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UConn Football Non-Conference Preview: Virginia

The Virginia Cavaliers are one of three ACC teams on UConn's non-conference slate.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia Cavaliers

Head Coach: Bronco Mendenhall (1st year, 99-43 in 11 seasons at BYU)

Last Meeting: W, 45-10 at Rentschler Field

Series: 1-1 (first meeting was a 16-17 loss at Virginia)

2016 Game: Saturday, September 17 at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field

Virginia's Strengths: The Cavaliers have a new coach, and he has quite the pedigree. While Virginia needs to regroup after losing a number of weapons, they do return their most explosive players on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. Running back Taquan Mizzell and safety Quin Blanding are legitimate stars, with Blanding specifically having first round upside in next year's draft. Mendenhall also has an experienced signal-caller in Matt Johns, who is capable of managing games effectively for his team. If the Cavaliers stay disciplined, they can surprise people in the ACC this year.

Virginia's Weaknesses: Virginia will need a season or two to recoup all of their lost talent. After losing receivers Canaan Severin and T.J. Thorpe, Matt Johns will need to break in a number of new weapons. The Cavs also were, to be blunt, not very good in 2015. They did not finish above 45th in the country in any major offensive or defensive category last year. Virginia has the staff to get the job done, but they may need some time to get the players necessary to contend in the ACC again.

How They Match Up: Bob Diaco was 0-2 against Bronco Mendenhall's BYU squad, but this is a different opponent that is much worse than the Cougars. Matt Johns is no Taysom Hill, and perhaps is inferior to Tanner Mangum as well. The Cavs' wide receivers also do not measure up to the gargantuan Mitch Matthews, and there is no Bronson Kaufusi to wreak havoc off the edge on this squad from Charlottesville. The Huskies have to utilize the short passing game to outflank the Cavs, staying away from Blanding and forcing Virginia's defense to play from sideline to sideline. Defensively, as long as they contain Mizzell and pressure Johns, the Huskies should be in a good position to tame the Bronco in their third attempt.


Thanks to Matt Trogdon of Streaking the Lawn for providing his insight!

1) It seemed like Mike London was doing a really good job recruiting, which is usually the toughest thing about building up a program. What went wrong that led to his firing?

Yikes. How much time do you have? The short story is that for all his virtues, London proved to be a comically poor gameday coach and an ineffective program manager. His teams consistently beat themselves with penalties and mental errors, which cost the program nearly a dozen wins during his tenure. London's clock management "skills" were the stuff of nightmares and his teams showed an uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. To compound that, his efforts were hindered by a meddling Associate Athletic Director who forced staff changes and scheduled too ambitiously.

2) How has the reception been for Bronco Mendenhall? Is current sentiment any different from when the hire was first announced?

Fans are thrilled with Mendenhall so far. He says all the right things and his record shows that he practices what he preaches. His interviews during spring practice and his appearances during the spring social tour were all received quite well. Mendenhall demands accountability from his players and works to build a culture of "earned, not given." The fans have loved what they've seen and heard so far and a successful first season would only serve to heighten the enthusiasm.

3) Has there been any significant roster turnover? Are there enough pieces from the successful recruiting to suggest Mendenhall may have a better-than-average first year?

Significant roster turnover would be putting it mildly. By my unofficial count, there are 19 players that could have been on Virginia's 2016 roster that won't be. There were five players who decommitted from the 2016 recruiting class after the coaching change, two recruits who didn't enroll (unofficially due to academics), three players lost to injury, three transfers, three players who left the program or were dismissed, and three players who were eligible for fifth years but who didn't return. That said, none of those players would have started this fall and only one or two of them might have been on the two-deep.

On the plus side, Virginia has added three transfers: QB Kurt Benkert (from East Carolina), OL Jared Cohen (from UNC), and DE Jack Powers (from Arizona State). Benkert and Cohen look primed to contribute immediately. Powers played DE in high school before playing on the OL in college. If he transitions back to his old position quickly, he could see significant time as well.

Virginia still has some great pieces left from the London era to build on. Safety Quin Blanding is an All-America candidate and linebacker Micah Kiser was an All-ACC player last season. But the optimism for Mendenhall's first season is more about the culture change he's enacting within the program. I'm not sure Mike London could get the 2016 team to a bowl game. I'm much more optimistic that Mendenhall can.

4) Who is expected to be your starter at quarterback?

This is the top story to watch headed into training camp. Senior Matt Johns, the incumbent, is well-respected by his teammates and coaches. He threw for 2,800 yards and 20 touchdowns last season and has quietly moved up the Virginia record books. On the downside, he threw 17 interceptions, some of which were extremely costly.

Mendenhall has praised Johns' leadership and effort, but he also opted to bring in Benkert as a transfer. Benkert was set to start at ECU in 2015 before a season-ending injury, then decided to follow his former coach, Ruffin McNeil, who's now an assistant at Virginia. Benkert appears to have better mobility and arm strength than Johns, so it will be an interesting battle.

5) Who are a few playmakers on each side of the ball worth keeping an eye on?

On the offensive side, Virginia's offense will likely revolve around Taquan "Smoke" Mizzell and Olamide Zaccheaus. When asked about his offensive weapons in the spring, Mendenhall said, "Certainly Smoke and O, both those two, they need to touch the ball a lot."

Mizzell is a senior running back who's proved effective both running and catching the football. He had 75 catches last year, which is second all-time in school history. And he broke the ACC record for receiving yards by a running back with 721. He was second in the ACC in all-purpose yards in 2015, and he'll be counted on to carry the load again this year. Zaccheaus was a revelation as a true freshman last year. He's technically listed as a running back, but he saw most of his time as a slot receiver and on jet sweeps out of the backfield. Like Mizzell, he has enough wiggle to make defenders miss and enough speed to be a home-run threat.

On defense, Virginia will be led by Blanding, Kiser, and senior nose tackle Donte Wilkins. Blanding is a natural safety with great range and ball skills. He's been a starter since the first day he stepped on campus as a true freshman. Kiser is an inside linebacker who led the ACC in tackles with 117 last season. And Wilkins is a nose tackle who will be the anchor of Virginia's defensive line. UVA will switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense this year, so it will be interesting to see how defenders adjust to the new scheme.

6) How do Virginia fans feel about having UConn on the schedule for a home-and-home?

I think most fans are optimistic about the UConn series. Virginia has had some really tough out of conference opponents the last few years at a time when the program needed to rebuild and find wins. UVA wrapped up a series with UCLA last season, and it has return games against Oregon this year and Boise State next year. It wouldn't be a shock to see the Cavaliers go 0-6 in those three series combined. UConn makes more sense as a natural out of conference opponent. Hartford is a much easier place to travel to for East Coast fans and alumni, and the Huskies are more of an even match for UVA right now. I'll personally be attending the game and I'm excited about it.

I'll add that this might be the most pivotal game on Virginia's schedule early on. A win against UConn would pave the way for a 3-1 OOC record and substantially increase Virginia's odds of a bowl game. A loss would make the path to a bowl game that much more difficult.

7) Will former UVA star player and assistant coach Anthony Poindexter receive a warm welcome upon his return next year?

Anthony Poindexter is one of the most beloved sports figures in Virginia history. He'll unquestionably get a warm reception when he returns to Charlottesville in 2017. It was a sad day when he left, but given the dysfunction of the London regime, no one could really blame him.