CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When the 2020 college football season ended, Virginia was so ready for a rest it opted out of a bowl game.
After a season a navigating COVID-19 protocols, game postponements and injuries, the Cavaliers wanted a break. Ahead of the 2021 season, there’s cautious optimism about a less stressful, football-focused fall.
Virginia may be closer than its peers in a return to normal.
Athletic director Carla Williams shared Wednesday that more than 90% of the university’s student-athletes and staff members have been vaccinated for COVID-19.
“Our staff, our coaches, have done a phenomenal job with the vaccinations … We want to compete and we know that being vaccinated gives us the best chance to compete,” Williams said Wednesday morning ahead of the ACC Kickoff.
UVa is one of seven ACC schools to require students receive a vaccination to attend classes in the fall. Exemptions are granted for medical and religious reasons.
Head football coach Bronco Mendenhall shared that everyone on his team had either received a vaccination or been granted an exemption. While he declined to share the number of football players who were given exemptions, he said “it’s not very many.”
Mendenhall went as far as to say he’d be in favor of teams being forced to forfeit this fall if they can’t field a team due to significant COVID-19 issues. ACC commissioner Jim Phillips was noncommittal about that idea when addressing the media. Phillips says a decision regarding potential COVID-19 forfeits should come in future weeks, but athletic directors and the medical advisory group wanted more time before making a final call.
Returning to a level of normalcy means Mendenhall can focus on football ahead of the fall season. Part of that focus includes improving a secondary that allowed an ACC-worst 304.4 passing yards per game last season. Injuries plagued the defensive backfield and opponents took advantage.
“Health, depth, then possibly implementation of, I would say, the best players at the best time … will have a lot to do with our success defensively,” Mendenhall said.
Graduate transfers Josh Hayes (North Dakota State) and Anthony Johnson (Louisville) should bolster a secondary that returns redshirt seniors safeties De’Vante Cross and Joey Blount. Cornerbacks Nick Grant and Darrius Bratton are expected to be in the mix for starting roles. Hayes and Johnson fit Mendenhall’s rule for adding graduate transfers.
“If I don’t think they can start, I won’t bring them,” Mendenhall said.
UVa’s head coach expects significant competition within the secondary during fall practices.
Mendenhall also returns a strong offense led by an offensive line expected to be among the best in the ACC. The veteran group has a combined 109 career starts. Generating production from the running back position remains an area of need, but UVa feels confident with Brennan Armstrong under center.
The redshirt junior enters his second year as a starting quarterback after accounting for 23 total touchdowns and more than 2,600 yards in nine games in 2020. He feels more comfortable as a starter this offseason.
“Just a huge jump from first to second year already, just through spring ball, having that time with the receivers,” Armstrong said.
While the on-field action heads toward a more typical fall, off-the-field questions surround college football.
Rule changes at the beginning of the month allow players to profit off their name, image and likeness. There are internal rules within UVa’s athletic department about which NIL deals are allowed, and the university partners with INFLCR to help athletes through the process. INFLCR is a brand-building platform that includes compliance and educational components. Athletes can submit NIL deals through an app, awaiting approval from administrators.
UVa’s compliance office approves each NIL deal made by student-athletes, with several eyes looking at the deal to ensure it won’t lead to eligibility issues.
“We see it, we go through it, we approve it, we ask questions,” Williams said. “It’s kind of time-intensive, labor-intensive, but important for sure to start.”
Williams estimated that “less than 50” of the school’s 750 student-athletes had signed NIL deals through the app as of Wednesday, with the potential for more in coming weeks and months.
Questions about an expanding College Football Playoff also hang around the sport. The College Football Playoff working group and management committee have seriously considered expanding the field to 12 teams instead of its current four.
That potential change may take a few years to go into effect, though, making it little more than a fun discussion topic for upperclassmen.
“I think it could be good,” Blount said. “It could take away from monopolizing the College Football Playoff for certain teams.”
As for Mendenhall and the ACC, they’re still taking in the facts and formulating opinions on the 12-team format. Mendenhall seemed in favor of more access, but questioned the feasibility of playing 15 or more games in a season.
There’s still ample time for Mendenhall and company to finalize their opinions on the College Football Playoff, and Armstrong was among a group of players to stress that when football season begins and fall camp starts, NIL deals are pushed to the backburner.