The veterans who decided to stay put don’t have any doubts.
They’re confident Virginia can bounce back from its 3-7 showing in 2022 — coach Tony Elliott’s first season at the helm of the Cavaliers — and want to be key cogs in helping the Hoos turn their win-loss record around.
“I believe in what Coach Elliott has going on and the vision he has for the program,” running back Perris Jones said immediately when asked about why he opted to return for a sixth year at UVa.
He could’ve entered the working world or contemplated transferring elsewhere to finish his college playing days like former teammates Brennan Armstrong (N.C. State), Nick Jackson (Iowa) and others chose to do. Instead, Jones will wear the same navy helmet he’s worn throughout his career when the Cavaliers open spring practice next month.
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“I’m completely bought into it,” Jones, voted a team captain last year, continued, “and I kind of had that feeling at the end of last season to where I felt like I needed to give this thing one more go.”
Senior defensive end Kam Butler expressed a similar sentiment and said “absolutely” UVa is capable of changing its trajectory for the better.
Butler joined the Cavaliers last season as a graduate transfer from Miami (Ohio) and is only back for 2023 because he’s taking advantage of the extra year the NCAA granted UVa players whose eligibility would’ve expired after this past fall. The NCAA made that ruling on the heels of the November shooting, which tragically killed former Cavaliers Lavel Davis Jr., D’Sean Perry and Devin Chandler.
Butler’s original plan prior to gaining the sixth year in college football, he said, was to finish his master’s degree in higher education this spring while simultaneously training for the NFL with UVa’s strength coaches.
For now, he’s gladly put the pro dream on hold.
“I wanted to get back with the team,” he said. “I started building some great relationships with people off the field on the administrative side of things for the athletic department and I wanted to build on those relationships going forward, too, and I like the strength staff here. I like the coaching staff here, so I feel like it would’ve been weird to not come back or not right for me to go somewhere else.”
His sense is there are enough returning players with experience to enforce the practice habits and expectations Elliott introduced to the Hoos last year as well as to teach coordinator John Rudzinski’s defense, which the Cavaliers improved while using last year, to new additions on the team.
Most notably, the defensive line is filled with fourth-, fifth- and sixth-year players with Butler and Aaron Faumui, Chico Bennett Jr., Jahmeer Carter and Paul Akere.
“And we’re furthering the bond with each other,” Butler said, “and that ultimately helps on the field. We know where each other are going to be and how each of us plays. It’s developing that cohesiveness within the D-Line group that’ll be beneficial for us come fall.”
Beyond the defensive linemen, safeties Coen King and Antonio Clary have combined to play in 66 games and Jonas Sanker was second on the team last season with 63 tackles. On offense, Jones, fellow running back Mike Hollins and tight end Grant Misch are among the most-seasoned.
“There is definitely an ownership of the team that is taking over,” Jones said, “and you could see guys that fit into that category like Grant [Misch] and Coen [King] and Mike [Hollins]. We’re all focused on making this program truly ‘The Model Program,’ and being exemplary of what a college football program should be in all aspects in the classroom, on the field and in everyday life. It’s important to us.”
Jones said he’s already seen a switch in urgency and understanding between last year’s version of the Cavaliers to the 2023 edition of the Hoos throughout winter workouts and into mat drills, which began last week.
“It’s not only how we’re running through drills,” Jones said, “but it’s the excitement that we have. It’s an energy and an excitement to work, which is a beautiful thing to witness.
“But it’s other things, too,” he said, “like cleaning your locker, making sure the locker room is neat and up to the standard. All of those small things play a factor with how we play on the field just as Coach Elliott preaches all the time.”
Jones, who emerged as the starter at his position during training camp last August, said he feels the returning offensive players have shown better comprehension regarding what Elliott and coordinator Des Kitchings are asking of them on a snap-to-snap basis going into spring practice.
UVa was 126th nationally for scoring offense (17 points per game) and 103rd for total offense (344.1 yards per game) in 2022.
“And we spend more time combing through [the offense] amongst ourselves to make sure it’s ingrained. We’re building to be pretty strong,” Jones said.
He said he’s eager to figure out how much more effective the running backs can be in their second year in the offense. Jones (365 yards, two TDs in ’22), Hollins (215 yards, two TDs) and Xavier Brown (210 yards, TD) are all back. Clemson transfer Kobe Pace, having the benefit of previously suiting up for Elliott, should fit in smoothly with the group, too.
Butler said throughout the spring he expects the D-Line to keep emphasizing its pass rush and try to disrupt the quarterback more frequently. UVa’s three sacks per game were the 13th most in the FBS last season.
“But we didn’t do a great job of impacting the quarterback when it came to batted balls,” Butler said. “We got a good amount of pressures, but I think you can always improve pressuring the quarterback.”
Overall, though, Butler is thrilled to see how the entire defense continues to grow under Rudzinski’s watch in their second go-around together.
“Every game we played last year we thought we could shut the opponent out,” Butler said, “take away their best option and make them do things they didn’t want to do, so we’re looking to do that again this year and do it at an even higher level.”
Finally, there’s what Jones said is the unspoken motivator for the Cavaliers. They’re still mourning and dealing with the losses of Davis Jr., Perry and Chandler.
“We try to carry their legacies with us in our day-to-day workouts and everyday life because those guys were special,” Jones said. “And the voids can never be filled, but we just want to make sure we respect and honor them every day and that they’re looking down proud on how we’re carrying the torch.”