Mendenhall seeking big step up in third year at Virginia

<p>
              File-This Sept. 2, 2017, file photo shows Virginia running back Olamide Zaccheaus, left, running past William & Mary safety Mike Barta, right, during an NCAA college football game  in Charlottesville, Va. Zaccheaus set a school single-season record last season with 85 catches. They went for 895 yards and five touchdowns, and Mendenhall has challenged him to do more this year. Some of that may come in the running game, but Zaccheaus said another area of emphasis is improving his yards after the catch.  (Andrew Shurtleff /The Daily Progress via AP, File)
            </p>

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall hopes this is the season the Cavaliers turn the corner.

Virginia reached a bowl game for the first time since 2011 last season with a 6-6 regular season, but after Joe Reed returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, Navy scored 49 unanswered points in a 49-7 Military Bowl loss .

Mendenhall hopes the experience is one that lingers, both for the achievement and the result.

“Qualifying for postseason a year ago certainly gave them an idea of what that looks like, and it also gave them an idea of once they are there, what they need to do,” Mendenhall, entering his third season at Virginia, said.

“That’s framed an urgency, and I like that part.”

These Cavaliers head into the season in a familiar position, with a quarterback they need to keep healthy in dual-threat junior college transfer Bryce Perkins and many weapons on offense that should make it easier.

Along with Perkins, who threw for seven touchdowns and ran for four last season in leading Arizona Western Community College to the NJCAA national championship game, the Cavaliers will lean heavily on wide receivers Olamide Zaccheaus and Reed, along with bruising running back Jordon Ellis in what could be a highly productive offense.

Reliable tight end Evan Butts also is expected to play a prominent role. He has some of the best hands on the team and “is always open,” Mendenhall said. Butts had 32 catches for 266 yards and two TDs last season.

The memory of last season’s finale, when the offense mustered only 175 yards against the Midshipmen, has served as a motivator during the offseason, Ellis said.

“Ending it that way. I mean, our offense didn’t really do anything the whole game,” he said. “It definitely put motivation in us to the spring and we’re definitely motivated every day to come out here on the practice field and … show who we are as an offense.”

Some things to watch with Virginia this season:

KEEPING PERKINS HEALTHY

Perkins arrived last winter and was able to go through spring practice and spend the summer working with the team. He’s been a quick study on the offense, which will more closely fit Mendenhall’s preference for featuring a dual threat behind center, but he will also need to be wary of taking too many hits. Behind him on the depth chart are untested sophomore Lindell Stone and freshman Brennan Armstrong.

AN IMPROVED ZACCHEAUS

He set a school single-season record last season with 85 catches. He finished the year with 895 yards and five touchdowns, and Mendenhall has challenged him to do more this year. Some of that may come in the running game, but Zaccheaus said another area of emphasis is improving his yards after the catch. “I can improve on that, and not taking any catch for granted,” he said. “I had a lot of drops last season, a lot of missed opportunities.”

DEFENSIVE LEADERS

The Cavaliers lost just three starters on defense, but those are big holes to fill. Linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding were the top tacklers in the ACC in each of the last three seasons. Up front, departed defensive end Andrew Brown shared the team lead with 10 1/2 tackles for loss. Chris Peace returns to lead the linebacking corps, one year after leading the team with 7 1/2 sacks, and the secondary is full of veterans led by Juan Thornhill, who moves into Blanding’s spot. “This defense is going to be strong,” free safety Brenton Nelson said. Nelson, Blanding and Thornhill shared the team lead with four interceptions apiece last season.

THE RIVALRY

Mendenhall’s approach to the Cavaliers’ rivalry with Virginia Tech last season was that no one on the team was part of Hokies‘ 13 consecutive victories. The streak is now 14, and Mendenhall has changed course.

“When you have a rivalry game that you haven’t won in a significant amount of time, that’s one of the things that has to happen, regardless of where you are and so we’re open about it moreso now than I have ever been,” he said, “just because it’s clear that has to happen for University of Virginia’s football program.”

SCHEDULE

Virginia opens on Saturday, Sept. 1 at home against Richmond. Two years ago, in Mendenhall’s first game, the Cavaliers were never in the game in a 37-20 loss to the FCS-level Spiders.