This time a year ago Bronco Mendenhall was a new hire taking over a program mired in four straight losing seasons. Now he has established a new direction as Virginia’s second-year head coach.
That’s one different aspect which gives the Cavaliers renewed hope for 2017.
Two more are senior inside linebacker Micah Kiser and senior safety Quin Blanding. A year ago they were returning All-ACC players, but for 2017 they carry returning second-team All-American honors. Also, Kiser bypassed the NFL Draft to return to campus.
There is yet another vital reason Virginia is ahead of last season.
This time a year ago quarterback Kurt Benkert was going through 2016 spring drills at East Carolina. Now he’s Virginia’s second-year starter as the Cavaliers open spring drills on March 1 in Charlottesville.
Second-year starters are more confident and instinctive at any position, but the experience factor extrapolates at quarterback. Benkert told virginiasports.com he knows the playbook better and how his teammates react to circumstances.
“That was developed more as the year went on, and it’s going to really develop this spring and this offseason,” Benkert said. “The more time I have with these guys, it’s going to definitely show, and it’s going to pay off. I think being around the system for a second year and the guys for a second year, just going through it all, I think it’s going to be really beneficial for this season.”
Benkert is a graduate transfer now in his final year of eligibility. He won the starting job as a sophomore at East Carolina in 2015 under then head coach Ruffin McNeill, who was fired following the 2015 season and is now in his second season as the Cavaliers’ assistant head coach and defensive line coach.
At the end of the 2016 spring drills, new East Carolina head coach Scottie Montgomery named Philip Nelson the starter over Benkert. With McNeill already on Mendenhall’s staff, Virginia was a soft landing spot.
Benkert finished the year completing 228-of-406 passes for 2,552 yards with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. His passing led the Cavaliers to a 2-3 start with a 49-35 victory over Central Michigan a 34-20 win at Duke. He threw for a school-record 421 yards and tied another with five touchdowns against CMU. A week later he beat Duke with 336 passing yards and three TDs.
Mendenhall and Benkert both expect more from the UVA passing game in 2017.
Virginia’s encouraging 2-3 start was followed by seven straight losses. Mendenhall also started senior Matt Johns, whom Benkert beat out in 2016’s fall camp, for the last two games against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Benkert says his focus is cutting down on costly interceptions that prompted Mendenall to have Johns finish a lost season.
Benkert called it a “reality check,” a catalyst for him to focus on improvement.
To start with, he he will be playing lighter in 2017. He played a year ago at 230 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame, but he has dropped his weight to 218. He also said his knee is stronger, and he can play without the bulky brace he wore last fall.
He is one of six returning offensive starters: senior left tackle John English (6-5, 290), senior right guard Jack McDonald (6-5, 290), senior tight end Brendan Marshall (6-5, 235), senior wide receiver Doni Dowling (6-1, 215) and junior wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus (5-8, 190).
Defensively, Kiser and Blanding are two of eight returning defensive starters: senior defensive end Andrew Brown (6-4, 290), redshirt sophomore defensive end Eli Hanback (6-4, 270), true sophomore strongside linebacker (6-4, 205) Jordan Mack, junior weakside linebacker Chris Peace (6-1 230), junior cornerback Juan Thornhill (6-1, 190) and true sophomore cornerback Bryce Hall (6-3, 200).
Eight starters on defense will be asked to improve a unit that finished 12th in the ACC in both scoring defense (33.8) and total defense (446.6 yards). Kiser and Blanding need the support.
Kiser led the ACC in tackles as a sophomore in 2015 (117) and 2016 (134). Blanding was right behind him with 115 in 2015 and 120 in 2016. His 123 tackles (second in the ACC) as a true freshman bump his career total (358) to ninth in Virginia history.
The only other returning player with end-of-season honors was Mack as a Freshman All-America from Campus Insiders, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t talent among the others. Teams with winning records dominate the all-conference honors.
Another Virginia story line is incoming talent that isn’t limited to the 2017 recruiting class. Two graduate transfer offensive linemen are John Montelus of Notre Dame and Brandon Pertile of Oklahoma State. They are welcome additions to a roster that returns only two starting offensive linemen.
Montelus (6-4, 310) has played a backup role as both an offensive and defensive lineman for the Irish, but he’s joining the Cavs on offense. Pertile (6-4, 315) played a backup role the last two years, but in 2013 he started six games for Georgia State. He spent 2014 at Mesa Community College in Arizona before he transferred to Oklahoma State, but he was injured and was granted a medical redshirt to be eligible for 2017.
Virginia is counting added experience and new faces to return to a bowl game for the first time since 2011.
Follow Tom Shanahan of FanRagSports.com on Twitter @shanny4055