CHARLOTTESVILLE — Brennan Armstrong isn’t what you’d call a flincher.
Virginia’s new starting quarterback wasn’t worried that his debut game in that role would have been against Georgia in Atlanta. He didn’t balk at the switch to opening against rival Virginia Tech on the road.
And he didn’t hesitate when his coaches told him they’d be bringing in a graduate transfer quarterback to compete with him for the position this offseason.
“He’s kind of a fighter,” said UVA quarterbacks coach Jason Beck. “His day to day, how he carries himself, how he competes, how hard he works, I think, is what set him apart.”
The Cavaliers, who open the season Sept. 19 in Blacksburg against the Hokies, named Armstrong — the 6-foot-2, 215-pound sophomore — as their starter last week. Armstrong beat out Mississippi State graduate transfer Keytaon Thompson for the task of replacing two-year star Bryce Perkins, now in camp with the Los Angeles Rams.
“The coaches were really transparent with me when they said that ‘Hey, we’re going to need to bring another guy in,’” Armstrong said after practice Friday night. “I said it’s totally fine. It helps me. It helps the team. I’m here to do whatever helps our team. I was going to work no matter what, whoever came in. So, it didn’t bother me at all.”
Coach Bronco Mendenhall said tracking both the quarterbacks’ performances and how the offense fared with each quarterback behind center helped him decide on Armstrong as the starter last week.
“When I’m under pressure or I’m making critical decisions, it’s a pretty simple mantra I use, that facts are our friends,” said Mendenhall. “So the numbers matter to me. And so completion percentage, how the offense is moving the ball, touchdowns scored, all the things that are relevant to helping our team win. We chart everything and I was just really impressed with his numbers.”
Beck said Armstrong, a native of Shelby, Ohio, had the advantage of knowing the team’s offense going into the competition, even though UVA’s spring practices were canceled due to COVID-19.
Armstrong has seen action in 11 games over the past two seasons, and has thrown just 25 passes in his college career. Still, his familiarity with the scheme helped him win the No. 1 job.
“I think a lot of it had to do with his experience in the system, his knowledge of everything we do,” said Beck. “And so with that big start, with being here for two years, just gave him a big leg up and kept him ahead in the competition throughout it.”
For Beck and offensive coordinator Robert Anae, the mission since Virginia’s historic Orange Bowl season a year ago concluded has been to craft an offense built around Armstrong’s skills. By his own admission, Armstrong isn’t the blur-of-speed dynamo that Perkins was as a runner, but he brings a combination of elusiveness and power to the field as a ball carrier.
He’s the first left-handed passer that Beck has coached in his career, a tenure that dates to back to working with current New Orleans Saint Taysom Hill at BYU, also under Mendenhall. Hill is the player Armstrong is most often compared to, but Friday night, Beck said the fiery, competitive Armstrong is decidedly his own player.
“Brennan is unique with his skillset and his abilities,” said Beck. “There’s nobody I would compare him to that’s similar to him.”
As for his demeanor, Beck said Armstrong’s predecessor, Perkins, brought a calm to the huddle and the field, a quiet fire. There is nothing quiet about Armstrong’s fire, Beck said.
That’s evident when Armstrong proclaims the idea of a big game for his first college start doesn’t scare him — whether it’s against Georgia or Virginia Tech.
“I was kind of prepared in my head the whole time that it was going to be a big game for us,” said Armstrong. “The first game can set the tone for the whole season.”