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Indiana football week two preview: Virginia’s Offense

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In our preview of Indiana’s week two opponent, we start with a look at their offense.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Virginia
Virginia QB Kurt Benkert will lead the Cavaliers against Indiana in week 2 of the regular season.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Cavaliers are looking to improve, particularly on offense, following a 2-10 record in their first season under coach Bronco Mendenhall. The Hoos weren’t exactly an offensive juggernaut last season as they had the third-worst offense in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Their offense was ranked 116th in the nation in total yards with 4,235, and were the 115th-best scoring offense out of the 128 FBS teams, scoring 22.5 points per game.

The Virginia offense will also be looking to replace Taquan Mizzell, one of their key cogs from last year. Mizzell was key in multiple roles for the Hoos, as he was the only player in ACC history to amass over 1,500 career rushing yards and 1,500 career receiving yards.

Passing Game

Virginia was more of a passing team last season. Their passing offense was ranked 71st in the country, which is much higher than their total and rushing rankings. An intriguing facet of their passing game is the high volume of targets given to running backs. Last season, running backs Mizzell and Olamide Zaccheaus recorded the most receptions on the team with 52 and 51, respectively.

Quarterback Kurt Benkert will likely lead the Hoos’ passing game. Benkert, a senior, started 10 games last year for the Cavaliers, but was hampered by a shoulder injury late in the season. Reportedly the former East Carolina transfer was also bothered by the ACL he tore in 2015, on which he wore a bulky brace. With the ACL and shoulder reportedly fully healed and with Benkert having dropped some weight, he now stands a 6’4” and 220 pounds. Last season, Benkert completed 56.2% of his passes, totaling 2,552 yards and throwing 21 TDs and getting picked off 11 times.

With Mizzell now pursuing a pro career, Benkert will have to find a new top target and one might be sophomore Joe Reed. Last season, Reed played a minor role in the passing game, catching four passes for 77 yards. Reed also returned 27 kicks for 678 yards. Reed is a great athlete, for example as a senior in high school he hit .538 and stole over 30 bases for the baseball team, which should allow him to be a playmaker for the Cavaliers.

The top returning target for Virginia is 5’8” 190-pound running back Olamide Zaccheaus. Zaccheaus should be the Hoos’ third down back, but could take the field outside of that role as well. Last season, Zaccheaus caught 51 passes for 584 yards and 7 TDs. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s over 10 yards per catch for the entire season, so basically every time this guy touched the ball he got a first down, which could be a problem come September.

Another potential top target for Benkert will be senior Doni Dowling. Dowling led Virginia in receiving yards last season with 626 on 50 catches. Dowling also appeared in every game and scored four TDs as a junior. Another gifted athlete, Dowling played basketball, soccer, and was on the track & field team in high school.

Don’t expect much action for Virginia’s tight ends in the passing game. Last season, their top three tight ends combined for 12 receptions. Their top option at tight end this season should be junior Evan Butts. [Insert Butts joke here]. Last season, Butts had seven catches for 46 yards and scored once over eight games.

The Cavaliers’ secondary option at the position should be Richard Burney, who is also a long snapper. Burney, a 6’4’ 255-pound sophomore, caught a single pass over eight games last season, but that catch was a three-yard touchdown.

This game may be an opportunity for the Hoosiers to get after the QB, as the Virginia offensive line allowed 36 sacks last season, which was tied for fourth worst in the ACC.

Running Game

Virginia’s running offense was not very prominent last season, ranking dead last in the ACC and 121st in the nation. The Hoos only ran for 1,363 yards last season and scored 13 touchdowns on the ground. A 3.5 yard per carry average last season shows that the anemic numbers on the ground were probably due to a lack of dedication to the ground game.

The ground game will be impacted by the loss of Mizzell just like the passing game, as he was the team’s leading rusher. Virginia’s second leading rusher from last season, Albert Reid, has graduated as well, so there will be some new faces toting the rock for the Hoos.

One of those new faces should be junior Jordan Ellis. Ellis has the reputation of being a hard worker and should get the lion’s share of the carries in the Cavaliers’ offense. Last season, Ellis carried the ball 14 times for 61 yards and a single touchdown. The 5’11” 200-pound back reportedly had an impressive showing during spring practice.

Senior Daniel Hamm is set to be Ellis’ backup in the fall. Hamm mostly returned punts last season for the Cavaliers, as he had 22 returns for 216 yards, including a 40-yard return. Hamm is another great athlete, which seems to be a theme for the Virginia offense. He was a two-time triple jump state champion in Virginia while he was in high school. He got very few opportunities to carry the ball last season, but did get 57 carries as a sophomore and he racked up 242 yards and a touchdown.

Kicking Game

Lawrence Central HS alum Nash Griffin is the only placekicker listed on the Hoos’ roster. Griffin, a redshirt freshman, was an all-state kicker and punter in 2014 and 2015. He made all 14 of his field goal attempts during his junior season and was rated a five-star prospect by Kohl’s Kicking. Griffin could possibly handle the punting duties for the Cavaliers as well, as he placed 26 of 50 punts inside the 20-yard line as a senior and is listed at both positions.

If the Hoosiers want to shut down this offense, it will have to start with a strong showing from the secondary. I would guess that the Hoos will attempt to spread the ball around to the handful of good athletes that they have and hope that they can make plays. Indiana needs to take away the running backs in the passing game, forcing Benkert to throw it down the field. I’d also suggest keeping an eye on Butts in the red zone. He may only get one catch the entire game, but it could be a touchdown.

There is quite a bit of hype around this offense going into next season, especially when considering their performance last season. All things considered, Tegray Scales & Co. should be able to hold this offense to a couple of scores max.