The Virginia football team held its longest practice of preseason camp Monday. The Cavaliers ran roughly 80 plays, and 60 of them were runs.
“Running the football is a lot easier than playing catch,” UVa offensive line coach Garett Tujague said Wednesday.
That wasn’t the case for Virginia last season, though.
As the offensive line tried to find its footing, the Cavaliers leaned heavily on the passing game. With Bryce Perkins at quarterback, UVa averaged 7.2 yards per pass attempt in 2019. The Cavaliers averaged just 3.8 yards per rush a season ago.
UVa ranked fourth in the ACC in passing yards per game last season while ranking 13th out of the 14 ACC squads in rushing yards per game. The Cavaliers’ best rushing plays came at times when Perkins scrambled on designed passing plays.
Heading into 2020, the Cavaliers will take the field without Perkins and receivers Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed. Virginia does have a deep running back room, though.
Add in an experienced and confident offensive line, and the Cavaliers believe their rushing attack could be in for improved performance this fall.
“We all came back from quarantine bigger, stronger and ready to lead the team, so I think that we’re more equipped going into this season to run the football,” Virginia center Olu Oluwatimi said.
Tujague, who credits strength coach Shawn Griswold for helping the program build a better, stronger offensive line, says the program never lost its interest in running the football. The ability to produce in the run game comes from depth at multiple positions, including offensive line spots and running back.
That depth lacked a season ago.
At running back, UVa added Towson transfer Shane Simpson to join Wayne Tualapapa and Mike Hollins. The program also hopes to receive a waiver for Indiana transfer Ronnie Walker Jr. to receive immediate eligibility. Along the offensive line, the Cavaliers return every starter from the Orange Bowl and a handful of depth pieces.
For arguably the first time in the Bronco Mendenhall era, the Wahoos feature depth at running back and offensive line.
“There’s always an emphasis on running the football,” Tujague said. “The effectiveness of it, that comes with time and strength and the numbers that we’ve gained in the weight room through [Griswold] and his staff are obviously going to contribute to the success of any run game.”
An improved offensive line bodes well for Brennan Armstrong and Keytaon Thompson, who might not possess Perkins’ explosiveness but can run the football. Whoever earns the starting nod at quarterback gives the Cavaliers another running threat in the backfield.
“There’s definitely an added emphasis on run,” Virginia lineman Dillon Reinkensmeyer said. “Brennan and Keytaon are both really dynamic runners, so I think it’s a really good thing and we have a lot of really talented backs as well.”
Outside the program, questions circulate about how the offense will move the football without Perkins. Inside the program, confidence grows with each practice.
UVa likes its running backs. The coaches and players feel confident in the options at quarterback. Through the early stages of fall camp, the Cavaliers believe the offensive line makes the offense a stellar unit.
Oluwatimi says a season ago offensive linemen were struggling against linebackers Charles Snowden and Noah Taylor during practice. This year, it’s a more even battle with the linebackers struggling at times against the improved offensive line unit.
When Oluwatimi sees a blitz, he no longer worries about what’s next. He knows his teammates understand the situation and will react accordingly. The result is a confident offense moving at a fast pace.
Losing Perkins hurts UVa’s offense, but the Cavaliers believe they’re capable of pushing defensive lines around when the season begins. Success starts up front, and the Cavaliers feel as confident in their offensive line as they ever have during the Mendenhall era.