CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Sept. 4 marks the beginning of the 2021 Virginia football season, and it also represents the first time since defeating Virginia Tech on Nov. 29, 2019, that the Cavaliers will allow a capacity crowd in Scott Stadium.
“We’re excited to be fully operational in the fall,” Virginia athletic director Carla Williams said Wednesday. “The coaches are excited, student-athletes are excited. I know the fans are ready for it, so hopefully things will continue to go in the right direction and we can do that.”
COVID-19 restrictions limited UVa’s home crowd in 2020, although the Cavaliers still went 5-1 at home. They’re 12-1 at home over the past two seasons. With restrictions expected to be loosened closer to pre-pandemic levels barring a last-minute change, UVa expects to welcome thousands of fans into Scott Stadium for home contests this season.
Williams shared that ticket sales are “better than expected” but declined to share any numbers.
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall is proud of his team’s success at home, but he also recognizes that an underrated storyline surrounding his program is the team’s shortcomings on the road. Virginia is just 2-9 in games outside of Charlottesville the last two seasons.
“The program now requires that we have to travel and play well wherever we go,” Mendenhall said Wednesday at ACC Kickoff.
Virginia’s road schedule in 2021 won’t make that goal easy.
The Cavaliers play at North Carolina, Miami, Louisville, BYU and Pittsburgh. Virginia hopes to win three true road games for the first time since 2011-12, when it went 4-1 on the road.
Limiting secondary injuries
UVa’s secondary struggled last season, allowing 304.4 passing yards per game, the worst mark in the ACC. The group also struggled the second half of the 2019-20 season when teams like North Carolina, Liberty and Clemson torched UVa through the air.
Injuries jump out as a commonality between each season’s secondary issues. Star cornerback Bryce Hall suffered a season-ending injury in 2019. The group took a step back once Hall was sidelined. Players like Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson dealt with significant injury issues in 2020. Nelson also struggled with injuries in 2019.
Can UVa find a way to limit those issues through different training and practice habits?
“The answer has to be yes,” Mendenhall said Wednesday. “Have we found the right solutions yet? We’ll see.”
Mendenhall says the Cavaliers love to practice hard, as that’s the way he knows how to build a quality defense. While that won’t change, Mendenhall has made it clear that he wants more depth defensively, especially in the secondary.
In addition to returners like safeties Blount, De’Vante Cross and cornerbacks Nick Grant and Darrius Bratton, UVa added graduate transfers in the secondary. Anthony Johnson, a Louisville transfer, and Josh Hayes, a North Dakota State transfer, are expected to battle for starting spots within the secondary.
Mendenhall hopes improved depth will lead to improved secondary performance.
“My No. 1 issue is personnel management and that means adding more players in that position of quality,” Mendenhall said. “I’m responsible for that.”
Thompson back from rib injury
Keytaon Thompson’s first season at UVa ended with a loss to Virginia Tech. To make matters worse, he also suffered a meaningful injury in the team’s 33-15 loss to the Hokies.
“I broke my ribs in that last game,” Thompson said Wednesday at the ACC Kickoff. “That was really painful. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t work out for a nice amount of time after the game.”
Thompson shared that he returned to 100% health about a month ago. He’s been able to work out while less than 100%, but he feels fully healthy now.
“I’ve been able to work out for a long, long time,” Thompson said. “I’ve been working out and doing stuff. Still had a little pain. No surgery, so they have to heal naturally. It’s just dealing with the pain. It’s pretty much subsided all the way.”
The second-year UVa player, who transferred to Virginia from Mississippi State, is expected to play an important role within Virginia’s offense this fall. The Cavaliers plan to use Thompson at numerous offensive positions, including quarterback and wide receiver. He accounted for over 300 yards of total offense and six touchdowns last season.
“I can do whatever you need me to do,” Thompson said. “That’s the whole idea.”