By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In 2015, linebacker Micah Kiser led the University of Virginia football team with 117 tackles, and safety Quin Blanding was next with 115. Only one other Cavalier made more than 53 stops last season: safety Kelvin Rainey (68).

“Ideally, I don’t think you want two players to have all those tackles,” Kiser said Thursday at the ACC Football Kickoff, the league’s annual preseason media gathering.

“We want everyone else to be involved, be a little bit more efficient on defense. Hopefully we’ll just improve on that, and me and [Blanding] will get better and better and we’ll have a great defense this year.”

Kiser, a redshirt junior from Baltimore, played middle linebacker in the 4-3 scheme that was Virginia’s base defense under Mike London, Bronco Mendenhall‘s predecessor as head coach.

With Mendenhall overseeing the defense, the Cavaliers’ base is now a 3-4.

“For me it’s not that much different,” Kiser said. “I’m still on the inside, playing in the middle. We still attack a lot. We’re not just going to sit back and let teams dictate stuff to us.

“I will say that Coach Mendenhall, he holds the defense accountable a lot more. He doesn’t [want opponents] to run the ball the length of a blade of grass. When your coach is on you like that, you’re going to play harder. He’s going to make us try harder than we’ve ever tried.”

Blanding, a junior from Virginia Beach, is heading into his third season as a starter.

Kiser said he and Blanding “are always locked in together. We kind of play on a string. I like to look behind me and see Quin, he likes to look in front of him and see me. We really play off of each other. We’re very competitive with each other. We’re both leaders on the defense.”

Among the assistant coaches who followed Mendenhall from BYU to UVA after last season is Nick Howell. Howell, who works with the Cavaliers’ secondary, serves as defensive coordinator when Mendenhall is unavailable.

In the off season, Mendenhall estimated, that’s about 30 percent of the time. In season, though, Mendenhall rarely is not in charge of the defense.

“Every part of our organization is labeled, every task is labeled into a type of work,” Mendenhall said last week at the ACC Football Kickoff, “and I only do competitive work in the season. I delegate competitive-enabling work, business-essential work, compliance work. I just won’t do any of that in season, because my No. 1 responsibility is to my players to help them win.

“So In season, if there’s an emergency [that is] player-related and I have to step out of it, the meeting keeps going. I pass the clicker [to Howell] and then we switch it back when I come in. Out of season is where the 30 percent takes place.”

When he took over at UVA, Mendenhall inherited players who had been recruited for the 4-3. Asked how long it will take the coaching staff to restock the defense with players better suited for the 3-4, Mendenhall said, “If this year’s recruiting so far is any indication, it’ll be sooner rather than later with the amount of interest in our system and our program.”

Mendenhall also played a 3-4 base defense at BYU, but he was flexible.

“Last year, we played more 4-3 snaps than 3-4 snaps based on circumstance,” he said. “So we have a simple meeting every year and it’s called `best 11.’ That means the best 11 defensive players, and whatever configuration is out there and our knowledge base will allow us to do that.”

Virginia has only one player who fits the mold of the prototypical 3-4 nose tackle — senior Donte Wilkins — and the defensive line is “limited in depth, much like the offensive line,” Mendenhall said.

“How this all shapes up, it’ll be fun to watch … . At UCLA last year, [BYU] led [for almost] the entire game, and we [used] one D-lineman the majority of the game. I’m not opposed to fanatical nor radical ideas to put defensive players on the field.”

SMOOTH TRANSITION: For many of the team’s veteran offensive linemen, including senior tackle Eric Smith, Garett Tujague is the third position coach they’ve had at UVA.

After three seasons as BYU’s offensive line coach, Tujague came to Virginia with Mendenhall in December.

“I believe he’s like a big kid, so he’s like me,” Smith said, laughing. “I actually see a bunch of the characteristics that I display, in him. So that makes that relationship between us that much [closer].”

As a senior at BYU in 1991, Tujague was a starting offensive guard on a team whose quarterback, Ty Detmer, was the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.

“He’s up-tempo every morning,” Smith said of Tujague. “He’s a big guy as well, so he kind of relates to the rest of the offensive line, and he brings the energy. He knows how to push us when we need to be pushed. He has expectations that he wants us to meet and standards that he wants us to meet, but he knows when to tone it down … He’s like one of the big guys.”

Smith, a senior from Decatur, Ga., is heading into his fourth season as a starter. After seven months of training under Virginia’s new director of football performance, Frank Wintrich, and assistant Kevin Heiberger, the 6-5, 305-pound Smith said, “I’m in the best shape of my life, and I’m the heaviest I’ve been at UVA. I’ve bought in, and obviously the rest of the guys have bought in as well.”

Smith, like many of his teammates, has been applying lessons learned in sessions with Randy Bird, Virginia’s director of sports nutrition.

“Since January, I changed my whole diet with the new coaching staff,” said Smith, who eats grilled chicken and spinach every day. “I figure if they’re going to bring change to UVA, I might as well change myself.”

LEARNING CURVE: Before taking over at BYU, Mendenhall spent two seasons as the team’s defensive coordinator. So he had extensive familiarity with the Cougars’ personnel heading into his debut as head coach.

That was on Sept. 3, 2005, and Boston College defeated BYU 20-3 in Provo, Utah.

Mendenhall’s first game as Virginia’s head coach is Sept. 3 against Richmond at Scott Stadium. He’s been in Charlottesville for less than nine months, but Mendenhall said he believes he has “a much better idea how this team will play than I did [at BYU in 2005, looking back at it 11 years ago, just simply because of experience and maybe the knowledge base that’s been added to what I’m actually looking at and what I’m measuring. There’s a lot of unknowns now that have been eliminated just simply by being a head coach the number of years I have.”

In 11 seasons as the Cougars’ head coach, Mendenhall posted a 99-43 record, with 11 bowl appearances.

SOUNDING BOARD: Virginia’s assistant head coach, Ruffin McNeill, spent the past six seasons running the program at East Carolina, where his record was 42-34, with four bowl appearances.

“It’s just really nice to have a coach with head coach experience serving as the assistant head coach for me to share ideas with out loud in a private, safe and intimate setting,” Mendenhall said, “so we can make decisions and I can make decisions using the sounding board rather than just having to be intuitive on my own on that.

“What Ruff did was, he allowed another set of lenses and a different understanding of some his experiences to combine and partner with what my ideas were, to give us a more comprehensive view of a particular problem and then what solutions might be effected.”

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS: The Cavaliers’ top four tailbacks from last season are back, as well as sophomore wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, who was third on the team in rushing yards, with 262.

UVA’s returning tailbacks are seniors Taquan Mizzell (671 yards rushing in 2015) and Albert Reid (360), junior Daniel Hamm (242) and sophomore Jordan Ellis (74). Mizzell, whose nickname is Smoke, also led the `Hoos in receptions, with 75 (for 721 yards and four touchdowns).

“We’re like a Swiss Army knife,” senior center Jackson Matteo said at the ACC Football Kickoff. “We have so many tools. It’s going to be so special to watch them all be in there. When Smoke goes out, all right, well here’s Daniel Hamm. And then when Daniel Hamm goes out, well here’s Albert Reid, here’s Jordan Ellis. It just doesn’t stop, and that just opens things up for us, because not one guy is ever going to be tired.”

PROVEN WINNERS: 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. The Coastal’s other head coaches are Duke’s David Cutcliffe, Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson, North Carolina’s Larry Fedora and Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi.

Mendenhall has coached against or talked football with — or both — all of his Coastal counterparts.

“I think we have a good division with good people as coaches, but also good coaches,” Mendenhall said. “From what I’ve seen in my short time in the league, it looks like we have both. It’s challenging, which is great.”

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