similar mold to Jordan, that's what I see," Mendenhall said of Kier after spring practice.
On the offensive line, returning starters Jake Fieler and Dillon Reinkensmeyer started at both center and guard and lead a unit that needs to be a heck of a lot better for this offense to grow.
Returning Defensive Players
DE Mandy Alonso, DT Eli Hanback, LB Jordan Mack, LB Charles Snowden, LB Chris Peace, LB Malcolm Cook, S Brenton Nelson, S Juan Thornhill, S Joey Blount
Like Robert Anae on offense, co-defensive coordinators Nick Howell and Kelly Poppinga are leading a mini-rebuild after losing Brown, Kiser and Blanding.
Even with Brown, Virginia's defensive line rarely generated pressure without help. That will be the case again this season. The help comes from Chris Peace and Jordan Mack. Peace (below) is deadly on the blitz and led the team in sacks last year (7.5).
Former cornerback Juan Thornhill played well in his first season at safety and sophomore Brenton Nelson is back after registering 64 tackles and six passes defended last year. The wild card at safety is another sophomore, 6-foot-1, 180-pounder Joey Blount. He won't start in the secondary but will play behind Thornhill and Nelson and was called their best special teamer by new coordinator Ricky Brumfield.
"Quin [Blanding] took me under his wing last year," Blount said in March. "He really mentored me, kind of taught me about transitioning from a high school player to a college player. If I am blessed to play in his shoes, I'm going to do the best I can."
One of the reasons Thornhill moved to safety was the emergence of corner Bryce Hall as a freshman in 2016. The bid-bodied (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) Hall is former two-star recruit who accepted his lone FBS offer. He has fully recovered from knee surgery after the bowl game.
QB Bryce Perkins, QB Brennan Armstrong, WR Tavares Kelly, OL Marcus Applefield
With so many freshmen playing last year, there isn't much room for additions on this year's team.
Bryce Perkins is the present and future (through 2019) but keep an eye on the development of true freshman Brennan Armstrong, a former Minnesota commit who flipped to Virginia before signing day.
Marcus Applefield is a grad transfer from Rutgers who could play either guard or tackle and St. Thomas Aquinas product Tavares Kelly can fly.
Virginia visits Indiana in Week 2 for the second half of a home-and-home series that began with a 17-point loss to the Hoosiers in Charlottesville last year.
They have three straight home games later in the season, including a home date with Liberty in the Flames' first-ever FBS season.
|Saturday, Sept. 1
|Saturday, Sept. 8
|Saturday, Sept. 15
|Saturday, Sept. 22
|Saturday, Sept. 29
|at NC State
|Saturday, Oct. 13
|vs. Miami (FL)
|Saturday, Oct. 20
|Saturday, Oct. 27
|vs. North Carolina
|Friday, Nov. 2
|Saturday, Nov. 10
|Saturday, Nov. 17
|at Georgia Tech
|Saturday, Nov. 24
|at Virginia Tech