Virginia football training camp preview: What's in store for the Cavaliers?

Ahead of his second training camp in charge at Virginia, Hoos coach Tony Elliott knows his team understands this much.
That, “there’s a certain quality of work and investment in the process of preparation to have an opportunity to win come Saturdays,” he said last week. And this time around, his expectation is the Cavaliers better comprehend how to approach the month of August up to their Sept. 2 season-opening contest against Tennessee with that in mind.
There’s no more trying to figure out what Elliott and his assistants demand. Players already know.
“It definitely will be a much easier movement pattern,” Elliott said. “So, we’ll be able to not spend as much time on the fundamentals of how we structure practice and the expectations of the tempo of practice because everyone has a better understanding.
“Now, rushing into Game 1, we can’t do that,” he continued, “because you can’t move too fast. … You have the ability to be really, really present in the moment and take full advantage of the opportunity in front of you because that’s what football is. Throughout the process of preparation, did you really invest in the moment to do what you needed to do to be able to recall it when it comes time? We don’t want to skip steps, but now we can get rid of the other things that are no longer slowing guys down.”
UVa has an appreciation to be able to practice daily again, too, Elliott said and his players echoed, because of what they went through in losing three teammates during the horrific shooting on Grounds this past November.
And in the lead up to the new campaign, they’d like to do right by Lavel Davis Jr., D’Sean Perry and Devin Chandler, the former Cavaliers who lost their lives.
“Us being here and being able to play again,” running back Mike Hollins, a survivor of the tragedy, said, “and touching the field and coming together as a team is doing their legacy justice in itself. We don’t have to go out and overdo ourselves or overwork or go undefeated or win a championship to justify their legacy, but us showing up, waking up every day and returning to practice, the field and the locker room and being a team in their honor is doing their legacy really well.”
Hollins’ return to action and how he falls in the running back pecking order is one of the top storylines to track over the next few weeks. Here are some other items — team objectives, its biggest strength and players of note — as UVa embarks on its first practice slated for Wednesday afternoon.
Objectives for the Cavaliers
Solidify the O-Line: There’s plenty new with the Cavaliers’ offensive line. They have a first-year position coach in Terry Heffernan, who previously worked at Stanford and in the NFL, as well as three transfers who weren’t on the roster a season ago in Jimmy Christ (Penn State), Ugonna Nnanna (Houston) and Brian Stevens (Dayton).
Nnanna was a participant during spring and thrived at left guard, but Christ, a tackle, and Stevens, an interior player, didn’t change schools to sit on the bench. Heffernan has to figure out how it all fits together while correcting the issues the unit had last season and developing returning players like tackle McKale Boley and center Ty Furnish, too.
Virginia offensive line coach Terry Heffernan discusses the additions of Jimmy Christ and Brian Stevens to the O-Line plus an outlook of training camp.
“There are two things you always desire as an O-Line coach,” Heffernan said, “and they’re non-compatible. One is competition and the other is continuity and consistency, and we’re very much a heavy-competition lean this camp. Still got a ton to prove, new pieces and we’re having some guys come back off of injury like [guard] Noah Josey who wasn’t with us in the spring, and so there’s a whole bunch of guys I want to evaluate different places. So, we’re going to be shifting around.”
Enhance offensive cohesion: Last week at ACC Kickoff in Charlotte, running back Perris Jones said one of the major strides the Cavaliers made during spring drills was in their running game and run blocking, and he thought that upgrade had a lot to do with Heffernan.
“And I think with that comes a deeper understanding of the system and blocking scheme, too,” Jones said, “which the guys [on the O-Line] seem to have. But when I was running the ball this last spring, I’m like, ‘Oh wow. That’s how that’s supposed to look,’ so it’s definitely gotten better.”
He said they’ve got to continue on that path these next couple of weeks, though, if they’re going to improve on offense. UVa’s 17 points per game in 2022 were the sixth fewest nationally and the fewest in the ACC.
“It opens up Pandora’s box,” if UVa can run the ball this fall, Jones said. “There really is no limit to what we can do if we get that aspect fixed.”
Determine CB starters: With former All-ACC cornerbacks Anthony Johnson and Fentrell Cypress II moved on — Johnson to the NFL and Cypress to Florida State through the transfer portal — Virginia’s defensive coaches must figure out who will step into the two vacant cornerback spots.
Former Iowa State cornerback Tayvonn Kyle, who is entering his sixth college season, practiced with the Cavaliers this past spring but has more competition at the position now since UVa added Clemson transfer Malcolm Greene and SMU transfer Sam Westfall earlier this summer. Returners Elijah Gaines and Will Simpkins III could be in the mix also.
Biggest strength
D-Line depth, experience: UVa returns all four starters plus three key backups to its defensive line, giving the Hoos one of the better defensive fronts not only in their conference but, perhaps, nationally.
Defensive end Kam Butler has started 40 games in his career and appeared in 50 while fellow defensive end Chico Bennett Jr. was a breakout star a season ago in his return from injury as he tallied a team-best seven sacks. Defensive tackle Aaron Faumui has been in UVa’s program since 2018, and fellow tackle Jahmeer Carter might be one of the most important players on defense considering his ability to take on double teams and keep opposing offensive linement off linebackers.
Paul Akere can play end or tackle and Ben Smiley’s move from tackle to end gives Bennett and Butler a reliable backup off the bench. End Michael Diatta returns, too.
Three players with a pivotal camp ahead
Tony Muskett, QB: The transfer quarterback from Monmouth might’ve been gearing up for a full-bore battle for the Cavaliers’ starting job this month, but that’s not the case anymore. He’s the clear-cut option given the decision former two-sport athlete Jay Woolfolk made last month to walk away from football in order to concentrate on baseball.
Muskett said, though, he’s approached training camp in the same manner he would’ve had Woolfolk stuck around to compete for the quarterback gig.
“I always handle myself the same way,” Muskett said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m going into a quarterback competition, going to play Tennessee or just sitting in my house with my dog. Anything I do, I try to do with the best of my ability, so it’s all I can do and I try to do anything in my life that way.”
He has a chance to take ownership of the offense throughout the next three weeks and earn himself the complete respect of his teammates.
Malachi Fields, WR: UVa is in need of a top target for Muskett to emerge, and it could be former Monticello star Malachi Fields, who at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds is coming off a strong spring.
“You look at Malachi Fields,” Elliott said, “and he’s a young man that early on we identified that was going to be a contributor [last season], and then he injured his foot and he misses the majority of the season.”
Virginia’s Malachi Fields (8) dives for a touchdown against Pittsburgh during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Oct. 12, 2022.
The Daily Progress
Fields returned to full health in time to haul in his first-career touchdown against Pitt last November, showcasing the athletic attributes he has. A consistent August could put him in line to be a top receiver on the depth chart.
James Jackson, LB: Similar in the way Muskett can assert himself as a leader for the offense, James Jackson can do the same on defense. He might not have to take control because the Cavaliers have that extremely veteran defensive line, but it’s important for the unit to have a linebacker it can trust.
Jackson, who tallied 60 tackles and a sack last year, is the logical choice to fill the void following former Cavaliers linebacker Nick Jackson’s departure for Iowa.
Freshman to keep an eye on
Jaden Gibson, WR: Jones said freshman wide receiver Jaden Gibson picked up this summer where he left off in the spring and continued to make an impression on his older teammates. Gibson snagged a touchdown in the annual Blue-White Game after earning first-team reps by early April.
“He’s doing extremely well,” Jones said of Gibson.
At Rabun County High School in Georgia before arriving at UVa in January, Gibson set state records for career receiving yards (5,124), career touchdown receptions (59) and single-season touchdown receptions (29 in 2022).

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