Cavaliers pin bounce-back hopes on defense

Aug 14, 2017 - 5:21 PM Optimism quickly turned into gloom last season as the first year of the Bronco Mendenhall era turned sour in the blink of an eye.

While many hoped Mendenhall could revive Virginia football, the Cavaliers instead went 2-10 and again face underdog status heading into 2017. Virginia was picked to finish last in the ACC Coastal Division in a preseason poll of the league's media.

The Cavaliers do have some bright spots, and their strength this season should come on defense, where they return eight players who started at least seven games last season, including two potential All-Americans in safety Quin Blanding and linebacker Micah Kiser. Both skipped the NFL Draft and returned with the hopes of helping Virginia curb their struggles.

Blanding and Kiser -- as well as cornerback Juan Thornhill -- are considered top 100 prospects for the 2018 draft, according to

"I believe in the system," Blanding said. "I trust the system. I trust the process. (So) why not go one more year and go out with a bang and increase the status of Virginia?"

Even with some star power on defense, Virginia allowed 446.6 yards per game last season, ranking 93rd nationally.

Three consecutive home games to start the season may be exactly what Virginia needs to build some momentum before entering ACC play. Last season, the Cavaliers played two of their first three contests on the road and stumbled to an 0-3 start.

The defense won't be able to do it alone, and senior quarterback Kurt Benkert will likely have to be the Cavaliers' answer on offense. But where will his help come from?

Virginia is thin on the offensive line and has little depth behind Benkert. Incoming freshman Lindell Stone and redshirt freshman De'Vante Cross, who was planning on making the transition to wide receiver, will be Benkert's only protection on the depth chart.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Kurt Benkert -- Healthy, leaner and poised to build on a solid 2016 campaign, Benkert will need to pilot the Virginia offense in order for the Cavaliers to compete this season. He threw for 2,552 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, returning as the conference's second-leading passer. He should be more consistent and confident after playing through a shoulder injury that hampered him at times.

BREAKOUT STAR: DE Andrew Brown -- Touted as a five-star recruit out of Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake, Va., in 2014, Brown has yet to live up to expectations in a Virginia uniform -- but there have been signs. Brown started 10 games as a junior in 2016 and led the team in tackles for loss with 13 after making a minimal impact during his first two years. Look for Brown to anchor coach Bronco Mendenhall's 3-4 defense up front, with dangerous weapons in linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding lined up behind him.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: RB Jamari Peacock -- One of 15 three-star recruits the Cavaliers nabbed for the class of 2017, Peacock will likely see enough time to make an immediate impact on offense. The 5-foot-11, 245-poiunder from Yulee, Fla., will provide a fullback-like stature to help the running and the blocking aspects of Virginia's offense. Peacock, who was an early enrollee, could also be a key part of Virginia's success at the goal-line with his ability to muscle the ball into the end zone -- something he did 34 times as a senior in high school last season.

--OL Jack McDonald had his knee scoped during camp and could likely miss the first part of the season. McDonald was expected to be an anchor for an already-thin Virginia offensive line.

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