CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When the 2020 college football season ended, Virginia was so ready for a rest it opted out of a bowl game.
After a season of navigating COVID-19 protocols, game postponements and injuries, the Cavaliers wanted a break. Ahead of the 2021 season, there’s cautious optimism about a less stressful, football-focused fall.
Virginia may be closer than its peers in a return to normal.
Athletic director Carla Williams shared Wednesday that more than 90% of the university’s student-athletes and staff members have been vaccinated for COVID-19.
“Our staff, our coaches, have done a phenomenal job with the vaccinations. … We want to compete and we know that being vaccinated gives us the best chance to compete,” Williams said Wednesday morning ahead of the ACC Kickoff.
UVa is one of seven ACC schools to require students receive a vaccination to attend classes in the fall. Exemptions are granted for medical and religious reasons.
Head football coach Bronco Mendenhall shared that everyone on his team had either received a vaccination or been granted an exemption. While he declined to share the number of football players who were given exemptions, he said “it’s not very many.”
Returning to a level of normalcy means Mendenhall can focus on football ahead of the fall season. Part of that focus includes improving a secondary that allowed an ACC-worst 304.4 passing yards per game last season. Injuries plagued the defensive backfield, and opponents took advantage.
“Health, depth, then possibly implementation of, I would say, the best players at the best time … will have a lot to do with our success defensively,” Mendenhall said.
Graduate transfers Josh Hayes (North Dakota State) and Anthony Johnson (Louisville) should bolster a secondary that returns redshirt senior safeties De’Vante Cross and Joey Blount. Cornerbacks Nick Grant and Darrius Bratton are expected to be in the mix for starting roles. Hayes and Johnson fit Mendenhall’s rule for adding graduate transfers.
“If I don’t think they can start, I won’t bring them,” Mendenhall said.
UVa’s coach expects significant competition within the secondary during fall practices.
Mendenhall also returns a strong offense led by an offensive line expected to be among the best in the ACC. The veteran group has a combined 109 career starts. Generating production from the running back position remains an area of need, but UVa feels confident with Brennan Armstrong under center.
The redshirt junior enters his second year as a starting quarterback after accounting for 23 total touchdowns and more than 2,600 yards in nine games in 2020. He feels more comfortable as a starter this offseason.