Emotional Virginia faces tall task in opener vs. No. 12 Tennessee

Virginia plays its first game without three fallen teammates Saturday when it faces No. 12 Tennessee in both teams’ season opener in Nashville, Tenn.

Running back Mike Hollins was injured in the November 2022 shooting deaths of Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry on the campus in Charlottesville, Va.

“I can only imagine the emotions that’ll be flowing through my body,” Hollins said of taking the field for the opener. “I literally have no words because the spring game, it hit me like a sack of rocks and I didn’t expect it, so I can only imagine. I’m ready, though. I’m ready for it.”

Virginia canceled its final two games last season following the tragedy and finished 3-7 in Tony Elliott’s first season as head coach, including 1-6 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Elliott named Monmouth transfer Tony Muskett as the Cavaliers’ starting quarterback. He passed for 5,687 yards and 51 touchdowns in 23 games with the Hawks from 2020-22. He won an offseason battle with Anthony Colandrea to replace Brennan Armstrong, who transferred to North Carolina State.

“Taking care of the football, finding completions in the pass game, getting us into a right check if necessary,” Virginia offensive coordinator Des Kitchings said of the decision to go with Muskett. “He checked the box on all those things.”

Hollins enters the season as a backup to last season’s leading rusher Perris Jones and Clemson transfer Kobe Pace.

Virginia has not posted a winning record or been to a bowl game since the 2019 season.

Tennessee, meanwhile, finished 11-2 last season and ranked No. 6 in the final Associated Press poll. The Volunteers capped the year with a 31-14 win against 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 excited for him. He’s a guy that did it the right way when it didn’t go his way early on,” third-year head coach Josh Heupel said of Milton, who replaced the injured Hooker and completed 19 of 28 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns in the Orange Bowl win.

“He looked at himself and saw how he needed to continue to improve to get better, trust in his coaches and the program and believe in the guys around him inside of the locker room.”

Since transferring from Michigan after the 2020 season, Milton has passed for 1,346 yards with 12 touchdowns and zero interceptions in 17 appearances (four starts) for the Vols.

Linebacker Aaron Beasley, Tennessee’s leading tackler last year and a preseason Bednarik Award candidate, said the team is entering the season with an aggressive mindset.

“Uber aggressive, play really fast … just attacking,” he said. “We blitz a lot, so just playing in the opponents’ backfield. Affecting the line of scrimmage, affecting the quarterback, really just uber aggressive.”

Heupel said there will be a moment of silence before kickoff, and the Volunteers will wear helmet decals to honor the deceased Virginia players.

The Volunteers have a 3-1 lead in the all-time series, but this is the first meeting between the schools since Tennessee defeated Virginia 23-22 in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1990.

–Field Level Media