CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — The arrival of dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins helped Virginia exceed expectations last season. Now the Cavaliers face a new challenge: meeting higher expectations this season.
The Cavaliers are the only team in the Atlantic Coast Conference's Coastal Division to never win the title, but media members impressed by Perkins and their progress a year ago tabbed them as the division favorite this season.
That's new for Virginia, which had been picked to finish last five seasons in a row.
Perkins, a junior college transfer, is the primary reason.
He proved to be one of the more dynamic players in college football last season, throwing for 2,680 yards with 25 touchdowns and nine interceptions, and running for 923 yards and nine scores. The Cavaliers finished 8-5, including a 28-0 bowl game shutout of South Carolina.
The quarterback said the Cavaliers welcome the higher expectations.
"We definitely have the talent and we definitely have the mindset, too," he said.
In coach Bronco Mendenhall's system, anything outside the team's control is viewed as interference, and Virginia being selected as favorites was among the first things he addressed before practice began.
"We're just treating any expectations in terms of projections as basically interference. It just gets in the way of what we are really trying to do," he said following their first practice.
Offensively, the Cavaliers need to find replacements for almost exclusively used tailback Jordan Ellis (1,026 yards, 10 TDs) and program receptions career record-holder Olamide Zaccheaus (93 catches, 1,058 yards, nine TDs).
On defense, nine starters return to a unit that allowed 330 yards per game last season, 20th nationally, and just 20.1 points per game, 21st nationally, led by cornerback Bryce Hall, who led the nation with 22 pass breakups and emerging linebacker Charles Snowden.
Here are some things to watch for during Virginia's upcoming season:
Perkins' running ability essentially gives Virginia a 12-man offense because he can throw it or take off at any time, but that will only be true if the Cavaliers can replace Ellis' production. He and Perkins accounted for about 90 percent of the team's rushing total last year, and Mendenhall would like PK Kier (26 carries, 82 yards) or someone else to emerge as the primary ball carrier. Three-star freshman Mike Hollins might also contend for the job.
Zaccheaus caught a bunch of short throws last season, then turned them into more with his speed and elusiveness. The emergence of speedy Joe Reed (25 catches, 465 yards, seven TDs) or someone else in that role would help. Hasise Dubois (52-578, five TDs) has been used primarily as a possession receiver but can also be a deep threat.
CHARLES IN CHARGE
Junior linebacker Charles Snowden was one of the Cavaliers' most improved players last season and made big strides toward being a better pass rusher by adding more than 30 pounds this offseason. At 6-foot-7, he's long and fast and he averaged 4.7 tackles with 7.5 tackles for a loss, 2 1/2 sacks, two interceptions and nine passes broken up.
KICK IT GOOD
Mendenhall finally found a reliable placekicker in Brian Delaney, who made 12 of 16 field goal tries with a long of 46, but Delaney came out of spring practice as the top punter, too, and Mendenhall is hopeful that Nash Griffin might be ready to take that job before the Cavaliers open on the road at nemesis Pittsburgh on Aug. 31.
Virginia showed great bounce-back last season when, after a crushing 15th consecutive loss to Virginia Tech, they beat South Carolina 28-0 in the Belk Bowl. Success followed by expectations can be tricky to navigate.
Said Perkins: "Let's not have it take a loss for us to get back to that level of competitiveness."