The Virginia football team is coming off its first eight-win season since 2011 and a dominant performance in the Belk Bowl against South Carolina. Add to that the Cavaliers’ highest-rated recruiting class since 2014 and it’s easy to see how expectations in Charlottesville are at a level unmatched by any UVa football team in the past decade.
The unofficial transition from summer to fall begins in a couple weeks with ACC Media Days in Charlotte, North Carolina. Leading up to the event, we’ll feature 19 UVa players to watch in 2019. Some are familiar names. Some are new. All are expected to play massive roles in Virginia’s continued rebuild this season.
By the time the Belk Bowl rolled around last December, Virginia’s road map to success on the ground was laid out in front of it. Bowling ball of a running back Jordan Ellis attacked the middle of the defense and the Cavaliers did just enough on the outside to give quarterback Bryce Perkins the split second he needed to make something happen with his legs.
Number six in our countdown is one of the men who will be charged this season with taking on Ellis’ role in the backfield, junior PK Kier. Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall called him a bigger version of Ellis, and at more than 230 pounds, Kier certainly fits the mold of the today’s workhorse running backs.
Tale of the tape
Hometown: Winchester, Virginia
Last season: Playing behind Ellis the past two years, Kier’s carries have been few and far between. In 2018, he only toted the rock 26 times. Twelve of those came in a road game at Duke, and five were in the Belk Bowl.
Depth at the position: Heading into the spring, Kier was the favorite to replace Ellis, but sophomore Wayne Taulapapa’s emergence has thrown a monkey wrench into those plans. Both of them share Ellis’ physical running style. Lamont Atkins and Chris Sharp are most dangerous in space, where they can put their shiftiness to work. Freshman running back Mike Hollins has a north-south style, and he may push the veterans for carries. Sharp is the only senior in the group.
Number to know: 7.09. Kier left Millbrook High School with a career 7.09 yards per carry average.
Outlook: Kier, Atkins and fullback Jamari Peacock are all juniors, and they’re primed to step into the spotlight. Sharp may be the best receiving option of the group, Taulapapa has some elusiveness and the stature to be a workhorse back and Hollins is the most hyped UVa running back recruit since Taquan Mizzell (2013-16). It may be a bit of a running-back-by-committee situation, but the Cavaliers are poised for another big season on the ground. The offensive line is full of players with starting experience, and Perkins is going to be one of the most, if not the most, athletic quarterbacks in the ACC. Virginia’s 2,252 net rushing yards last fall and its 173.2 yards per game average were the program’s most since 2004.
Winchester rivalry reignited
In 2016, Kier and former Sherando High School linebacker Dylan Rivers were two of the top college football prospects in Winchester. Kier racked up 1,194 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior, and he left as Millbrook’s career leader in rushing yards (3,582) and rushing touchdowns (50). According to most recruiting services, Rivers was the No. 1 linebacker prospect in Virginia. Suiting up as two of the best players on rival county schools, the duo clashed more than once. This fall, they’ll clash again.
Rivers is a junior at Virginia Tech, and he’s expected to move into a more integral role in the Hokies’ defense just as Kier is in the running to take the reins as the Cavaliers’ workhorse. Virginia ends the regular season at home on Nov. 29 against Virginia Tech.
There are two names every Virginia running back is compared to: Thomas Jones (1996-99) and Tiki Barber (1993-96). Jones owns the program’s career rushing yardage record with 3,998 yards and its single-season mark with 1,798 in 1999. Barber’s 3,389 career yards and his 1,397 in 1995 both rank No. 2, and as a senior in 1996, he posted eight consecutive games with 100 rushing yards or more. Jones and Barber are two of six running backs in UVa history with more than 3,000 career yards.
Ellis’ 1,026 in 2018 marked the first time Virginia had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2013 when Kevin Parks put up 1,031. Before then, the Cavaliers went eight seasons without one. Alvin Pearman’s 1,037 yards in 2004 was the only time UVa posted a 1,000-yard rusher between 2001 and 2012. Virginia hasn’t had running backs eclipse the mark in consecutive seasons since Jones led the ACC with his record-setting numbers in 1999 and Antoine Womack led the conference the following season with 1,028 yards.
Kier has a lot of ground to make up if he’s going to challenge any of Jones’ records, but if last season was any indication, he’ll have a shot at following Ellis’ first career 1,000-yard season with one of his own.