Pigskin Preview 2017
Ducibella Predicts which way the ball bounces on Virginia gridirons this season
University of Virginia
2016 in a word (or more): Dispiriting. Cavaliers won just two games in Bronco Mendenhall’s coaching debut, losing their final seven. “This is a massive change effort,” Mendenhall said. “It will require everything that I have, my coaches have and these players have, and [newcomers who] join us.”
2017 outlook: Better. Two stalwarts passed up the NFL draft to return to school. S Quin Blanding, a first-team All-ACC, has finished No. 2 in the ACC in tackles three seasons in a row, twice behind the other returning star, LB Micah Kiser. … Kiser’s 134 total stops in ’16 ranked No. 2 in the nation and tied for the fourth-most single-season tackles in program history. … QB Kurt Benkert took every snap of Virginia’s final spring practice and seems a lock to start. Benkert played much of the season with an injured left shoulder. Still, he completed 228 of 406 passes for 2,552 yards and 21 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions. … Nine true freshmen played for UVA last year: CB Bryce Hall, LB Landan Word, LB Jordan Mack, T Juwan Moye, OLB Matt Terrell and S Chris Moore on defense; and WRs Joe Reed, Hasise Dubois and Cole Blackman on offense. The experience gained should be invaluable the second time around. … Special teams look strong, most notably Reed, who ranked among the ACC leaders in kickoff returns with a 25.1-yard average.
Circle the date: The home schedule is anything but loaded with instant classics, but the Cavaliers will play host to Virginia Tech on Nov. 24.
Prediction: Patience, Cavalier fans, and remember: A four- to five-win season would be a vast improvement.
2016 in a word (or more): Memorable. The Hokies won 10 games, claimed the ACC’s Coastal Division title and rallied from 24 points down to beat Arkansas in the Belk Bowl. In his first year in Blacksburg, Justin Fuente was named ACC coach of the year.
2017 outlook: Murky. “We’ve got a huge challenge,” Fuente said last spring. “We’ve got a bunch of guys coming back. Obviously, we’ve got a bunch of holes to fill, or concentrate on filling.” The biggest one of those is at QB, where Jerod Evans (4,400 yards, 41 touchdowns) unexpectedly bolted for the NFL (where he wasn’t drafted and was waived by Philadelphia in May). … Redshirt freshman Josh Jackson, true freshman Hendon Hooker and junior college transfer A.J. Bush were battling for the starting spot. Bush’s numbers at Iowa Western in 2016 weren’t dazzling: 10 games played, 602 yards passing and three touchdowns. Bush also rushed 89 times for 265 yards and five scores. … Five other offensive starters must be replaced, including NFL draftees Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges. … Tech, a top-20 defensive team nationally last year, is more stable on that side of the ball. Seven starters return, led by LBs Tremaine Edwards and Andrew Motuapuaka and DBs Terrell Edmunds and Brandon Facyson. … Stats that must improve: Tech ranked just 55th nationally in rushing offense last season (183.1 yards per game) and the Hokies tied for 117th out of 128 schools in turnover margin. “We’ve got to take care of the football better, and we’ve got to do a better job of taking it away as well,” Fuente admitted.
Circle the date: Sept. 30, defending national champion Clemson comes to Lane Stadium.
Prediction: The opener against West Virginia is at a neutral site. Games with Clemson, North Carolina, Duke and Pitt are at home. That sets up VT nicely for nine or 10 wins.
2016 in a word (or more): Amazing. No one expected 10 victories, including the Bahamas Bowl, from coach Bobby Wilder’s team.
2017 outlook: Uncertain. Monarchs go into the season with no experienced QB and may rely on walk-on Blake LaRussa. … Tons of other offensive talent, starting with RB Ray Lawry (consecutive 1,000-yard seasons), one of The Sporting News’ top-25 backs. … WR Jonathan Duhart (Midlothian) is a top threat (48 catches 758 yards). … Strong defense, especially along the line.
Circle the date: The Monarchs host North Carolina on Sept. 16.
Prediction: A seven-win season would be a worthy accomplishment.
Football Championship Subdivision
University of Richmond
2016 in a word (or more): Steady & strong. Appearances in the FCS playoffs are becoming the norm.
2017 outlook: New coach Russ Huesman, a former Spider assistant, got a welcome-home gift of 14 starters from last season’s 10-win club, plus his kicker and punter. The key is how well three players recovered from 2016 season-ending knee injuries: QB Kyle Lauletta, who led the CAA in passing with 24 TDs, and RBs Gordon Collins and Xavier Goodall. … Huesman plans to change to a 4-2-5 defense, a major adjustment.
Circle the date: Nov. 18 vs. William & Mary in the annual Capital Cup game.
Prediction: 10 wins again in sight.
2016 in a word (or more): Superb. 14-1 records and national championships usually are.
2017 outlook: Dukes return 12 starters from last year, including All-Americans (QB) Bryan Schor, (OT) Aaron Stinnie (6-5, 310 pounds) and (S) Raven Greene (six interceptions). … Juniors Cardon Johnson, recovering from Achilles surgery, and Trai Sharp, who averaged six yards per carry, should nicely replace record-setting RB Khalid Abdullah. … The defense that held Youngstown State to 21 yards rushing in the title game – 250 below its average – figures to be formidable again if the spring game is any indication (four forced turnovers).
Circle the date: Nov. 11, vs. CAA rival Richmond.
Prediction: The tools are there for coach Mike Houston and the Dukes to make another deep playoff run.
William & Mary
2016 in a word (or more): Disappointing. When a team places eight players on first-, second- or third-team all-conference, it shouldn’t end the season with a 5-6 record.
2017 outlook: Finding replacements for QB Steve Cluley, RB Kendall Anderson and massive OT Jerry Ugokwe won’t be easy. Redshirt freshman Ted Hefter appeared to have the upper hand at QB in the spring, while redshirt sophomore Albert Funderburke was superb at RB in ’16 until a season-ending injury. … Junior LB Shamir Bearfield is likely the Tribe’s biggest playmaker on defense.
Circle the date: Oct. 21, Homecoming vs. defending FCS champion James Madison.
Prediction: Bounce-back year for coach Jimmye Laycock’s Tribe with seven wins.
2016 in a word (or more): Special. Jackets finished 9-1 and as ODAC champs.
2017 outlook: Jackets need to replace three All-Americans; fortunately RB Tre Frederick returns. Frederick was first in the ODAC and ninth in the nation with 1,387 rushing yards.
Circle the date: Nov. 11, vs. Hampden-Sydney
Prediction: Coach Pedro Arruza has won 74 games, second-most in school history. The success continues.
2016 in a word (or more): Ugh. Tigers finished an uncharacteristic 3-7.
2017 outlook: Sophomore LB Bender Vaught (79 tackles, 51 solo) and junior TE Patrick Kline (29 catches, 382 yards) are returning All-ODAC performers. … QB Alec Cobb threw 19 TDs – but 14 interceptions.
Circle the date: Homecoming, Oct. 14, vs. Apprentice
Prediction: 51 freshmen or sophomores on ’16 roster. Coach Marty Favret’s team improves in ’17.
2016 in a word (or more): Wow. First-year coach Reggie Barlow took Trojans to 9-2 record.
2017 outlook: Returning RB Trenton Cannon rushed for 1,214 yards and added another 450 in kickoff returns. … LB Brandon Lynch was first-team All-CIAA. … VSU outrushed opponents by more than 2-to-1 last year. … Depth on the offensive line is a concern.
Circle the date: Nov. 4, vs. Virginia Union
Prediction: Strong program stays strong with eight wins.
2016 in a word (or more): OK. Mark James’s Panthers were 5-5.
2017 outlook: In ’16, Lavatiae Kelly, a 6-2 senior, made All-CIAA at WR, kick and punt returner. … Departed RB William Stanback and QB Shawheem Dowdy combined for 3,359 of VUU’s 3,920 total yards. How to replace that?
Circle the date: Sept. 16, vs. Winston-Salem State, the inaugural Willard Bailey Classic.
Prediction: Five wins might be the max.
Jim Ducibella covered the Washington Redskins, college football and basketball, and golf during 27 years at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk before leaving in 2008. Author of two books, including the 2012 golf book of the year, King of Clubs: The Great Golf Marathon of 1938, Ducibella is a seven-time Virginia sportswriter of the year and 2010 inductee into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. He writes for the College of William & Mary’s website.