April 24, 2016

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Earned, not given.

That, as University of Virginia football players have learned over the past five months, is one of the tenets of Bronco Mendenhall‘s coaching philosophy. Here’s another:

Less drama, more work.

And that means?

“Just shut your mouth,” slot receiver Olamide Zaccheaus said Saturday after UVA’s Spring Football Festival at Scott Stadium. “Even if something bad happens, shut your mouth and go back to work.”

It’s about accountability, inside linebacker Micah Kiser said.

Mendenhall “talks about correcting yourself,” Kiser said. “If the ball gets run for 10 yards, that means someone didn’t do their job. Just own up to it and move on to the next play. So that’s what we’ve been working on this spring, and hopefully we’ll carry it into the summer and then the fall and then next season.”

Most UVA practices include a physically and mentally taxing drill called Will Development. If the players don’t perform it to the coaching staff’s satisfaction, they repeat the exercise for as long as takes to get it right.

“When we first start doing Will Development, it took us like 25, 30 minutes, just to get out of that period,” said Kiser, who as a redshirt sophomore in 2015 led the Wahoos in tackles.

“We’ve definitely gotten better at that. We’ll just keep moving forward. The leaders have definitely stepped up. We’ve got a lot of leaders on defense, a lot of leaders on offense, and that’ll help us this year during the season.”

In lieu of a full-fledged scrimmage, the Cavaliers held their 15th and final practice of the spring at Scott Stadium on Saturday. The public was invited to watch, and fans basked in the sun as they got their first extended look at Mendenhall’s system.

From the start, they liked what they saw, cheering loudly as Virginia’s new director of football performance, Frank Wintrich, led the players through stretching exercises.

“That’s the first time in my coaching career that we got applauded for warming up,” Mendenhall said, smiling. “I don’t even know what that means.”

He knows exactly, however, what he means when he says he wants to limit the drama on the field. Mendenhall and his assistants — most of whom came with him from BYU to UVA — have little patience for players who try to draw attention to themselves or show poor body language when adversity arises.

The new staff is “pushing us to different limits,” offensive tackle Eric Smith said. “We know it’s going to be tough, so we can’t react by flailing the arms or stuff like that. Just work through it.”

Mendenhall said: “I expect them to manage their emotions, apply everything they have to the execution of their assignment and technique and for the team. Anything extra is not welcome, unless it’s celebrating for their teammate. I like positive body language, and I like strong people, and that’s what we’re building.”

The final practice included several full-contact 11-on-11 periods in which quarterbacks Connor Brewer and Matt Johns, who are battling for the starting job, took turns leading the offense.

There were big plays Saturday, and there were breakdowns, too. Overall, Mendenhall was pleased. He’s seen enough this spring to know that “these kids and this team and this community wants good football,” Mendenhall said.

“They want to play good football, they want to watch good football, and they want to be part of something special, and they’re willing to do what I’m asking them to do to make that happen. They’ve done that every day for 15 days. Plenty of work to do, but today was another really good work day. Getting rid of existing habits, building new habits at a really high pace with very little drama and just work and excitement and optimism and hope for the future.”

Mendenhall said he especially liked the consistency with which players responded “to drill after drill after drill, without the real highs and without the real lows. It’s just the consistency, and no matter what drill we were doing, from warmups to the very end … it was just work. And a big play for one side didn’t mean anyone losing confidence or poise on the other side, and vice versa, and they’re learning to be more resilient, and that’s what stood out.

“We have some playmakers on both sides of the ball. We’re not very deep, but we’re really well-conditioned, and I think we’re becoming mentally tough.”

On offense, those playmakers include Zaccheaus, tailback Taquan Mizzell and wide receiver Doni Dowling.

As a true freshman last season, Zaccheaus caught 21 passes for 216 yards and one touchdown, rushed for 262 yards and another score, returned 28 kickoffs for 541 yards, and returned five punts for 34 yards.

“Any way that we can get him the ball, we’re going to get him the ball,” Mendenhall said of the player known around the program as O.

The same is true for Mizzell, whose nickname is Smoke.

“Certainly Smoke and O, both those two, they need to touch the ball a lot,” Mendenhall said.

The playcalling Saturday was intentionally “vanilla,” as offensive coordinator Robert Anae put it, and that was by design. But the `Hoos can — and will — use Mizzell and Zaccheaus in multiple roles in the fall.

“Smoke will be in the backfield and O will be in the slot,” Mendenhall said. “Or they could both be in the slot at the same time. Or they could both be in the backfield at the same time. Or they could both be at receiver at the same time, or any combination of the first three things or four things that I just mentioned.”

Zaccheaus said: “There’s a lot more responsibility on me this year than last year, definitely, so I have to hold myself accountable and make sure I’m on top of my stuff, and then hold everybody else accountable as well.”

Mizzell, a rising senior from Virginia Beach’s Bayside High, is coming off a stellar season. He led Virginia with 75 receptions (for 721 yards and four touchdowns) in 2015 and rushed for 671 yards and four TDs, also team highs.

Dowling had less of an impact last season, but that’s because he was recovering from a torn ACL. He’s back at full strength now and figures prominently in the Cavaliers’ plans.

Doni Dowling had not just a strong spring, he had an exceptional spring and is very, very good,” Mendenhall said. “I like him a lot, not only as a person, but as a player.”

So does Anae. Dowling has a “tremendous commitment to excellence,” Anae said. “Every day he brings his best football.”

Only twice in the past decade has Virginia finished with a winning record — in 2007 and `11 — and Mendenhall faces a major rebuilding project in Charlottesville. But he’s attacking it relentlessly, and his new team is following his lead.

“Everybody’s buying in,” Zaccheaus said. “It’s just a great opportunity for us to improve.”

Smith said: “I feel like with the new coaching staff, the guys have been more focused but are having more fun at the same time, because that’s just the environment that our coaches provide on a day-to-day basis. We wake up at 5 in the morning, and [the coaches are at the McCue Center] before us with more energy than we can ever imagine.”

Mendenhall has said several times this spring that the Cavaliers are “ahead of schedule.” He made sure to put that in context Saturday.

He was referring, Mendenhall said, to the players’ “mindset and the team’s willingness to do what I ask them to do. I’m not saying that in terms of how far along we are as the program in terms of execution and performance. What I am saying is, I expected a lot more resistance, and I expected it to be harder in terms of the buy-in. They want to buy in, they want to be good, so we’re ahead in that regard.”

Virginia opens the season Sept. 3 against Richmond at Scott Stadium. Season tickets are on sale, and the deadline for renewing season tickets is Saturday.

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