Defensive Line Embracing Change
April 8, 2016
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He remembers sitting with his family at Scott Stadium in 2004 and watching Marques Hagans play football for University of Virginia. Those were good days for the Cavaliers, who with Hagans at quarterback won eight games in 2004 and seven in ’05.
Mendenhall came to UVA in December from BYU, where in 11 seasons he compiled a 99-43 record, with 11 bowl appearances.
“It’s going to be awesome,” Hanback said. “As a fan, every year I waited for that, and to know that I can be on the team that takes the next step is really cool.”
A graduate of Patrick Henry High School in Ashland, Hanback enrolled at UVA last summer and then redshirted in the fall. He was a defensive tackle in the 4-3 scheme favored by Mendenhall’s predecessor, Mike London, but the Wahoos have switched to a 3-4 base package, and Hanback is now at end.
“Those three guys are stalwarts right now,” defensive line coach Ruffin McNeill said in his McCue Center office.
Brown, who’s listed at 6-4, 280 pounds, will be a junior in the fall. A heralded recruit coming out of Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake, Brown has started only one game at UVA, where he played defensive tackle in the 4-3. But McNeill believes a breakout year is imminent for Brown.
“It’s a learning process for him, but once he gets the hang of it, he’s going to be really good,” McNeil said.
McNeill was well aware of Brown’s exploits in high school. “I couldn’t wait to coach him,” McNeill said, “and he’s had a great attitude.
“I’ve got an old school part of me and a new school part. Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Once they know how much you care about them, then they’ll care how much you know. Everything stems from that. They know I love them, and I’m going to coach `em hard.”
The 6-1, 290-pound Wilkins, a rising senior, is the most experienced of Virginia’s defensive linemen. He’s started 10 games as a Cavalier, and McNeill considers him the “alpha” member of the group.
Hanback, meanwhile, has yet to even play in a college game. But at 6-4, 275 pounds, he has excellent size for a 3-4 end, and he’s likely to get bigger.
“He’s perfect,” McNeill said. “He’ll probably play at 290, and he’s got great hands. He’s improved every day in understanding the defense, his job, his footwork. He’s really a very quick-twitch player, and I love his mentality. He’s quiet in the meetings. He’s soaking everything in, and he’ll get better and better and better. I like what Eli brings to the table.”
Hagans, one of the Cavaliers whom Hanback grew up watching, is now an assistant coach at his alma mater, where he works with the wide receivers.
McNeill and Hagans are the only UVA assistants who were not on Mendenhall’s staff at BYU in 2015. Hagans was on London’s staff at Virginia. McNeill was head coach at his alma mater, East Carolina, where in six seasons he posted a 42-34 record.
When ECU decided not to retain McNeill, Mendenhall moved quickly, persuading his friend to join him in Charlottesville. McNeill, also Virginia’s assistant head coach, relishes his new role. He’s a former defensive coordinator at Appalachian State, UNLV, Fresno State and Texas Tech.
“Getting back on the field was exhilarating to me,” McNeill said. “I absolutely love being back on the field coaching.”
His enthusiasm is contagious.
“He’s awesome,” Hanback said of McNeill. “He loves what he does. He loves to get up every day and coach football. He’s like another father figure to all of us.”
Mendenhall said: “I love the energy Coach Ruff brings to our office, to our building, to this campus, to the community and certainly to our team meetings. Each morning Coach Ruff says that he springs out of bed at 4:15 and he just can’t wait to get to work, because he’s having the most fun that he’s had in 36 years of coaching. And he sincerely acts like that.
“So I start each team meeting allowing Coach Ruff to say what he feels that day, and it’s just amazing to have that kind of energy and optimism. But also he coaches really tough, with very high demands, and he coaches these kids like he wants them to be great.”
Mendenhall originally planned for McNeill to work with Virginia’s inside linebackers. After becoming more familiar with the Cavaliers’ personnel, however, Mendenhall moved McNeill to the line.
The offensive and defensive lines “are where championships and dominant football programs are made,” Mendenhall said, and he wanted two of his most experienced coaches to see those areas. Garett Tujague coaches the O-Line, and he works closely with McNeill.
“Again, we’re building it from the trenches out,” Mendenhall said, “and [McNeill is] absolutely instilling the right mindset, the right drill work, and the right relationships. The defensive linemen absolutely love him, as everyone does, and man, he coaches them so, so hard. It’s just a unique combination.”
McNeill and graduate assistant Vic So’oto, a former BYU star who later played in the NFL, oversee a group whose meeting room is not heavily populated. The Cavaliers’ roster this spring includes only nine defensive linemen: Wilkins, Brown, Hanback, Naji Abdullah, Christian Baumgardner, Mark Hall, Andre Miles-Redmond, James Trucilla and Steven Wright.
Abdullah, Trucilla and Wright arrived at UVA with Hanback last summer and also redshirted last season. Baumgardner enrolled at Virginia in January. Miles-Redmond and Hall, a converted linebacker, will be fifth-year seniors in the fall.
The line may lack experience and depth, “but I tell you what: Those kids are great kids,” McNeill said. “They have a `coach me, Coach’ attitude, which I love about them. They’re very hungry. They want to do it how we want it done, which is very rare. There’s no resistance.
“I like that group. That group didn’t play much [last season]. That means they have a blank slate. So myself and Vic, we’re coaching them.”
Virginia’s coaches are also learning, McNeill said. Mendenhall periodically has his assistants sit in on their colleagues’ meetings, so a defensive coach such as McNeill may find himself with one of the offensive groups.
“You can say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” McNeill said, smiling. “Yes, you can, because I’m open to learning. I want to learn. I’m hungry.”
In his final five seasons at East Carolina, McNeill said, his defense operated out of the 3-4, but he coached the 4-3 for many years. Installing the 3-4 “takes patience as a coach and teaching from the ground up,” he said.
“There’s two types of teaching methods: whole part and part whole. That’s how I present it to them: `Here’s the whole, and let’s go to the parts. Now, here’s the parts, and this is how they fit into the whole.’ “
His linemen’s grasp of the defense has steadily improved, McNeill said, but it’s still early. The coaches have yet to introduce the packages Virginia will run in passing situations.
“It’s tough,” Hanback said of the transition to the 3-4, “but Coach McNeill and Coach Vic are doing a great job of teaching us as a D-line.”
As a star at Patrick Henry, Hanback received interest from such schools as Old Dominion, Virginia Tech, Boston College, East Carolina, James Madison and Richmond. But when UVA offered him a scholarship, Hanback said, the decision was an easy one.
“My dad and my whole family were big Virginia fans their whole lives, so I grew up as one too,” said Hanback, whose father played football at Bridgewater College.
He wasn’t sure what to expect from the new coaching staff, but Hanback was confident he’d find his niche.
“Not everyone’s used to change, obviously, but being that I was redshirted and hadn’t been in the system that long with the original coaching staff, I wasn’t put off or anything by it,” Hanback said. “I was excited to get going with this new program.”
He’s not the only one. Virginia’s players have embraced Mendenhall’s approach, however challenging it may be. First came a grueling nine-week strength and conditioning program designed by Frank Wintrich, UVA’s director of football performance, followed by spring practices in which the players are pushed harder than ever before.
“Like Coach Mendenhall says, he wants to get the most stuff done in a short period of time, so not only is the stuff we’re doing in practice hard, we’re moving around faster too,” Hanback said. “So it’s physically demanding, and you’re tired. And then you have to be mentally strong too.”
His players’ resilience this spring has impressed Mendenhall. Through the first two practices, he said, “there was a newness, there was an uncertainty and there was an excitement just to take on this new challenge and the new expectations and the work capacity and the pace and the exact attention to detail that we’re asking.
“I wasn’t sure, just after the initial few days, if this team would embrace the idea of sustaining that. And so I think the biggest change that I’ve seen is that they are willing and they are capable and they want to be resilient and they want to be tough and they want to train hard every day.”
More than anything, the players are tired of losing. Since Hagans exhausted his eligibility, the `Hoos have finished above .500 only twice: in 2007 and in 2011. But Hanback and his teammates see better days coming for the program.
“I think everyone’s excited with the direction it’s heading,” Hanback said. “It’s going to be fun.”
MARK YOUR CALENDAR: UVA’s annual Spring Football Festival will be held Saturday, April 23, at Scott Stadium. Pregame activities will begin at 2 p.m. The format of the football activities has yet to be determined, but they will start at 4 p.m.
“I’m not sure I’m going to know until the day before,” Mendenhall said this week. “I’m changing practice formats literally every day, based on what I see the practice before to expedite and to make sure that we’re milking every ounce of work that we can out of each practice and the areas that we need it.”
Admission and parking will be free.