Virginia Football Media Conference
Monday September 28, 2020
Head Bronco Mendenhall
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It feels really good to have played a football game. Our players needed it. They needed a reinforcement that the work they’ve been putting in had a real and tangible outcome or opportunity. I was so happy they had success and they were able to get a victory as well just to recognize again and reinforce the effort and sacrifices that they made so far. It was fun to see just everyone happy and celebrating and being together, playing, playing the game. I’m really encouraged by a lot of things that I saw in the opener, plenty of things to work on no question. But just excited for the process and excited to continue to develop this theme and our team and our players. So, looking forward to our first road game. And another great test.
Q: You went almost four seasons without playing Clemson and now you get them again nine months later. Do you like the idea of a rematch so quickly?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Oh yeah. I’m thrilled to be able to get a chance to play Clemson again. Having earned the chance to play them in the ACC championship game last year, it just accelerated our program. It exposed deficiencies. We learned so many things about that setting, that stage, that opponent. We’re anxious to learn and apply and improve from what we showed a year ago. But without that game, and the outcome of that game and how it was played, we wouldn’t have been as effective or played the way we did versus Florida, so I thought we played a better football game against the University of Florida because of what we learned in our game against Clemson. To grow and expand and develop our program, the best teams on the biggest stages accelerate growth. So, every time we have a chance to be in a setting against a quality opponent, growth happens faster than it would if we weren’t in that stage, especially now going into year five.
Q: The schedule has changed a lot over the last six weeks, but what were your preliminary impressions of the schedule?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: My preliminary impressions were, it was going to be the most challenging schedule that I’ve ever taken on as the head coach. Just quality opponent from beginning to end, with no let up or no break. What I have learned in the ACC of playing ACC schedule, I really worked hard to add balance to the schedule with our four non-conference games as the program was building. This doesn’t allow any balance. This just allows quality after quality after quality, which tests certainly your coaching, but certainly tests your roster and your depth. And, yeah, you’re afforded to just going from one to the next, regardless of home or away or outcome, just to continue to go. So, my initial thought was it was going to be the most challenging season in terms of schedules that I’ve ever faced.
Q: Tony Dungy said yesterday that the best way to help a young quarterback is to have a strong running game. Can you address how much your running game took some pressure off of [Quarterback] Brennan [Armstrong] the other day and just where you think that running game is right now?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Tony Dungy is someone I admire. I’ve read most of his books and, really, in particularly like the one book titled Uncommon. And so, I listen when he speaks, and he’s accurate. We did a really nice job down the stretch with Wayne [Taulapapa] and Shane [Simpson] running the football. And also, Brennan helped himself with his legs here and there as those runs were mixed in. And so it just added more balance. It tired Duke. It took a different physical toll as the run game is different than the past game. And just allowed us to find more rhythm. So, I agree with this statement and I think we showed signs of that on Saturday.
Q: Is there an injury update on Joey Blount?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: We don’t practice on Mondays. We have a walkthrough Monday evening, but when I was leaving the stadium on Saturday, I saw him as you did. He looked in good spirits and he said he’s gonna be fine. So that’s all I heard today.
Q: You ran a play the other night every 25 seconds from time of possession, which is significantly quicker than last season’s average. Was that by design? Was it because of the opponent, or just fluke?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Oh, it was by design. We certainly thought in that particular game even though it was our opener, we thought we had conditioned well. We thought it might be to our advantage. We thought it might be something the opponent wouldn’t expect. And we thought it might give us just an edge in terms of tempo, and hopefully playing fast and executing fast, getting rhythm momentum and confidence. So, our intent was to be aggressive rather than tentative, even though we have a new quarterback. That was a way that we thought symbolically we could tell him we have confidence in him. And even put a little bit more on his plate, but we thought he can handle it.
Q: When did Terrell [Jana] tell you that he did not want to have his name on his jersey? And as he explained it, what was your reaction?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think that was about 10 days out, maybe two weeks out from the opener, roughly in that time period. And Terrell asked to come into my office to see me. He just said that, as he sat down, the Enslaved Laborer Memorial had a profound impact on him. And I had just done the “Take Back Our Grounds” march as well. And I understood because I saw the names, or lack of names on the memorial. And he just said in his own way he thought that would be really profound to acknowledge those that weren’t even remembered, not a name. Not a mother, father, sibling. Not even a place within the family hierarchy. And not even their occupation. And so, I thought it was tasteful. I thought it was substantiative. I thought it was well thought out and, and I thought it was powerful. With him not drawing attention to himself, but possibly just asking folks to contemplate ‘how could that be’. And so I was in support of it.
Q: To have two options in the passing game in Lavel [Davis Jr.] and Tony Poljan, who has such great length, what kind of extra pressure can that apply to a defense?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Well it’s matchups. So football’s a game of one-on-ones. And when you have length and size, unless the opponent has someone that’s similar length and size, they have to compensate it by vertical jump or physical presence or strength or something that then mitigates the match up. So those two players, most matchups will be in our favor. Lots of work still to do on execution and precision and mastery of their craft, but I certainly like the start that we have both of them.
Q: How similar is Clemson to last year’s team in terms of personnel? And how much can you glean from the ACC championship game?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: You can glean a lot. Dabo Sweeney is still the coach. The coordinators are the same. So much of the personnel remains, and the system is so effective and has been for a long time. So Clemson is the point of reloading. There’s certainly an adjustment or a tweak here or there by their personnel or their personnel, but Dabo’s record and Clemson’s record since he’s been there, doesn’t warrant wholesale changes. It usually just means reloading. The next player has played usually significant amounts of time from the year before in games that have been one sided. And so there’s experience always being developed. One of the ways you build great programs is not having significant changes once you reach a certain level. And that’s one of the things they’ve done really well.
Q: I’m curious going back to that title game, you guys struggled with your tackling particularly on the edges. Obviously, they have athletes who can make that happen. How would you evaluate the tackling in the opener and where is it where it needs to be?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: So going back to the first part of your question, yeah Clemson’s really explosive to the dynamic on the perimeter, getting the ball in space and letting their recruits and their athletes have success has been a great model for them not only at quarterback, not only a running back but also wide receivers. So, they have a really good formula that’s worked well for them. We didn’t tackle well in that game (2020 Orange Bowl nor that time in the year, with the roster we currently had at that time. I was actually pleased with our tackling in the opener we were physical for the amount of live tackling we had done. We were physical, especially in the run game. The tackling was solid. There were a few plays in the open field later in the game, that we didn’t tackle quite as well. But, in relation to what I had expected, I thought was a little bit better than what I was prepared for knowing that we’ve been practicing against each other so long and trying to keep our roster healthy. So, I would say I was pleasantly surprised by our level of tackling and certainly there’s room to improve.
Q: Brennan’s (Armstrong) personality as you described it (and) Jason (Beck) has described as kind of go-go-go. Is that part of the decision with the pace [of play]?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s influenced it. As we continue to learn about Brennan and try to find the best way to maximize his ability, that’s just one of the things that in the opener we thought was going to be effective. Now we’re going to have a chance to reevaluate look at it and then decide where in that lies going into weeks two and further on. Brennan’s aggressive and he’s comfortable going fast and making decisions quickly. That doesn’t mean that’s all we’ll do, it doesn’t mean it’s primarily what we’ll do, but we thought it would give him his best chance in his first college start.
Q: You guys have been in your bubble here at UVA for nearly three months now and you guys will be going on the road for the first time this upcoming week. What are your thoughts about leaving first of all and then (are there) any kind of logistical challenges that you might foresee or just how that’s all going to play out?BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, man, one of the amazing experiences at the game on Saturday was seeing players look up in the stands to their families, because they haven’t seen them since July. I mean, they haven’t been able to go home, their families haven’t been able to come visit and there was a lot of emotion, with families wanting to connect and not being able to. Even in that setting so it’s been a long time. In terms of going on the road, just the next challenge and it won’t be a normal road game. In fact, our approach has been really the more that it looked like a normal road game, the less likely we are to be doing it right. And so, it’ll be a lot of just hotel, grab and go dinner and show up to the stadium and play. And so, we’re really streamlining it down to more of a special operations unit where they track it out rather than maybe all the fanfare that comes with normal travel and some of the things that are associated with the normal college football game. It’ll be just the opposite and stripped down and simplified as much as we can make it.
Q: How much more comfortable are you with Brennan Armstrong at least getting his first start under his belt against Duke before you have to go down and face Clemson? Also, how might Brennan’s character kind of lend himself to a big game like this?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s too early to say on all accounts really, other than I had confidence in Brennan, going into this year, increased confidence now after seeing what I saw in game one. And man, we’re just on the very, very beginning of this journey but I sure like the potential, and I like so much of what I’ve seen, and, but there will be growing pains, this will be a step-by-step process. It won’t be just all of a sudden, you know he’s announced on the scene. This is going to be more gradual than that and so I’m just being brutally honest and transparent and realistic with myself and Brennan. We’ll design the system and schemes and everything to do so accordingly based on the feedback each week. That’s the best thing I could do to help him.
Q: When someone like Lavel Davis Jr. has a big game for the first time and it doesn’t have to be offense, it could be defense, how do you prepare them for how that changes they’re spot on the scouting report? And when the player on another team does that how does it change your attention to that type of player.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It does just that, it draws your attention to a player that maybe you hadn’t known much about, who was an unknown and who is becoming known. That’s from a scouting report or an opponent standpoint as he becomes known and he becomes acknowledged and then you have to decide how much, if anything, you’d like to do about it differently than what you normally would. Probably the bigger challenge is, a player that’s youthful just very, at the very beginning of his career as a first year, learning how to handle some success. And what that really is going need to look like now, week in and week out, day in and day out. And (also how) to continue to handle the workload and the work ethic with maturity and humility. That usually is a bigger challenge for first year players that have strong starts.
Q: To follow up on Brennan on his running style, his ability to bounce off the defenders a little bit. How does that impact your offense and is it something you guys have to kind of consciously mix in as the game is going along?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Brennan, his mindset, again, I hesitate to compare because that’s never fair to anyone. There are quarterbacks that like to run and elude, there are quarterbacks that like to run and are dynamic and make players miss. Then there’s players that just kind of run for the sake of running, and they do it unabashedly and aren’t afraid to run into or over or through. Brendan is a little is more wired a little bit more like that. So (I was) happy to see him slide the other day and that’s going to have to become part of his repertoire. But Brennan’s tough and he has a bright career in front of him. Our team loves him and are eager to follow him and support him and when they see him bounce off someone or reach out for the goal line kind of going through a player, that’s positive. There is risk, right? And so part of teaching young quarterbacks is when to slide and when to run over. Clemson has a quarterback that is skilled at both as well. I’ve seen him run over plenty of defenders and I’ve seen him run around plenty of defenders and so that’s an uncertainty for a defensive player when you’re not quite sure if it’s going to be an elusive move or, then if you are on your heels a little bit and you get run over, right, it’s tough. So, I think, Brennan is somewhere in between in terms of his development in that part.
Q: You’ve been highly complementary of the commitment your guys have made to conditioning before they came back to campus and how hard they’ve worked since they’ve been there. The other night, (Duke) Coach (David) Cutcliffe said after the game that he thought his team showed some conditioning weaknesses which you apparently saw too. How much more is conditioning, because of all the stops and starts and all those things that every program has had to go through, an advantage this year?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Well, it’s a huge advantage if you’re able to pull it off and I wasn’t quite sure where we would be in relation to game day and if we had done enough or if we’ve done too much, trying to find that balance between keeping your team safe and healthy but also eager to practice and eager to play. It’s been a really, really difficult needle to thread. I did think as the game went on, especially our offense versus their defense, there became Duke starting to tire, and they started to become fatigued, and that didn’t appear to be the case for our offense, and I thought, they’re in lied some of the difference in our separation from them toward the end of the game. I’ve seen our team in better condition and I’ve built our teams differently based on culture, but this approach has been unique and had to be. So, we still have work to do but for the starting point it was, I wouldn’t say it was where I wanted it to be, but it’s a little bit farther advanced than what I had expected.
Q: How welcome is it for you all to finally have a little bit more structure and focus in the fact that this is now a typical game week it’s more like a regular season when you have so much uncertainty and anxiety leading up to your first game now okay, six days next opponent. We are getting into more of a regular cycle.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: A change in structure is welcome. We were changing structures almost every two weeks prior to our first game, really for no other reason than to change structures just so we could sustain the intensity and energy. There wasn’t anything physiologically or schematically, but I did think we had to keep changing, just keep it fresh. And so now that we’ve had our opener, to have a normal game week and to be on the road and the game be against the quality opponent, it’s just a breath of fresh air.
Q: Two-part question, number one just your thoughts about forcing that many turnovers on Duke. And then number two, have you ever coached in a game where your defense forced that many turnovers?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think that is the most ever. [Defensive Coordinator] Coach [Nick] Howell and my defensive staff, they love to use the word havoc and creating havoc and havoc is most effective when it, well, when it surrounds the football. When balls are being knocked down, stripped, intercepted, when quarterbacks are being sacked, right, those are all things that increase our chances to win. The number of turnovers certainly affected the game and that’s a credit to our defensive players, but [also] our defensive staff. So, I think seven is the most that I’ve ever been part of, and certainly, to have all the things that have gone into this year’s season opener and to be able to do that in game one, against a team that was their third game, I think makes it even more impressive.
Q: What did you think about the availability of Lavel Davis Jr., I think when he committed in June, talk a little bit about how you got him.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Lavel was not highly recruited. [assistant coach] Marques Hagans did a really nice job of building a great relationship. We just we just saw great potential and a really humble and hardworking person. When we met Lavel, we thought he’d be a great fit. We’ve had big receivers in the past at Brigham Young. I like the matchups right from the beginning, as most corners are rarely taller than 6-foot sometimes 6-foot-1 but usually 5-foot-10 or 5-foot-11. When you’re 6-foot-7, even if you’re not behind a defender, you’re still open. So, Lavel is learning and growing, but you saw some of what he’s been doing against our defense at practice fairly consistently. It’s just the beginning for him as he’s learning to play the position. So, we saw just really, really nice potential in a lot of areas not only on the field, but off.
Q: Your background as a coach is primarily on the defensive side of the ball. For the teams that have had some success in recent years in slowing down the Clemson offense, has there been a common denominator and if so, what is it?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: You know, there’s been some but not many teams have slowed them down, just matter of factly. Personnel has something to do with it, usually matchups are important on the perimeter as well as throughout the game. Scheme has a lot to do with it. Turnovers certainly help. Stops on fourth down or critical third down stops and limiting time of possession, limiting number of touches, all those things together have seemed to have and, maybe combined, have had some effect on teams that have had success.
Q: We got to see a taste of him [Tony Poljan] the other night. What are you seeing from him in practice that we haven’t been able to see?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I love Tony as a person but also as a player. He’s just so much fun to be around, he works so hard. I mean, we have been asking so much of him and his workload but he’s a strong blocker, really good hands and just an amazing person. It feels like Tony’s been here in our program for five years. He just has acclimated so fast. The players have adopted him so quickly and it’s just a natural fit. I just feel really lucky that all the circumstances led to Tony coming to the UVA, and it took a lot of different things to happen for us to have this relationship, but he’s a very good football player.
Q: When you’re playing a team like Clemson, does it change the game plan at all, in terms of wanting to be more aggressive just because of how good they are, or is it more of just executing what you do at a higher level?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: The second part is my philosophy. I certainly acknowledge Clemson and who we are playing and they’re very skilled, and they’ve been really good. They’re one of the best teams in college football. Now that I’ve said that, it just really goes back to putting our plans in place, doing the best we can to execute the things that we think will work, highlighting our personnel. I, after the initial planning, don’t really acknowledge the opponents. I just try to give our team every chance to have success, regardless of who we play. This is a quality opponent, no question. And everyone knows that. So now what are we going to do? And how do we help our team? That’s really where all my focus goes. That’s weekly, not just against Clemson.
Q: I noticed for the national anthem, both teams stayed inside the locker rooms. Was that the plan going into the season? I thought I saw two assistants also came out for the national anthem, just wanted to get kind of how y’all are handling that as a team this year?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It really wasn’t intentional. When I arrived at UVA, I’ve always had our teams inside. I like to keep our team inside as long as possible. I don’t ever remember coming out for national anthem, unless it was a bowl game or something where someone asked us to or a unique protocol, or maybe it was Military Appreciation Day, but we’ve never come out prior to see the national anthem. And this year, the NCAA because, of some issues with unsportsmanlike conduct a year ago, we have to have coaches come out 90 minutes before the game, and so there are coaches assigned and how to stay out until the team comes out back on the field. So that might have been the coaches that you saw.
JIM DAVES: Just to add to that, the NFL and college do their anthems a little bit differently. And TV always wants college teams to have the anthem played before they come on air. So they’re usually seven or eight minutes before kickoff. So that’s why the teams are still in the locker room at that point. It’s the difference between college and the NFL.
Q: Obviously, your game against Clemson last year didn’t go great. Is this game kind of the classic, don’t put too much into it, whether you win or lose, don’t let this define you, depending on what happens?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I don’t have it weighted disproportionately in any regard, other than this is game two of 2020. With this team, in these set of circumstances, it’s not bigger or smaller than that. It’s game two of this year with so much to work on and learn and grow from. I’m not framing it in any capacity bigger or maybe more symbolic or substantiative than that.
Q: You’ve been very intentional about being very humble about the test results and the fact that you’ve had no positives, how nerve-racking is that every time you get a report?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I don’t know what scale that would be on other than very nerve-racking. The number of tests and again, what is remarkable, and I can’t articulate it enough, we have not had a positive, a player test positive since they arrived back. So, the players that tested positive, and there were three, it was attributed to what they came back with. There’s been nothing since then, not one, which might be one of the most impressive things that I’ve ever accomplished. If I could even take credit for it, which I can’t, but they’ve accomplished in my coaching career. And it could all change tomorrow, right? At least to this point, it’s been miraculous. We just tested again. We’ll see what it looks like tomorrow. Then we’ll test again Wednesday and looks like that’s just going to keep happening for about 12 more weeks.
Q: [On night game] Will there be a change in any of the protocols or your preparation in this new world that we are in?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No, other than night games are my least favorite just because the hotel stay is so dang long on Saturdays without much to do. Another reason I’m glad some other games are being played so we can watch college football on Saturday before our game and that’ll just help pass the time for myself and our team.
Q: One game is obviously a very small sample size, but do you expect Ra’Shaun Henry to be a bigger part of the passing game going forward?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I do and Ra’Shaun played a lot of plays just didn’t receive many targets. A little bit more of an enigma than intentional, I would say. So, I would expect that role to increase and grow over time and as it’s earned, which he has done a nice job so far. I would certainly expect that to be larger and for that role to grow.