Virginia Football Media Conference
Monday October 5, 2020
Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall
Q: How about how much do you know about a program like NC State that you play so infrequently?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think it’s a really good point. Not very much. And as much reading or as much as you know the head coach, or as much as you think [you know], until you play a team, their true identity, their true character, just kind of the culture of the program, you don’t see, you don’t feel and you don’t know up close and personal. It might have been my first year or second year we played at NC State. But knowing that program then is still significantly different as coordinators have changed since then, and personnel have changed. And so, with that identities can change also. So it’s difficult. And there are certainly some unknowns, and certainly adjusting that happens, just as the game plays out. And even though they’re in our league, even though there’s exchanges and you see him on film on occasion, it’s not the same as preparing for when we’re playing them.
Q: NC State has used different players due to coronavirus and other reasons, especially at quarterback. What have you seen from them the offensive side of the ball and the different quarterbacks who have played?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think they’re doing a nice job of adapting, just like every program is expected to do. And really that’s the bottom line. In terms of this 2020 year, with the uncertainty of your own roster, of your own coaching staff… because we’re all vulnerable to the virus. It’s hard to tell when you might get it, and so adaptability is huge. I think North Carolina State has done a nice job managing three different distinct opponents with different rosters. This is just the beginning for all of us. So I think so far they’ve done a very effective job.
Q: Defensively against Clemson, you talked about the missed tackles but in terms of keeping guys in front of you and not having passes go over your head. How would you evaluate the way your secondary played?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Really well. That was our first priority. You know Clemson is so good at shock and awe, where you show up and balls just go over your head and points are on the board so fast. And there are these giant plays. There were two parts to our plan. Number one, we had to control the downfield throws. The second part was we have to tackle, and then no disrespect. Number nine [Travis Etienne], right? Then after that, when Trevor Lawrence ran the ball, then we had to tackle him. That was kind of sequentially. So we handled the downfield throws really well. Who would have guessed that Etienne would have had over 100 yards receiving? And so really getting the ball to him, and the perimeter through screens and etc. was on our inability to tackle him effectively. Ended up being, and really not in the run game as much as the pass game, was a surprise. And the number of third downs, not many teams get Clemson in third and long that frequently, and quite frankly, if we would have known that, we probably would have practiced third and long a heck of a lot more. Which is hard to project that you’re going to get Clemson in third long that many times so, wow, lots in that answer I just gave you, but in terms of the first part, we played the ball downfield well.
Q: Billy Kemp IV, offensively for you, has that been a product of what defenses are giving you or is that something you saw coming in and kind of attack?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Saw from the minute he showed up for fall camp this year or fall reporting. He’s been the most consistent, the most competitive and the most productive player on our roster period, day in and day out. He has just been relentless in his preparation, and he’s playing exactly as he prepares. So the game looks doesn’t look kind of like practice, it looks exactly like practice. And I give him so much credit for his work ethic and consistency and he’s carved out that role. It wasn’t just given to him or he just by his production every day. He’s just required the ball has to go there because he’s open and then he makes players miss and then he gets hit, and he gets up and keeps going. He’s just really done a nice job.
Q: In their postgame comments Saturday night, both Brennan Armstrong and Wayne Taulapapa praised the play of the offensive line. What are your thoughts on where that group is two games into the season? And you got Bobby Haskins a little work at the end of the game. What does his return mean for the line?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Absolutely one of the bright spots of my journey here to the University of Virginia. Coach [Garett] Tujague has worked so hard, and has taken his lumps and has been working and growing and trying to get depth and trying to get the performance the way we, he and I, we all want it. And for the first time in going in, here in our fifth season, our offensive line, I would say is the cornerstone of why we’re having success as a program and as a football team and as an offense. They’re blocking effectively in the run and the pass. They’re healthy. We’re deep. We’re adding Bobby back to it. And that’s when teams don’t just have good seasons, they become really good programs, and consistent and sustainable. It’s the biggest difference in our program from a year ago to this year is the offensive line play.
Q: Evaluate the play of Charles Snowden so far through two games. Did he and Noah Taylor switch linebacker spots?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: We’re using both in multiple roles. And I would say Charles has been steady to this point. Steady is short of being a dynamic or impactful. He has yet to truly break out and take over a game or truly influence the game. That doesn’t mean he’s not being effective because he’s being effective down-in and down-out and play-in and play-out. So, steady and consistent, solid has been his performance. In terms of truly changing a game or having signature plays or things that are maybe noteworthy, not yet, but it will come.
Q: With COVID-19 being a reality, and knowing that you could have players miss a game, how does that change kind of your day-to-day approach?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Our athletic director, Carla Williams, she hit it right. A long time ago, we were having a conversation. She shared this advice with her own kids. She said the very best way to handle this is treat everyone as if they have it. We went so long without a positive test, I almost think that we possibly considered it wasn’t going to affect our program. You know, somehow we were going to be the team that it just wasn’t going to hit. And then last week’s testing, sure enough, here were some positives and all of us, I think we’re tightening down our masks and spacing out a little more. Just wait, who’s my locker who’s next to me? It was just the, I wish I had a better phrase, a wake-up call of just how fast, and how random, that it can happen. And then the contact tracing. That’s a whole other issue. Testing positive is one thing, but you can actually lose significantly more players through contact tracing than just the positive test. So that’s really a test of the protocol, so I’m looking hard at redesigning and putting new best practices or new practices in place right now. In fact, after I’ve learned from the contact tracing questions and how that’s working and things, we might be able to mitigate maybe some effects of that in the future. Because, let’s face it, the thought that it could or will happen again, I would have to say that’s likely when you have this many people doing the same things daily and having the contact we are even as effectively as we’ve done it. Yeah, I still am learning and will work to apply and try to give us… try to mitigate it the best we can. After I’ve now seen what this kind of looks like a little closer than just from hearing about other programs.
Q: Any update on Ronnie Walker and what his situation is?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No and our administration is asking what I’ve been told is every day. So it’s not for lack of inquiring. It seems like our urgency is more than maybe that of who we’re working with.
Q: Other than the roster changes that NC State has dealt with, what has impressed you about their football team?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think they’re tough. I think they’re competitive, and certainly they’re well coached. So Dave [Doeren] has done a really nice job with changes in personnel and coordinators in his time at NC State, and that’s hard. When you bring a staff with you, and you get culture and identity and direction set, especially with coordinators, if there’s a change there and if there happens to be new terminology and new systems, and if you still maintain success, regardless of other coaches around you or personnel, it reflects more of a program approach and more of a leadership emphasis. So I think that’s just the thing I would say is there’s different styles of play on offense and defense from when we played them last time. There’s probably been a change in between there that we just didn’t see because we didn’t play. But similar toughness, similar competitive spirit, similar resilience and I think that’s attributed to their head coach.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about Jowon Briggs and what kind of season he said so far?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think Jowon is playing at a higher level than he did a year ago. I think, the technical and fundamental emphasis that Coach (Clint) Sintim is bringing has really helped Jowon, in terms of consistency. I think his conditioning has improved. And I think his experience over last year has translated. So again, at that position you don’t see necessarily breakout games and you don’t see highlights as much from the nose tackle position, but the ball is difficult to run between the guards and that’s mostly because of Jowon. And I think having Jahmeer Carter here as well, that who can spell him on occasion and compete with him, those two things are allowing increased effectiveness at that position but also, possibly, personally for them both.
Q: When you’ve had such a remarkable record avoiding the virus and you get positive test results, how did the players initially react and is there kind of a ‘win one for the Gipper’ kind of mentality that that emerges?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: You know, it’s hard to have the right words. So, we’d just gone from cheering after every test since early July. And when I found out and it was late, it was late in the week, and I announced to the team that we had a number of tests, there was like silence and it sounded funny saying it, and the team looked like wait, did he just say that we had some positives and then no one quite knew what to do. And then, the contact tracing calls started. I think everybody on our program started moving. During the team meeting chairs started to move farther away from teammates. I mean, it was happening in real time, where maybe over time we’ve been kind of shrinking and (we thought) ‘we have this handled’, and man, as soon as I announced it, coaches like masks were tightening and guys were moving. And maybe that’s just part of the cycle. Just trying to remain diligent. I would say it’s heightened awareness for sure, for all of us.
And as you can see, my mask, I mean, the virus is going to have to come with a drill to get through this thing because it’s hard to breathe. But my wife and I are kind of just, we’re trying everything possible and I don’t know if I’m next. So it was more urgency, I guess is the best way to say what’s happened.
Q: A lot of quarterbacks in the ACC that have at least as many interceptions as touchdowns. What do you think that attributes to? Is that the absence of spring ball and summer workouts or what?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Oh, that’s a really good question. I don’t truly know but it certainly has had to have influenced, right. Repetition equals consistency. And so when you don’t have as much repetition or if you have moving parts around you by the virus and roster changes and possibly who you’re throwing and catching, chemistry is then affected, so probably preparation, consistency and chemistry are affecting the quarterbacks maybe at a higher level than normal, in a normal year and we all know this isn’t normal.
Q: Brennan I think missed his first four or five passes in the opener and he started one for nine the other day. Have you looked at a way to get him off to a better start?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, and I’ll take suggestions, but no he’s good. In fact, the other day his second throw I think hit Wayne Taulapapa right in his shoulder pads. But that was kind of the intent. It was just a little longer than a handoff and hit the guy right in the shoulder. And so, I think that’s just part of maturing and growing. It’s hard to even remember that’s how he started because he just was so competitive and did such a nice job down the stretch. I think that is going to be part of managing each team when we play them, the new looks they give, just calming down. And, yeah, we’ve made a clear intent to have manageable throws that he likes to begin with. But just going to take time, I think.
Q: Notre Dame determined that it’s virus outbreak started with a pregame team meal. You mentioned the randomness of the virus. Do you have any idea how this happened?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No, I don’t, which there’s an old time saying in warrior cultures, it’s hard to fight something until you can name it. And right now it’s like okay, it’s positive, but how come. We don’t know how come and the cases we have were different. They don’t know which is even more alarming. So our meals are grab-and-go. We’re adding new protocols this week. Again, just based on what I’ve learned and how the contact tracers deem someone else, how they might be vulnerable, then that helps me understand the virus at a higher level. But still what I don’t know is anyone that tested positive, how did they get it. And until I know that, it’s hard to target what exactly to do about it. So, yeah, I feel vulnerable which is maybe just how this works.
Q: Coach, maybe you want to explain it and also how nobody goes on the second floor of a queue from a player perspective and how you hold your position meetings and your team meetings in the indoor (Walsh) so they’re spread out.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Some of the protocols that are in place already, we probably haven’t even talked about this, the players, do not have access to the second floor in McCue. So, they’re not allowed to come up and interact with the coaches on the second floor. All of our staff meetings are still being held by Zoom. And so, the coaches are in their offices meeting remotely even though they’re next door in their offices. And anytime there is a meeting that’s not by Zoom, they’re in plexiglass, almost the equivalent of phone booths, in the same room. It’s like a game show where you go on and you’re not supposed to hear what anyone else says. It’s like that. And then, since early July, all of our meetings, they’re not in McCue. They’re in the indoor facility. So we have screens set up all around the indoor facility and folding chairs and that’s our football office so there’s ventilation, there’s distance. And then we just move the chairs and we practice. Our indoor facility is home base for us and our measures have been again so, so effective, and they held really well, even through school and students coming back. What I’ve seen though is as teams play their first game, it seems like after that game is when there happens to be or seems like an increase in numbers. And yeah, we thought we were good and about midnight Thursday night, Friday morning, after delay test results is when we found out and that’s tough too when you have preparation already done for the week and then you have to make modifications as you go. So anyway, those are some of the protocols that we have in place. There are others.
Q: What new measures will you Institute this week?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I’m still working on that. But it appears that a locker proximity so if someone has tested positive, even if we’ve staged entry times in the locker room where there’s hardly any overlap of changing clothes, etc., that even just that proximity can do it. We’re working on adding lockers, possibly dividing our team into different locker room spaces to where, much like when we travel on buses. We probably hired out every bus that company had when we were at Clemson and there’s like six people per bus, it seemed so obsessive.
But we’re trying to do the same thing with every space we have and just make sure there’s enough area in between. So, we’re adding lockers, and we’re dividing the team, even more in terms of sequencing of who comes in and when they come in based on class prioritization. There’s waiting and there’s quick showers and there’s in-and-out and there’s not much camaraderie. That’s getting ready to happen at a higher level. That’s kind of the direction that we’re headed.
Q: We saw a little bit Saturday for the first time what Keytaon [Thompson] could do at wide receiver, how is he progressing at that position and what is his attitude been about kind of playing someplace other than maybe where he expected to when he signed?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: He’s been remarkable. He mentioned at one point, this was week’s back, that he feels like a little kid again just playing football. Sometimes that happens, you know where you just need to restart, not only at a new place but maybe at a new position. He’s embraced the position, He’s learning, growing, developing. He’s big, he’s fast and he’s physical. So we’re still exploring what he can do. You’re right, we just saw some of what he can do. I don’t even know everything he can do, so the role is growing and it’s building. He’s on special teams as well, and not many quarterbacks have done that. So he’s learning how to cover kicks and hold up players and punt and different things like that and he’s doing it with a smile. It’s just the beginning though, and to say that we know for sure what his role can be. It’s still at the front end of so many different things, but his attitude has been really, really positive.
Q: When you see Ruffin [McNeill] on Saturday, will it be strange not to hug him?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Oh, I’m not sure it’s possible. I mean, I might have to put two masks on, but I don’t think it’s possible not to hug him. It’ll be so good to see Ruff and he’s one of my favorite people on the planet. I’ve never heard someone say that he loves someone after like three seconds of meeting him when the other person actually thinks he does, you know. He just has this way of warmth and engaging and, yeah, we used to have a segment when he was here when he would present to the team, even though I was the head coach, he was a different kind of dangerous every day. So, he might be gratefully dangerous, you know, or he might be, I don’t know, getting ready to go on vacation dangerous, or he might be anniversary dangerous and the team used to just love the way he would teach in his own language, his own way. He could admonish a player in ways I could never even imagine, and they still loved him, even though he was hard on them. It’s just his magical personality.
Q: What did you think of Lavel Davis Jr. the other day?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think he’s developing. I think that he’s capable and he continues to make – he’s developing, he’s growing, he’s productive and he’ll continue to do that. I’m really encouraged for his second game, to be in that setting, and for it not to seem too big for him, or too big of a stage. I think he’s doing a nice job.
Q: When you have an offensive line that you trust and feel like is performing well, how much does that open up the playbook in terms of what you’re able to do in terms of calls?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: What it really allows us to do is to develop a new quarterback. So, it’s giving Brennan more time and more confidence to just focus on leading the team and going through his reads and progression. When you don’t have protection or if you’re not certain how the front will play, that really can delay a quarterback’s development, or it can stop and actually cause problems that halt a quarterback’s development and sometimes allow them not ever to be developed. Because there’s things that have happened that just don’t go away, or the quarterbacks can’t overcome mentally. So Brennan is the benefactor right now of, probably the best situation he could have of a consistent offensive front, while he’s inheriting the reigns of being the starting quarterback. Then certainly from there, that allows you to execute more plays and more multiplicity. So, it’s all the things you said but maybe psychologically might be the most important.
Q: With Davis and [Tony] Poljan at six-foot-seven, do you have to coach Brennan, to move the ball differently to target some of those dramatically different sizes (at wide receiver)?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I don’t know enough about quarterback play even, just to throw low to the shorter guy and high to the taller guy. I do know that Tony and Lavel are open, soon as they walk on the field, they’re already open if you just throw high, because they’re taller. Brennan puts more air under it and he’s adjusted well. That’s probably a question for (quarterbacks coach) Jason Beck, other than just kind of my defensive view of its simplicity.
Q: in terms of when the plays like that are in your playbook, how comfortable are you as a head coach with letting Robert [Anae] and Jason kind of dial up the jump ball?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I’m for it because I know how hard it is to defend. There’s a reason they call it 50/50. And if you throw enough of those, then yeah there’s likely you get half. The game against Clemson, there’s two critical ones we didn’t get. One took a one-handed interception, and we’re teaching Lavel how to ensure that that ball isn’t caught by the defender, which was possible. Then we had a critical fourth down we threw it up to Tony, and the ball got knocked away, both those are makeable plays in my opinion, either at least not have an interception or to come up with the catch. So, other plays were made, which is positive. The ones that aren’t caught, we just need to make sure they’re not intercepted, which is another component which we’re still teaching.
Q: Brennan talked a little bit about it after the game, but what is the next step for this offense? What is the next tangible step that y’all can, you know, start to work on for this week?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Just consistency. Points win games. The percentage of drives that end in touchdowns, our chance to win goes up. The ACC is a competitive league, there’s tons of balance, every week is difficult. The schedule is unrelenting, and the teams that are the most consistent moving the ball and scoring points will have the best outcome. That’s how to measure it.
Q: Obviously this was your first time having guys out, you also had a coach out. I know you don’t want to go into names, but how did your operation change with having a full time assistant, not available?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Physical presence, there’s no substitute for that, and each coach has unique strengths. What the NCAA allows to happen is you can have another coach, a graduate assistant or an analyst be named or moved, so to speak, coaching duties for that week. And so there also are remote answers. Much like you’d be taking a course online so position meetings basically can happen online. There’s very little change that way. There’s a chance to groom and develop younger coaches. There’s a chance for players to continue to learn from their normal coach. Then you just adapt the best you can. We want to be fast and flat and flexible and adjust. There’s just tests coming every day, so it’s not the same, but there are workaround solutions that get you close to the same.
Q: You had a couple of players that earned a jersey number, one was Jake Dewease. He got his number 51 jersey, for you personally what’s that like to see your players accomplish this goal, and then also talk about Jake Dewease as a player and as a person on the team?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s the thing I like most besides granting scholarships to walk-ons, having jerseys being awarded. To earn a jersey in season, that normally means that the player has done so well in a role they were elected as a member of our fourth side for a game. Then they have to win it again, to be able to get a jersey so those standards are really high, and it’s voted on by their teammates. It’s the most gratifying thing that I get to do, is watch someone be rewarded sincerely for their effort, recognized by their peers. Jake just tries hard every day. He just tries hard which is so valuable for life. He’s tough, he’s competitive and he just tries hard every single day. If I could say that and have a program that does that and develops people like that, it’s worth having a football team for that reason.
Q: We are hearing from De’Vante Cross here shortly. For him to finally sort of found a spot where he seems like, at least we hope he’s gonna be at for the duration of season, is that kind of nice to see him kind of land somewhere after he’s done so many different things for you guys?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It is fun to see him grow and develop and have a singular focus and be able to just have an identity and a clear sense of what parameters are around his expectations or our expectations for him. That’s helpful and it’s building confidence. I have to reserve the right though to say, yeah, well, this week based on testing, he might be playing safety, or he might be playing nickel, or who knows if he doesn’t line up at wide receiver. So far, yes, it’s awesome that he can play one spot and dial in. To say or go any further than that. I’m hopeful for him, right, that that can happen. If there’s ever a chance and ever a year that it might be otherwise, we’re probably right in the middle of that year.
Q: Talk about Brian [Delaney’s] consistency and what that’s meant for the team
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Our kicking game really reflects the growth of our program. It went from, we weren’t sure what was going to happen on game day and trying to find anyone and someone that was capable to now school records and metrics that are being, and benchmarks that are being hit on a relatively consistent basis with a sense of normalcy. Brian’s accomplishments reflect, maybe just what’s happening within the program as well.
Q: Do you test early when you’re on the road?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: So the way it works, and for whatever reason our tests on Wednesday took longer than a normal week, and I was sweating and I didn’t have my results back until like 10 at night that Thursday. We just did Wednesday morning, so I was thinking ‘okay, who’s going to be the head coach and how.’ It was agonizing because it taken so long and that was abnormal, and possibly with students back and possibly with community spread. I don’t know whatever the factors were. But took it took a long time from our Wednesday test, our next test was Friday morning at nine. So I asked our trainer, I said ‘if we don’t get our results back till after midnight on Thursday can that count for Friday’s test since we passed the midnight hour?’ and laughed but said no. So, we literally got results by about midnight, and a few hours later when we woke up we were testing again.
Q: How do you handle the test results from Friday when you’re on the road and you’ve already determined who you’re bringing with you and have some test positive, what do they do while you guys are playing a football game?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: So we’re bringing extra players this year, the roster has expanded to 80 and for that very reason. So we have a buffer. We [laughs], because all the practicing is done, so then we adjust scripts and game plans and our offense I think did four or five walkthroughs from the time we arrived at the time we play with different rotations and people and the defense’s extra meetings. Just the loss of a single player, right at the position that happened to be a focal point, that can change everything if it was a critical matchup. And if a player tests positive once we arrive, and we get those results, they’re quarantined immediately. Then they’ll remain at that location, until they’re able to be transported back without being in contact with anyone else and sometimes they’re there the entire time. They’re there the entire 10 days or 12 days. Excuse me 10 days if they test positive. If they’re contact traced, they’re there 14 days until our training and medical staff can figure out transport to return them back to Charlottesville and to a place where they’d still be quarantined. So, yeah, I’ve learned a lot this week.