At the end of its historic 2019 campaign that saw it beat Virginia Tech, win the ACC Coastal Division and appear in the Orange Bowl, the Virginia football team won games behind its offense.
Bryce Perkins excelled against the Hokies, and he kept the Orange Bowl loss to Florida competitive. Defensively, the Cavaliers struggled late in the season, in part due to an influx of mid- and late-season injuries.
Entering 2020, the questions about Virginia’s on-field product come on the offensive side of the football, though, as several of the stars from the end of 2019 moved to the NFL.
Can UVa produce as effectively at quarterback without Perkins? Will the running backs carry a heavier load than they did in 2019? Does the loss of Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed stifle the Cavaliers’ passing attack?
Fortunately for Bronco Mendenhall and the Wahoos, a handful of transfer additions may provide answers to those questions. Virginia’s head coach brought in five talented transfers on the offensive side of the football, and there’s a chance all five see playing time the next time the Cavaliers take the field for a game.
Keytaon Thompson, QB
With Brennan Armstrong returning, the Cavaliers weren’t completely helpless at the position, but Thompson adds depth and talent at quarterback. The graduate transfer will have two years of eligibility remaining.
At Mississippi State, Thompson finished his career with 18 total touchdowns, including 10 rushing touchdowns on 99 carries. He averaged 6.8 yards per rush with the Bulldogs.
“To win the Coastal Division and the ACC championship, two quarterbacks are always necessary, not just one,” Mendenhall said on Twitter after Thompson announced his commitment. “So in addition to Brennan Armstrong, that we already love, we get a chance to now welcome Keytaon Thompson to our program. That just increases our chances to have the season we’re all hoping for.”
Of course, now there is no Coastal Division for the 2020 fall season due to scheduling changes brought about by COVID-19. Regardless, Mendenhall wants multiple quarterbacks with starting potential on his roster.
With Armstrong and Thompson, he feels confident entering the year.
Checking in at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Thompson gives Virginia an interesting option at quarterback outside of Armstrong. Thompson is mobile and strong, and he could prove valuable in the running game, even if Armstrong earns the starting nod in 2020.
Ronnie Walker Jr., RB
Walker Jr. comes to Virginia after two years at Indiana. He’s hopeful he’ll receive a waiver for immediate eligibility. When he takes the field, he’ll have two seasons of eligibility left with the Cavaliers.
He carried the ball 59 times for 221 yards and a pair of touchdowns while at Indiana. He also added 12 catches for 112 yards and a touchdown for the Hoosiers.
If the Virginia native does receive a waiver for the fall, he’ll be thrust into the running back competition with Wayne Taulapapa and Mike Hollins.
Expect all of those players to earn playing time if they’re healthy, given the importance of depth at the running back position at the Power 5 level. Virginia has the pieces to use multiple running backs throughout each game.
Shane Simpson, RB
Add another one into the mix at running back.
Simpson announced his commitment to Virginia on Sunday. The graduate transfer with NFL dreams hopes to play his final season of college football this fall. The CAA canceled its fall season due to COVID-19, leaving Simpson looking to play elsewhere.
He’s an ultra-athletic runner who dominated the FCS level at Towson. In 2018, he earned all-conference honors at running back, kickoff returner and punt returner. A knee injury cut his 2019 season short, but he’s back to 100% health and ready to compete.
Simpson averaged 8.3 yards per offensive touch in 2019 before his injury, and he scored a touchdown running and receiving before the knee injury. When healthy — like he was when he combined for 1,067 rushing and receiving yards and 11 touchdowns in 2018 — Simpson presents a unique challenge for defenses.
Given his abilities as a receiver, runner and returner, it’s likely he’ll have chances to earn significant playing time, assuming the fall season starts on time and occurs safely. He’s a dynamic addition to the offense and return game.
Ra’Shaun Henry, WR
A lack of depth at receiver following the departures of Dubois and Reed made Henry a logical offseason addition. The FCS product and graduate transfer comes to Virginia with one year of eligibility remaining.
He hauled in 90 receptions for 1,118 yards a season ago for St. Francis, earning All-NEC honors. He reached the end zone nine times as a receiver.
“He brings experience, a dynamic playmaker and a really good person,” Mendenhall said of Henry in May. “Really strong high school program in Texas where he comes from, and he’s anxious to prove himself at the next level, and we have a great need and a program that will really help him reach his potential.”
In high school, Henry also excelled as a returner. Adding Henry and Simpson gives the Cavaliers added depth and talent in the return game, which should help make up for the loss of Joe Reed.
It’s unclear how Henry will adjust to the Power 5 level coming from a low-level FCS program, but at 6-3 and 195 pounds, Henry possesses the size and speed necessary to compete in the ACC. At the very least, he adds depth at a position in desperate need of additional playmakers and experience.
Tony Poljan, TE
While UVa’s offense isn’t known for utilizing tight ends, Poljan comes to Charlottesville with the athleticism to change that. The 6-7, 260-pound tight end comes to Charlottesville as a graduate transfer with one year of eligibility remaining.
Poljan played quarterback at Central Michigan early in his career before switching over to tight end. He snagged 33 receptions for 496 yards and four touchdowns last season.
Hasise Dubois gave the Cavaliers a solid red-zone threat a season ago. Poljan could fill a similar role from a different position this season, attracting the attention of defenses when the Cavaliers come close to the goal line.
In the running game, Poljan provides a big body to help block.
The bottom line
Virginia entered the offseason with questions offensively. While those questions haven’t evaporated, the Cavaliers addressed many of the doubts with the addition of experienced transfers.