The Virginia football team is coming off its first eight-win season since 2011 and a dominant performance in the Belk Bowl against South Carolina. Add to that the Cavaliers’ highest-rated recruiting class since 2014 and it’s easy to see how expectations in Charlottesville are at a level unmatched by any UVa football team in the past decade.
The unofficial transition from summer to fall begins Wednesday with ACC Media Days in Charlotte. Leading up to the event, we’re featuring 19 UVa players to watch in 2019. Some are familiar names. Some are new. All are expected to play massive roles in Virginia’s continued rebuild this season.
The top player to watch this season is the man who burst onto the scene last season and immediately rewrote Virginia’s record books and took the offense to a level the Cavaliers haven’t seen in years, senior quarterback Bryce Perkins.
After sitting out the 2015 season at Arizona State as a redshirt and the 2016 season with an injury, Perkins transferred to Arizona Western Community College, where he helped lead the Matadors to the 2017 junior college national championship game.
Now in his second season in Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s system, he has a chance to lift the team to a win total not seen in Charlottesville in more than a decade and become the first Cavalier to hoist college football’s top award.
Tale of the tape
Hometown: Queen Creek, Arizona
Last season: Perkins and Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray were the only two players in the country with more than 2,600 passing yards and 900 rushing yards. He finished third in the ACC and set Virginia’s single-season record with 3,603 yards of offense and 34 total touchdowns. His 25 passing touchdowns are tied with Kurt Benkert (2017) for No. 2 on the program’s single-season list, and he set the Cavaliers’ single-season mark with four 100-yard rushing games.
» Depth at the position: Freshman Brennan Armstrong looked impressive in limited action while retaining his redshirt year. Against Louisville, he showed off his athleticism with a 34-yard sprint. With Perkins on the sideline with a finger injury against Georgia Tech, Armstrong’s first career touchdown pass went to Joe Reed, who covered 56 yards. Lindell Stone is technically a sophomore because he took a redshirt year after not appearing in any games last season, but he’s in his third year in the program, and he looked comfortable leading the offense in the spring game.
Number to know: 74.6. As a senior, Perkins set the Arizona high school record for completion percentage after finishing the 2014 season at 74.6 percent. He finished that fall at Chandler High School with 3,001 passing yards, 46 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Last season, Perkins completed 64.5 percent of his passes, which ranked No. 3 on Virginia’s single-season list.
Outlook: The scariest part about how good Perkins looked last season is that with just 13 starts as a Division I quarterback, he is just beginning to fully tap into his potential. He’s explosive and his straight line speed and wiggle are impressive at his size. He has the frame to take the punishment that often comes with being a dual-threat guy, and both his decision making and accuracy in the passing game improved in the latter half of last season. Perkins joins Louisville’s Malik Cunningham and Duke’s Quentin Harris as the most athletic quarterbacks in the ACC. Harris put up impressive numbers through the air in limited action last season, but Perkins is certainly more advanced as a passer than Cunningham. More records may fall this season at Virginia, and whether it’s through the draft or as a free agent, Perkins will find himself in an NFL camp next summer.
Perkins showed last season that he has the potential to be one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC. This fall, he has a chance to lead the Cavaliers to a season with more than eight wins for the first time since 2007 and to three-straight bowl games for the first time since Virginia went to four in a row between 2002 and 2005. With that kind of impact and eye-popping numbers, Perkins also has the chance to be the first Heisman Trophy winner in program history. Of course, he’ll have some stiff competition for college football’s top honor.
Two of this year’s top Heisman contenders also reside in the ACC, and they happen to share a backfield. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence has already been anointed a once-in-a-lifetime talent, and he’s the preseason favorite to take the trophy home. Clemson running back Travis Etienne put up 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns last season, and he’s one of the top non-quarterback candidates. He’s joined by Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, who led the nation with 2,194 rushing yards and won the Doak Walker Award.
Quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), Jake Fromm (Georgia), Sam Ehlinger (Texas) and Justin Herbert (Oregon) all have the talent, name recognition and supporting casts to also find themselves in the Heisman hunt.
Perkins finished his first fall on Grounds with 2,680 passing yards and 923 rushing yards. He was fewer than 80 rushing yards from becoming the first player in Virginia history to post more than 1,000 yards in both categories in a single season.
Shawn Moore (1987-90) and Bill Dudley (1940-41) are the only quarterbacks in program history with more than 1,000 career rushing yards. Before Perkins came along, Moore was the closest to joining the 1,000-and-1,000 club. In 1989, he posted 2,078 passing yards and 505 on the ground.
In 2005, current UVa wide receivers coach Marques Hagans put up 2,492 passing yards and 310 rushing.
Whether he crossed both 1,000-yard thresholds or not, chances are that Perkins will leave Grounds as the top rushing quarterback in program history.