By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As he headed to the McCue Center locker room Tuesday morning, University of Virginia tailback Daniel Hamm paused on the practice field for a word with his new head coach.
“Good work, Coach,” Hamm, smiling, told Bronco Mendenhall. “Good work.”
The Cavaliers’ first spring practice under Mendenhall ended around 9:40 a.m. Tuesday, and many players were still breathing hard and clearly fatigued when they left the field a few minutes later.
“I’ve never been through anything like this,” said Eric Smith, a returning starter at offensive tackle.
“Never,” said Donte Wilkins, a nose tackle in the 3-4 defense Mendenhall has installed at Virginia. “Never went so fast, and never given so much.”
Mendenhall’s assessment of practice No. 1?
“Our players were willing today,” he said. “They were excited and worked hard, and I think it’s a good start. There’s all kinds of work to do, in terms of execution, and all kinds of work to do, in terms of communication. However, the team was willing, and that’s where they need to be, because willing usually means coachable, and they were coachable today, and they worked hard.”
Mendenhall, 50, came to UVA from BYU, where in 11 seasons as head coach he compiled a 99-43 record, with 11 bowl appearances. His practices are conducted at high speed, with an emphasis on efficiency. Players sprint during drills and from one drill to the next. Down time? What’s that?
“Blazing fast,” Wilkins said of the tempo.
One of the mantras of the new coaching staff — most of whose members also worked for Mendenhall at BYU — is “earned, not given.” At UVA, the players have not yet earned their numbers, in Mendenhall’s estimation, so they will practice this spring in plain jerseys: white for defense and blue for offense, with the quarterbacks in green. (Injured players wear red jerseys.)
Moreover, players will repeat a drill as many times as necessary to do it correctly before moving on to the next drill or practice period. That was Mendenhall’s approach at BYU, and nothing has changed at Virginia.
“This is the way we do it,” Mendenhall said Tuesday, “and we build a phenomenal will. You have to, just to make it through practice.”
The Cavaliers finished every period on the practice schedule Tuesday, and that in itself was a victory.
“We were right on the mark today, and so the kids handled it well,” Mendenhall said. “We only planned basically an hour practice after the warmup, but it probably seemed like more than that to everybody.”
UVA is coming off a 4-8 season that ended with a loss to arch-rival Virginia Tech. In six years under Mendenhall’s predecessor, Mike London, Virginia finished with a winning record only once, in 2011.
“My friends back home, some former players texted me saying, `You guys aren’t going to have numbers on your jerseys. What’s that all about?’ ” quarterback Matt Johns told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
“We said that that didn’t even faze us. We’ll do anything to win. If [Mendenhall] says, `Run through that brick wall,’ all 100 players will run through that brick wall. There’s just a sense of urgency and eagerness that the team has.”
The players have embraced the changes, inside linebacker Micah Kiser said Monday, because “we know what Coach Mendenhall has done at BYU: 99 wins in  years, that’s great.” By contrast, the Cavaliers have won 11 games since Kiser enrolled in 2013.
“Trying to get better and embrace that change is what we need,” Kiser said.
Defensive end Mark Hall said: “It’s like you hop in the car, and you ride with us or you just stay at the bus stop. You have to buy in. I’m just happy to see that … everyone’s buying in, everyone’s working hard. Nothing is given. He’s put that in our heads so much it’s starting to be an everyday thing.”
Mendenhall knows the program must be transformed, and that’s one reason he said he plans to make practices at UVA “more difficult than the practices at BYU. Survival of the fittest would be a good analogy.”
To help his players prepare for what awaited them on the practice field, Mendenhall pushed back the start of spring ball to let them train for a full nine weeks with Frank Wintrich, Virginia’s director of football performance.
“We’re going to be in even better shape than we already are,” Johns said, “but a lot of the [players] are in the best shape of their lives right now. Everything is definitely earned. There’s been times we’ve had to restart a whole period over again and go back to the beginning and had to do up-downs because [players] weren’t locked in and focused. But for the most part it’s been pretty good.”
“What I have learned relatively quickly is this team is not resistant,” Mendenhall said Monday at JPJ. “They’re eager and they’re hungry. I didn’t know really where they would be, but I’ve been really impressed with how hard they want to work, how willing they are to embrace the level of detail that we’ve asked for, and I really have been impressed with their desire to embrace the concept and the principle of `earned, not given.’
“I’ve asked them to do some things that are pretty extreme, with not wearing Virginia gear and no numbers for practice. But it’s interesting, because our team simply seems to want to know what standard it will take for us to have success, and they’re trusting me that I’m setting that standard for them, and because of that initial level of trust, they’re working really hard and matter of factly believing that if they do this, we’ll have success. And so through the nine weeks, I think what’s happened is, I think we’re establishing trust, I think we’re establishing fitness, I know that we’re establishing unity amongst the team, and chemistry, and I think we’ve set a great foundation now for the opportunity to practice.”
Before being cleared to fully participate in practice, each player had to pass a “tempo run,” with the distance and time of the run determined by his position. Mendenhall gave the players who hadn’t passed by the end of last week an opportunity to do so Saturday morning. More than 80 percent of the team, Mendenhall estimated, showed up to support “the guys that hadn’t made their times.”
When players qualified, “there was dog-piling,” Mendenhall said, smiling. “It was like fans charging the field after a win, [the] support from our current teammates and team members to players that were still battling, actually, to practice … These guys are fighting like crazy, actually, to get to work harder once they put on gear, and that’s the paradigm shift that I’m hoping for.”
For all their work in Wintrich’s conditioning program, players still were surprised, at least initially, by the intensity of the first practice.
“At the beginning,” Wilkins said, “it was just like, `OK, this is what we’ve really been training for. This is how we breathe. This is what we did the tempo runs for. This is what we came out at 6 o’clock every morning for.’ ”
Inside the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility, during a defensive drill that emphasized pursuit, one group had to re-start the drill at least a dozen times before finally meeting the coaches’ standards. Among the players encouraging their teammates from the sideline was Wilkins.
“A couple of us thought it was going to take a while, but we didn’t expect it was going to take that long for us to get it,” Wilkins said, “but that’s just because Coach expects perfection out of all of us, no matter who we are.”
Not far from the defensive linemen stood a portable basketball goal that secondary coach Nick Howell — who also serves as defensive coordinator when Mendenhall isn’t available — used in a one-on-one drill. One player was handed a football and told to get to the basket, without dribbling, against a defensive back trying to stay in front of him.
“There’s a lot of similarities just in keeping your body in front of someone with the ball and the objective,” Mendenhall said. “It can be a hoop, or it can be a goal line. So it’s similar.”
Mendenhall was seemingly everywhere Tuesday morning, encouraging, praising and, when necessary, correcting Virginia’s players. In general, he liked what he saw.
“They embraced the pace,” Mendenhall said. “They’re willing, and they held on. Much like a roller coaster you’re riding for the first time, there’s ups and downs and sideways, and big faces and smiles and frowns and every emotion in between. And so I think that’s probably what they experienced. But I think they were willing, and willing means coachable.”