Virginia Football Signing Day Press Conference
Wednesday December 16, 2020
Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall
Fast facts about this class:
* Ten of the signees did not play high school football this fall
* Five of the signees have never visited UVA officially or unofficially
* Several of the signees are still playing their seasons currently. Several finished up last week
* Most in-state signees (nine) during Bronco’s tenure at UVA
* Class currently is ranked No. 25 by 247 Sports, No. 25 by Rivals, and No. 29 by ESPN, with a combination ranking of No. 27, which would make it the highest-ranked recruiting class of Bronco’s tenure at UVA. (Possibly his highest as a head coach ever.)
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Good afternoon, everyone. It’s good to be with you, and kind of switching gears now from in-season play to out-of-season recruiting and how fast that transition happens, even though they co-exist for much of the year. In terms of the virtually world of recruiting, we’re really under no dead period or quiet period or anything else. It’s basically virtual recruiting through April 15th, which is a whole unique and separate and distinct experience in and of itself.
I really am thankful for this particular class. It’s unprecedented in terms of the pandemic, the restrictions and the unique nature of their recruiting. So much of our communication has been virtual, has been online, has been through Zoom, but the volume of communication has probably exceeded that of any regular year of recruiting. And so there’s advantages through that, just in terms of accessibility, that we were able to leverage.
The class shows growth, it shows progress, it shows momentum, it shows direction, it shows continued improvement, and not subtly, but pretty bluntly and boldly, of what’s happening in our program, the interest that we’re garnering, and the players are choosing up. So a really positive day for the University of Virginia’s football program, for these young people, for their families, and for their futures, as it is for really anyone who chooses the University of Virginia, and I would also say for our football program.
Q: Was it a point of emphasis to do better in-state?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s been a point of emphasis since I arrived, even though the numbers haven’t always reflected it. We start every single year, and have since I’ve been the coach, in-state. It has taken time to gain traction. It’s taken time to build relationships. It’s taken time to build credibility. It’s taken time to establish momentum. But each year it becomes better. Each year it becomes more productive, and this year the number alone certainly reflects that. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes there are more in-state prospects of quality at the Power 5 level, and sometimes there are less. But what we are finding is that with the consistency of the program, the consistency of the direction, it just is over time, and trust is built with time, that’s one of the components, the needle is moving, the tipping point is arriving, and the swing is starting. And this class, I think, is a reflection of that bigger-picture narrative that I just gave.”
Q: You have four signees who were ranked as four-star recruits (Bryce Carter, Noah Josey, Josh McCarron, Logan Taylor). Could you give us what you like as football players about each of those?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Starting with McCarron, and it’s a pretty intriguing story, because he’s on the West Coast, and here we are in Virginia. Josh is dynamic, he’s physical, he’s aggressive, he’s productive, and he’s confident. We love excellent players at outside linebackers, NFL-quality players are really the only ones we consider, and the history of our program producing great players at that position is not hard for anyone to see. And based on, again, what he’s shown to this point, he fits really well in relation to some of the most dynamic players at that position that we’ve recruited and evaluated at the same stage of their career.
Bryce Carter is a unique story also in a reclassification. Bryce at one point this season, as he moved from school to school, was reclassified as a 2022. As he continued to play and grow and mature and excel, and as the year went on, he became clearer, and his family became clearer, that he would like to be a 2021. And that was a relatively new development. What you’ll see with Bryce is, again, athleticism, speed, a dynamic athlete for his size, disruptor, physical, and just a productive and kind of a disruptive and dynamic athlete at that size and speed for his position. And that garnered the ranking from the outside sources, but also certainly from within.
Noah Josey is big and physical and tough and strong and aggressive, and a play-finisher, and all the things that we want our offensive line to be, which started to manifest this year at the highest level since I’ve been the coach at UVA, our offensive front is becoming and became more of that this year, and I think we all saw that. This is basically the next generation upgrade already to what we already had, and will be starting at a much further-along development point than some of our existing players that are playing well now, that they came in with. I really like the size, the physicality, the play-finishing, the athleticism, and the existing competency and capability as a high school player, he’s really developed.
All the things I said about Noah Josey are [true for] Logan Taylor, just from a different part of the country. Logan Taylor, he works basically throwing lobster pots and crab pots, and then when he’s not doing that, he’s throwing tires at a repair shop. All he does is just throw stuff. Anything that’s big, heavy and kind of outdoors and rugged, that’s where he is. And then he goes to Episcopal High School, and he’s a scholar. So he’s a heavy-throwing guy that is a scholar who is blue-collar and white-collar at the same, which is UVA. We really like what we see in him as well.
Q: On quarterback Jacob Rodriguez:
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Rodriguez is a physical athlete who plays quarterback, who’s a very effective runner for both speed, power and agility, an accurate decision-maker, an effective quarterback, strong thrower, and basically is somewhere between Brennan Armstrong and Taysom Hill. The combination of gritty, crafty, physical, dynamic athlete, looks like a linebacker, plays like a quarterback, kind of mix. And leading his team in the playoffs right now, all he does is win. The best quarterbacks, that’s just what they do. Ultimately like coaches, from the outside world they’re gauged on, Do they take their teams to championships? So the reason Bryce Perkins was so effective is just the influence he had on our program in such a short time and the team’s record. When you follow Jacob Rodriguez, or any of the great quarterbacks, their teams just always seem to win, and they’re usually the primary reason. And so again he runs well for speed, speed and agility and power, throws it well, really good decision-maker. The stage is not too big, no matter where he plays, and Texas football is good. And so we really like who he is.
Q: On two local players in the class (Fields and Sanker):
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Proximity matters in terms of well-being. And you can still be from Charlottesville and have a college experience [at UVA], and going home is still going home, but you’re in the dorms. And so it doesn’t mean that you’re not having a college experience by living 15 minutes away. And I think there’s huge upside to that. It’s my ideal, right? So we’ve started in-state every year and tried to expand our footprint from there in trying to claim the territory and best players and work outward, and no better place to do it than look at Charlottesville first, which we have been doing.
There’s been some instances since I’ve been the coach where there’s been some good players here, but their grades weren’t quite what were needed to be at UVA. But in this case …
No. 1, I had a son that played at Western Albemarle, and so I was going to watch him play, and then I saw this other guy and I was like, ‘Whoa! Who is that?’ And then I get a video of him doing like a half-gainer, just standing still and out of nowhere. And so I became intrigued with not only how he played and the number of positions he could play with his sheer athleticism and size. If I’m choosing a sleeper pick from maybe the outside world’s evaluation to my evaluation, this is the one. He is an amazing young person, but the size and speed and potential, I’m really excited about him.
And so then [Sanker is] another unique story, both Charlottesville players, an eight-man football player. That’s kind of unprecedented, to think of eight-man to then Power 5. However, the nature of the school, his upbringing, his parents, and then he just happened to be training with some of our players in the offseason at a training facility. Some of the best endorsements come from word of mouth in this whole recruiting process, and when your players that are in your own program start saying, ‘Hey, Coach, there’s this kid that trains [at the same place], you might want to take a look.’ And by then he was committed already to Boston College. But it didn’t take long after reviewing the film, putting the word-of-mouth references in place, and then knowing that we didn’t look deep enough, we didn’t look early enough, and we didn’t look strong enough. And then we tried to fix it. Luckily, we were able to rebuild the relationship, and I really, really like the potential and the possibilities of both our Charlottesville players. I’m excited. I think it’ll be great.
Q: In your continued effort to build the offensive line, what does this class bring?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: So there’s a pretty simple metric for any program; that you’re always looking to bring greater than not equal to. And that’s not an insult or disrespect to our current team. You’re always looking to become better and start at a level beyond what the previous class did. And then our current team, they have to be better than the class in front of them. And that’s the way you have growth and maturity and accelerate your program. I didn’t talk about two of our other players in terms of Charlie [Patterson] and Ty [Furnish]. Charlie is more of the same build as the first two I talked about. Ty is more center-guard-ish, which is a little bit different build. But both are capable of playing offense or defense by athleticism, which is a compliment, and aggression. You’re now talking about four additions that we believe are starting beyond where most of our existing offensive linemen were when they came into our program. And the now the offensive line is just becoming more like we want it to become. So now there’s a chance of perpetuating and improving on what we already have. Now there’s consistency, excuse me, there’s the chance for consistency over the long term which is what the greatest programs have, especially in the front. It’s just the next group up, rather than having to rebuild. You’re just more reloading.
Q: I know you’ve had this [recruiting] dead period over this time, what has it been like to watch this group off the field? I know they had that huge trip to Grounds where they all met up. What have you been impressed by them off the field?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: That part’s been remarkable because we haven’t been able to host them officially. And so they, on their own, did an unofficial unofficial. And we found out about it. I don’t know how we found out about it, because we couldn’t know about it, or we couldn’t orchestrate it. So we start getting texts and guys saying ‘hey we’re on Grounds.’ And we were ‘how could be on grounds when you’re from Washington, Texas and what do you mean you’re on grounds?’ And they unofficially organized it themselves. As some of these classes do, they start texting in text threads and Snapchats and Instagrams and what whatever else they do. And they started this bond, and they kind of formed their class without it being formed by us. And I would say Josh McCarron is right in the center of that. Josh’s mom is a team mom for their high school team so there’s probably an organizer/campaign manager kind of background in there somewhere. But that’s pretty impressive for them to rather than let the NCAA or us have to organize something for them, just to say this is what we want in our college experience. This is what we want to do it with. We just saw UVA in the Orange Bowl. We just saw the care of their team in the pandemic. We’re starting, whether they’re gonna let us start or not, we’re going to start. And they did it. That’s a lot of initiative, a lot of commitment, but they also really like each other. And I think, and I not positive, but I think then they ended up with Jonas Sankers house after for some kind of barbecue. Or I got I only got a second hand, but I was thinking this is unbelievable. But here these kids are, and I can just imagine them coming in on buses and trains and planes and then, here they are and then they’re barbecuing. And we didn’t have anything to do with it. We’re just getting the second-hand details. It’s a pretty good way to recruit. We don’t have to do any of it, they just do it all. That’s pretty fun.
Q: What do you feel going into this cycle were your biggest needs and how did you address those and what do you feel like, as you go forward to the ‘traditional signing day’ what do you feel like remains out there for you guys in this class?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s fair that I’ve never been able to match exactly what we need, versus exactly what we get. And sometimes we feel better and sometimes we don’t feel quite as good by a position or two. The volume and quality we needed again at offensive lines, to sign four… Once you get past three in any given class at offensive line, it’s difficult to maintain the quality and we did that which is great, which allows consistency for our program. The volume and quality we needed in the secondary in signing five, that’s a big task where you need not only quantity but quality. And then the other positions, especially quarterback, as we saw this year are… The word I keep using is succession planning. We continue to need to be deeper and better, and cycling through players and developing them without any gaps in terms of not quite enough depth. So you always want three that are ready, and a fourth being developed. And so now when you consider that we have Brennan [Armstrong] and then Ira [Iraken Armstead], which we already saw some of his possibilities this year before he got hurt and so that’s great. He’s coming back. But then you think about not only Jacob [Rodriguez], but you also think about our next in-state player at quarterback and the dynamic ability that he has in Jay Woolfolk, and that starts to look really, really good. Because now you’re having Brennan who’s athletic and tough and physical and control, and you have Ira who’s super-fast and athletic and tough and he can throw and is a huge big-play threat. And then you have Jacob and then you have Jay as the up-and-comers. They’re both great athletes. Jay is going to play baseball and football here at UVA and is just a remarkable athlete. So now you have Jay and Jacob coming in to add with IRA and Brennan, and that starts to look more like exactly what we’re hoping and want every year: those type of athletes just keep going through. So the quarterback depth was something and ability was something we were looking at as well. And the rest of the positions, it was just sheer quality in terms of filling the numbers that we had with players again that we thought were greater than not equal to where our other guys were when they were arriving in our program. And that’s the best way I could probably blanket-answer that question with some specifics.
Q: What would you say kind of remains out there, going into traditional signing day in February?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: So I always, as a buffer, I like to hold some spots for transfers. And as you look this year, Tony Poljan really helped us. Shane Simpson really helped. Adeeb [Atariwa] really helped us. D’Angelo [Amos] really helped us. Am I missing anybody? Ra’Shaun Henry really helped us so a lot of times. I’m not super clear or perfectly crystal clear until we’ve gone through the offseason and spring practice. We know the transfer portal and the one-time transfer rule is going to happen and be in effect here. We all know that will happen. And so I’ve left some room, not a lot, but some room to address what I see within our team, through spring and the offseason, to then say okay we better add this player that player this player through the portal just to give us the experience we need and that time will be probably, it could be earlier than normal, but it also could be a little bit later based on again what I think our team needs. So that’s as far as I’ll go with that. I’ve just left ourselves a buffer, which is how I’ll put it.
Q: Can you kind of describe what it’s been like to go through this process in such an unusual manner, not being face to face, and of some of the challenges that’s presented.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Not having grown up in the virtual dating world, this would probably be the closest thing we’ve had to that. And what we have lacked in terms of in person communication, which was pretty limited by NCAA rule, I never felt like there was quite enough. We now have had more opportunities than were needed in terms of accessibility, it just has been virtual. But as you and I are talking on Zoom right now, it’s not in person. But after multiple, multiple, multiple times of being in person and Zoom and seeing what’s in your kitchen sink from here, right, for example, you start putting pieces together of what someone’s really like. You look for clues. There’s kind of a forensic element to it. And it doesn’t take long where you see young people in different contexts. They see us in different contexts, in terms of backdrops and what we’re doing in our life. And some of the formality drifts away pretty early on and you start getting a glimpse of who they really are in whatever setting they’re in. And we never really had that much access before. The disadvantage is not the human connection in person but the advantage has been accessibility, over time, and more touch points, even though it was virtual. I guess it would be like virtual dating. But I never having virtual dated, I don’t know, but that’s how someone compared it to me, presented it that way, so I’m just taking their word for it.
Q: Do you have concern more this year than any other years as it relates to knowing what you have with the recruiting class?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I actually think we know more, which I would say, atypical and maybe counterintuitive. It’s like how could that be? But the sheer access. You’re not in-person but the number of touches we’ve had is… I think we know our players better than what we’ve ever known before. And, yeah, I wouldn’t have expected that but I actually, there were zero surprises today. There was there was just nothing other than another day. We all got to sign which is awesome. But there were there wasn’t like the normal partial-anxiety. So it’s been really interesting that it’s been maybe an accelerant rather than decelerate to this whole process. And man, I don’t miss being on the planes. And I don’t miss the traveling and being away from my own family. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to interact personally, but it yeah there’s pluses to this as well. It’s not all negative.
Q: How difficult has it been and how much has it maybe minimized what you have available to a player to recruit and not be able to show them ‘this is what our practice facility looks like and this is our weight room looks like’ and all that stuff?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: So not nearly as limiting as anyone would initially have presented it to be. The virtual part of technology, which I bet every program has now grown and learned and become and will use those practices, even when it becomes non-COVID, in terms of normalcy. The virtual tours that have gone on with every program. So, for instance if I was recruiting you for, I’m not sure what position we would recruit you. Okay, I was recruiting you to play offensive line. I was thinking either quarterback or guard, so we’ll go with guard for right now. But if I was thinking guard, you’d have a chance to have a virtual tour, technologically with our weight room and our strength coach, and really not miss anything that you wouldn’t have seen in person or miss very little. Then all of a sudden here’s the academic part, and then here’s the facility part and the practice field. Here is the indoor part, here’s a position meeting. And, again, because of the increased access we had, I think the players saw more, even though it was virtual, and that is different, but I think they saw more, we knew them better, they knew us better, just by the sheer number and access we had to each other. It’s always limited in person by dead period, quiet period, etc. And this is all just pretty much open technology until April 15, and you manage that the best you can while you’re coaching your own team, while you’re getting ready to play a game, and you kind of have your own schedule. So not nearly as limiting as what I would have thought or anyone would have thought and, it really has not been a barrier to truly getting to know someone. The most challenging thing is sometimes it’s just great to see with your own eyes, practice or a game. Just to kind of validate some things you might have questions on and so if there was any downside, it would be the evaluative component of the play itself without being in person. I would say that’s probably the biggest challenge that any of us had of just not having that part to confirm or possibly contradict what you might have thought and seen on film.
Q: Quick question on a James Jackson playing the last couple of years here in Roanoke. He’s got a pretty cool story, he’s also one of the only players in the state to actually play this fall. What are your thoughts on him and what he kind of brings to the program?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Well it’s one of my favorite stories and one of my favorite kids. I mean I love this whole class but, yeah, he is really intriguing. He’s been on our radar for a while, and then just kept getting better and kept growing and kept making more plays and more versatility and then all of a sudden there’s a backflip on a sandy beach on vacation period. That’s not why we’re saying we’re taking him, but the pieces in his resume just keeps building. And it’s just like, okay, there’s a volume now of this is going to work, and this is a great fit. And hopefully it was the same vice versa, where it starts where, hey, this might work. Then, okay I like that, I like this and then there becomes this resume built. It’s a little bit later in the process in terms of timing, where we kind of came together, but it was, every step of the way was qualified for and it’s in a position. So he’s like a big safety and a real fast, agile outside linebacker kind of Noah Taylor-ish for us. We love that kind of hybrid-ish defender, and we think he fits really well in that category in our system. That type of player has proven to be really good for us and the versatility, we can use in so many things. So we think he’s like that.
Q: On the idea that you guys are versatile and all those things and the post season, how difficult has it been to not finish this year in the way you traditionally do?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Probably harder on our wives that anything from what I’ve seen already. I don’t have a calendar already set for the pandemic, choosing not to play in a bowl game year. That’s not in my policy manual so we’re designing that as we go and our wives are already wondering, what are you doing home right now, and I think they might be mad at the players for choosing not to play. I know the players moms are really happy that they’re coming home, but in terms of coach’s mom’s, they have their own schedule and they’re not planning on us till mid-January to kind of come back home. We’ve got growing pains right now, in terms of scheduling. I’m excited for our players to be home for Christmas. I’m not used to not playing at this time, nor are they. What I am excited for is the chance for our team and our program to renew, recover, reset and then hopefully get to some level of normalcy at some point. Knowing that the bowl games will be limited, the bowl experiences will be more like away games, and it just is a different experience in general for everybody. Our program is family first, and that’s an example of that. If they would have chosen to play, I would have supported that and helped them any way that I possibly could. I’m just thankful for their commitment to get to this point and again. my team probably has the biggest issues with Holly, my wife, more than anybody right now just, you know, what am I doing home.
Q: This year been challenging to the structure you promote. How hard will it be to go back to that in the event that a vaccine comes and everything’s normal again? How hard will it be to just go back to being regular football coach?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I’ll race back. We’ll set the world record for warp speed. We will set the fastest return record in the history of return records. We can’t wait. The cultural development. So, again, as our team left for the 17 weeks from the minute they went home from spring break and we brought them back in mandatory workout time, there’s formative culture building, demand creating, just hard stuff that I love to do, and we love to do, which is the essence of our entire program and building this resilient resolve. There is no, well, you can opt out I guess, but that just means you’re done at UVA, there’s no opting out and then coming back. So, the whole paradigm of how our program is run in terms of choice is completely different and has been. So, we did the best we could, as other programs are as well. You adapt you adjust, you do everything possible, that I know how to do. You adjust with injuries, with roster and you do, you just go, which we did. Was not perfect, could have been better. There’s all kinds of things we could improve. But yeah, if you’re asking how hard will it be. No, it’ll be. I’m craving, my knees are shaking and I’m just, let me go back to that as soon as I can go.
Q: You got six mid-year enrollees in this class, which I believe would be the most you’ve had here in Virginia maybe at BYU too, have you becoming increasingly fond of that option for players?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I wouldn’t say that I’m becoming increasingly fond of, I think the marketplace is generating that interest. So, everything just seems to be earlier in terms of timetable. There’s the early signing date. Offers are going to 2022 and 2023’s earlier and earlier, and the whole thing is just moving forward. Then this idea of when a player’s or a prospect’s senior season is over, not senior year, what else is there to stay for if football, and college is really what they want to do. So the value of that last semester of high school is being seen each year in a more diminishing capacity. Now UVA is not specific to, nor does it embrace mid-year high school or first year arrivals. So, their orientation and the onboarding process at UVA is designed for the summer for all students. I don’t ever want to have football viewed as different, separate, distinct from that. But there’s a different entry point, so we have to create the onboarding, and the programming that does all that. But for the players, and UVA has allowed us to increase, I think when I first arrived, we were allowed three mid-years. It might have been four, I don’t remember for sure. So, we’ve basically been able to expand that based on the quality of person, and the capability they’ve demonstrated. And we’re kind of growing by experiment. It’s like a pilot program, ‘does this work, how’s it gone okay yeah we think we can handle one more’. And the athletic department be the same, so we’re just kind of managing the external environment, UVA’s environment, trying to make it fit to recruiting, and sometimes it could be the difference of a player that wants to go to a place or the other, gets close okay, ‘where can I go mid-year’ because they think it gives them a better chance to play in their first year. And so, there’s a lot of influencing factors but all of that somewhere has led to the answer to your question of why it’s now six. So the demand creation from players wanting that to play early, to UVA allowing it, to whatever else we can do to customize the experience to meet a young person’s needs and what they want in college is kind of how we got to that point. But there are still barriers and boundaries as there should be.
Q: You’ve always had some Georgia guys on your roster, this year you sign five guys from Georgia. Is that a point of emphasis going forward or just a lot of good football players in that state?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s more of the second. It’s become a point of emphasis because of the quality of football and the number of players and then the proximity. I’m really not interested, it doesn’t mean I won’t look nationally, which we will. We’ll always look for referrals, but we’re increasingly aware that there are plenty of players within our footprint. And if you say footprint, let’s just say that let’s define that as maybe five hours of driving, or one plane flight, which is maybe an eight-hour drive. So if it’s one plane flight which is an hour, you know from like Atlanta to here, or five hours that’s pretty doable for any family, to see any game they want in the ACC. If you start saying okay you go outside of that footprint because, you know there might be a special need, or you might have a special tie or there might be something else. That Georgia area that you’re describing, fits all those criteria, really good players close enough. Could be a magical college experience in terms of family access, and it just for whatever reason has worked for us but I think those are the influencers of maybe why it’s worked.
Q: Amaad Foston had some really impressive stats at the running back position. I think he is the one running back in this class. What do you see out of him? Do you envision him potentially developing into a workhorse kind of back?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: We’re hopeful. So, to this point, I don’t think there’s been, and this is not, I’m not talking negatively about any of our existing running backs, Mike Hollins was probably the next most-touted, I would say, Amaad is, we’re hopeful to develop a featured running back, who’s capable on any play to score a touchdown, to break tackles, to just really energize a running game that complements a quarterback that can run. You saw some of that with Shane Simpson this year and the combination with Wayne [Taulapapa]. But there is another tier of dynamicism that can happen. Ahmad to this point, that’s more of the direction we like of someone that you look at the numbers and the production and the high school career and you say ‘Holy smokes, that looks really good’. And we would love to do that every year to where you have, or every other year at least, where you have the right kind of development as a featured back and here’s the understudy and then there’s a guy learning under him and it just keeps rolling through to when we hand the ball off, it could be the same as throwing it downfield to Lavel [Davis Jr.] or someone else, or like Bryce Perkins carrying the ball and, you know, he could go the whole way. So this is more like, Amadd is more of that caliber, which is exciting for us. We’re thrilled and we hoped this becomes kind of the beginning of a direction we wanted to have happen. This just is probably the closest that we’ve had in terms of fulfilling it.
Q: The senior players, what have those conversations looked like and do you have a deadline for them to make a decision? Then with the opt-out players, what’s your conversation been like with them?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: The returning players that are either fourth years or would be fifth years, we have exit interviews every year for those players, that has been happening, Monday and Tuesday of this week so those were the fourth years that are learning if they’ve earned their fifth year or not and what we think is best for them. Then there’s the fifth-year players, or it could have been the fourth years that have played four straight already that have exhausted their eligibility, but now because of COVID they have a chance to come back. So those conversations have happened Monday and Tuesday of this week, many decisions have already been made, but I gave them till the 21st, because that gave most of them a chance to go home, talk to their families and just let it sit for a minute. It’s a big decision. It gives us enough time and enough time based on the responses to then really reframe our focus on what our roster needs might be for possible transfers. And the few spots we left remaining as the buffer. So, I think that answers your question. The deadline is the 21st. Those exit interviews have already happened, which is normal for every year this year there was one more layer, because of the possible COVID returns. It’s going to help our team. There’s been some amazing stories of guys going off already to be in the investment banking business and there goes a guy to be the government consultant and there goes another guy to do this and it’s just so fun. And there’s some that have senior bowl invites and others are in between and trying to decide, man ,with this unique market, I don’t think I’m gonna be drafted, but the free agency I think I could do that but there’s probably no worse time to be a free agent in the NFL than last year and this year in terms of accessibility. So, then they’re trying to wrestle with that versus coming back and improving their stock. So those are the kids that are probably struggling the most of the ones that think they may be on the border and does one more year help them, and knowing that access to free agency, if they’re not a draft choice, that’s gonna be tough because of the current circumstances, not only last year and this year, which both Hasise [Dubois] and Eli [Hanback] ran into a year ago. Our team is looking at both of them saying, ‘We thought they were really good players, and how did they not get a chance?’ What influence was some of the environmental constraints of, where’s the free agent rookie camps and mini camps and personal workouts and there aren’t many. So, I think that’s weighing on some of those kids too. The opt out players, they’ve been held to the same standards in our program so in terms of academic and class attendance and anything else other than just the daily practice. We’ve been in contact with them the entire season. The year-end kind of exit meeting where the trainers speak and the strength and conditioning, which is the meeting we have to prepare everyone for coming back. They were on that call and so when they come back it’s ready, set, go. They were promised their scholarships wouldn’t be affected, which they haven’t been. Their standing remains as it was. They had the choice based on health and safety and their families, many of the parents were the ones that influenced their sons heavily, which I understand that. So they get to just come back and start and reintegrate and move forward. That will happen on February 1st or January 30th, when they report back.
Q: How difficult has this been?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I don’t know how to describe that. It has been the most challenging professional and maybe personal experience that I’ve ever taken on. I’ve grown in ways that I didn’t think was possible. The isolation is difficult, the new normal of playing football in a pandemic, and just consistently working on keeping our players safe, making sure that my promise was kept to the parents for that to be, first and foremost, if we were going to play. To then try to make sure we played at a level that reflected excellence, to deal with an injury and changes in roster. And then just the mental fatigue of players just being at school or in isolation, basically apartment to football, apartment to football, and very little social interaction. And uncertainty. I think that whole thing has provided, and exposed, provided chances for growth that we could have never ever had without this level of challenge, but also uncovered some things that we could do way better now that I’ve seen that level of test. But it has been both the both the most rewarding, challenging, invigorating, exhausting. You could just kind of put in whatever adjectives you want on both polar opposites, and it will probably cover anything I think about this. I like hard. I like hard things together, and I absolutely got that. And I found my own some of my own shortcomings along the way through this level of challenge, which I’ll work hard to address as well.
Q: Have you viewed the performance of your team as an expression of your leadership ability, in terms of staying away from infection?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think you have to. In my position or any leadership position of visibility, I have to be accountable for everything. In terms of outcome, I’m talking winning and losing, but also in terms of availability and readiness. I’ve been really clear about my priorities from the beginning. This is the health and safety and well-being of young people first. I can get all of that right, we’re going to then play football at the highest level we could. We didn’t start great right, and certainly Brennan’s [Armstrong] injury had something to do with that. But man, there’s some heavy adjusting that had to go on and how are we going to do both of these at the same time. It took and is taking a while to figure that out. How do you do both of those really, really well? I saw teams opt-out, excuse me, not qualify, and then win the next week where if they would have played that week they probably would have lost because of their roster. And that’s easier not harder. Harder is being ready, every single week. That’s harder. And I wanted that, I also wanted the outcomes. So I’m really pleased with our, the care of our players. Somewhere in there, adjusting quicker to the performance part, and doing that at the same time, and managing the roster and the changes. Well that became challenging. I do think we corrected and made significant strides. Not only the leadership, I think I have to claim, win or lose, I have to claim that from outcomes but also availability, but the support I received from [Director of Athletics] Carla [Williams] and [Associate Athletics Director for Sports Medicine] Kelli [Pugh] and President [Jim] Ryan. There was at one point right we took two planes to an away game and 11 buses once we got there. Some folks might say, we did that twice, some folks might say, well that’s exorbitant, or that’s not fiscally responsible. We’re talking about the health and wellbeing of people that I am responsible for, and that I was allowed to do that, and received that kind of support was exemplary. That’s the kind of place I would want one of my kids to go to that the President and our athletic director allowed us to do that. There are plenty of others, that it was one plane and fewer buses, oh and by the way they can’t play because they had an outbreak. That’s not okay to me. And we, and I expressed that to everyone that would listen. But yeah, I do want both. I want to win every game and do that. I learned a lot.
Q: How much has the way your players have dealt with this pandemic kind of cemented for you the idea that they get what you’re selling?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: My players allow me to coach them, and they listen, and then they choose what to believe. It’s confirming to me and validating, how they handled it because again they were asked, ‘Do you want to play?’ And they said yes. And they kept their word. That means they did everything by a protocol standpoint to be available every single week to honor their commitment. Those are the kind of people I want to be around, the ones that honor and keep their commitments. Then they made a choice at the end based on, choices are based on principles, principles are based on beliefs, and they got together and were charged from me to get together and decide what’s most important and they decided at that point, family was most important. The very first principle in our program is family first, last and always, and they chose that. I just I’m thrilled for them, their growth, their development and in that regard, the pandemic has been a blessing. Not in other regards in terms of the suffering and the deaths, and the financial part and all that. But this challenge has invited a transformative experience that is very difficult to even think that could be matched. And it wouldn’t have been matched if we didn’t try to play. And they did. That part has been really helpful to me of learning, put it this way, I think young people can do anything they put their minds to. If asked correctly, and they understand, I think they can do anything they set their minds to. This confirmed that. And that’s saying I know we could have won. I wanted to win 10 or wanted win 11, and do this right, that would be more my fault than their fault. They’re willing to do whatever they understand and find value in, and can find purpose in and that’s what this year made clear to me.