CHARLOTTESVILLE — A year ago, Ruffin McNeill told the 20-year-old quarterback he had recruited out of high school that football wasn’t everything. But it was less than a week before East Carolina’s season opener, and the Pirates’ starting signal caller had just had his meniscus stitched together. He was also the owner of a brand new right anterior cruciate ligament that had to be made out of his hamstring. Kurt Benkert was not in the mood to be comforted.
McNeill tried something else. The head coach promised Benkert the injury that robbed him of his first chance to be a starter would become “just another chapter in his story,” something people might later skim over on the way to the good stuff.
Neither Benkert nor McNeill were thinking of those conversations when they passed each other in the hallway of Virginia’s football offices last week on the day Benkert was announced as the Cavaliers’ starting quarterback. McNeill, fired by East Carolina in December, had been Virginia’s assistant head coach for eight months. Benkert, who transferred to Virginia four months after McNeill arrived, had since ditched the East Carolina-purple knee brace in favor of one more Charlottesville-friendly.
“Love you, boy,” McNeill said, boarding an elevator on the way to afternoon meetings.
Benkert looked up from the phone in his hand in time to catch McNeill’s gaze. “Love you too,” he called.
Just over a year after his season-ending knee surgery, Benkert will help kick off the Bronco Mendenhall era at Virginia with a game against Richmond at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. Benkert will lead a team desperate to get to a bowl game and finish better than sixth in the seven-team ACC Coastal division, neither of which has happened at Virginia since 2011. The Cavaliers finished a dismal 4-8 (3-5 ACC) in 2015.
Those painful seasons will be fuel for the Cavaliers players who have been there. What motivates Benkert is more what motivates McNeill, Mendenhall and the rest of the new coaching staff: the desire for a fresh start and the chance to create something consistently good.
“Being a part of the whole process of changing the direction the program was going, it’s exciting,” Benkert said. “It’s the first year Coach Mendenhall is here. I’m just really glad that I’m a part of it.”
The 6-foot-4, 230 pounder will be the ninth quarterback to start a Virginia season opener in the past decade, and Mendenhall is hoping this one sticks. A graduate-student transfer with the eligibility of a junior and a memorable arm, Benkert beat out seniors Matt Johns, Virginia’s incumbent starter, and Connor Brewer for the first-string job.
He allows Virginia a true reset, and he is the closest of the three to the type of dual-threat quarterback Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae prefer to work with in their speedy offense, derived from the Air Raid scheme that has powered such high-scoring attacks as Oklahoma, Texas Tech, TCU, North Carolina and Washington State.
But like with Mendenhall, there are doubts about how Benkert will perform at this level. Mendenhall won 10 games or more in five of his 11 seasons at Brigham Young but went 6-15 against ranked opponents. This year, he’ll be tested against Oregon, defending division winner North Carolina and Louisville.
Benkert, a Baltimore native who split his childhood between Maryland and Florida, hasn’t started a game since his senior year of high school.
In that regard, at least, Virginia isn’t worried.
“One good thing about Kurt is he doesn’t lack any confidence at all,” said Micah Kiser, a junior linebacker and one of three team captains. “That’s what you want from your quarterback — from the second he got on the field he was like, ‘I’m going to light this sucker up.’ He had the ability to be that guy from the first day of practice.”
Benkert arrived in Charlottesville in the spring intent on becoming a starter. He put in work over the summer to reach Mendenhall’s strict physical requirements and earn the respect of his new teammates.
That meant workouts with any player who was around and throwing by himself between classes at the Curry School of Higher Education. He got to the football offices as early as 7 a.m. during the summer.
Benkert’s professionalism endeared him to Mendenhall even more. The late addition proved to be a perfect fit in the new coach’s program.
“I’m not going to call it a seamless transition, but it’s close,” Mendenhall said of Benkert’s acclimation in Charlottesville. “. . . Kurt came wanting a challenge, and he came wanting an opportunity, and he came wanting to do hard things. So, man, when a player comes with that mind-set already — really, anything we’ve been able to throw at him, he’s just smiled and said, ‘That’s why I’m here.’
“Coach Ruff really deserves a lot of credit for the training Kurt received, and the preparation he received, and probably for him even being at U-Va. The staff calls Ruff our most valuable coach because of Kurt.”
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