Week 1 Preview: Virginia

Photo by University of Virginia Athletics (@UVAFootball)

By Tucker Harlin

The Tennessee Volunteers begin their 2023 campaign with a trip to Nashville to face the Virginia Cavaliers in Nissan Stadium at 12 p.m. ET on Sept. 2. The Vols open up as a four-touchdown favorite over the Cavaliers.

The Vols and Cavaliers have met four times in the last century, and Tennessee won in three of the four meetings. The most recent meeting was a 23-22 escape for the Volunteers in the 1991 Sugar Bowl.

The expectations for Virginia heading into 2023 are not high. The Cavaliers were picked dead last in the ACC Media Poll ahead of the 2023 season. 

For Virginia, the 2022 season was one that no team should ever experience. The season ended abruptly in mid-November when three Virginia players were shot and killed by a former player following the Pittsburgh game. 

The Cavaliers finished 2022 at 3-7. Their first win was a 34-17 victory over Richmond in the opener, and the other two were low scoring affairs against Old Dominion and Georgia Tech down in Atlanta.

So what can we expect Virginia to look like come Sept. 2?

Offensively, the Cavaliers will have a completely different look than in 2022.

Brennan Armstrong, the Cavaliers’ quarterback and lead rusher in 2022, landed at NC State via the transfer portal. Additionally, backup quarterback Jay Woolfolk stepped away from the program to pursue his baseball career.

The wide receiver room was hit by graduation, the transfer portal, and was also unfortunately affected by last year’s tragedy. Gone is Virginia’s swiss army knife Keytaon Thompson. Dontayvion Wicks, the record holder for most receiving yards in a season at UVA, is now a Green Bay Packer. Lavel Davis, the #3 receiver in 2022, was one of the victims of the shooting last November. And finally, speedster Billy Kemp has joined forces with Matt Rhule and Nebraska.

Up front, Logan Taylor and guard John Paul Flores were lost to the portal. Derek Devine and Jonathan Leach, anchors on the right side of the offensive line in 2022, have also departed.

So who is returning on the Cavaliers offense in 2023?

For starters, Virginia’s three best running backs from a season ago: Mike Hollins, Perris Jones, and Xavier Brown.

At the line of scrimmage, there is a pair of trusty tight ends from a season ago in Grant Misch and Sackett Wood who will return to Virginia. On the offensive line, the Cavaliers welcome back center Ty Furnish and two key pieces on the left side in 2022, Noah Josey and McKale Boley.

While there are several key returnees on Virginia’s offense, it also adds high profile transfers in Tony Muskett, Kobe Pace, and Malik Washington.

Muskett will be the signal caller for Virginia in Nashville. Muskett spent three seasons up at Monmouth where he threw for 5,687 yards, 51 touchdown passes, and 16 interceptions. 

Kobe Pace is the likely starter at running back for the Cavaliers. Pace transfers in from Clemson, and Virginia head coach Tony Elliott was the Tigers’ offensive coordinator in Pace’s first year there. Pace was the understudy of both Travis Etienne and Will Shipley at Clemson, and he finished his three seasons as a Tiger with 793 rush yards and nine rush touchdowns.

Malik Washington makes his way to Charlottesville after a four-year stint with Northwestern. He was the Wildcats’ top receiver in 2022, finishing with 65 receptions for 694 yards and a score. Expect Washington to be Virginia’s top target this season.

While the offense looks patchy ahead of the season, the defense is the opposite of patchy.

At linebacker, the Cavaliers lost their Will linebacker Nick Jackson, their top tackler in 2022, to Iowa. At corner, Virginia lost Anthony Johnson and Fentrell Cypress, the top two pass deflectors in the ACC in 2022. 

The entire defensive line returns for UVA. There is an injury concern ahead of the opener about defensive end Chico Bennett. Bennett suffered a non-contact knee injury and was on crutches during fall camp. However, this Virginia defensive front runs deep, and Bennett’s backup Kam Butler has plenty of game experience.

Jonas Sanker and James Jackson return to their posts of Star and Mike linebacker in 2023, and Josh Ahern slides into the Will spot. Sanker and Jackson finished the season with the second and third most tackles on the team in 2022.

The Virginia secondary sees safeties Coen King and Antonio Clary return this fall, and the voids at corner are filled by Iowa State transfer Tayvonn Kyle and Clemson transfer Malcolm Greene.

While the defense returns the majority of its key pieces from 2022, so do the special teams. Punt returner Billy Kemp is the only true loss the Cavaliers stomach in the third and final phase of the game.

Kicker Will Bettridge will take over kicking full-time for the Cavaliers after splitting time last year with Brendan Farrell. Punter Daniel Sparks was named to the All-ACC First Team ahead of the 2023 season. Punt returner Demick Starling is back for another season for Virginia, and the Cavaliers may look to use Starling as a part of the offense’s pass attack.