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Virginia’s three-quarterback experiment will continue against No. 15 North Carolina

Brennan Armstrong (5) is Virginia's starting quarterback but has shared time with Keytaon Thompson and Iraken Armstead over the past two games. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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The Virginia football team began this season of uncertainty amid the novel coronavirus pandemic with Brennan Armstrong as the first-year starting quarterback, marking what was to be a natural transition after he served as the backup to Bryce Perkins.

One sequence in the third game compelled Coach Bronco Mendenhall and the offensive staff to scrap those plans, at least for the immediate future, instead installing a rotation of three quarterbacks that continues to be in place with the Cavaliers (1-4) set to face 15th-ranked North Carolina (4-1) on Saturday night at Scott Stadium.

Virginia has lost four regular season games in a row for the first time since Mendenhall’s first season in Charlottesville in 2016.

“We’re trying to make sure that we’re not predicable by identity when players are at the position,” Mendenhall said. “We’re maximizing resources, right? We’re looking for every possible way to move the chains and score points with the resources we have.”

The unconventional approach took shape one game after Armstrong absorbed a blow to the helmet, drawing a targeting penalty, when he slid at the end of a run during the second quarter of a 38-21 loss to visiting North Carolina State on Oct. 10.

The sophomore left-hander missed the next game against Wake Forest while in the concussion protocol, and after replacement starter Lindell Stone was ineffective, Mendenhall turned to Keytaon Thompson and Iraken Armstead, both more agile runners, in an effort to spark the offense.

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Mendenhall remained committed to the three-quarterback model last weekend against No. 12 Miami with Armstrong cleared to play. Armstrong started the game at Hard Rock Stadium, and Thompson and Armstead also took snaps.

“Quarterback runs are really effective for us right now in terms of yards per carry and moving the chains,” Mendenhall said. “Being able to throw off those runs has to happen so we’re not predictable while we have the core of the offense still revolving around Brennan, to make sure that moves on.”

Armstrong ran 15 times for 91 yards in the 19-14 loss to the Hurricanes, and Thompson, a junior transfer from Mississippi State who also has lined up at wide receiver, ran for 24 yards on five carries. Armstead, a freshman, added four carries for 22 yards.

The rotation at quarterback is a significant departure for Mendenhall during his time at Virginia. For the past two years, Perkins had been a transformational figure, directing the Cavaliers to the Coastal Division title for the first time as well as the program’s first Orange Bowl berth.

During Mendenhall’s first two seasons, Kurt Benkert started 24 games and set the Virginia single-season record with 3,207 passing yards in 2017, his final year. The transfer from East Carolina also threw for a school single-game record 455 yards in 2017.

“You just have to adjust and adapt to what’s best for the team,” offensive coordinator Robert Anae said. “I think right now we’re to a point where we’re a better team with Brennan, and we had a real uphill sled without him. We look to continue to grow him there, but at the same time there are things other guys can do in that regard. Every week we’re in the process of putting it all together.”

Whether playing multiple quarterbacks routinely in the same game is viable over the longer term remains in question, according to ACC Network analyst and former Boston College quarterback Tim Hasselbeck.

The two-year starter for the Eagles recalled being removed in the second quarter of games in favor of Brian St. Pierre and later reinserted as part of then-coach Tom O’Brien’s rotation. O’Brien had been the offensive coordinator at Virginia from 1982 to 1996 and recruited St. Pierre.

A career backup in the NFL, Hasselbeck, who provided color commentary for Virginia-Miami last weekend, wound up starting more games as a professional than in college, where he never played a complete game.

“I hated it,” Hasselbeck said of sharing time at quarterback. “So there’s not a history of teams that have won a bunch of games [playing more than one quarterback], and in fairness to that stat, look, Virginia hasn’t won games playing three guys. I don’t think that’s the reason they haven’t won games, but they haven’t.”

Among the myriad concerns confronting Mendenhall under his quarterback system includes the division of first-team reps during practice. Armstrong takes the majority of those snaps, but the staff also must incorporate Thompson and Armstead without sacrificing overall offensive rhythm and timing.

Then there’s the psychological component regarding Armstrong, who was selected one of four team captains yet at times finds himself on the sideline despite having won the starting job in training camp, beating out Thompson in large part because of his familiarity with the offense.

“There’s this balance of we think this is helpful to us and maybe gives us our best chance to win a game on Saturday night,” Hasselbeck said. “But is it stunting the growth of the player that we’ve identified as the starting quarterback for us for the next few years? And I think that’s the dilemma.”

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