UVa will get Mizzell and Zaccheaus involved early and often this year
As UVa heads into its first season under new coach Bronco Mendenhall, the program is obviously undergoing an overhaul in all aspects.
One of the biggest changes, of course, will be on offense as the Cavaliers move a more up-tempo spread system under offensive coordinator Robert Anae. At BYU, his offenses scored often and were usually among the best offenses nationally in terms of points per game.
Perhaps no one will benefit more from the new scheme than UVa’s versatile home run hitters on offense: senior running back Taquan Mizzell and sophomore playmaker Olamide Zaccheaus.
Virginia benefited from the speed and athleticism of both Mizzell and Zacchaeus last season, but the offense as a whole wasn't consistent enough at finding ways to get them in the open field. UVa fans saw flashes from both, however, as they ended up the with productive seasons even if it often felt like they were just scratching the surface.
After wrapping up UVa’s final practice of the spring, Mendenhall commented that the Wahoos would try to get the ball to Mizzell and Zacchaeus as much as possible (and in a variety of ways) to take advantage of their skillsets. That idea excites both players as they will look to use the new system to their advantage.
“This offense has been great so far, and we’ve only put in about 25 percent of it,” Mizzell said after wrapping up spring ball. “Some of the plays, most of the plays we have, we operate to our players' strengths and put our players in positions to make plays. So that’s something I’m very comfortable with.”
Mizzell finished with 75 receptions last season, second most in a single season in program history and second most in a season by a running back in ACC history. Mendenhall said Mizzell will still be the featured back but they will look to use him in the slot as well.
For the rising senior, the idea of playing in different spots on the field isn’t an issue as long as the team can be successful.
“We have a lot of great players out here but I’m always ready for whatever they give me,” he said of his role on the team. “As a senior and playing for three years now, I’m always prepared for everything. I just want to go out with a bang and have the best year I’ve had so far.”
Zacchaeus, who committed to UVa as a running back, played primarily as a wide receiver last season. He will likely be used in similar fashion this season and line up all over the field. For the rising sophomore, the new offense looks similar to what he ran when he starred at St. Joseph's Prep in Philadelphia.
“It’s felt a lot like high school because I ran a no-huddle spread offense in high school," he said. "It's just a great opportunity for all of us to make plays, and make people miss. Just getting the ball in the playmakers hands, and what it comes down to is making a play.”
Even before installing new schemes, UVa’s players had to adjust to a new philosophy for practicing under their new coaching staff. And even for some of the team’s best athletes, preparing to practice this spring was a challenge.
“Getting in the best shape you can,“ Zacchaeus said of what the Cavaliers were asked to do heading into the spring. As they did, even though the tempo runs and other conditioning was difficult, it will make them stronger in the long run. “Doing hard things together is what builds a team, so it's a great opportunity for us.”
Zacchaeus said that even though spring practices are done, fall camp is right around the corner and the staff and players will be expecting to pick up where they left off.
“The next month we don’t really have anything, it’s on each person individually until we get back in June," he explained. "So it’s about us holding ourselves accountable until we come back in June and then doing hard things together."
Even beyond conditioning, the Cavaliers had to adjust to the way the team practices. There is much less downtime and more accountability asked of players than in the past, so there’s going to be a learning curve.
“Fast, fast and fast,” Mizzell said when asked to describe practices. “I wouldn’t say it was tough. If you do the right thing, you’ll be alright. I’d say the hardest thing is adjusting to the fast tempo. Once you get in shape and all of that, you’re fine. It’s always fun out here too, though. Every time I leave the field I’m always tired but I can’t wait until the next practice.”
How effective UVa is at using its best offensive weapons will go a long ways towards determining what kind of season the Hoos will have when its all said and done.
But it’s clear that both Mizzell and Zacchaeus, as well as the other offensive skill position players, have bought into the new system. Clearly, they are excited to work to get better this fall and take the field with a new and exciting identity.
“He did a great job of just coming in and getting the ones out of the way that didn’t want to be here,” Mizzell said of Mendenhall. “Everyone has bought into the program. So when we’re out here, you see us practicing very fast but we’re having fun at the same time.”