By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Bronco Mendenhall walked out of the McCue Center, descended the steps to the University of Virginia football practice field and flashed a smile.
“It’s football time,” Mendenhall said.
The Cavaliers’ second practice of their first training camp under their new head coach is Saturday night. The first was Friday evening, and the session was conducted at the pace for which Mendenhall and his staff, including director of football performance Frank Wintrich, have become known.
Players sprinted from drill to drill and generally remained in motion throughout each practice period.
“It’s extremely fast,” said graduate student Jack Powers, who admitted the tempo was a shock to his system.
The 6-6, 285-pound Powers, a transfer from Arizona State, has been at UVA for less than a month. He arrived in good condition, Powers said, “but I’m in better shape now after working with Coach Wintrich for three weeks.”
Friday’s practice ended with “Will Development,” a grueling drill that taxes the players mentally as well as physically. Had Powers ever taken part in anything similar as a football player?
“No,” he said, smiling. “Nothing like it.”
Powers, who’s from Salinas, Calif., earned a bachelor’s degree in business communications from Arizona State last month.
After redshirting in 2013, Powers appeared in every game, primarily on special teams, in `14 for the Sun Devils, who finished 10-3 that season. He was solely a student in 2015-16.
An offensive lineman at Arizona State, Power has been slotted at defensive end at UVA, whose base scheme is the 3-4.
“He’s a guy who’s had experience at the Division I level,” said Ruffin McNeill, who coaches the Wahoos’ defensive linemen, “a guy who’s been through Division I varsity practices. He understands the grind of the season, of fall camp.
“He fits in well with our system of having talented, tough kids who are smart. He fits in well with our present team. He came in from Day One working extremely hard. Just a great fit for us. That size and experience, you can’t put a price on that.”
STEP BY STEP: Mendenhall, who came to UVA from BYU, where he spent 11 seasons as head coach, spoke with media members after practice Friday night.
Virginia’s players are “well-prepared physically,” Mendenhall said, but even “as well as they are prepared physically and the job Coach Wintrich has done with them in the offseason, practice is still different, and so that was challenging for our team, but they adapted well.
“The chemistry is good, and the preparation is good. So I think it was a solid start. I’m not as much focused on efficiency or effectiveness today. What I’m focused on is willingness, and I like where our team was from that standpoint.”
Defensive end Christian Baumgardner and linebacker Matt Terrell enrolled at UVA in January. The Cavaliers’ other true freshmen arrived last month, which gave them about four weeks with Wintrich and his assistant Kevin Heiberger, who specializes in speed training.
“It prepared them somewhat,” Mendenhall said. “Without that they would have no chance [to survive training camp].”
MULTIPLE OPTIONS: BYU’s base defense under Mendenhall was the 3-4, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. In 2015, the Cougars’ defense spent more time out of the 3-4 than in it, Mendenhall said.
Expect similar versatility from the Cavaliers’ defense, which Mendenhall coordinates.
“I love our team,” Mendenhall said, “because of how willing they are to work and how hard they’ve worked. That’s something they’ve chosen to do, and my responsibility, as long as they keep that up, is to put them in the very best positions, regardless of what the defensive scheme is called, to allow them to have success. So I wouldn’t lock us in to [any specific scheme] … You start with something, but when I know who the best 11 players are, then they’ll be aligned some way to keep the points down.”
Whatever the alignment, the strength of the defense figures to be up the middle: with senior nose tackle Donte Wilkins, redshirt junior inside linebacker Micah Kiser and junior free safety Quin Blanding.
“We just all gotta be on the same page,” said Blanding, a three-year starter. “Our communication level has to be excellent at all times. No matter what the play is, no matter what the call is, no matter what the formation is, we gotta be the voice of the defense when we’re on the field, because the coaches can’t play for us.”
On having Mendenhall as defensive coordinator, Blanding said, “It’s great. He’s a very knowledgeable guy. Everything he’s done he’s showed us … We’ve all bought into that, and we’re rolling with him, because he’s our head guy. We love him, and we’re thankful for him to be here, and we’re just ready to win games.”
The `Hoos were prone to defensive breakdowns and allowed 32.2 points per game last season. Blanding said the defense hasn’t spent much time looking at videotape from 2015.
“We threw that away,” he said. “We burned that, and we’re just now moving forward, not even looking back … We’re all focused on this year.”
FRESH START: Of the players expected to anchor the defense, Wilkins has the least experience. He started four games as a true freshman in 2013 and five in ’14, but only one last season. For his college career, he has 42 tackles, including 5.5 for loss, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
Wilkins, a graduate of Potomac High in Woodridge, quickly won over his new coaches after they arrived at UVA.
“I love Donte, and he’s been an effective leader and an effective player to this point,” Mendenhall said. “What I’m hoping going forward is he’s launching from this current point to expand and grow, but to this point he’s on pace to be a very good player for us in our defense.”
Asked about the 3-4, Wilkins said, “I love this defense. It fits me as a defensive tackle, as a nose tackle. Coach Mendenhall, he says every day, if we don’t have a nose tackle, we don’t have a defense. This is where we’re going to stop the run, first and second down, third and short, fourth and short. I love it right now. Taking on two [blockers], letting Micah and the linebackers come through free is what I plan on doing.”
LAST TIME AROUND: One of those linebackers is senior Zach Bradshaw, who has moved inside after playing on the outside in the 4-3.
Bradshaw started nine games last season before missing the final two with a knee injury. He’s 100 percent again now, Bradshaw said Friday, but the injury limited his participation during spring practice.
“It was super frustrating,” he said, “because I just wanted to get in there and learn the defense. I was watching film with everyone and going through the playbook, so I had it down mentally, but it’s hard to just jump right in when you’re back on the field and just pick it up. It’s different doing things on the fly.”
The move to inside linebacker has been smooth for him, Bradshaw said.
“We have less pass responsibility in this defense as the inside `backers, and if I am doing anything, it’s stuff that I had done in the past, he said. “So there’s a lot of carryover as far as responsibilities. It’s just alignments and the names of things that have changed.”
Shane Hunter, who played for Mendenhall at BYU, coaches Virginia’s inside linebackers. In the summer of the 2013, Bradshaw enrolled at UVA with Kiser, now one of his closest friends, and played as a true freshman that fall. Now he’s the only senior at his position.
“It’s crazy,” Bradshaw said. “Coach Hunter was going through everyone in the inside linebacker room, pointing out how young the group is. He gets to me and he’s like, `Well, we’ve got the one old head over here.’ And it seems like yesterday where I was the young guy and [looking up to Daquan Romero and Henry Coley] and people like that. It’s flown by.”
Bradshaw does not lack motivation heading into his final college season.
“I want to go out on a positive note, finish the season strong for once since I’ve been here, and this is my last opportunity to do it,” he said.
“I’m excited about this defense. [The 3-4 is] something I’ve never done before, but just from what we’ve done in the spring I’m really excited.”
COUNTDOWN TO KICKOFF: Starting today (Aug. 6), Virginia Athletics will be giving away one prize per day through Sept. 2 as part of the Countdown to Kickoff promotion.
Prizes include lower level tickets to football games, pregame locker room access, official Virginia Nike gear, autographed merchandise, 2017 season tickets and a trip to UVA’s Nov. 19 game against Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
For more information, click on this link.