CHARLOTTESVILLE — The free-wheeling style that Virginia freshman quarterback Anthony Colandrea showed in his debut as a starter Saturday against JMU is something his coaches welcome, although at times it might make them a bit nervous.
“Very comfortable with that” style of play, Cavaliers offensive coordinator Des Kitchings said. “We kind of joked (last week) that we know this kid is going to go out there and he’s going to make some wild plays. I don’t have hair, but I might be pulling my hair out as he’s running around knowing he’s going to make a wild play, and he did that.”
Colandrea did it several times, in fact, freelancing behind the line of scrimmage to keep a play alive before finding a pass-catcher open downfield.
Second 60+ yard TD pass of the game for Anthony Colandrea!
Hoos in front 21-17
— Virginia Football (@UVAFootball) September 9, 2023
Among the many developments Saturday at Scott Stadium, a day that began with a memorial to the players who were killed in last November’s on-campus shooting — Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry — and ended with a heartbreaking 36-35 loss, was the play of Colandrea. He dazzled in his first career start while filling in for the injured Tony Muskett, completing 20 of 26 passes for a UVA freshman record 377 yards and two touchdowns.
The 18-year-old Colandrea was flushed from the pocket many times by JMU’s ball-hawking defense, and he eluded sacks and extended plays for big gains. One of those was a 75-yard touchdown throw to running back Kobe Pace where Colandrea avoided an onslaught of rushers, scrambled to his right and threw across his body to connect with the open man downfield.
“We knew he was a guy who, when the lights come on and on a bigger stage, it seems like he elevates,” UVA head coach Tony Elliott said. “I thought he did a good job of managing the system and making throws, and then he did what he does with the off-schedule plays, where you think you’ve got him and the next thing you know he pops out and finds a guy on the run.”
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Colandrea, who hails from St. Petersburg, Florida, completed five passes of 25 or more yards, including a 63-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Malik Washington on his first attempt of the game. The touchdown throws to Washington and Pace were longer than any scoring completion the Cavaliers made in 2022.
The touchdown pass to Pace was the longest gain for the Cavaliers since Dontayvion Wicks found paydirt on a 77-yard reception from Brennan Armstrong against Georgia Tech on Oct. 23, 2021.
“It was awesome,” said Colandrea, who was named ACC Rookie of the Week. “It was something that I dreamed of as a little kid. … Starting today was just a huge blessing.”
Colandrea will likely be back in the No. 2 spot on the depth chart when the Cavaliers (0-2) visit Maryland (2-0) on Friday night. Elliott said Tuesday that Muskett, who injured his shoulder in the season-opening loss to No. 11 Tennessee, is a full participant in practice this week and is considered day-to-day.
At the very least, Colandrea performed admirably enough to raise the question about him possibly starting when a healthy Muskett returns.
“My approach is you don’t lose your job for an injury,” Elliott said of Muskett. “But it gives us a tremendous amount of confidence in Colandrea.
“We’re going to need both of them, to be honest with you. Competition is great. Healthy competition is really, really good, because it makes each of them better. It’s a long season. We have 10 more football games. We’re going to play some physical football games. We’ve got to do a good job of balancing that competition, but we’ll assess it and see where Tony is and then figure that out as we go through the week.”
Even as they push each other, it appears Colandrea and Muskett have developed a tight bond. Colandrea praised Muskett’s leadership at the end of spring practice and he lauded the senior for the help he provided last week during film study, breaking everything down with his young understudy to show him exactly what he saw on each play.
Colandrea said he didn’t expect Muskett’s starting job to be up for grabs, even after he had such a successful first start.
“Not really. That’s coach Elliott’s decision,” he said.
Colandrea’s teammates praised him for his command of the huddle, his confidence on the field and the moxie with which he played.
“Great game from him,” said Pace, whose previous longest play from scrimmage was a 59-yard touchdown run when he played for Clemson in 2021. “I’m proud of the dude to come out here, handle this environment, the situation, and go through all his progressions. He seemed to make stuff happen, and I’m excited to see what he does in the future.”
That Colandrea handled the pressure so well in his first start was no surprise to those who have been around him since he arrived early for spring practice.
“It’s what we’ve been seeing since the kid arrived,” Kitchings said. “Ultra-competitive. The moment is never too big for him. He can extend plays with his legs. Accurate throwing the ball downfield. Just a tough nut.
“The (loss to JMU) is obviously not what we want, but the encouraging part is we really believe we have two good quarterbacks here. Tony won the job in a really competitive situation, but I’m proud of Anthony, proud of all these kids.”