Virginia quarterback has latest underdog opportunity against the Vols

Virginia Athletics photo / Virginia senior quarterback Tony Muskett will make his 24th career start Saturday when the Cavaliers take on Tennessee in Nashville, but it will be his first at the Bowl Subdivision level.
Virginia Athletics photo / Virginia senior quarterback Tony Muskett will make his 24th career start Saturday when the Cavaliers take on Tennessee in Nashville, but it will be his first at the Bowl Subdivision level.

When it comes to college football experience, Virginia senior quarterback Tony Muskett has that covered with 23 career starts.

Yet Saturday afternoon's game between the Cavaliers and the No. 12 Tennessee Volunteers inside a sold-out Nissan Stadium in Nashville will mark the first time the 6-foot-2, 206-pounder has competed in a matchup of Power Five programs.

"Their quarterback is from Monmouth, which I think is a small Division II school," Tennessee senior linebacker Aaron Beasley said this week in a news conference. "I'm not sure."

Monmouth University actually has been playing at the Football Championship Subdivision level for the past 30 seasons, with Kevin Callahan having served as the New Jersey school's coach since the program's 1993 inception. Muskett is Monmouth's all-time efficiency leader and ranks fifth in passing yards, but he transferred to the Atlantic Coast Conference after earning Big South Conference first-team honors twice.

If any player has the proverbial chip on his shoulder entering this 2023 season, it's Muskett, who not only wants to prove himself after moving up from the FCS ranks but also that the Cavaliers are nowhere close to their last-place status in the various preseason ACC projections.

"We're all aware of it," Muskett told reporters earlier this month, "but for me, personally, that's been something I've been accustomed to my whole life — not being favored. I think it helps in a lot of ways when people doubt you and you don't feel like you have a ton of people who believe in you, because that's when a group can truly come together.

"You know that the people in that room are the only people who believe in you, so it strengthens that bond and makes you want to play that much harder for the person next to you."

The Cavaliers have plenty to play for this season following last November's tragedy in which three players — Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D'Sean Perry — were fatally shot on campus. Virginia canceled its final two games a year ago against Coastal Carolina and Virginia Tech, and the Cavaliers enter Saturday as four-touchdown underdogs.

Muskett was the Big South's offensive freshman of the year during the COVID-altered 2020 season that was staged in the spring of 2021, leading the Hawks to routs of Charleston Southern (35-17), Gardner-Webb (48-19) and Kennesaw State (42-17) before enduring a 21-15 loss in the first round of the FCS playoffs to eventual champion Sam Houston. He started all 11 games in the 2021 season, attaining sophomore All-American recognition after throwing for 2,651 yards with 25 touchdowns and six interceptions.

A knee injury prevented the resident of Springfield, Virginia, from playing a full season last year, but Muskett wound up compiling a 14-9 record as Monmouth's starter.

"He's been a really good decision-maker, and he's thrown for a bunch of yards," Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. "He has good pocket awareness. With him being in week one and year one within their system, what are the new things they do to try and put him in position? He's played football at a really high level, and we have to do a good job of handling the run game, apply pressure and make him uncomfortable inside the pocket."

Said Beasley: "I like him a lot. He's a really good player who looks like he wants to win a lot. I'm really excited to play him."

Bennett out for Cavs

Virginia second-year coach Tony Elliott announced Tuesday that All-ACC defensive end Chico Bennett would not be available Saturday.

Bennett sustained a knee injury during the first preseason scrimmage and underwent a procedure to remove bone fragments.

Downhill from here

Tennessee has played 36 games the past three seasons, and tight end Jacob Warren has competed in every one of them.

It's a stat he doesn't take for granted as he heads into his sixth year.

"I feel great. I really do," Warren said Tuesday in a news conference. "I know this is my sixth year, and you think the body wouldn't feel very good. I've gone into every season after a rough fall camp, but this is the best I'm going to feel all year, right? So I'm happy with where I am.

"Obviously there will be little things here and there that you deal with, but at this point I am more than capable of handling the bumps and bruises."

Almost Carter time

Beasley and Brigham Young transfer Keenan Pili are Tennessee's top two linebackers entering the season, according to position coach Brian Jean-Mary, who is also interested to see how freshman Arion Carter fares against the Cavaliers.

"Arion is an explosive kid and a super athlete," Jean-Mary said Tuesday. "He was committed to a Division I school (Memphis) as a running back, so you see the athleticism there. He's shown poise and maturity, and that has put him in line to play early.

"He'll play Saturday, and we'll see what he does in his first college football game."

Emerging receivers

Saturday also will mark the debut of Oregon transfer receiver Dont'e Thornton, who will join the Orange Bowl starting trio of Ramel Keyton, Bru McCoy and Squirrel White.

Keyton said Tuesday not to overlook redshirt freshmen Chas Nimrod and Kaleb Webb.

"When they come in, people might think, 'Oh, they're just the backups,' but they're really not," Keyton said. "They're ready to play."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.