By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Of the players who saw action for the University of Virginia football team Saturday at Scott Stadium, 14 had never appeared in a college game before: sophomore Ben Hogg; redshirt freshmen Warren Craft, Tanner Cowley, Eli Hanback, Gladimir Paul, Chris Sharp, Jahvoni Simmons, James Trucilla and Steven Wright; and true freshmen Hasise Dubois, Bryce Hall, Jordan Mack, Juwan Moye and Joe Reed.
In many cases, head coach Bronco Mendenhall said at his weekly press conference, UVA’s less-experienced players impressed him more than the team’s veterans.
“The players that haven’t played much in this program — even some that have been in the program for quite some time — they played eager and hard and intent and remained optimistic all the way through,” Mendenhall told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena.
“It was really fun to watch. But there are players that have been here for a while that [because of some] of their previous experiences, those habits run deeper, and I could see them battling with that along the way. And so there are some new habits that have to replace some of the old. But we’ve known that all along.”
The Cavaliers, who haven’t finished with a winning record since 2011, lost 37-20 to FCS power Richmond in their first game under Mendenhall. Now comes a trip west for Virginia, which hasn’t won a road game since Nov. 3, 2012.
In a non-conference game ESPN will televise, UVA (0-1) plays at No. 24 Oregon (1-0) on Saturday at 10:30 p.m. Eastern. The Wahoos will be on the road again Sept. 17, when they visit Connecticut (1-0).
One of Mendenhall’s beliefs is that “the only way out is through,” he said. “We have significant tests coming up that we have to go through, and that’s going to season our team, it’s going to shape our team, it’s going to mold our team, it’s going to unite our team. But it’s also going to expose the things that need to be exposed for us to grow and get better. [The Oregon game] is one of them, so we’re excited for the test.”
After reviewing videotape of the loss to Richmond, Mendenhall said, it’s clear to him that hopes for “an immediate turnaround” in the program were probably unrealistic.
“I’m certain that we will have success,” Mendenhall said. “When, and how much, that will remain the question.”
The hill the `Hoos must climb “is steeper and longer than what I had thought at the beginning,” Mendenhall said, “but that doesn’t mean the outcome can’t be any different.”
AREA OF CONCERN: Late in the game Saturday, on the UVA sideline, safety Quin Blanding expressed displeasure at what he saw as a lack of enthusiasm from some of his teammates.
Mendenhall, who came to Virginia in December after 11 seasons as BYU’s head coach, noticed a similar lack of energy from players at various times during the game.
“They’re not used to battling back with positive outcomes,” Mendenhall said, “and so that whole idea is a little bit new.”
When the team met Monday morning, Mendenhall showed his players a video clip from BYU’s loss to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl last season. After falling behind 35-0, the Cougars scored 28 unanswered points before time ran out on them.
“There was a time in the second quarter it was 35-14, and I showed a clip of the sideline and BYU’s sideline was cheering like we had just won the game,” Mendenhall said. “All we did was make a stop on third down, but the entire sideline believed that they were going to come back and win.”
He then showed the players a clip from the home sideline at Scott Stadium when the Cavaliers were trailing by a small margin Saturday and pointed out the players’ demeanor.
Football is often divided into three phases — offense, defense and special teams. Offensive lineman Michael Mooney said Monday that UVA assistant head coach Ruffin McNeill believes there’s a fourth phase: the sideline.
“So that’s definitely something we can work on,” Mooney said.
During training camp, senior running back Albert Reid said Monday, “when the defense made plays, the defensive sideline went crazy. It was like complete chaos on the defensive sideline. Offense, too. You could tell a big difference between what we showed in the game this weekend and in camp. It wasn’t the same team that we saw in camp.”
Defensive end Eli Hanback said: “As a team we have to fight it, that urge to put your head down. When adversity comes, we always have to be encouraging each other and keep pushing forward. But I feel it’s something we can fix and we’re going to fix, and all the guys know that.”
TAKING RESPONSIBILITY: Sophomore wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus sat out the first half Saturday after turning himself in for a violation of team rules.
“Olamide is a great young man,” Mendenhall said, “and I am someone that loves principles, and I think every choice is based on a principle, and principles are based on beliefs, and sometimes especially when you’re young, things get kind of cloudy.
“So O made a mistake in violation of the team rules, but to his credit he acknowledged it before I found out from anyone else and called me and said what had happened. And that lessened the severity for him, taking ownership. It cost him the first half of the game, as well as a few other things, and he handled it really well and maturely and would have helped our team the entire game. But he did a nice job when we had him and we look forward to having him going forward.”
Zaccheaus finished with five receptions for a team-high 75 yards. As a true freshman in 2015, he led the Cavaliers with 541 yards on 28 kickoff returns. He was not used on special teams against Richmond, but he’s likely to return to that role at Oregon.
STEPPING UP: On the depth chart distributed Monday, UVA’s projected starter at strong-side linebacker is Jordan Mack, a 6-4, 205-pound true freshman from the Atlanta suburb of Lithonia, Ga.
Mendenhall, who also serves as Virginia’s defensive coordinator, didn’t expect Mack to play such a prominent role this season, but injuries to junior Malcolm Cook and sophomore Cory Jones forced the coaching staff to alter its plans.
Mack’s brother, Charles, plays for Richmond. The younger Mack started against the Spiders, “and for his first college game and having a lot of things thrown at him, I think he handled it pretty well,” Mendenhall said.
A graduate of Wesleyan High, where he played defensive back last season, Mack showed up at UVA in July “in really good shape,” Mendenhall said, “and he was a leader amongst the freshmen, but he really wasn’t getting much work even through [training] camp. It was out of necessity with injury that his role became elevated. He’s going to end up being a significant contributor out of necessity [because of] what our current depth and injury situation looks like, but he looks capable and he’s worth investing a lot of time in.”
WELCOME BACK: Michael Mooney was the Cavaliers’ starting left offensive tackle in 2015 before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Pitt in the fifth game.
“Someone rolled up on the back of my left knee,” Mooney, a fifth-year senior from Malvern, Pa., recalled Monday. “My kneecap just kind of slid out of place and went behind my leg.”
He had surgery in late October to repair the kneecap and torn ligaments, and nine months of rehabilitation followed.
“It was tough in the winter,” Mooney said, “just because they had all the injured guys doing separate workouts at separate times. It was separate everything. So everyone’s kind of all pumped with the new coaching staff, doing a lot of team-building staff and new workouts, and I wasn’t really with the team completely then. And during spring ball I wasn’t practicing. I was in the weight room during practice. That was tough. But the summer was really cool to finally be completely immersed in the team and get back with everyone. That was awesome.”
UVA’s medical staff cleared Mooney for contact a week before the start of training camp, and he started at left tackle against Richmond.
“I’m completely back to normal,” Mooney said. “I feel better than last year.”
Virginia’s performance against Richmond was disappointing, Mooney said, but that “was kind of a starting point. We know what we need to work on now. Everything’s fixable. That’s the good news. So we’re excited.”
Wilkins, a senior nose tackle, had the strongest performance of any defensive lineman, said Mendenhall, who added that he “was impressed with a lot of the things that Andrew Brown did as well, once he got settled in. The first quarter [Brown] was wild-eyed and not as assignment-sound but still productive in making plays, [though] not within necessarily the scope of assignment or technique. As the game went on, that became more methodical and systematic and consistent, which happened with a number of the players.”
Mendenhall also singled out Hanback, Trucilla and Powers, a transfer from Arizona State.
“Those guys proved that they can have a role,” Mendenhall said, “and that’s good, because with the speed and pace of [Oregon] — you know, running a play every 22-ish seconds — it’s nice to be able to substitute when possible.”