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Virginia Ready to Compete for Coastal

By Dave Holcomb
SouthernPigskin.com
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Bronco Mendenhall arguably gets more out of his talent than anyone else in the ACC, and if he can snap those losing streaks against the Coastal Division’s elite programs, playing in the ACC Championship is possible.

In the last two seasons, Virginia has won 14 combined games and earned two bowl appearances. Before the arrival of coach Bronco Mendenhall, the Cavaliers hadn’t accomplished both of those feats during a two-year span since 2004-05.

But last Halloween, Virginia has its sights set on an even bigger goal -- winning the ACC Coastal Division. The division crown was within the program’s grasp when the Cavaliers started 4-1 in conference play. But to end the year, Virginia lost its final three ACC games, finishing 4-4 and tied for third place in the Coastal Division.

Unlike the Atlantic Division, the Coastal has been a hodgepodge of programs this decade. Over the last six years, six different teams have won the division, with Virginia being the lone program in the Coastal that hasn’t.

The Cavaliers will have to overcome several long-time obstacles to capture a division championship, but with multiple key returning starters, including quarterback Bryce Perkins, Virginia is a dark horse to emerge from the Coastal carousel in 2019.

Perkins is the No. 1 reason to be giddy about the Cavaliers chances at a division title this year. Transferring from Arizona, where he played for both Arizona State and Arizona Western College, Perkins quickly became the team’s starter and offensive leader.

The dual-threat quarterback threw for 2,680 yards and 25 touchdowns with nine interceptions during his first season in Charlottesville. He also chipped in 923 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground, finishing second on the team in both categories behind senior running back Jordan Ellis.

After Ellis and Perkins, there was a big dropoff at Virginia in rushing production. Senior playmaker Olamide Zaccheaus (who mostly played wide receiver but was sometimes listed as a running back) finished third on the team with 83 rushing yards.

More importantly, Zaccheaus led the team with 93 receptions, 1,058 yards and nine receiving touchdowns.

Virginia has to replace both Ellis and Zaccheaus this fall. Together, they combined to account for more than 81 percent of Virginia’s offense in 2018. That’s a ton of production to replace.

But with Perkins leading the offense during his second season, there’s a quiet confidence in Virginia that replacing those stars can be done. Perkins will play a role, but it will ultimately be up to the Cavaliers skill players such as P.K. Kier and Joe Reed.

Kier posted the third-most carries on the team last year but that was just 26 the entire season. Kier has just 32 rushing attempts in his college career, but during his high school days, he posted more than 7.0 yards per carry.

If Kier can recreate that success, that would lessen the loss of Ellis. Virginia also plans for incoming 3-star back Mike Hollins to provide competition in the backfield this summer. Hollins rushed for more than 1,600 yards and 33 touchdowns as a senior at University Laboratory in Baton Rouge.

Fortunately, there are fewer question marks at wide receiver. Reed and fellow wideout Hasise Dubois, both of whom are rising seniors, combined to post more than 1,000 receiving yards last season.

Reed only caught 25 passes, but he was the team’s deep threat, averaging 18.6 yards per reception and posting seven touchdowns. Dubois was second behind Zaccheaus with 52 receptions and 578 yards.

Together, Reed and Dubois should be able to replace Zaccheaus, and with two promising running backs, the Virginia offense has the potential to be a lot more balanced than 2018.

Part of the reason why the Cavaliers finished 0-3 in the ACC was because the opposition took away their two star offensive players in those losses. During those defeats, Ellis and Zaccheaus combined to average about 104 yards per game. In the first five conference games, they accumulated 126 yards per contest.

Even if Virginia doesn’t have a direct replacement for both players, the Cavaliers offense could be more dangerous with more capable weapons.

Defensively, Virginia also has to replace two stars -- safety Juan Thornhill and linebacker Chris Peace. Thornhill became a second-round NFL draft pick in April, and Peace developed into a third-team All-ACC player. Peace led the team with 7.5 sacks in 2018.

But the Cavaliers will have back cornerback Bryce Hall, who many predicted would also leave for the NFL. Linebackers Jordan Mack and Charles Snowden, who finished second and third on the team in sacks with a combined 5.0 last season, are expected to replace Peace. Athlon Sports’ Antwan Staley says defensive ends Tommy Chris and Aaron Famui should become factors upfront as sophomores this fall too.

As promising as the roster may sound, though, a division title for Virginia can’t happen unless it snaps its 15-game losing streak against rival Virginia Tech. Since 1999, the Cavaliers have beaten the Hokies just once.

Last season, Virginia held a touchdown lead with about two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter against its biggest rival, but Virginia Tech came back to win in overtime.

In order to win the division, the Cavaliers will likely have to beat the Miami Hurricanes as well. Virginia defeated Miami in 2018, which gave the Cavaliers so much hope that last fall could finally be their time to capture the division, but Virginia hasn’t won at Miami since 2011.

Comparing the two year’s schedules on paper, Virginia may have held a better chance of winning the division last year than this season. Miami and Virginia Tech could both be better, and the Cavaliers draw Florida State along with Pitt, last year’s division champion, on the road. Not to mention, Virginia will also take a trip to Notre Dame.

But if the Coastal has as much chaos as it’s possessed the last few seasons, don’t be surprised if Virginia is competing for the division crown in late November.

Mendenhall arguably gets more out of his talent than anyone else in the ACC, and if he can snap those losing streaks against the Coastal Division’s elite programs, playing in the ACC Championship is possible.