Virginia seeks better start this time against Spiders

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Bronco Mendenhall remembers the day reality set in at Virginia.

Two years ago, the Cavaliers played their first game with Mendenhall against FCS-level Richmond. Virginia didn’t just lose the game, but got manhandled, absorbing a 37-20 defeat on the way to winning just two of 12 games.

“It’s still a work in progress, but I remember just the graphic starting point of, ‘Oh. This is where we are,'” Mendenhall said this week as his third Virginia team plans to open against the Spiders again on Saturday.

The Cavaliers will have a much different look, and one Mendenhall prefers, with a dual threat quarterback in junior college transfer Bryce Perkins, plenty of speed on the outside and a defense stocked with veterans.

Perkins, from Arizona Western Community College, played as a traditional quarterback leading a run-heavy offense last season, guiding his school to the NJCAA national title game. He’s among the fastest players on the Cavaliers roster. The threat of him taking off is one of the elements Virginia expects to exploit most this season.

The Cavaliers see few similarities between this game and their last one with the Spiders.

“We’re a completely different team from then,” cornerback Bryce Hall said. “It’s fun to see how much we’ve grown since then, and how much we’ve developed as players on and off the field. So I think we have a really different team than two years ago. So I’m excited to see how that plays forward moving on.”

It’s been a chore for the Spiders to get an idea of what to expect.

“It’s a different type of quarterback and it’s a different offense,” Richmond coach Russ Huesman said. In trying to find tape to review, “we’ve had to do a lot, not only researching their new quarterback but what we think they may do or may not do, how they’ll be different, how they’ll be the same. It’s a difficult task for our defense.”

Virginia went to a bowl game last year for the first time since 2011, indicating significant progress.

Richmond also has a change at quarterback with Kyle Lauletta having graduated. But Kevin Johnson is neither a stranger to the role, or to big games. He started three FCS playoff games in 2016, winning two of them.

“He can sling it pretty good,” Huesman said. “I think his leadership is the thing that’s impressed me most since he took over this role as starting quarterback. He has really embraced it. He’s led our football team.”

Here are some things to watch when Richmond plays at Virginia:

KEEPING IT SIMPLE: The Cavaliers are unlikely to reveal too much of their new-look offense against the Spiders and may well try to get by with a steady dose of Jordan Ellis running the ball while not exposing Perkins too much.

STARTING FAST: This could be key, not only for the Cavaliers players, but also their fans. Any difficulty with such high expectations on offense is sure to stir concern among those in the stands and could embolden the underdog Spiders.

REMEMBER ME?: The Spiders’ Kevin Johnson sat out last season while redshirting, but was impressive in three starts during a 2016 playoff run. He threw for 315 yards and a touchdown in his first career start, 289 yards and two TDs in a comeback victory in his second start and for 761 yards and three TDs in three starts overall.

STEPPING UP: The Cavaliers have eight starters back on defense, but two of the ones they lost were LB Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding, who finished 1-2 in tackles in the ACC in each of the past three seasons. Their tackling may not be as dominated by two players, but they will need to have new on-the-field leaders.

KICK IT. KICK IT GOOD: Field goal kicking has been a weakness in Mendenhall’s first two seasons and it eventually could be costly. A.J. Mejia was 8 for 12 on 3-point kicks last season, but his longest was from 38 yards and all four of the misses came of tries of 41 yards or longer. The Spiders’ Griffin Trau was 12 for 15 on field goals, with a long of 41 yards. In a close game, those normally automatic field goal attempts can be a huge factor.