Getting the band back together is an age-old sentiment that makes for entertaining movies. (See “The Blues Brothers,” “This Is Spinal Tap” and others.)
It doesn’t always end happily, though. (See every episode of “Behind the Music”).
The University of Virginia’s football team announced this week that it will try its hand at a 2021 reunion tour. Nine seniors who would normally have played their final college game will take advantage of a one-time COVID-19-inspired NCAA waiver and use an extra year of eligibility.
The plan could have immediate benefits for a rebuilding program that finished 5–5 in 2020, winning four straight games before being thumped by Virginia Tech 33–15 in its season finale. The Cavaliers declined to be considered for a bowl bid.
The seniors’ collective decision means Virginia likely will field one of college football’s most experienced teams next fall. It’s unlikely the Cavaliers will challenge league kingpin Clemson, but familiarity might make a difference in close games.
Long-term effects are uncertain. Will the glut of fifth-year players deprive younger prospects of valuable playing time? How will coach Bronco Mendenhall manage his roster? Will the cost of nine more scholarships be an issue in a year in which every school has had to tighten its belt due to declining revenue?
It’s worth noting that none of Virginia’s returning graybeards were locks to get even an invitation to NFL camps next summer. The Cavaliers’ most prominent senior, linebacker Charles Snowden, earlier announced that he’s preparing to become a likely draft pick and rehabbing the broken ankle that cut short his final season. Other key seniors—linebacker Zane Zandier, receiver Terrell Jana, tight end Tony Poljan and offensive lineman Dillon Reinkensmeyer—also apparently declined to stay.
And three of Virginia’s returnees (Courtland High School graduate Nick Grant, Da’Vante Cross and Joey Blount) started in a secondary that ranked last in the Atlantic Coast Conference in pass defense. Experience and continuity should make them better, but it’s fair to ask how high their upside may be. And with former Louisville cornerback Anthony Johnson announcing this week he plans to transfer to Virginia, someone is likely to lose playing time.
Offensive linemen Ryan Nelson and Chris Glaser announced they will return, which means fourth-fifths of Virginia’s starting blockers could be back. That’s good news for sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who developed as the 2020 season progressed. Receiver Ra’Shaun Henry’s return should help mitigate the graduations of Jana and Poljan, two of Armstrong’s favorite targets in 2020.
And aside from receiver Ladel Davis Jr., Mendenhall rarely recruits players who make instant impacts as true freshmen. Only two of Virginia’s 24 signees last week received even four stars from 247Sports.com, so their development will take time. With veterans in front of them, they don’t need to be rushed.
Will all this experience help the Cavaliers accelerate the gradual upward trend they’ve made in Mendenhall’s five seasons? It shouldn’t hurt—especially since many of the ACC’s best underclassmen have declared for the draft.
Virginia Tech, which played the entire season without star cornerback Caleb Farley, a surefire first-round pick, also saw tackle Christian Darrishaw and breakout running back Khalil Herbert forgo their eligibility. Miami defensive end Jaelan Phillips, Florida State cornerback Asante Samuel Jr., Wake Forest defensive end Carlos Basham Jr., Pittsburgh safety Paris Ford and Louisville running back Javian Hawkins and receiver Tutu Atwell are all turning pro.
That’s a lot of talent for Virginia’s rivals to replace. The Cavaliers won’t have nearly as many holes to fill. But whether the reunion produces sweet music or sour notes remains to be seen.
Steve DeShazo: 374-5443