There’s an image from last fall’s regular-season finale at Virginia Tech that is etched in Virginia wide receiver Tavares Kelly’s subconscious.
It’s late in the first quarter of a scoreless game, and Kelly is in the slot. Action in the backfield and a little stutter step freeze the man lined up across from him and Kelly is all alone down the seam.
By the time the pass is thrown, there isn’t a defender within 10 yards, but it’s a little under thrown and he can’t bring it in.
Lying on the field in Lane Stadium and looking up at a sea of maroon-clad fans as a sure touchdown evaporated into thin air, all Kelly could do was clutch his helmet in his hands.
Senior wide receiver Joe Reed said they didn’t dwell on the moment the following week when the receivers gathered for film study. They didn’t have to because it was all he could think about.
“When it first happened, obviously I watched it a million times because I expect better for myself,” Kelly said. “I was hard on myself at first but I realized you don’t get anywhere if you don’t learn from it. So, I wiped the negativity away and just focused on helping the team.”
Quarterback Bryce Perkins said it didn’t shake his confidence in the speedy sophomore from Miami and he made sure to let him know.
“I told him ‘We can be great. We just have to keep our head down and work,’” Perkins said. “I expect him to have a great year.”
As the Cavaliers prepared Friday for their first practice of fall camp, Perkins confirmed Kelly and Reed are the leading candidates to replace Olamide Zaccheaus, who operated primarily out of the slot and led the team last season with 93 receptions. But Perkins also said added bodies will allow the offense to take a more multifaceted approach to the passing game.
“We have a lot more guys, a lot more depth at receiver,” Perkins said. “Guys have gotten so much better and expanded their roles, so it’s going to be all over the place as to who gets touches.”
The additions of graduate transfers Terrell Chatman and Dejon Brissett and a big, athletic freshman class give the Cavaliers more options. Reed also is joined by fellow returning starter Hasise Dubois and junior Terrell Jana, who seems poised to see more snaps.
However many passes he sees, Kelly spent the offseason focused on the little things that don’t show up on a box score. Things like selling fakes and exploding through the end of routes. What he isn’t doing is putting pressure on himself by thinking he alone has to fill Zaccheaus’ shoes.
“We’re all working on the little things to get better as a team,” Kelly said. “We’re working as a team to fill that role rather than putting it on one person. All the receivers have things we can do great, and we just have to keep pushing each other.”
Kelly appeared in all 13 games but finished his freshman season with 10 catches for 121 yards and didn’t find the end zone. He and Perkins have been putting in extra work three or four times a week, though, and the veterans on the roster say he’s poised to drastically improve those numbers.
“He’s matured a lot,” Dubois said. “He’s not a first-year anymore, and every time he steps on the field he wants to get better.”