ACC Preview: Can Virginia’s talented defense take next step?

The Virginia Cavaliers’ football program continues its search to replicate the George Welsh era, a heyday that stretched from 1984 to 1998, with its third head coach since 2009.

Following Al Groh’s departure, Mike London’s tenure in Charlottesville, despite impressive recruiting efforts, never truly took off. In steps Bronco Mendenhall, an established FBS coach with 99 career wins on his resume after leading BYU to five seasons with double-digit victories. The 50-year-old Mendenhall inherits a roster stocked with standout playmakers at various positions — running back, linebacker, safety — but he’s tasked with turning around a program that claims 15 wins in the past four years.

"I learned really early on that people can accomplish much more than what they’ve been asked," Mendenhall said at the ACC Kickoff. "Our team is doing what they’re asked to do. I’m pushing them really hard. With that comes the ownership and responsibility of myself, that what I’m asking them to do will work.

ACC TEAM BREAKDOWNS

"They’re trusting me that it will."

1. Can a talented defense take steps forward?

Let it never be said that Mike London left behind an empty cupboard — it’s just an inexperienced cupboard in some areas.

The Cavaliers lose five starters on defense, including three along the line, from a group that finished 86th nationally in defensive efficiency (S&P+ ratings).

The returning group still boasts high-end talents thanks to those aforementioned recruiting efforts, notably former five-star recruits in Quin Blanding and end Andrew Brown and four-star corner Tim Harris. Those three are now upperclassmen alongside arguably the unit’s best player, linebacker Micah Kiser, who led the team with 117 tackles and 7.5 sacks in 2015. If Mendenhall is going to mold one of his typically stout defenses, it will rely heavily on that rising junior class of Kiser, Blanding and Brown.

Under coordinator Nick Howell, the Cavaliers will employ a 3-4 defense, which could create personnel hiccups in the transition from the base 4-3 system the program previously recruited for.

"We still attack a lot. We’re not just going to sit back and let teams dictate stuff to us," Kiser said. "I will say that Coach Mendenhall, he holds the defense accountable a lot more. He doesn’t expect teams to run the ball the length of a blade of grass. When your coach is on you like that, you’re going to play harder. He’s going to make us try harder than we’ve ever tried."

Kiser & Co. finished 96th nationally in scoring defense after a rash of injuries in the secondary and mediocre play up front. If Virginia is going to avoid its eighth losing record in nine seasons, Mendenhall and his coaching staff will need to get the most out of what is, on paper, a talented defense.

2. Will the quarterback carousel land on a new name?

Quarterback battles are commonplace in Charlottesville, and after rising senior Matt Johns led the ACC with 17 interceptions in 2015, the Cavaliers head into the season with a three-player competition. Joining Johns, who also tallied 2,800 yards and 20 touchdowns as a junior, presenting more of a hit-or-miss option, is former four-star recruit Connor Brewer and an incoming graduate transfer from East Carolina, Kurt Benkert.

Benkert, in particular, provides a unique challenge to Johns’ starting job.

His head coach at East Carolina, Ruffin McNeill, is now Virginia’s defensive line coach. McNeill named Benkert as his starting quarterback last season — only to watch the 6-foot-3 then-sophomore tear his ACL a week later and miss the entire season. When East Carolina’s new staff showcased its own QB transfer in the spring, Benkert followed his former coach north. He also provides Mendenhall’s staff with a chance at continuity: Even as a graduate transfer, Benkert still holds two years of eligibility … unlike Johns and Brewer.

"We’re very intrigued by what we’ve seen from him with the upside that he has two years of eligibility," Mendenhall said. "There is a nice bridge there that could be formed with the possibility of more experience."

3. Can Taquan Mizzell put it all together in his senior season?

Only five players rushed for fewer than 1,000 yards and still landed in the top-35 nationally in average yards from scrimmage … and Taquan Mizzell was the only running back in that group. The only three players ahead of him (Corey Coleman, Josh Doctson and Keyarris Garrett) are now in NFL training camps.

Mizzell was one of the crown jewels of London’s recruiting efforts, a 5-foot-10 speedster ranked as the fourth-best all-purpose back out of the high school ranks. (The fifth-best player in that group, according to 247: top-five NFL pick Ezekiel Elliot.) It’s been an interesting road for Mizzell. After two quiet seasons as an underclassman, he enjoyed a quiet breakout campaign in 2015, hitting career highs with 664 rushing yards and 719 receiving yards. He was Johns’ primary option by a mile, amassing 99 targets as one of the nation’s top receiving threats out of the backfield.

However, explosiveness has been lacking throughout his career at Virginia as he averaged just four yards per carry as a junior. Can he turn that around under new offensive coordinator Robert Anae, whose offenses produced the top two leading rushers in BYU’s school history, Harvey Unga and Curtis Brown?

The offensive line returns three starters and a few talented backups, but one thing seems clear: Mizzell will once again be a major threat in the passing game. It remains to be seen if he can better diversify his yardage portfolio.