RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Virginia and Virginia Tech began returning on campus in July. They’ve seen games cancelled, a new schedule released, and more games postponed, including one against each other. After the whirlwind that has been the last two and a half months, kickoff for both the Cavaliers and the Hokies has finally arrived.
The defending ACC Coastal Division champion Wahoos have had five different season opening opponents at one point or another. Saturday, barring any last minute COVID-19 snag, they’ll kick off at home against Duke in hopes of extending their winning streak over the Blue Devils to six. A victory, and Virginia would win back-to-back season openers over ACC opponents for the first time in program history. Duke enters with an 0-2 record, after losing to Notre Dame and Boston College. The Cavaliers have won eight straight games at Scott Stadium dating back to 2018.
UVA is faced with replacing quarterback Bryce Perkins, and Bronco Mendenhall is looking to Brennan Armstrong to take the reins of the offense. The redshirt sophomore is the first left handed starting QB for the Cavaliers since Hermitage graduate Jameel Sewell in 2009. He’ll have a good go-to target in senior wide receiver Terrell Jana, a 1,000 yard receiver who is 14 receptions away from 100 in his career.
Highland Springs product Billy Kemp also looks to burst onto the scene, after UVA lost players who accounted for 16 of its 23 receiving touchdowns a year ago. Kemp earned a starting wide receiver spot on the depth chart and is eying big things in 2020. The former Springer pulled in 35 receptions for 289 yards and a touchdown a year ago.
Wayne Taulapapa leads the running back corps as a junior, coming off a season that saw him find the endzone 12 times. Those dozen scores are the most rushing touchdowns ever by a UVA sophomore and were good enough for fourth in the ACC in 2019.
Meadowbrook’s D’Angelo Amos and Hopewell’s Ronnie Walker have also joined the Wahoos as transfers. The defensive back Amos came to UVA from James Madison, while Walker, a running back, transferred from Indiana, though he is still seeking a waiver for immediate eligibility.
The Cavaliers have a good group back defensively, including Mandy Alonso and Richard Burney on the line, Charles Snowden, Noah Taylor and Zane Zandier at linebacker, and a strong defensive backfield that includes Brenton Nelson, Joey Blount, De’Vante Cross and Nick Grant.
While Virginia’s football program has not registered a positive COVID-19 test since July 24, Virginia Tech has struggled with the virus since students returned to campus. The Hokies were forced to postpone their scheduled Commonwealth Clash showdown with the Cavs originally set for last Saturday, and entered the week with some concern.
Virginia Tech welcomes NC State to Lane Stadium to get its 2020 slate going. The Wolfpack comes off a high scoring 45-42 win over Wake Forest to kick off its schedule. The Hokies have won four games in a row against the Pack, but the two teams have not faced each other since the 2015 campaign. Justin Fuente is 4-0 in home openers at the head of the program, and leads a team ranked 20th in the AP poll entering the season, 24th in the coaches' poll.
17 starters return for Tech, including quarterback Hendon Hooker. He won the starting job ahead of Oregon transfer Braxton Burmeister and Quincy Patterson, though head coach Justin Fuente expects Burmeister to play in some capacity. Hooker won his first six starts as the starter last season, and will have a talented group of receivers to help him. Tre Turner, James Mitchell and Tayvion Robinson provide strong targets for the redshirt junior.
Turner led the Hokies with 34 receptions and 553 yards in 2019, along with four touchdowns, Robinson pulled in 31 receptions for 404 yards and a score, while Mitchell served as more of a dual threat, tallying four rushing touchdowns to go along with 361 receiving yards and a pair of TD receptions. Virginia Tech also added Changa Hodge, a transfer from Villanova who amassed 1,118 receiving yards and 13 scores last season.
Keep an eye on the new, yet experienced names at running back. Raheem Blackshear and Khalil Herbert join the Hokie ranks, Blackshear from Rutgers and Herbert from Kansas. Blackshear is a versatile player who can also line up as a slot receiver and return kicks or punts. Both have proved the ability to be explosive at their previous schools and immediately improve the Tech backfield.
Defensively, L.C. Bird grad Rayshard Ashby leads the Hokie charge. The senior led the ACC with 120 tackles in 2019 and is the only active player in the conference to post back-to-back seasons of 100 or more tackles. Ashby also ranked third in the league and eight in the FBS with 17 tackles for loss last year. Dax Hollifield joins Ashby in the linebackers group, while safety Divine Deablo highlights the Tech defensive backfield. On the line, Emmanuel Belmar, Jarrod Hewitt and Deshawn Crawford provide experience.
Ashby’s fellow Skyhawk product on the Virginia Tech roster is receiver Jayden Payoute, who Fuente was quite high on in camp, but he had ankle surgery and is out indefinitely.
The Hokies and their arch rivals in Charlottesville have one big thing in common, and that’s experience on the offensive line. Both have their entire line back on that side of the ball, which is very encouraging for Hooker and Armstrong and their respective running backs.
Virginia Tech and NC State kick off at 8:00 PM on Saturday, while Virginia and Duke get things going at 4:00.
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