By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Bronco Mendenhall would rather coach football than talk about football, but his options were limited Thursday at the Westin Hotel.
At his first ACC Football Kickoff, the conference’s annual preseason media gathering, the University of Virginia’s new head coach fielded question after question about his philosophy, his vision and the state of the program.
“I’m not sure `enjoying’ is the right word,” Mendenhall said with a smile when asked about the experience.
Later, after stating how happy he was to be in the ACC, he added, “I’d much rather just have how we play speak for us than projecting and guessing. It’s fun and it symbolizes the start of football season, which I think is maybe more rite of passage than anything of added value. The storylines will change four, five, 20, 30 times between now and when we finish.”
Mendenhall is one of three new head coaches in the ACC’s Coastal Division, along with Miami’s Mark Richt and Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente. Accompanying Mendenhall to Charlotte were two of the Cavaliers’ leaders: center Jackson Matteo, who’ll compete as a graduate student this season, and inside linebacker Micah Kiser, a redshirt junior.
“I couldn’t think of two better representatives,” said Mendenhall, who came to Virginia in December after 13 seasons at BYU, the final 11 as head coach.
“I selected them to come, and I chose them not only because of how they play the game, but I like how they work and I like who they are. I like the toughness and resolve that they have in terms of leading our team.”
The Cavaliers finished 4-8 in 2015, their seventh losing record in eight seasons. Virginia’s players are determined to reverse the program’s fortunes, as they’ve made clear to the new coaching staff over the past seven months.
“I’m excited, thrilled and encouraged after what I’ve seen so far,” said Mendenhall, who’s also Virginia’s defensive coordinator. “I like my team a lot. I like their work ethic, I like their diligence, their toughness. Holy cow, we’ve asked a lot of them.”
Kiser said: “We’ve never been challenged as much as we have with Coach Mendenhall. That really brings you together.”
Asked to describe the cornerstones of the culture Mendenhall is instilling at UVA, Matteo said, “I have three answers. The first is, ‘Earned not given.’ The second is, ‘Will before skill.’
“If you try harder, you will be on the field. It’s will before skill. Everything is earned and not given. The third thing is, ‘There’s two ways to do something: It’s the right way and it’s again.’ [The coaches] mean it.”
Close losses have marked UVA’s recent seasons. In 2015, five of the Wahoos’ defeats were by seven points or fewer. In 2014, five of their seven losses were by eight points or fewer.
That doesn’t mean a turnaround will be easily accomplished, Mendenhall said. “That isn’t a small gap. That’s a giant gap, and there’s a reason those games aren’t being won. And so to go from losing to winning close games is a ton of work, not a little work, and that’s what we’ve taken on.”
Depth, Mendenhall acknowledged, is a significant concern for Virginia, especially on the offensive line. Two returning linemen, Eric Tetlow and Sadiq Olanrewaju, had to retire from football for medical reasons this year. Moreover, former North Carolina offensive guard Jared Cohen, who was expected to join the program this summer, informed the Cavaliers’ coaching staff recently that he no longer wants to play football.
With veterans such as Matteo, guards Jack McDonald and Sean Karl, and tackles Eric Smith, Michael Mooney and Jack English, the offensive talent has a strong core. Overall, though, the O-line is “thin,” Mendenhall said, “and as a team we’re thin.
“Now, if we don’t have significant injuries and don’t lose a key player here or there, it could be really fun to see what the football looks like in Year 1. A key injury here or there will modify and really stretch us as coaches, which is part of my job then, to design schemes and strategies that make the most of what we currently have.”
Mendenhall said the Cavaliers “work from the inside out. Eventually we’ll play good football. But we work on toughness and effort [first]. We’ve made significant inroads in that regard. We think the football will catch up and catch up relatively quickly … We have a lot to be optimistic about and hopeful about in terms of the University of Virginia’s future.”
A strong start to his first season at UVA would be ideal, Mendenhall said, but it’s far from assured.
“So simple successes are something that we focus a lot on, and that doesn’t always come in terms of wins, even though that’s how the world will judge our success in a timely manner,” he said.
“What we’ve already accomplished to me has been exceptional, and how the players again are embracing and really allowing it to become who they are. Every time a tempo run is made, every time another mark is cleared that we know is a metric to success, we celebrate that. And we don’t make those things public. Nor do we need to. What I think and what I’ve tried to articulate is that I think the culture of the program is accelerating faster than what I [expected]. The execution and the football will catch up.
“When? I’m not certain. But I’m optimistic and hopeful, the sooner the better, because all that does is fuel the fire to continue for the culture to be built. There will be challenges right away, and this is not an easy fix. There’s a reason seven of the last eight years have not been winning seasons. I’m not a miracle worker, and I don’t have a magic formula, but I do have a consistent approach that’s well thought out and objectively based with metrics that work really well with players that try really hard, and I’m counting on that to be the case here.”
The Cavaliers have not finished above .500 in ACC play since 2011, their second season under Mendenhall’s predecessor, Mike London, and they figure to be picked last in the Coastal Division when the preseason ballots are counted this month.
That’s fine with Matteo.
“That’s why you play the game,” he said. “That’s why you compete. That’s why you try to put yourself in the position to be successful and win football games.
“All those ratings, those rankings, they’re nice. They look great on paper. At the end of the day you have to put your helmet on and go out and play the game.”
That the `Hoos will open the season Sept. 3 against Richmond at Scott Stadium has been known for months. Still to be decided is who’ll start at quarterback against the Spiders.
Johns started every game for the `Hoos in 2015, but he’s no lock to retain the job.
By the midpoint of training camp next month, Mendenhall said, he’d like to narrow the competition to two quarterbacks, and he hopes to pick a starter by the end of camp.
“We don’t have the depth as a team, nor can we practice long enough per day to get the repetitions necessary to train all three and give them equal reps,” Mendenhall said.
“So we have some pretty hard decisions to make relatively quickly. But that’s part of our transition. But that doesn’t mean, when that decision’s made, that [the depth chart won’t change] through injury, etcetera. I think we’ll need all three, I really do.
“My job is to design a repetition system and a practice management style through fall camp to help us have clarity in that one position, which usually has more effect on the game than any of the others.”
Mendenhall does not favor a two-quarterback system. He employed that one season at BYU, he said, “and didn’t really like anything about it, and I think it really hampers the identity of your football team and the chemistry.”
“It could be, with a presence at quarterback,” he said. “I prefer a dual-threat presence, if possible, and I’ll just say this pretty simply: In terms of philosophically, a dual-threat quarterback takes pressure off the offense line, puts more pressure on the defense, and allows you to score more points than if you become more traditional, which requires a high level of execution.
“That doesn’t mean I’ll pick a quarterback only based on dual-threat, if he’s not the most efficient. But dual-threat would allow us, with a thin offensive line, to possibly keep them healthier and maybe, even with some injuries, be able to continue to put points up, which is the most important statistic in football.”
Benkert, who missed last season with a torn ACL, rushed five times for 23 yards and two touchdowns in his three appearances for East Carolina in 2014. Benkert can be an effective runner, Mendenhall said, and Johns and Brewer have potential in that area too.
Take away the yardage he lost on sacks, and Johns rushed for more than 200 yards and one TD last year, with a long run of 25 yards.
The Cavaliers don’t have the luxury of installing “distinct offenses for different quarterbacks, with the time frame we’re under,” Mendenhall said. “So you’ll probably see more elements of dual-threat with whoever’s in there than just specifically one that we think is a runner or a thrower.”