Wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr., a 6-foot-7 sophomore, is out at least until November after he tore his ACL during spring practice. Last season he led the ACC and was second nationally in yards per catch (25.8). Wide receiver Terrell Jana and tight end Tony Poljan graduated.
After two games, the undefeated Cavaliers instead have the most potent offense in the ACC thanks in part to multiple players moving into other positions. That versatility includes quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who lined up at wide receiver and caught a pass in Saturday’s 42-14 win over Illinois.
“We just have a lot of playmakers all over the place, and I really feel like we can be a special offense this year with the plethora of weapons that we have,” said Cavaliers senior Keytaon Thompson, who is listed as a quarterback and wide receiver but also has lined up as a running back.
Virginia is averaging 550.5 yards heading into Saturday night’s game at No. 21 North Carolina (1-1, 0-1), which led the ACC in total offense last season behind quarterback Sam Howell, widely considered a top NFL prospect.
Armstrong certainly did not have the acclaim or the résumé of Howell over the past several years. The junior, however, leads the ACC in several passing statistics, including touchdown passes (seven), yards per game (372) and passing efficiency (196.4).
The left-hander is coming off a career-best performance in which he threw for 405 yards and five touchdowns on 27-for-36 passing. He became the third Virginia quarterback to throw for 400 yards in a game, with his total against the Illini the fourth most in program history.
Armstrong missed a game last year while in the concussion protocol after he absorbed a blow to the helmet while attempting to slide. His absence compelled Mendenhall to rethink how best to handle the position moving forward.
So this season he has put several players with quarterbacking experience on the field, in some instances at the same time. Included in that mix are Armstrong, Thompson and Iraken Armstead, a redshirt freshman who was one of four players to take snaps at quarterback last year.
Mendenhall prefers to call them football players instead of quarterbacks.
“I’ll put it this way,” Mendenhall said. “A lot of other players that we’re bringing in are quarterbacks, and I’ve already kind of articulated not just regular quarterbacks but great athletes at quarterback. … When Brennan got hurt, that just doubled down on our direction of putting more quarterbacks on the field.”
The inspiration came from when Mendenhall was the coach at BYU and Taysom Hill was his quarterback. Hill ran the ball plenty with the Cougars and has lined up at wide receiver in certain packages with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints.
Ten players caught passes against Illinois, underscoring the versatility of the Cavaliers’ offense. Most productive was tight end Jelani Woods, a 6-7, 265-pound transfer from Oklahoma State who served primarily as a blocker last year.
Given Woods’s length and the mismatch problems he presents, offensive coordinator Robert Anae was intent on incorporating him into the passing game. The result was a personal-best 122 receiving yards, the most by a Virginia tight end since 2005. His previous high was 54 last year.
Armstrong also connected with sophomore wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks twice for touchdowns. It was the first two-touchdown performance by a Cavaliers wide receiver since Davis’s in last year’s opener. Wicks, who missed last season with an injury during fall camp, finished with three catches for 69 yards.
Wayne Taulapapa, a running back, caught a three-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter for Virginia’s final points. It was the first receiving touchdown of the senior’s career.
“I just think it starts with the quarterback,” Anae said. “And how the quarterback plays is a big part of the entire team’s success. That’s what you sign up for when you’re the starting quarterback, that pressure. That’s part of the deal.”