Like most, if not all, football teams this time of year, Virginia went into Saturday’s season opener at Pittsburgh with questions to answer.
Could the Wahoos beat the Panthers for the first time in four years? Could they pick up their first win in Heinz Field? Who, other than quarterback Bryce Perkins, would carry the load in the running game?
Virginia’s coaches spent the months leading up to Saturday’s 30-14 win pondering them all, but they knew they had to be realistic about one pressing concern. Who would carry former Cavalier Olamide Zaccheaus’ torch as Perkins’ go-to receiver?
“The thing I always loved about Olamide was his approach,” UVa wide receivers coach Marques Hagans said. “With certain players, you never replace them. You’ll find other guys, but there will never be another Olamide.”
It’s far too early to assume any of Virginia’s receivers will approach Zaccheaus’ 93 receptions from a year ago, but a hint of a go-to receiver was in the air Saturday at Heinz Field, a couple veterans picked up where they left off last season and a pair of new targets emerged.
Here’s three things we learned Saturday about Virginia’s passing attack.
1. And the new Zaccheaus is… Joe Reed?
Until the final weeks of last season, Joe Reed was consistently a shoestring tackle away from taking a kickoff the distance but on offense, he was an afterthought.
Not so on Saturday.
On Virginia’s first drive, Perkins targeted Reed four times and he came up with all four passes, including one that hung in the air and seemed destined to go out of bounds until he came up with a fingertip grab and managed to tap a toe on Pittsburgh’s 26-yard line.
On the first-half drives that followed, Reed looked a step faster than the Panthers’ defensive backs, and they were called for defensive pass interference on three more passes intended for the UVa senior.
In one instance, Pitt safety Damar Hamlin, who many see as a future NFL Draft pick, was beaten so badly that he had to make a choice: interfere or give up a touchdown.
Reed finished the game with a career-high seven receptions. Compared to a year ago, he was much more confident and decisive in his routes, which he said was a point of emphasis this offseason.
“Our receivers group as a whole went out with the DBs and got extra work three or four times a week,” Reed said. “We put an emphasis on the top of the route and releases, which should create more separation this year.”
2. Dubois and Chatman can play above the rim.
Think of a wide receiver corps like the starting five on a basketball team. You need your shifty, quick guards to run the offense, but it’s hard to win without big guys who can produce points in the post. Virginia’s Hasise Dubois (6-3, 215) and Terrell Chatman (6-3, 190) are those bigs.
Chatman, a graduate transfer from Arizona State, made his UVa debut Saturday and showed early on what he brings to the field. With pressure in his face, Perkins heaved a pass deep down the field in the second quarter and despite being surrounded by three Pitt defenders, Chatman out-leapt them all and came down with a 33-yard completion.
Dubois, a senior who caught 53 passes a year ago, isn’t known to be particularly fleet of foot, but in the first quarter, he caught a short pass, put a move on a defender and raced down the sideline for 27 yards. He finished with four receptions and scored his first touchdown of the season.
Expect Dubois and Chatman to compete for a lot of jump balls this season and for both of them to use their size to their advantage.
“If I go out there and be more physical than the guy in front of me, I feel like I’ve done my job,” Dubois said.
3. We have a tight end sighting.
The first time Virginia converted a first down in the 2019 season, it did so with a long reception by tight end Tanner Cowley. Perkins’ second pass of the game went down the seam to Cowley, who caught it in stride and moved the chains with a 19-yard gain.
Cowley caught just four passes last season while playing behind senior Evan Butts, who only caught 16. The tight end hasn’t been a regular target in Mendenhall’s and offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s system dating back to their days at BYU, but the fact that Perkins trusted Cowley so early in the game suggests that could change.
It’s hard to imagine Cowley posting eye-popping numbers this fall, but he may spend a little more time catching instead of blocking. That just gives Perkins another option, and in the passing game, options are never a bad thing.
Perhaps the scariest thing about Virginia’s passing attack on Saturday was that it, by no means, was at full strength. Slot receivers Tavares Kelly and Billy Kemp — two of the team’s fastest players — didn’t make the trip for disciplinary reasons, but Mendenhall expects them to play Friday night against William & Mary. Graduate transfer Dejon Brissett also didn’t make the trip as he continues his return from offseason foot surgery.