Despite Virginia’s rough start, Brennan Armstrong is right where he wants to be


That’s one of the things Bronco Mendenhall, his former coach in Charlottesville, Va., likes about him. Mendenhall grew close enough during Virginia practices to hear every word that escaped his quarterback’s mouth, and if the unit struggled, the monologues often turned into profanity.

“He curses like a sailor,” Mendenhall said. “But it’s real.”

Almost a month into his first season without Mendenhall at the helm, it’s no surprise that Armstrong isn’t trying to sell Virginia’s early offensive woes as anything other than a serious problem. The situation is dire.

“I’m really frustrated right now,” Armstrong said after Saturday’s 16-14 win over Old Dominion, in which he led the offense on a frantic final drive that set up the game-winning field goal as time expired. “I’m used to being a very powerful offense, and when I don’t feel it and I don’t have it, it frustrates me.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. Armstrong could have chosen another path, perhaps a much easier one. It’s an era of name, image and money and transfer portal freedom, and Armstrong has had his share of suitors this season. Instead, he chose to stay put, putting his chips in the middle of the table with a new coaching staff led by first-time head coach Tony Elliott and a new scheme, all of which created a real risk in his final season — one that could make or break his NFL chances — a rebuild for the Cavaliers. May change seasonally.

When Armstrong made the choice, he was hailed as a case study of faith in an era when it was a rare commodity. It only took two games to surprise even Virginia fans Loyalty is exaggerated.

A year after Armstrong blossomed into one of the most prolific QBs in the country, throwing for nearly 4,500 yards and 40 touchdowns — 31 through the air — in just 11 games, things look bleak in Charlottesville.

In three games last season, Virginia’s offense scored 124 points.

Through three games this year, the Hoos have thrown for just 53, and Armstrong has just two passing TDs — both coming in the FCS opener against Richmond.

Now Armstrong is about to go head-to-head against the coaching staff that made him a star. The Cavaliers travel to 3-0 Syracuse on Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) to take on a dynamic offense led by former Virginia coordinator Robert Ane and QB coach Jason Beck.

Considering the reunion, it might be an opportune time for Armstrong to take a step back and rethink his decision and think about what might have been. But as thoroughly pumped as he is to reunite with Ane & Co., one thing the outspoken quarterback won’t say is that he regrets anything.

“Yeah, I stuck it out with a coaching change and NIL money I could put in my pocket at another school — all good things,” Armstrong said. “You probably don’t see many QBs stick with it, but I’m glad I did.”

Virginia ended 2021 regular season with four straight losses, including a painful fourth-quarter flub against rival Virginia Tech. Later, Armstrong found he was ready to move on, setting his sights on the NFL draft.

Mendenhall later announced his resignation.

Virginia’s bowl game was later canceled.

Then the NFL ratings came back and Armstrong’s myriad concerns, including the Air Raid system he mastered, didn’t seem to translate at the next level.

He was elected late on the upside.

“He doesn’t have wow-you-over arm strength, but he’s an overachiever — a gritty, gritty player,” ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. said. “On the third day, someone will catch him.”

There were offers elsewhere, and they came with promises of huge name, image and similar deals. Across the country, other players were eager to cash in on their newfound freedom and, at least in some cases, find a home that would allow them to showcase their talent on a bigger stage.

Thing is, draft evaluations don’t hold up well for Armstrong, who shrugs off criticism of his athleticism or arm strength. He’s an Ohio guy, and he said he likes to carry a chip on his shoulder. He showed what he could do on the field — elusive in the pocket, a skilled runner — and he put together a highlight reel of NFL throws.

“The more you see him, the more you like him,” Kiper said.

Armstrong didn’t care much about the NIL money. He had friends on this team, and a quartet of receivers as talented and productive as any in the country. Why should he give it up?

Regardless, Armstrong’s decision was about nothing more than this: “I wanted to do what I wanted to do,” Armstrong said.

“That’s how I go about it. People think it’s hard work, but it’s really not. Every season is hard work. If I’m drafted in the real world and not drafted — it’s not easy. Yeah, technically it was trying to prove different things, but really, it was. It was — that’s what I wanted to do, so I did it. Impulsivity, I guess.”

ARMSTRONG SAW Value Playing in a more pro-style scheme, taking snaps under center, fixing defenses and honing his skills by relying more on his run game. A year ago, Virginia’s offense didn’t run into him. It was run by him alone. Armstrong missed an entire game and was still responsible for the highest percentage of his team’s yards of any Power 5 player. But that was only good enough for six wins, so Elliott Armstrong was an easy sell.

“It’s about finding ways to win, and that’s the key,” Elliott said.

Then, in Week 2, Virginia lost. In one of the most sloppy offensive performances of Armstrong’s five-year career with the Cavaliers, an ugly 24-3 loss to Illinois.

“I don’t think there was one play when all 11 guys were doing what they were supposed to do,” Armstrong said.

Last week, the offense showed some improvement against Old Dominion, but it got bogged down in the red zone and squandered scoring opportunities, and until Armstrong’s heroics at the end, the Hoos were staring at another disappointing loss.

During Virginia S.P.Nation site fans poll This week, 2% of respondents pointed the finger at Armstrong as to who to blame for the offense’s sluggish start. Almost half blamed new coaches.

Armstrong finds that notion absurd. He said it is impossible to judge the new scheme when the players do not execute it properly. He blames himself for that. He’s always been hard on himself, Mendenhall said, so he keeps the noise of fans and message boards at arm’s length.

“I didn’t think about it,” Armstrong said. “It’s all those external things that you can’t focus on or it breaks your whole team. It’s a dangerous world with those things. It’s easy to get lost.”

Armstrong did not lose. He’s where he wants to be, and it’s his job to play well enough for the world to see him.

“It’s not like the end of the frickin’ world for us to lose and drop three points [against Illinois],” he said. “Let’s try to be nice.”

Armstrong won Started the QB job as a freshman in high school and beat out a senior for the spot, but it wasn’t an overnight success story. That Shelby (Ohio) team opened the season 2-5, and Armstrong suffered through the usual freshman struggles. In late October, Shelby ran the Columbian (Tiffin), and Armstrong was sharp. The problem is, his defense isn’t helping. With six minutes left in the game, Shelby trailed 75-54.

That’s when Armstrong took over.

Shelby scored three times in the final 5:48 to send the game into overtime. Armstrong threw five TD passes and accounted for 520 yards of offense.

“That’s Brennan,” said his mother, Heather. “There’s one more minute, it’s not over, he’s going to fight to the end, that’s him.”

And yet, Shelby still lost the game. The Colombian scored in overtime and went on to score two runs. Final score: 83-82. It is, unofficially, the highest-scoring game in Ohio high school history.

Mendenhall has a similar story about Armstrong — about the moment he knew his quarterback was special.

It’s 2018, and Armstrong is a true rookie. Starting QB Bryce Perkins left with an injury midway through the first half against Georgia Tech, and the Hoos trailed 13-7. Armstrong went 65 yards in six plays and hit Joe Reid for a long touchdown to take the lead.

“I swear his pulse was about 48,” Mendenhall recalled. “It’s true, after that score, the look he gave me was, ‘Well, what else did you expect?’

However, Perkins returned to action on the next drive and the Yellow Jackets won the game 30-27 in overtime.

Look back at Armstrong’s career and the same story plays out over and over again. He’s good, but hits are a struggle.

Armstrong had the stats. He set the school record for passing yards last season. But he didn’t get any hits. That ate him.

That was the real reason he came back. Yes, he can hone his skills, prove he can run a pro-style offense, make some NIL money — “all that good stuff”. But what he wanted above all was success — his legacy at Virginia etched in stone. He doesn’t want to be remembered as the poster boy for loyalty in college football’s mediocrity era. He wanted to be remembered as the guy who led Virginia to a season over the years.

There is still time to do that, he stressed. It’s right in front of him — so there’s no time to look back.

“I want to win 10 more games,” Armstrong said. “There are nine more and I have to win eight of them. It’s going to be a hell of a battle. I know that. But it’s something I wanted to do. If it doesn’t happen, I know I’ve given everything I had to this university.


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