Virginia will play its first game without three downed teammates on Saturday when it takes on No. 12 Tennessee in both teams’ season openers in Nashville, Tenn.
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Running back Mike Hollins was injured in the November 2022 shooting of Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry on campus in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“I can only imagine the emotion that will surge through my body,” Hollins said as he took the field for the opening game. “I’m literally at a loss for words because the Spring Games hit me like a sack full of bricks and I wasn’t expecting it so I can only imagine it. But I’m ready. I’m ready for it.”
Virginia canceled its last two games last season after the tragedy, ending Tony Elliott’s first season as head coach 7-3, including a 6-1 at the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Elliott named Monmouth transfer Tony Muskett as the Cavaliers’ starting quarterback. From 2020-2022, he rushed for 5,687 yards and 51 touchdowns in 23 games for the Hawks. He won an offseason fight with Anthony Colandrea to replace Brennan Armstrong, who transferred to North Carolina State.
“I take care of the football, find degrees in the passing game and put us in a proper check when needed,” Virginia offense coordinator Des Kitchings said of the decision to go with Muskett. “He ticked all of those things.”
Hollins comes into the season as a replacement for last season’s leading rusher Perris Jones and Clemson transfer Kobe Pace.
Virginia has not set a winning record or attended a bowl game since the 2019 season.
Tennessee, on the other hand, finished last season 11-2 and ranked sixth in the latest Associated Press poll. The Volunteers capped off the year with a 31-14 win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
The Volunteers are four-touchdown favorites at Nissan Stadium as quarterback Joe Milton III takes over full-time for Hendon Hooker, the 2022 Southeastern Conference Offensive Player of the Year and now a rookie with the Detroit Lions.
“I’m happy for him. He’s a guy who got it right when things didn’t go his way at the beginning,” said third-year head coach Josh Heupel of Milton, who replaced the injured Hooker and completed 19 of 28 games for 251 yards and 251 yards three touchdowns in the Orange Bowl win.
“He looked at himself and realized that to get better he had to keep improving, trust his coaches and the program and believe in the guys around him in the dressing room.”
Since moving from Michigan after the 2020 season, Milton has rushed for 1,346 yards with 12 touchdowns and zero interceptions in 17 appearances (four starts) for the Vols.
Linebacker Aaron Beasley, Tennessee’s lead tackler last year and preseason Bednarik Award nominee, said the team is going into the season with an aggressive attitude.
“Very aggressive, play very fast… just attack,” he said. “We blitz a lot, so we just play in the opponent’s backfield. We’re manipulating the line of scrimmage, manipulating the quarterback, really, really aggressively.”
Heupel said there would be a minute’s silence before kickoff and volunteers would wear helmet stickers to honor the Virginia players who died.
The Volunteers lead 3-1 in the all-time streak, but this is the schools’ first meeting since Tennessee beat Virginia 23-22 in the January 1, 1990 Sugar Bowl.
Source : deadspin.com