By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — With spring practice over, Virginia’s football coaches are on the road recruiting this week. The staff’s message has been well-received by high school players and coaches, Bronco Mendenhall said, and he expects recruiting at UVA to be less challenging in many ways than at BYU.
Mendenhall came to Virginia in December after 11 seasons as the Cougars’ head coach.
“I’m not sure there’s a place that has as specific a pool [of prospects] as BYU, which doesn’t mean that’s a bad thing,” Mendenhall said last week on the Wahoo Central Podcast.
“But we certainly have more choices [at UVA]. The academic standards, at least for the athletic program, are something we’re very familiar with and used to. The conduct of the students and what’s expected at the University of Virginia, we’re very comfortable with that and have experience with that. The number of choices is far greater than what we expected, and the reception has been perfect. Certainly time will tell, but we’re optimistic about the talent we can draw.”
Most members of the Cavaliers’ 2016 recruiting class committed when Mendenhall’s predecessor, Mike London, was head coach. Three of those players — tailback Tre Harbison, defensive end Christian Baumgardner and linebacker Matt Terrell — enrolled at UVA in January, and the rest will arrive this summer.
Mendenhall routinely played true freshmen at BYU, and he expects to do the same at Virginia. But they’ll have to clear significant hurdles before getting on the field.
Before the start of spring practice, UVA’s returning players spent nine weeks in director of football performance Frank Wintrich’s offseason conditioning program.
“When the freshmen arrive in the summer,” Mendenhall said, “they’ll basically replicate those nine weeks prior to fall camp. That does not mean they’ll be caught up, but that will give them a foundational similarity comparable to what our existing team has had.
“But from there freshmen have to do extra work if they expect to play. And so the normal meeting times won’t be enough, the normal practice won’t be enough. So really as first-years they have to work above and beyond what a normal player would, simply to not only catch up but then to have a chance to compete. If they’re driven enough and if they show up with that mindset, though, they will and they can.”
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED: Much work remains for the `Hoos before their Sept. 3 season opener against Richmond, but Mendenhall deemed the spring a success for a team that finished 4-8 in 2015.
The players, Mendenhall said, have shown a “lot of progress in terms of accountability, a lot of progress in terms of the work capacity and the culture, and a lot of progress in terms of conditioning and work ethic. Eventually execution will catch up, and eventually what really good football looks like will catch up, but it’s sequential, and I’m really comfortable with the work we’ve gotten done.”
Of the talent level in the program, Mendenhall said, “I think it’s a great starting place. I think we have a solid team. We don’t have great depth, but we have some really good players in key positions to build on, and really the initiative has three parts. If you have the baseline of talent, and you look to continue the talent-acquisition part, if you’re building the culture and the work capacity [of the team], and then we get the organizational design right within the program, we’ll end up having a good program for a long time.”
TO BE CONTINUED: At the end of Virginia’s Spring Football Festival on Saturday, offensive coordinator Robert Anae told reporters the battle for the starting job at quarterback will carry over into training camp.
The top candidates are Matt Johns and Connor Brewer, each of whom will be a fifth-year senior in the fall.
“Our quarterback situation right now has not revealed itself, so we’re going to continue to go through fall camp, and it may take all of fall camp before we get to the bottom of it,” Anae said. “But I’m proud of the way the group responded. We put a lot on them, and as you guys can probably tell, that’s the hardest thing to do, develop a quarterback.”
Johns, who started all 12 games last season, entered spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. “But then as we went on Connor was really playing well, so we just split up the reps, made it an even competition, and they went after it every day that way,” quarterbacks coach Jason Beck said Saturday.
“And so I think they’ve pushed each other to play at a higher level. They’re both kind of self-motivated and self-driven, but having that constant pressure and competition just brought the best out of them to make the most of every rep and every practice.”
Mendenhall said the `Hoos “have competition at every spot on our team, including quarterback, and I like it that way, and I think it actually promotes the entire team competing at a higher level. Everything, as you already know, is earned and not given, and that’s the same at that position.”
Starters will be established heading into the Richmond game, Mendenhall told reporters, but “they can change week to week. So if any of you penciled in the two-deep now, just have your eraser ready, because it could change day to day, week to week, and it will change within the year. I think that’s reality of the real world, and so I try to prepare our guys for that.”
Johns said: I think anytime you’re competing, you’re getting better. Connor is a great quarterback. He made a lot of plays today. He’s one of my good friends. It’s just been fun competing, and that’s what it really comes down to you: competing every day and just getting better every single day.”
Brewer said: “I’m glad the coaches gave me a fair shot like that and let me compete as hard as I can every day. Whatever happens, happens, but I’m excited that I got to go as hard as I can and give them everything.”
Asked about the timetable for naming a starter, Beck said it will “be a matter of when it’s clear that somebody’s won this competition and they’re going to be the guy. And then as soon as that happens, we’ll whittle that right down. They’ll get 70, 80 percent of the work, and the other guy will get the rest.”
Beck praised the effort of his group, which also includes redshirt freshman Nick Johns (no relation to Matt).
“I was proud of their mindset, showing up every day to work at practice, but then also the days between practice,” Beck said. “They were just working every day, studying the playbook, watching film, evaluating themselves and pushing themselves to compete and get better.
“We made big strides through these first 15 days of practice, but obviously this is just the end of spring ball, and we’ve got to continue through summer and through fall camp till that first game.”
NEW LOOK: The Cavaliers ran a pro-style offense during their six seasons under London. Mendenhall and Anae favor an up-tempo, no-huddle offense.
That’s meant a greater adjustment for Matt Johns, who enrolled at UVA in 2012, than for Brewer, who began his college career at Texas, transferred to Arizona, from which he graduated in 2015, and then landed at UVA last summer.
“Last year it definitely took me a little while to [learn] everything,” Brewer said. “I’d say this is pretty similar to what I did in high school, and I’d say it’s definitely a mix between what we did at Texas and Arizona.”
Johns is “a very smart and hard-working kid, so he’s picking it up quickly and doing a nice job,” Beck said. “But it’s quite a bit of difference, just from the tempo, just adjusting to thinking about everything he needs to in that quick amount of time to get the ball snapped. But I think he’s played well, done well, so I’m excited about the progress we’ve made.”
FRESH START: Cory Jones, who did not appear in any games as a redshirt freshman last season, was working with the first-team defense at outside linebacker by the end of spring practice.
He credited his rise up the depth chart to hard work. “It’s all effort-based: earned not given,”Jones said. “That goes for anybody, not just me. As long as you work hard, the coaches give you a shot.”
Jones played only one year of football at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. He made the most of that season, recording 150 tackles, including 26 sacks, but the transition to college football wasn’t easy for him.
“The game is a lot faster than it is in high school,” Jones said Saturday, “but since I’ve gotten here I’ve learned a lot more fundamentals than I had in high school, so it’s all just made me better.”
At 6-5, Jones has excellent height for an outside linebacker, but he weighs only 215 pounds. He said he hopes to play at 225, if not more, in the fall.
ASCENDING: The catchphrase that has become associated with the new staff at UVA — #HoosRising — was the brainchild of graduate assistant Vic So’oto, who followed Mendenhall from Provo, Utah, to Charlottesville.
The Cavaliers’ coaches started using that hashtag on Twitter in February, around national signing day, and they haven’t stopped.
“As we love to celebrate signing day,” Mendenhall said, “it just kind of emerged out of all the fun we were having, and when we all heard it, it was clear that was it, and the switch flipped. We like it because it’s present tense, and it’s also directional, meaning `rising,’ not `risen,’ and I think that’s a movement, rather than an event.”
So’oto, who works with Virginia’s defensive linemen, played for Mendenhall at BYU and later spent four seasons in the NFL. His wife, Ashley, was Mendenhall’s personal assistant at BYU.
MAN IN THE MIDDLE: Under Mendenhall, who also serves as defensive coordinator, Virginia has switched from a 4-3 base scheme to a 3-4 in which senior Donte Wilkins is a pivotal figure.
“When you have a 3-4 defense, the nose tackle is, if not the most valuable player, certainly one of the most valuable players on your entire team,” Mendenhall said. “Donte just happened to be here, hungry for an opportunity and physically and mentally ready for that opportunity to match our system.”
Wilkins, who’s listed at 6-1, 290 pounds, has “had not just a solid spring but an exceptional spring in terms of what he’s doing, not only on the field but in terms of leadership,” Mendenhall said recently.
“I would love to have five, six more defensive linemen just like him. He’s really kind of setting the standard for what we’d be looking for in the future at that spot.”