It was a rough first season in the ACC for Virginia’s Bronco Mendenhall as the Cavaliers sputtered to a 2-10 overall record.
Following a late-September victory over Central Michigan and an early-October triumph over Duke — UVA’s only ACC victory — the Wahoos finished out the regular season with seven straight defeats.
For the Cavaliers to improve in Year 2 under Mendenhall, they must not only find a way to win close games — Virginia lost three games by seven points or less — but they’ve got to get on the scoreboard with more regularity. UVA failed to score more than 20 points in any of its last four games, while allowing nine of its opponents to score 31 or more points each over the course of the season.
Which players will be most essential to UVA’s hopes for a resurgence in 2017? We take a closer look at three veterans who will play vital roles next season.
Benkert beat out incumbent Matt Johns for the starting quarterback job last preseason after transferring in from East Carolina. But it proved to be a difficult transition to the ACC.
The junior had the second-most interceptions in the ACC with 11. Only once did he throw for 300 or more yards against an ACC opponent.
Following a rough patch in November, Benkert was benched. However, he saw significant playing time against Virginia Tech as UVA’s staff opted to rotate quarterbacks throughout the game.
It wasn’t all bad for Benkert as he ranked in the ACC’s top 10 in total offense, passing yards, completions and touchdowns. He will get a chance to build on those numbers as a senior, while looking to lift the Cavaliers into the postseason for the first time since 2011.
Brown, as a junior, showed the promise that made him a 5-star recruit and the nation’s No. 1 defensive tackle prospect in the 2014 class. He recorded 13 tackles for loss, which ranked 10th in the ACC, while adding six sacks.
UVA ranked 12th in the ACC this fall in scoring defense (33.8 PPG allowed), total defense (446.6 YPG allowed) and rushing defense (190 YPG allowed). With Brown’s help up front getting after opposing quarterbacks and leading the defensive line, Virginia can get those numbers heading in a more positive direction in 2017.
Thornhill emerged as a starter at cornerback in 2016 and led UVA with three interceptions. He joined forces with Quin Blanding to form one of the better young defensive back tandems in the ACC.
Blanding, who set a school record for career tackles by a defensive back in just three seasons, may enter his name into the NFL Draft. That creates a tremendous void in the Cavalier secondary — one that Thornhill will have to help fill.
Virginia’s coaches will be looking to Thornhill this offseason to take on a leadership role and help lead the way in improving the defensive backfield.