By HANK KURZ Jr.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Bronco Mendenhall is hoping for no more surprises in his second season as Virginia’s coach.
The former BYU coach got one he wasn’t expecting last season before the first game was over. With Richmond of the FCS dominating the Cavaliers in a victory at Scott Stadium, his team looked beaten long before the final gun.
This season, the coach who averaged nine victories a year in 11 seasons at BYU is taking a calculated risk. He’s putting his confidence in quarterback Kurt Benkert in the hopes to reversing the fortunes of a team that finished 2-10 last year.
Benkert took nearly all the snaps in spring practice, and the only other player to take any, redshirt freshman De’Vante Cross, has also been working at wide receiver. Admittedly, Mendenhall is hoping that Benkert stays healthy, and that if he goes down with an injury, freshman Lindell Stone will be ready to play.
Benkert missed one game with a separated non-throwing shoulder last season, but started 10 games. The senior enters his second year at Virginia after transferring from East Carolina. He threw for 21 touchdowns, tied for third most in program history.
“Pretty delicate balance,” Mendenhall said, “because we certainly need a backup. But we also need to improve our starting unit. So as Lindell continues to learn and grown within the offense, that will continue to be shifted.”
The Cavaliers also must replace do-everything tailback Taquan Mizzell, who accounted for nearly 70 percent of their rushing yardage last season and led the team with 52 receptions while scoring seven TDs.
The good news for Benkert is the committee approach to replacing Mizzell. That includes flashy and versatile receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, tailback Jordan Ellis and receivers Andre Levrone, Joe Reed and Doni Dowling.
On defense, eight starters return, but to a unit that allowed nearly 34 points per game. The group is led by linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding, who have finished 1-2 in the ACC in tackles in each of the last two seasons. The starters feature only one other senior in pass-rushing end Andrew Brown.
Other things to know as Virginia heads into the season:
BOLD BENKERT: The quarterback impressed with his arm strength and willingness to take a hit early last year, but a separated non-throwing shoulder and porous protection eventually made him skittish. He set a school record with 421 passing yards (a school record-tying five TDs) in a victory against Central Michigan. He has dropped weight and gained speed, but hopes for a bowl-qualifying season require him to stay healthy.
‘O’ MY!: Zaccheaus can do it all, from turning short passes into long gains, beating his defender on a post route or running the ball. Now that offensive coordinator Robert Anae has had a year to see what ‘O’ can do, he needs to find ways to get him the ball in open space.
GET THAT BALL: Virginia turned the ball over 26 times last year and took it away just 17 times, leading to a 99-42 deficit in points off turnovers. That has to improve dramatically for successful outcomes.
LINING UP: Mendenhall brought in two huge transfer offensive linemen — 6-foot-4, 320-pound guard John Montelus from Notre Dame and 6-5, 325-pound tackle Brandon Pertile from Oklahoma State — to bolster what was an undersized collection last season. If they can shore up protection and run-blocking, and the team finds a replacement for graduated center and captain Jackson Matteo, the offense might achieve a better balance than a year ago.
KICKBALL: This is another area that needs improvement. The Cavaliers tried two kickers, and their longest made field goal was from 36 yards in finishing 5 for 10. Among the misses? Field-goal attempts from 20, 30 and 31 yards and two extra points.
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