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Lacking depth for spring game, Virginia football’s open practice opens eyes

Virginia Coach Bronco Mendenhall named Bryce Perkins, a transfer from Arizona State, the Cavaliers’ starter at QB after Saturday’s open practice. (Bill Sikes/Associated Press)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Were circumstances ideal, Virginia Coach Bronco Mendenhall would have directed a simulated game Saturday to wrap up spring football workouts. But without the roster depth to make a game worthwhile, Mendenhall for a third straight year settled for an open practice at Scott Stadium in his ongoing efforts to get the program back to national prominence.

The assignment heading into next season comes with a litany of issues to address, most notably fortifying a defense that lost three impact players and installing an offense around a first-year starter at quarterback following the departure of Kurt Benkert, who holds multiple school passing records.

Enter junior Bryce Perkins, whom Mendenhall announced as the starter heading into training camp during his post-practice news conference.

“At this point, it’s his job to lose,” Mendenhall said. “He has moved the team most effectively, and I think not only does he have the coaches’ trust, but he has the team’s trust.”

Formerly at Arizona State and then Arizona Western College, Perkins is far more nimble than his predecessor. Perkins’s ability to run has charged offensive coordinator Robert Anae with developing an attack similar to what he and Mendenhall directed when they were at Brigham Young.

As he has done since the start of drills, Perkins, under the watchful eyes of Anae and quarterbacks coach Jason Beck, worked with the first team during the 15th and final practice of the spring in front of approximately 1,000 enjoying a sun-swept Saturday afternoon.

“These are always character-building springs when you lose your starting quarterback,” Anae said.

In the first series of 11-on-11 play, Perkins, operating out of the pistol formation, engineered a touchdown drive that included a screen pass to wide receiver Joe Reed that covered roughly 30 yards. (Statistics were not distributed to the media, and players did not wear numbers, making identification somewhat challenging.)

Several series later, Perkins attempted to complete a short out pass, but the ball was deflected and intercepted for the first turnover of the day. He also took a turn as a blocker after handing off on a run that went for five yards.

On one of the closing drives, Perkins darted through the middle of the defense on a designed run for 25 yards to score his only rushing touchdown of the afternoon. Moments later, Perkins delivered a back-shoulder pass to wide receiver Hasise Dubois in the left corner of the end zone, capping the scoring and giving the blue team a 75-63 win against the white team.

Perkins (6-foot-3 and 215 pounds) has been in Charlottesville since workouts commenced in January, and the coaching staff has offered rave reviews about his practice habits and dual-threat skills.

“That’s the challenge that I kind of mentioned to him as we broke practice: We ended spring at a certain level,” Beck said of Perkins. “When we come back in the fall, will we have slipped and kind of have to make up that ground, or will we stay the same, or will we be a little ahead?

“It takes a special player to improve the offense during the summertime when coaches aren’t around, and that’s just driven by how much [players] get together, they meet, they work out.”

Competing to back up Perkins are sophomore Lindell Stone and freshman Brennan Armstrong, a left-handed passer. Stone, who played briefly in one game as a freshman last season, has been taking snaps with the second unit and continued to so Saturday, with Mendenhall indicating he is a bit ahead of Armstrong on the depth chart.

“It’s a target on your back,” Perkins said of being named the starter. “It’s more pressure when you have the job than when you’re competing for the job because then you’ve got to do everything right. Everybody behind you is aiming to take the spot. Everybody is trying to get the number one spot.”

With the quarterback pecking order set, the other priority when the team resumes practice is to retool a defense that is without linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding, both all-ACC performers, as well as standout defensive lineman Andrew Brown.

Mendenhall said junior Jordan Mack slid over to Kiser’s inside linebacker spot, and senior Juan Thornhill is moving to Blanding’s free safety position.

Kiser (Los Angeles Rams) and Brown (Cincinnati Bengals) were selected in the fifth round of the NFL draft while the Cavaliers were in the middle of practice Saturday. The scoreboard posted the news, much to the delight of the fans.

“I’m thrilled,” Mendenhall said. “They just need an opportunity. I don’t get so caught up in the rounds. Neither surprises me. I had talked to the general manager of the Rams on opening day [of the draft], and I knew they liked him. And then specifically Andrew did really well on pro day, being worked out by the Bengals’ D-line coach.”

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