Virginia Football Preview: Cavaliers ‘moving forward’ on the field and in their hearts

Sports is supposed to shelter us from our problems and a world that’s not always so awesome. Work and personal problems can go away for three hours on a Saturday afternoon as the only thing that matters is whether your quarterback can convert a third and long or your defense can put pressure on their quarterback.

But what happens when sports and real life circumstances collide?

D’Sean Perry, Lavel Davis Jr. and Devin Chandler were killed on Nov. 13 in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a gunman opened fire on a charter bus returning to campus from a class trip to D.C. to see a play. The team wisely canceled the final two games of the season as head coach Tony Elliott’s players, coaching and support staff tried to heal.

“For us, it’s not that easy because those were three young men, three young lives that were lost,” Elliott said. “Guys we were used to seeing every day and being around. And still don’t have clarity on what, why and how it happened.”

The University of Virginia football program is trying to grapple with what happened.

“You can’t just move on. If you ‘move on,’ you try to forget things and don’t think about them. For us, they’re going to be with us every single day,” Elliott said. “And when I say ‘moving forward’ as opposed to ‘moving on,’ we have a responsibility to carry their legacy with us. We have a responsibility to their families and a responsibility to each one of them to honor them in everything we do because they’re going to be with us every single day.”

The November shootings ended Elliott’s first season at the helm that saw the Cavaliers post a 3-7 record that included a 14-12 quadruple overtime loss to Miami. What were the biggest lessons learned by the rookie coach that will help him this fall?

“You can’t do everything by yourself. I think any time you’re responsible for something, you always want to have your touch on it; but you’ve got to empower people,” Elliott said. “And then what I also learned is when you’re trying to lay a foundation and establish core values, it takes time.”

Establishing an offensive line also takes time and last year’s front five was a patchwork unit that struggled to keep quarterback Brennan Armstrong upright (13th in the ACC in sacks allowed per game), while also having issues creating lanes for the ground game (3.7 yards per carry for a unit that ranked 11th in the conference in rushing), resulting in the lowest-scoring offense in the league.

So the staff brought in three transfers who have made the two-deep lineup: tackles Ugonna Nnanna (Houston) and Jimmy Christ (Penn State) plus tackle Brian Stevens (Dayton).

“I’m excited about where we are. We were able to bring in a couple of transfers that I think is going to help us and give us immediate depth,” Elliott said. “And the good thing is the guys that did stick around after how last season ended, they got another spring ball, another 25 practices so I’m excited to see their progress.”

For the first time since 2019, someone other than Brennan Armstrong (transferred to NC State) will be starting at quarterback. Monmouth transfer Tony Muskett was twice named First Team All-Big South. The Springfield, Virginia, native is just what his new coach was looking for.

“What I love about Tony is that he’s got game experience. He was a three-year player at (FCS) Monmouth and he’s got a chip on his shoulder. He’s hungry,” Elliott said. “He sees the big picture: he understands what his job is to be able to command the offense, control the offense, get us in good situations, out of bad situations, distribute the ball.”

Muskett will have the security blanket that is 6-foot-5 tight end Grant Misch (17 catches last fall) back for his senior year, while the wide receivers are either unproven (Demick Starling or Malachi Fields combined for 80 yards receiving last year) or new to the program (Northwestern transfer Malik Washington). Perris Jones was the top running back last fall (365 yards), and he’ll see snaps with Clemson transfer Kobe Pace (794 yards in three years with the Tigers).

Virginia returns eight starters on defense, and it’s a case of quality play as much as quantity of returnees. “I feel like the right eight guys did come back,” Elliott said. “I’m excited about the depth that we have on the defensive line. You got Chico Bennett (seven sacks in 2023). I’m excited about the improvement at the linebacker position with (Josh) Ahern coming back and the development of James Jackson (60 tackles in 2023). The safeties (Coen King and Antonio Clary) are back.”

The Cavaliers ranked 10th against the run last season in the ACC but fourth against the pass; and just like one can’t mask an underwhelming offensive line, you can’t hide a suspect secondary. That’s the challenge this fall.

“What we’ve gotta figure out is corner (after) losing both Anthony Johnson (signed with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints) and Fentrell Cypress (transferred to Florida State),” Elliott said. “I feel good about the core that we’re bringing back we just gotta develop the young corners, and hopefully ,some of these transfers that have come in can give us production.”

Will we see improvement of production on both sides of the ball this fall?

We’re going to learn sooner rather than later as the schedule begins with a trip to Nashville to face preseason No. 12 Tennessee. Then it;s a home game against James Madison (8-3 last year, their first season at the FBS level) before visiting former ACC foe Maryland (Terps are coming off their best season since 2010).

“The only way that we really even know what we’re about is if we challenge ourselves,” Elliott said. “I’m excited to play JMU, I know that’s something that hasn’t been happening around here. I think it’s great for the state. It helps them, it helps us; and I’m excited about that.”

What’s the priority as the Cavaliers prepare to clash with a Tennessee team that’s enjoying their highest preseason ranking since 2016?

“There’s gonna be a ton of excitement, a ton of energy expended before we even kick off,” Elliott said. “So make sure we’ve got a plan that the guys can go out and execute, get them in the right spots, get them lined up, and then let them go play: get out of the way.” And move forward.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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