Virginia Football Media Conference
Monday November 23, 2020
Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Good afternoon, everyone. I’ve been thinking about this journey we’ve been on to this point this year. And the amount of work that’s gone in to get basically to chapter three now of this season. There’s kind of different stages that I’ve seen. We’ve had Brennan Armstrong for six of our eight games, and I really like the way he’s played. And I like our team. And the chemistry we have with him as our leader. Having lost to Clemson and Miami with him completing the games, I think he’s growing, maturing and developing every week. Our team remains resilient, optimistic, positive, hard working. Most of our issues in terms of depth and roster now are not COVID-related, but injury related, which is coming through just the wear and tear of a long season and probably the most difficult schedule that I’ve ever taken on as the head coach or our staff. So, here we are framed now for the homestretch, which are the last three regular season games in the ACC. I just I’m just grateful. I’m lucky to be the coach of UVA and really thankful for this particular team, and all they’ve done to get us to this point. So with that story or backstory I’ll take questions.
Q: We’ve seen a lot more of Matt Gahm over the years than we have of Elliot Brown. With Charles Snowden out, is Elliott’s role likely to grow? And where is he in his development?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Elliot is a dynamic athlete, really skilled in space. A fast and effective pass rusher. I think that those things manifest on Saturday night. He is a compliment, and more of the similar skill set to Noah Taylor than Matt Gahm. Matt Gahm is more of our pass rusher and more a better fit to the boundary and our WILL position. So Elliott can play either, but he’s more suited for our SAM position which is our field player, and his role just became greater and more impactful and his number of snaps per game just went up, as it did this past game. So I think Saturday was a pretty good indication of what he’s capable of and, and most likely what his role will be.
Q: What kind of certainty is there that you will play this week or any week at this stage?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: You know, I think it’s a fair question. Put it this way – Monday and Wednesday, they don’t even report our results back to me anymore because they just expect them all to be negative. We just are not having an issue with positive results so far. One of the leaders of the company that does the testing basically made a comment this past week that whatever you’re doing, just keep doing it because we just are not seeing that anywhere else in terms of the numbers. So history, now through eight games, says that COVID most likely is not an issue with our team. I do know that can change at any time. So, I’m putting a disclaimer on that but really it’s coming down to more injuries for our roster than it is for COVID. I can’t ever speak for the other team, and what our opponents have going in terms of their programs and injuries and culture and COVID and everything else that might influence the season. And so that’s probably where the most variability lies right now.
Q: Abilene Christian’s coach said after the game that they were decimated by injuries and COVID during the week. Were you aware of that?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No. Our focus is almost exclusively on ourselves. And so, I really am not paying much attention to anyone else’s roster other than a 2-deep whenever I get that and knowing that sometimes it’s accurate and sometimes it’s not. So, I didn’t know.
Q: How much different has your approach been to the unique circumstances of this year and the way you talk to the team about those kind of things [like COVID]?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Well, I’ve grown in a lot of different ways and had have handled a lot of things imperfectly and some things effectively and in every range in between. The sheer, I would say, mental fatigue from the time our players reported now to where the season is normally, getting ready to be done this week and they’re still three more games and possibly postseason for teams after that, the possible adaptation, not only in terms of mindset, but integration of breaks and fun and just anything possible to promote sustainment and to prolong and help kind of this long term deployment is what we’re attempting to do. And it’s imperfect, but that is our intent.
Q: Florida State declined to play Clemson on Saturday because a Clemson player at tested positive when the results came back on Saturday morning. Has the timing of ACC testing, been a concern at all for you, particularly as it relates to the road team, not finding out his Friday results until Saturday morning, after it has traveled?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think that, first of all, going back to this the reference point, we’re playing football in a pandemic. And as soon as we say that, all of a sudden that kind of softens any protocols that might be in place. We want to test as frequently as possible and as close to the game as possible to be as safe as possible for both teams, so I think we’re doing the best we can as an ACC. If we were to go back and just say okay now what would we do differently. Yeah, maybe more exacting protocols as to what determines whether you play or not. More specificity in that possibly if you don’t play that might have counted as a loss for your team rather than the game just being moved on. Possibly. When the medical advisors are meeting, which sometimes that is how the game is determined whether it plays or not, a third party could certainly help that if there’s an impasse. So, I don’t have any issues with the protocol testing, nor the frequency or timing. We at one point as coaches went on to try to have a just discussion to specify how many players would you need and what positions and etc. We just defaulted to good sportsmanship and believing the best about each other when I don’t think any of us imagined what this would really look like it’s some of the unpredictability ease. And when folks are put under pressure sometimes that changes a little bit so I think more specificity would have helped. I think a third party. When it comes down to the negotiations at the end possibly like just happened with Clemson and Florida State, that certainly could have helped. It’s hard to predict all these things before the season starts. There’s something new almost every week.
Q: Can you imagine being in a city such as Tallahassee on a Saturday morning and learning that your game would no longer be played because of one positive test.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It would be it would be very difficult to understand, knowing that contact tracing is part of what’s happening now. Positive tests are what’s happening. And we’re taking extra players in the event that that happens and so once you’ve already arrived in in that particular location, and you’ve mitigated as many as possible of the circumstances that might affect you not playing, it’s hard to imagine then what is the deal breaker. But again, there certainly could be, and I’m not a medical expert, but it would be a challenge to be there with your team. And then, to be sent home.
Q: You have about two dozen players who live within a short drive of campus, short enough drive. Under normal years would you have allowed any of those kids to go home at any point for Thanksgiving, and how are you approaching it this year?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, that’s what we have done before. Anyone in state could go home and they could take other teammates with them. And families certainly could come in to Charlottesville and have Thanksgiving dinner or just however they’d like to celebrate that. This year, our players we’ve asked them to stay here at UVA, we’ve asked for family members that it would be best for us if they didn’t come from the outside in the visit, just for the sake of us helping finish our season. But if they do social distancing and masking, which is what we’re asking for, just the same protocols that are happening here on Grounds. But man, we’ve come so far. And I know it’s Thanksgiving, and really just trying to keep the protocols in place as best as possible and then hopefully provide a day. It won’t replace their families, and their mom and dads but hopefully we can provide a day that will help through myself and our coaches in the structure
Q: What was your reaction to Charles Snowden’s injury injury and what he’s meant to, especially to this defense here in the last four or five games?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I don’t, I don’t know if I can articulate it. Charles’ influence on our program has been breathtaking in terms of maturity and growth. And, in a lot of ways, his own maturity and growth is matched out of the program. He came in as tall and thin and a basketball player and he’s blossomed into a future NFL player with amazing leadership skills, and a captain of our team in a four year period. That that trajectory has almost been straight up. And I think it is almost a mirror image of the program’s culture and the direction. So it’s hard to separate Charles Snowden and UVA football. They seem to be one in the same. And I’m not sure if there could be a better exemplar than him, of what I would like our program to be.
Q: Over the last couple of weeks you’ve talked about Brennan Armstrong improving. Can you talk specifically about what areas he’s become a better quarterback?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Great quarterbacks have anticipation and great quarterbacks are really fast decision makers. And so I think Brennan’s accuracy of decisions without compromising speed is improving. So one of the great things is he’s so decisive and so competent. But like any of us, we can be fooled on occasion by an opponent or by a situation. His ability to discern what he’s seeing with accuracy and speed is improving each and every week. That’s what I see, he’s already a good athlete. He already has a strong arm. He already is a great leader, but I would say just the speed and accuracy of his decisions is what I see improving consistently.
Q: Florida State has had their own issues a quarterback. Jordan Travis, it looks like the guy will be starting. What do you know about him?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Well, an electric dynamic athlete. He’s very good in terms of his ability to create. He’s very good with the ball in his hands. He’s just very difficult to stop as an athlete, and at that position, so I think he’s very effective. Probably the closest that we’ve played, that’s similar, again, I don’t like comparisons, if you have to say that it’s probably the quarterback of Louisville. Those two would be similar-ish. But I’ve been impressed by not only him. His backup came in and was the starter against NC State and the remainder of the game. And he’s also capable. So two is really all that most of us ever are expected to have to go through a year your starter and your backup so they have two. And that’s basically what we have as well. I think all of us feel fortunate to have that many at this point going down the stretch.
Q: How did Charles handle the news with his injury, both in the locker room and after the game and what was his reaction that he’d be out?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think saddened and disappointed. He’s already had his surgery, his mom is here looking after him. There’s the initial reaction, and then there’s the onset of what it really means in terms of recovery, in terms of future, in terms of other decisions that will have to be made so he’s kind of in that process right now. I think part sad, part grief, part remorseful, part frustrated. I don’t know you could probably substitute about every adjective that you could imagine in there. I would just say I’m thankful, just for all that he’s contributed to this point. I don’t think you can give more, so I’m just, I’m grateful.
Q: Brennan, just what have you noticed from him as guys described him as a little bit quiet at the beginning of the year, but he’s got a fiery attitude and competitiveness to him. What have you noticed about him during this three-game winning streak in that regard?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Really not much else, but what I saw at the beginning versus Duke, or versus Clemson, he’s the same in terms of personality and persona. He hasn’t become more outspoken, he hasn’t become less outspoken. I think the team, the staff and everyone, our relationships are just getting clearer and we’re understanding each other better. I don’t think there’s been transformative changes, other than consistency and understanding of us all, but I don’t think that he’s, or really probably any of us have changed much but I do think we understand each other better. That’s always helpful when you’re working with the leader.
Q: Is there a next step for Brennan, that you can see or want him to take?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Consistency of wins. The quarterbacks are always measured, just like coaches. At the end of the day the outcomes are what the world uses as the gauge. Internally there’s much, much more and things that add a lot more value. In Brennan’s case, the games that he’s played from beginning to end. Sequentially I like Duke, I like Clemson, I like Miami, I like UNC, I like Louisville and I like the last game. I can’t see anything that’s not just continuing to trend up. There’s three more opportunities for him in regular season. And so just more of the same, and that adds to a body of consistency that equals better.
Q: With this being a free year of eligibility, has the topic of Charles coming back been approached or is that something you wait for him on or you discuss at the end of the season? As a follow up to that, with him and Richard both out as defensive captains, where does the leadership come from on that side of the ball going forward?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I’ll go in reverse order. Zane Zandier has really been an outspoken and vocal and productive leader for us defensively. Joey Blout has been the same even though he’s been hurt. Those players, Nick Grant, De’Vante cross, that area is really where a lot of leadership has come from. Richard’s absence, and now in Charles’ absence, it will fall more to them. I’ve chosen not to address it from the head coach’s seat, the eligibility of any of our players until after the year is over. They’re having conversations with their position coaches and that’s been happening, off and on probably for a while, as players are asking ‘what do you think about me coming back’, etc. So, I’ve left it at kind of position coach/player level, at this point, without formally addressing it. I like the focus being on here and now. Knowing that any distraction usually impedes performance, it doesn’t help. We’ll approach that after our last game with each and all of the players that have exhausted their eligibility. That’s the primary issue is the players that have exhausted eligibility, are they going to come back or not. And they won’t count, so it really doesn’t affect anyone else in terms of urgency or immediacy.
Q: How have you compensated for Jowon Briggs’ spot in the lineup?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: This last game we started Jahmeer Carter, true first year, and he’s playing really well. I love what I see from him, not only in performance but effort, mindset, his love for football, his discipline, he’s doing a really nice job. Adeeb [Atariwa], our transfer for JMU is also the other starter, opposite Mandy [Alonso] who’s the elder statesman of the group now. In talking with Mandy the other day, he’s used to looking up to Eli Hanback and Richard Burney and now he is that player. He is the ranking senior and upperclassman in that group. So his role is changed a little bit. Right after that, that’s where, as you saw Nusi [Malani] was hurt in the game. We don’t know his status yet and so depth becomes probably the biggest issue for us now after those three that I mentioned as the starters.
Q: All the coaches are talking about being in this stretch run. Do you feel like your players are, “peaking at the right time” and what does this say about your team given the environment that we’re all dealing with?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I like the momentum we’re generating. I like the outcomes that we have, but more importantly I like their mindset. Again, when you make this long, and this far with the protocols, being met, so we can keep practicing and keep playing, that allows the growth, and the improvement to happen. There was a stretch in there, again, where we lost our quarterback and that was a challenge for the entire team. Outside of that, the team has remained, playable and healthy enough for us to be kind of counted on by anyone that’s going to play us that ‘yeah you’re playing Virginia there’s a great chance you’re going to play the game because their history is they’re gonna have their roster and they’re gonna be there no matter what.’ That reputation is hard to earn and, again it’s to this point. I know things can change, but they want to play, and they want to improve, and they want to finish strong. I think their performance is showing that.
Q: Obviously you don’t replace Charles Snowden, but you do have a senior in Matt Gahm who’s in that position to help try to fill that void. How well equipped is he to handle that, as he moves forward in these final games?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Matt’s completely equipped and prepared. He plays really hard he has all the skills he’s experienced and he’s ready. The word seamless would be used just in terms of transfer from one to another, they’re different and distinct in style and role. But between Matt Gahm and Elliot Brown, they have experience, they have maturity, they’re well-versed in our program. There is no replacing Charles but I’m thankful that those two are available.
Q: It’s been a long time since Virginia has had a wide receiver with the stature of Lavel Davis. What about your experience in your decade at BYU as head coach? Did you have any body comparable?
BRONCO MENDENAHLL: We had two players, there or three that remind me of Lavel. We had a player named Mitch Matthews, I believe he was listed at 6’6”, a wide receiver, and we loved what we could do with him. Two others that are similar in size, similar and speed, and similar in production that we had over their careers. One is a junior college transfer. Actually, the other two are both junior college transfers where Mitch came in as a high school player. And we just liked that they’re always open. Just regardless of just standing out there you can throw it high, and they’re open. When you can run like Lavel, that is an additional bonus. So that he’s at the front end of his career is really exciting and helpful, but we have used and liked and designed things like this before and we were hopeful, at some point, we could move that direction here at UVA. Nathaniel Beal is not as tall, but similar in size, and just unfortunately he got hurt early in his career. He’s recovering and returning now, but that’s another really big target that you’ll see over time kind of emerge.
Q: Did you have any inkling that Lavel would have this kind of impact before you actually saw him on the practice field in August? Were there any reports of him during training in July or anything?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No nothing in the summer and nothing until he arrived and quite frankly our timeframe, we thought it would be a year or so before he would emerge to the capability that he has now. But then seeing the summer workouts, my perception changed immediately. Work ethic, speed ability, determination, and it was not long before he was going to be a first-year player. Maybe took less than two weeks from the time he arrived even before we started practicing.
Q: You mentioned that Charles had surgery. I gather it was a broken ankle. What is the timetable for his recovery?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I’ve been told it’s around the six-month mark, plus or minus. So I don’t know for sure which way and I haven’t been informed any more than that but that was the range I was given.
Q: I just saw something that Duke had to cancel the first basketball because of COVID, and you know I think 18 or 20 games were postponed this weekend. What’s your level of gratitude, appreciation, whatever it is for your guys for the fact that, they have dealt with us the way they have?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It is absolutely remarkable and inspiring to me. I use those words, but I can’t tell them in a way that really reflects it. I see them every morning and there they are, again. There’s no one contact traced, there’s no one, and we’re going on week nine of the season and I don’t know how many weeks we have in preseason before this and here they still are. It just is absolutely remarkable. I know, the minute we started playing games all I’ve been asked about is the outcome or the record. Wow, what a huge story and be missed. If that’s all that’s focused on. And I get it, I know it’s an outcome-oriented game, but that in and of itself is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever been part of in terms of commitment and resilience. And I want more than anything for the results on the field to reflect and garner the interest as to who are these guys. And then this story to be told, because it’s amazing.
Q: Is there anything from the Miami trip, not saying that anything went wrong but anything, you looked at and said, ‘Okay, I’m glad we experienced this. We’re gonna do this different time?’
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, we’re taking extreme measures. After we’ve learned about contact tracing, and really the only bump we had in any positives was after our Clemson trip, actually not our Miami trip. Our home success is one thing, the road success is something else in terms of COVID and we are above and beyond, meaning that the number of people we travel with we actually take fewer not more. It’s more of a seal team approach where it’s only essential personnel. The seating on the planes, the seating on the buses so you know most teams might take six buses. If we don’t have at least a seat in between or seat apart, there’s no one that can be contact traced by our seating on the planes or on the buses. That means there’s more. So there’s more costs to that. But the players, in my opinion, have earned that because they’re so committed that we need to help them. If you see 11 buses rolling down the highway and UVA is in it, there might only be, I don’t know, 12 guys per bus. So be it. Because we’re playing in these circumstances. The ones that come committed to do this, I want to help them in any way and I’m so thankful our administration is helping us. Those kinds of changes, additional buses, or additional planes, or additional hotel rooms, or additional whatever to increase the space, is what I’ve learned over time through original contact tracing. That was after the Clemson game. So that’s where the adjustments happened really, not the Miami game. That’s allowed us to keep going the way we have, and that’s where the adjustments have happened. More space, more vehicles, more basically everything with fewer players because you need bigger bubbles around each individual.
Q: Florida State, what do you see from that offensively that might challenge you, especially considering some of the people you have out?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah talent. There’s always a difference between outcome, and then what’s really happening on the field and what the potential matchups look like. So consistency usually is an issue for any team that’s struggling at the quarterback play in terms of dynamic playmaking. I see that as a huge challenge. But also, the talent throughout. If you put stock into the recruiting rankings, and you look at just the quality of a roster and now you add a new staff, they’re being coached well. And I’m talking about the discipline, the alignments, the assignments, the schemes. I see a transformation happening, as there’s a new staff and players kind of coming together, and again it’s in a pandemic as well so it’s probably slowed maybe their initial progress or as fast as they hope, but the signs are all over the place that there’s improvement in my opinion as I look now, not from the TV copy but just okay what’s really happening there. You have to say the talent on the roster, and you have to say the quality of coaching, in my opinion.
Q: Turnovers, I know winning that battle is important for you It sounds like you’ve sort of studied that a good bit I was curious, is it a 50/50 split in terms of the offense needing to hold on to the ball, the defense needing to take the ball away. How is that sort of responsibility shared when it comes to winning the turnover margin?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s actually possibly a three-way split. Net outcome is the is the bottom line, and however you get them but basically you need to be in the plus margin. And if for some reason there aren’t turnovers, creating extra possessions or stealing possessions, is part of a fourth down philosophy. I view that as, as a turnover or a possession. Those kind of things all have to contribute so if the turnovers don’t yield a plus or minus then extra possessions, would be the equivalent of the plus or minus. That’s the third component that kind of fits in.
Q: Jordan Redmond started for you as a freshman. He made a couple plays on Saturday. It’s first time we’ve seen him in a long time. Where’s he on his development and can he help?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yes, he can help and he’s going to need to help. The next tier of defenders in the defensive line. You also probably got your first look at Su [Olasunkonmi Agunloye], as a first year. And so, so, Jordan Redmond, and Tommy Christ has some experience at defensive line as well, even though he’s been playing offensive line. So those three will make up our two-deep. Now, as the next three players and we’ll need them all. Back to Jordan specifically. He did some nice things in the game, so I was really excited and happy for him. And hopefully that’s kind of a new beginning and a new opportunity to reestablish himself.