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 in a couple weeks with ACC Media Days in Charlotte, North Carolina. Leading up to the event, we’ll feature 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 countdown continues with senior Joe Reed — one of the ACC’s top return specialists and, perhaps, Virginia’s top kick returner in program history. His 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the 2017 Military Bowl is the third-longest in program history. He has three career kick returns for touchdowns, which is also a UVa record.
Last season in the passing game, he showed flashes late in the year of the ability to be the consistent deep threat the coaches have been looking for. This fall, he’ll have to continue to grow in that area if it’s going to be him stretching defenses vertically instead of a pair of graduate transfers or one of several big, athletic freshmen.
Tale of the tape
Hometown: Charlotte Court House, Virginia
Last season: Ranked No. 2 in the ACC and No. 9 in the nation with 27.2 yards per kick return, and took one 90 yards for a touchdown against Liberty. He was also third on the team with 25 catches for 465 yards and his seven receiving touchdowns trailed only Olamide Zaccheaus, who had nine.
Depth at the position: For the third year in a row, Reed will be one of the team’s primary kick returners. The question is who else will cradle kicks? Sophomore Tavares Kelly is a safe bet. Fellow second-year Billy Kemp and graduate transfer Dejon Brissett will probably both get shots when they get healthy. Freshman Seneca Milledge and last season’s surprises, Chuck Davis and Perris Jones, are dark horses. Reed’s role in the passing game isn’t quite as clear. His speed will earn him some snaps on the outside as the Cavaliers continue to figure out how to threaten teams vertically, but not being a physical, big-bodied receiver like Hasise Dubois or Terrell Chatman, Reed is going to have some competition from more-polished route runners like Brissett and Terrell Jana.
Number to know: 27.4. Reed owns Virginia’s career kick return average record with 27.4 yards per return.
Outlook: Reed once again heads into the season as one of the ACC’s top return specialists. His yards per return were second in the conference last season only to Pitt’s Maurice Ffrench, who is also back for his senior year. Virginia Tech’s Terius Wheatley may also be in the running this fall after averaging 26.4 yards per return a year ago. Offensively, Virginia’s coaches hope Reed can rekindle the burst he showed late last season with two catches for 78 yards at Georgia Tech and four grabs for 119 yards and two touchdowns at Virginia Tech. He was limited to one catch for 10 yards in the Belk Bowl, though. Given the upswing in depth at the position, Reed’s offensive snap count in 2019 will rely on his ability to get separation in one-on-one situations and create explosive plays.
Best kick returner in UVa history?
Reed already owns just about every UVa kickoff return record, so this year is all about padding those stats. Last season against Pittsburgh, he passed Darius Jennings on the Cavaliers’ career kick return yardage list with 2,246. His 82 career kick returns are a program record, and the 29.7 yards per return he averaged in 2017 are a single-season record at Virginia.
In 2016, Reed was one of six true freshmen to start at least one game, and he ranked No. 3 in the ACC with 25.1 yards per return. As a sophomore in 2017, his 29.7 yards per return led the ACC and was No. 8 in the nation, and his 861 return yards that season are second in UVa single-season history only to Khalek Shepherd’s 929 in 2012. Reed has ranked among the ACC’s top three return specialists in each of his three seasons on Grounds.
Reed got used to putting up gaudy numbers at Randolph-Henry High School. Lining up at quarterback as a senior, he rushed for 2,100 yards and 38 touchdowns. He caught 15 touchdowns the year before, and as a sophomore, he hauled in 33 passes for 900 yards and totaled 21 touchdowns.
Reed was the best athlete on the field pretty much every Friday night, and he was Virginia’s first commitment in its 2016 class. He was also a big fish in a very small pond. Randolph-Henry competes in the Virginia High School League’s Class 2, and the school’s student population is less than 600, according to the VHSL. Questions always loom around athletes making the jump from such a small school to a Power 5 college football program. But the Wahoos have watched those kinds of players succeed, such as Juan Thornhill, who played at Class 1 Altavista High near Lynchburg, which houses 381 students, and is now a Kansas City Chief. Entering what will likely be his final year, it’s clear that Reed belongs among the most explosive players in the ACC. Now the question is can he make himself into a consistent receiving threat?