By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the University of Virginia football team, its first spring practice under new head coach Bronco Mendenhall will begin on March 22. The later-than-usual start will give the players nine weeks in the winter strength and conditioning program.
Frank Wintrich, BYU’s director of football performance in 2015, has the same title at UVA. Mendenhall said Wintrich made a significant impact in his one year at BYU.
“The biggest difference was not only the physiological preparation,” Mendenhall said. “If you watched our bowl game, not only was our team unbreakable in spirit, but we were the superior-conditioned team and could come back. And that is who we are.”
After falling behind 35-0 in the first quarter, BYU scored 28 straight points against Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl in December. The final score was 35-28.
With Wintrich, Mendenhall said, “I get an excellent coach in terms of physiological preparation, but [also with] culture development. It saves me a ton of time, not only from me having to do it when I get the team for practice, but he’s doing that on a daily basis, which takes a huge burden off of me, where I can continue to work on schemes, strategy and tactics while that’s happening at the same time.”
In 11 seasons as BYU’s head coach, Mendenhall compiled a 99-43 record, with 11 bowl appearances. He noted that a college team’s strength coach is with the players more than the head coach is.
“I’m counting on the players being developed and groomed and integrated into our system, whether I’m talking to them or not,” said Mendenhall, who also will oversee the Wahoos’ defense.
“So in the offseason where I’m not able to [work with the players] by the rule of NCAA by-laws, he can. And so if when I can’t, he can, we’re actually getting more done. I’m passionate about how much we get done in how much time and how hard we try. And when those things are right, you usually win a lot of games.”
Season tickets for the coming season will go on sale Feb. 29.
ALL IN: Had he wanted to, Mendenhall could have brought his entire staff from BYU with him to Virginia.
“There wasn’t anyone that didn’t want to come — not only on the coaching staff, but in the support areas — and that was gratifying,” Mendenhall said. “It made me feel good that not only maybe the success we were having, but how we were doing it, was something that people wanted to continue with, no matter what state that was going to be in. I like seeing people happy. I like seeing people have success, and I like having an organization that’s cohesive and friendly. And that’s what we had built [at BYU], and I think that’s why all these folks have come.”
An FBS coaching staff includes nine assistants. Seven of Virginia’s new assistant coaches were with Mendenhall at BYU last season: Robert Anae, Mark Atuaia, Jason Beck, Nick Howell, Shane Hunter, Kelly Poppinga and Garett Tujague.
To fill the final two slots, Mendenhall hired former East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill and Marques Hagans, a holdover from the staff of Mike London, Mendenhall’s predecessor at UVA.
Their assignments are as follows: Anae, offensive coordinator/inside receivers; Atuaia, running backs; Beck, quarterbacks; Hagans, wide receivers; Howell, secondary; Hunter, defensive line; McNeill, assistant head coach/inside linebackers; Poppinga, special teams coordinator/outside linebackers; and Tujague, offensive line.
“I think what we all want to do is not only run a great football program, but be woven into the fiber and fabric of the community, and really make a difference in that regard also,” Mendenhall said. “So I think these men came not only because they believe in what we’re doing and [that] it will be successful, I think they came to make a difference in the community at large, and we’re lucky to be in Charlottesville.”
When he came to Virginia, Mendenhall recalled, he did not feel obligated to retain any of London’s assistant coaches. Once he met Hagans, however, “my opinion changed,” Mendenhall said, “and it was, `I have to have him.’ And it wasn’t necessarily the UVA ties, and it wasn’t necessarily that he played here or played in the NFL. It was really who he was and how he would fit.”
At various times during his UVA career, Hagans starred at quarterback, wide receiver and punter. He’s a Hampton High School graduate who spent a postgraduate year at Fork Union Military Academy before enrolling at Virginia.
After hiring Hagans, Mendenhall said, “I spent a lot of time out on the recruiting trail with him specifically, because he was the connection to the committed class … So when I was going into homes, I was with him frequently, and all that that really did was lessen the anxiety for the existing family of a committed player. There was a connection there.
“Marques was really helpful and reassuring in allowing players to stay committed, and he was helping share the vision of what we were doing and how it felt along the way, and that’s why the majority of the players chose to stay, I think. [Hagans linked] the past culture with the future direction, and he was really helpful in doing that.”
Hagans also educated the new coaches about FUMA, which is located not far from Charlottesville in Fluvanna County, and the school’s legendary postgraduate coach, John Shuman.
“He went through with our staff and told us what a day looked like there,” Mendenhall recalled. “And then he said: Would he choose to be there? Probably not. Did it change his life in a positive way? Yes. So what a great resource for a player that we think in all areas, maybe other than academic marks, is ready to come in … What a great resource that could be, and we intend to use it as a supplemental way for some players to come to our program who we think are the right players that just need a hair more development.”
If the model is “Coach Hagans,” Mendenhall said, “I want as many guys like Coach Hagans as possible.”
STAMP OF APPROVAL: The more Chris Long learns about Mendenhall and the new staff, the more excited the former UVA star becomes.
“I didn’t know he was on [Virginia’s] radar, but you couldn’t have picked a better guy to come here,” Long said Thursday on the Wahoo Central Podcast. “I think it’s just perfect. It’s tailor-made.”
Long, an All-America defensive end for the Cavaliers in 2007, is an eight-year NFL veteran. In 2011, his teammates on the St. Louis Rams included one of Poppinga’s brothers.
Brady Poppinga “was a handful in the best way possible,” Long said. “That guy was a monster on the field, but a perfect gentleman off the field.
“I think that’s the type of guy that Bronco wants. I played with a couple BYU guys, and they were like that.”
Long has a home in Charlottesville and trains here in the offseason. He stopped by the McCue Center on national signing day to visit with Mendenhall and the new staff.
“I’m just really excited about it,” Long said. “I told Coach Mendenhall this: There hasn’t been an authentic energy like this in the building in quite some time. And that’s not to slight anybody that was here before.
“The thing I love about Coach from a distance, and now getting to meet him and talk to him, is he has a very specific idea of who he is and what he wants this program to be. He has a plan, and he’s very comfortable in his own skin, to the point where he can take input from a number of people, and I think that’s a great sign of security in yourself. And that comes from being who he is and winning almost 100 games over 11 seasons at BYU.”
UNITED THEY STAND: The #HoosRising videos UVA’s coaches produced and tweeted out on national signing day last week made clear, among other things, that this is a harmonious group. That was a priority for Mendenhall, who was an assistant at Snow College, Northern Arizona, Oregon State, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico and BYU before being promoted to head coach at BYU after the 2004 season.
“I’ve been part of staffs that don’t get along,” Mendenhall said, “and it’s no fun. And it doesn’t mean you can’t win doing it that way, and it doesn’t mean everyone has to like the head coach for you to win. It could mean that everyone’s afraid of the head coach, and you could still win. And it could mean that you’re not anxious to go to work every day, and you could still win. I just don’t want to do that. I spend too much time at the office and I care too much about my own peace of mind, but I also care too much about my coaches and our players. I’m not afraid of confrontation, nor will I back down from it. But why have it if you don’t need it? It’s just a poor way to live.
“I’d much rather work with people that really want to come to work, believe in what we’re doing, like each other, and that’s what I’ve designed. And it’s not perfect. But that was intentional.”
The videos, which featured coaches and their family members, players and support staff, were posted on YouTube under a UVA Recruiting account.
As of Monday, the 15 videos had a total of 54,400 views on YouTube. The most popular video was titled “Coach Ruff” and had 8,100 views.
TO BE DETERMINED: If the Cavaliers play a spring game, Mendenhall said, it will probably be held April 23.
“And that is `if,’ ” he added. “That’ll be earned also. I don’t choose that, by the way. The players choose that based on how they approach every single day. I love the power of choice. I just hold them accountable for their choices.”
For now, the players are training in black Nike workout clothes without UVA logos.
“I believe in earned, not given,” Mendenhall said, “and the players will make it into the weight room when they earn getting into the weight room. They’ll wear a V when they earn a V with the crossed sabres. They’ll get spring practice when they earn spring practice.
“Everything works [in sequence]. When they master the warm-up, they’ll get Period 1. If Period 1 is mastered, they’ll get Period 2. So you might see football practice this spring, and you might not see football practice this spring. That’s on the verge of exaggeration, but not quite. It just means that every single thing is earned.”
With Wintrich, the players are expected to do “things exactly right every single time, or they do it again,” Mendenhall said.
“I like things not kind of right, I like them exactly right. So they’re getting training for that.”
NEW LOOK: As he did at BYU, Mendenhall will employ the 3-4 as his base defense. The Cavaliers’ base was the 4-3 through London’s six seasons as head coach, though they were often in a nickel package.
BYU lined up in the 3-4 about 50 percent of the time, Mendenhall said. “Our nickel package is actually 4-3-oriented. We’re amazingly versatile in what is possible in the defensive realm in college football. So it’ll start with a 3-4 configuration on early downs. How much, how long [UVA stays in the 3-4] will completely depend on who we have.”