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New Virginia football coach Tony Elliott has players buying in early

Virginia Coach Tony Elliott got a chance to speak as a head coach for the first time at ACC media days. (Nell Redmond/AP)

CHARLOTTE — Virginia’s Tony ­Elliott arrived at ACC football media day wearing custom sneakers in school colors with “heart” painted on the outer soles, a reminder of the message he continues to pass along to his players in his first job as a head coach.

The word carries special meaning for Elliott, who leaned far more on will than skill when he was a walk-on wide receiver at Clemson, where he most recently served as offensive coordinator for the ACC’s premier power.

So important is determination to Elliott that during his first team meeting in Charlottesville he distilled the mission of the program into a mantra emphasizing heart as the Cavaliers embark on their final season in the Coastal Division before the ACC disbands its two-division structure next year.

“Serving the heart, not the talent,” Elliott said Thursday. “Now that is a phrase that’s sometimes said at Clemson, but that came from me in a devotion, but it goes even deeper than that. As a player, I played from my heart because I wasn’t as talented as everybody else. You can’t measure heart, but I wanted to create an environment where you can articulate what it means to have heart.”

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The philosophy resonated especially with some of the more experienced players who came back this season, including wide receiver Keytaon Thompson. The sixth-year graduate student and Elliott have grown close in part because they share the bond of having played the same position.

But Thompson immediately took to Elliott after repeated stories about how he had overcome obstacles in his personal life to reach the highest levels of the sport. Thompson has been through much of the same on the field; he has played three positions since he transferred from Mississippi State.

He’s settling in at wide receiver permanently this season as part of a potent group that includes Dontayvion Wicks, who set the school’s single-season yardage record last season, and Lavel Davis Jr., a 6-foot-7 junior who missed last season with an ACL injury.

“One of the first things he mentioned was serving your heart, not your talent, and that kind of meant a lot to me,” Thompson said. “I could tell that he meant it and it was genuine. A lot of coaches around the country would totally disregard someone if their talent was lacking. I don’t see any of that with Coach Elliott.”

Cavaliers fifth-year senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong has developed a similar relationship with Elliott while learning a new playbook. The record-setting left-hander is set to direct an offense that more closely resembles a pro style as opposed to spread or tempo that has become popular in the college game.

Armstrong owns virtually every meaningful passing record in school history and fell 144 yards short of matching the ACC’s single-season record for passing, which Clemson’s Deshaun Watson set in 2016.

Armstrong almost certainly would have established a record if he had been able to play in the season-ending Fenway Bowl, but the Cavaliers withdrew because of coronavirus cases in their locker room.

“Even though this is his first year head coaching, he understands everything,” Armstrong said. “We have great leaders, I think. We have a lot of older guys who can relay his message to our team and hold our teammates accountable through us, too. I think that’s a huge deal. He’s been preaching that a lot to us.”

Elliott took over the program following the resignation of Bronco Mendenhall at the end of last season. The stunning announcement came a week after the Cavaliers lost to Virginia Tech, 29-24, at Scott Stadium, marking the 17th time in 18 meetings they failed to capture the Commonwealth Cup.

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A week later, Cavaliers Athletic Director Carla Williams hired Elliott, a captain during his senior season at Clemson, where Tigers Coach Dabo Swinney was his position coach in 2003. He was officially introduced Dec. 13.

Elliott served on Swinney’s staff for the past 11 seasons and in 2021 was elevated to assistant head coach and solo offensive coordinator. He had been co-offensive coordinator from 2014 to 2020 as well as running backs coach from 2011 to 2020.

Since Elliott became co-offensive coordinator, the Tigers led or ranked second in the ACC in total offense five times. In 2017, Elliot received the Frank Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in college football.

“I told him he needs to take the job,” Swinney said. “I told him this is the right one. I felt like he was a great fit for Virginia, and I felt like Virginia was a great fit for Tony and his family. He has turned down several head jobs over the last few years, but I felt like Virginia was the right fit for him. As far as how prepared he is, he is incredibly prepared.”