By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Bronco Mendenhall was hired to revive a University of Virginia football program that has finished below .500 in eight of the past 10 seasons, and he’s confident he’ll do so.
The timetable for that turnaround, however, is hard to predict, the Cavaliers’ new head coach acknowledged Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
“It will be a step-by-step process,” Mendenhall told reporters at the first of his weekly press conferences. “We’re not going to launch right to the top of the ACC or the polls in game one.”
Mendenhall came to Virginia in December after 11 seasons as head coach at BYU, where he went 99-43, with 11 bowl appearances.
“I feel really fortunate to be here,” Mendenhall said Monday, “really lucky to be the coach for this team, anxious to get this started in terms of the season and find the launch point of where our team currently is in all different areas: from the effort component, from the execution component, from the chemistry component, and have a clear indicator, at least versus an opponent, where we’re starting from.”
The Wahoos, who finished 4-8 in 2015, will play 12 regular-season games again this year. The first comes Saturday. At 3:30 p.m., Virginia hosts Richmond, a power in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, at Scott Stadium.
UVA’s team captains, Mendenhall announced Monday, are senior center Jackson Matteo, senior nose tackle Donte Wilkins and redshirt junior linebacker Micah Kiser. Matteo and Kiser were among the players who stopped by JPJ for interviews Monday.
“Obviously you’re always excited for the first game of the year,” Kiser said, “but I think we just want to show the fans just how much hard work has really gone into what we’ve been doing.
“We’re definitely trying to change the culture here: come out and play smart, tough, aggressive and not make a lot of mental mistakes or a lot of penalties. That was holding us back in the past.”
Matteo said: “We’re very excited, but so is every other college football team in America. I don’t think that we can change anything we’ve been doing. I don’t think we can get over-excited and let the moment get too big for us. I think that being eager is good, and being anxious is good. That’s healthy. That’s how people react to these situations. But we need to stay disciplined in our emotions and just go out there and do what we’ve been doing for the spring and the summer and really start to put it all together.”
In six seasons under Mendenhall’s predecessor, Mike London, the `Hoos finished with a winning record only once: in 2011. Virginia hasn’t won a road game since Nov. 3, 2012, when most of the players on the current roster were still in high school.
Media prognosticators, not surprisingly, picked the Cavaliers to finish last in the ACC’s Coastal Division this season, but that doesn’t faze Mendenhall or his players.
“Really the best stance is to under-promise and over-deliver,” said Mendenhall, who also serves as Virginia’s defensive coordinator. “I think the promise comes from people just seeing and believing this will work because of past history. I don’t think anyone wonders if we’ll win or not. The biggest question is, when and with whom and where are we starting from?
“I don’t know any of those answers right now. But I do know the team is working really hard. I do know they want to have success. They’re still learning how.”
Since his introductory press conference Dec. 7 at JPJ, Mendenhall has been in almost perpetual motion, moving his wife and their children from Utah to Charlottesville, hiring a staff, meeting fans and donors, renovating the football offices in the McCue Center, introducing his philosophy and values to his players, and instilling in his team the belief that everything worthwhile must be earned.
“It’s been amazingly busy, but not chaotic,” Mendenhall said. “There is a plan. There has been a progressional approach to the plan with a clear sense of identity and vision that we’re working toward.
“Each step along the way through spring practice, through the winter conditioning, through the summer and through fall camp, I’ve been able to establish what I think are benchmarks of where I think we might be.”
His assessments of those benchmarks are not always accurate, Mendenhall said, but they’re “in the ballpark. But really until you play, there are always surprises … So, really, it’s time. The next step in our program’s development is to play a football game, and that will give me a great chance to [gauge the team’s progress], and hopefully every ‘i’ has been dotted and ‘t’ has been crossed in terms of preparation.”
Virginia has won 10 straight over Richmond and leads the series 28-2-2. The Spiders’ head coach, Danny Rocco, is a former UVA assistant whom Mendenhall met through their work with the American Football Coaches Association.
In 11 seasons as a head coach — the first six at Liberty — Rocco has an 80-38 record. Richmond advanced to the FCS semifinals last season.
“It’s been fun to learn about his career and then also watch his team play,” Mendenhall said, “because I think they are well taught. I don’t think they win by accident. I think he’s recruited well. I think he’s coached well. I think his strategies are sound. He has a really good program.”
After facing Richmond, Virginia will play back-to-back road games, the first at Oregon and the second at Connecticut. In players such as Kiser, safety Quin Blanding and tailback Taquan Mizzell, UVA has All-ACC candidates, but it’s thin and inexperienced at other positions. All of which makes it difficult to predict how the season will unfold for the `Hoos.
“This is a step-by-step process with realistic expectations from my perspective,” Mendenhall said, “but with optimism that it will absolutely work out in the end. It will be fun to see where we’re starting from.”
Matteo said: “We’re going to do this the right way. I’m just looking to win football games, so I’m ready to do whatever it takes. How quickly it happens, Coach Mendenhall says, is up to us. He knows it’ll work, but it’s up to us when it’ll work.”
TEAM FIRST: Fifth-year senior Matt Johns, who started every game at quarterback for Virginia last season, is now a backup. Redshirt junior Kurt Benkert, a transfer from East Carolina, won the starting job this summer. But Johns, one of the team’s most respected players, continues to be a positive presence in the program.
“Matt could have easily left,” Kiser said. “When you bring in another quarterback, it couldn’t be best for his confidence. But he stayed, he competed, he battled all summer, all spring. He’s still one of the best leaders in the locker room. Never comes in with a frown on his face. Never says anything bad about anybody.
“He’s embraced his role. He may not be the starter this year, but he’s a great glue guy in the locker room, keeping everyone together, keeping everyone involved. I can’t say enough about his leadership and his overall personality.”
Matteo echoed those comments.
“Matt is my best friend,” Matteo said. “He is my roommate, and he has watched my transformation, as I have watched his over the past few years. He is a special, special guy. He’s answered the bell. He’s matured. He could come in the locker room every day pouting, moaning about what’s not going his way. He hasn’t done that at all. He’s actually been more supportive than anything. Just watching him mature and grow over this past situation, it’s been really special to see just the type of person he is.
“I think everyone in this room understands that when you’re put in a pressure situation like that, your true colors are really revealed. His true colors were revealed. He’s just an outstanding guy, and it really makes me happy to just look back on this past camp and say that Matt was one of the most important leaders of our team this past camp, and he will be that going through this entire season. Nothing’s changed. Although he’s not going to be the starting quarterback, he is one of the best leaders on this team, and no one’s going to take that away from him. He’s always going to be that guy to us. So kudos to him. He’s a strong dude.”
Johns, the Cavaliers’ holder on extra points and field goals in 2013 and ’14, has resumed that role this season.