Virginia's trio of captains sparking Cavaliers' turnaround
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) Virginia is a victory from bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011 and receiving votes in the Top 25. It's all very impressive considering the Cavaliers are one year removed from finishing 2- 10.
The Cavaliers' trio of captains are at the center of the turnaround.
Kurt Benkert, in his second season as the starting quarterback and first as a captain, has provided a steadying force on offense and the ability to hit deep passes that had been mostly lacking in the Cavaliers' attack. He's also become a leader, along with linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding, the most respected players on the defensive side.
But it may be Benkert who is the most critical.
''I think he's accelerated the turning around, not turnaround yet,'' said coach Bronco Mendenhall, cautioning against any notion that four consecutive victories - two on the road - suggest Virginia (5-1, 2-0) has things figured out.
They can secure their first postseason appearance on Saturday when Boston College (3-4, 1-3) comes to Scott Stadium.
Benkert talked like he was in command last season, but has acknowledged he was still trying to fit in with his new team. He also replaced popular fifth-year senior Matt Johns as the starter just before the season.
This season has been much smoother, and the captains all appreciate the value the others bring.
''The quarterback, that's what drives the team,'' Kiser said. ''That's what really drives win and losses. If you look at the ACC right now, we're a team that has one and we're 5-1.''
But, he joked, they could have done without Benkert fumbling the ball way at the North Carolina 27 yard-line on Saturday with under 3 minutes to play and Virginia leading 20-14. The defense, which limited the Tar Heels to just 46 passing yards, eventually forced UNC to turn the ball over on downs.
''Kurt, bro, if we just punted right there then we're good. They're not going to go 90 on us,'' Kiser joked. ''But you love that in him that he thinks he can make a play at any time and he always wants to make a play.''
Benkert's appreciation for Kiser and Blanding gets stronger each game. The pair have finished first and second in the ACC in tackles in each of the past two seasons, and they each considered leaving after last season.
Having them back, he said, is ''everything. Having them to solidify our defense and being the middle of our defense. ... Knowing that they're going to do their jobs more times than not and that they're going to make big plays when we need them and they're going to make the guys around them better. I think that's the biggest testimony to who they are - they make everyone on that field, on that defense, better, and that's huge for us.''
Mendenhall did very little to influence either Kiser's or Blandings' decision, but their choices to come back - fueled in part by a season-ending 52-10 loss to Virginia Tech - was huge for the rebuilding job, too.
''It's like Kurt on the other side,'' Mendenhall said. ''They had plenty of reasons not to come come back. A new coach and a 2-10 season on top of very little winning football. ... To this point, I feel good just because I think they're having a great experience. That's what I wanted for them, if they did come back.''
And with one more victory, they will get to experience their first bowl game with the program.
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