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Five questions facing UVA football as it opens spring practice

March 26, 2018 GMT

CHARLOTTESVILLE – Bronco Mendenhall got Virginia’s football team back to bowl eligibility faster than anyone could have predicted. Keeping the Cavaliers there may prove to be an even bigger challenge.

After last season’s surprising jump to six wins and an appearance in the Military Bowl, Mendenhall needs new starters in some key spots, including quarterback, middle linebacker and free safety.

“The primary positions on our team of leadership and influence, we are in a position at those to be (back to) Year 1 at U.Va.,” Mendenhall said. “With the expectations of a program that is going into Year 3. At quarterback, at middle linebacker and at free safety, which are the three most impactful positions on our team and in our systems, those are all being replaced. What I expect, what our team expects, and what we’re holding ourselves accountable to is performing as a football program that’s in Year 3, not Year 1.”

In all, Virginia must replace 9 starters from last year’s final lineup.

“As fast as we can get to reloading rather than rebuilding,” Mendenhall said. “Our program is still to the point where there are some positions that are reloading, which is our ideal. Many are rebuilding, because of graduation and players leaving the program.”

Here are five questions that could be answered this spring.

1) Are the new quarterbacks the ideal fit for what U.Va. envisions its offense to be?

Kurt Benkert, a transfer from East Carolina, helped Mendenhall and his staff get established offensively at Virginia, becoming a fringe pro prospect along the way. But what Virginia truly sees as its offensive future is a more mobile, dual-threat style quarterback. It’s brought two of those type of players into camp this spring in junior college transfer Bryce Perkins and freshman Brennan Armstrong.

Perkins, who started his career at Arizona State before being injured and transferring to Arizona Western College, opens spring as the No. 1 quarterback and could help move the Cavaliers to the style of play Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae think will give the team the best chance to compete in the ACC. That’s because, with a number of other question marks on offense, a running quarterback can make something out of nothing.

2) Is there a trio of defensive studs waiting in the wings?

Safety Quin Blanding, linebacker Micah Kiser and defensive end Andrew Brown, the stars of last season’s defense, are gone. U.Va. has some young and relatively unproven players ready to take over at their positions in Joey Blount, Zane Zandier and John Kirven. What’s probably more important is for other players at similar positions to elevate their games.

Brenton Nelson was the ACC’s defensive rookie of the year playing the sabre safety spot. Jordan Mack is an emerging star at linebacker and Mandy Alonso came on late season as a true freshman at defensive end. If those three can be even more productive this season, and take on bigger leadership roles, it will take a lot of pressure off of Blount, Zandier and Kirven.

3) Is cornerback the strength of this year’s defense?

Starters Juan Thornhill and Bryce Hall both return after strong seasons, and the Cavaliers have a load of young talent at the position. That group includes redshirt freshmen Riah Burton and Germane Crowell and sophomores Darrius Bratton and Nick Grant. That’s a lot of talent on the outside defensively, and that doesn’t even include a pair of seniors coming off injury. Tim Harris, the former Varina star, has played in just three games the past two seasons due to injuries. That’s three more contests than Darious Latimore has taken the field for the last two years. Those two could be wildcards that allow Mendenhall to move some pieces around in the secondary or play more nickel packages.

4) How will the young offensive line come together?

Virginia added Marcus Applefield, a graduate transfer from Rutgers where he started at right guard, and could still pick up another lineman this summer. That should help in the fall, but for now, the unit that will work this spring figures to feature a number of underclassmen.

A trio of rookies, tackles Dillon Reinkensmeyer and Chris Glaser, and guard Ben Knutson, played well at times last season, but will need to take the next step in their development as sophomores for the Cavaliers to improve upfront. Having versatile Jake Fieler, who can play any spot on the line, back should be a big help.

5) Did changing strength and conditioning staffs going into Season 3 impact U.Va.’s development?

Virginia didn’t just lose some key players from last year’s team, it had to replace its strength and conditioning staff. After helping reshape the Cavaliers’ program during Mendenhall’s first two years in Charlottesville, coach Frank Wintrich and his staff jumped to UCLA.

U.Va. hired former Arizona State strength coach Shawn Griswold to take over the team’s conditioning work and, so far, Mendenhall has been pleased.

“I think we’ve gotten our current team as ready as possible to begin the work on the field,” Mendenhall said.