The first three practices of the fall are in the books for the Virginia football team. There’s not much to say so far, as little has been revealed about the starting positions on either side of the ball, the depth conversation for each position group, or the look of the UVA offense or defense. Both players and coaching staff are still trying to find their footing and settle as the team prepares for their first season under Tony Elliott.
Information is pretty limited as the media was allowed to watch the first 30 minutes of practice on Wednesday and Friday and ask questions of select players and coaches after practice. However, we’ll do our best to make meaningful observations based on what we’ve seen and heard from the team so far through week one:
Practice the rhythm
Speaking with the team this week, the most recurring theme was the fast-paced nature of practices. Both players and coaches report how quickly and efficiently the team moves through the various training sessions. It seems to be a point of emphasis for Tony Elliott to make sure the team is in game shape early during fall camp. Especially on the first day of practice Wednesday, some players struggled with conditioning in the heat outside, as temperatures have been in the 90s this week in Charlottesville.
Elliott and the entire coaching staff sang the praises of strength and conditioning coach Adam Smotherman, who certainly put in a lot of work with the team this summer to get them in shape. Tony Elliott specifically mentioned that the bodies on the team look a lot different physically now compared to the end of spring ball.
Wide receivers vs. defensive backs
As Virginia’s defense as a whole looks to improve significantly from last season’s defense that ranked 121st in the nation in total defense, the defensive back unit in particular will have to make big strides in limiting big plays in the passing game. Fortunately, the defensive backs have the challenge and opportunity to face one of the most talented receiving corps in all of college football every day at practice. Being able to test his unit against such capable receivers in practice should be helpful for first-year defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator Curome Cox.
The battles between receivers and defensive backs were pretty intense in the early days of practice. Matches like Anthony Johnson guarding Dontayvion Wicks have already produced some great physical plays. Fifth-year cornerback Darius Bratton noted that “sometimes sparks fly” when the rivalry heats up between Virginia WRs and DBs.
The running back race is wide open
Tony Elliott and Des Kitchings have made it very clear that building a reliable running game is a top priority for the UVA offense this season. Of course, the beneficiary of this goal is Virginia’s current room. Kitchings noted Friday that the competition for the starting job is “wide open” and that it’s possible Virginia’s rushing attack will operate mostly “by committee” this season.
Junior Mike Hollins has the most live game experience in the position group, so he seems likely to get a lot of talk this season depending on how the rest of fall camp goes. Miami transfer Cody Brown has a lot of potential as a former four-star recruit coming out of high school. Keytaon Thompson should also get plenty of snaps, and the coaching staff seems excited about Ronnie Walker Jr.’s return. from injury at some point this season.
The offensive line is steadily progressing
Garett Tujague’s offensive line building project is coming. We’re still a long way from being able to confidently predict the starting five and depth chart, but some names are starting to stand out.
Dartmouth transfer John Paul Flores is nearly impossible to start on the O-Line given the fact that he has played virtually every spot on the offensive line at some point in his career. Flores has received a lot of praise from Tujague and his teammates for his versatility. Senior tackles Jonathan Leech and Derek Devine step up as leaders in that position group. Sophomore Noah Josey noted Friday that the freshmen have impressed him so far, adjusting quickly and already making steady contributions in practice.
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More importantly, Tujague is just happy to have more bodies in fall camp. The Cavaliers didn’t have enough healthy players on the roster to field two full offensive lines for the spring game in April. With players returning from injuries and an influx of first-years and transfers this fall, the team can run drills efficiently during practice. How the depth chart ultimately pans out isn’t likely to be determined until closer to game day.
Hopefully there will be more to learn about the Hoos in the coming weeks of fall practice as the start of the 2022 college football season nears.
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