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Sept. 12, 2016

Bronco Mendenhall
Press Conference

Bronco Mendenhall: We continued to deliver the ball well, throwing and catching. A number of dropped passes occurred, the percentage would still be way up there. Cut down the turnovers about in half, and while it might not have looked like it overall, big plays still remain a challenge defensively because of execution and fundamentals. But in between that, against the type of team we were playing, there was actually quite a bit of improvement that I saw there as well.

Our punting game continues to be very, very strong. Not only in terms of how Nic is kicking it, but our coverage. So just overall the mindset of the team with the execution at times was a step forward from week one to week two against a better team in a more difficult environment. I enjoyed coaching our team on Saturday, because it was clear to me of the improvement and everyone saw it, the team especially. There is a gaining sense of optimism and confidence that is growing. But part of it is just simply the time necessary for putting new habits on top of old ones. As you know, existing habits never go away. You have to build new ones that are stronger than the existing ones to then become the first source that you draw on. So we’re still working on that. Was really impressed with some of the younger players still. Hasise (Dubois), when he got in at receiver did a nice job. Bryce Hall at corner, when he got in, and Jordan Mack, all three of those young guys did a nice job, and most likely more to come still.

So I’ll answer questions whatever ones that you might have regarding today.

Q. The problems on defense, particularly on third down have been there for everyone to see. What are some of the encouraging signs that you’ve seen that maybe aren’t as apparent to the uneducated eye?
Bronco Mendenhall: The thing that’s happening with four man pressure, the quarterback was hit immediately on release on four of the throws. So that’s without having to send any extra pressure as we’re putting a lot more of focus right now on coverage and getting some of the young parts in our secondary shored up and the execution to some of the formations and adjustments, which two of the third downs in that game were just simply situational awareness and alignments and concentration. So we have some growing pains that were apparent for everyone to see.

Usually our system is phenomenal on third down, not only in pressuring the quarterback, but the amount of turnovers we create and different things. So it is sequential. We’re starting with just the basics. And both Chris Peace and Andrew Brown are doing a nice job with pressure with four people right now, which is probably going to have to remain for a while while we shore up the secondary assignments and position mastery back there, which is probably a slower process than any of us would want it to be, but that’s where we currently are.

Q. If my memory’s right, I think when Al Groh was here and put in the 3-4, I think he said it typically takes a defense maybe a whole year before they really, really kind of get it. Do you believe that? What kind of a tall order is it for these guys to try to play your way of defense right out of the chute like this?
Bronco Mendenhall: It’s a tall order, but it’s a challenge that they all like and want, as well as myself. So we’re doing two things at the same time. We’re systematically installing and building to have a great program overtime, and then trying to rush as quickly as possible without cutting any corners to get the execution up to speed as fast as necessary versus a variety of opponents we’re seeing. And the defensive staff is actually encouraged. We are a numbers driven team and staff, and I love the data. But I also rely on intuition, and I can see some of the things between the numbers that are improving. And I think the fans will see that and the followers of Virginia football will see that at some point. I’m not sure when the breakthrough will happen. My approach, just to he iterate is very systematic and very progressional. And I’ve is summarized it to each of you a couple times already, but I think I ought to go more in depth, when I say will before skill, there is a component there where I want the mindset of our football players to be first and foremost in terms of how hard they’ll go in relation to having those habits in place, so we never have to go back and fix that part. And I’ve aired on the side of staying longer in that space, rather than scheme and mastery and some of those things for the sake of setting that right once and for all. And that is a sequential process.

Almost when they earn, and I feel comfortable that they’re trying hard enough and that’s deep enough, it shifts to a lot more, again, position mastery and execution driven things specific to an opponent. I was encouraged. They played hard enough and aggressive enough in that game for me to be more confident now that they’re ready to handle more of the mastery part and the execution part.

But, again, I’ve done that sequentially with the long-term in mind. That does not mean not wanting to win each and every game. But in my priorities and what I believe personally, man, how hard people try is one of the greatest gifts I can help them with. And eventually the execution will catch up. I keep saying that. That’s partly by how much time and effort we put on it and into it. That will continue to increase as each and every week and each and every day as we go along. So I would certainly hope that we end up playing really good defense this year, and it doesn’t take a year. But transitions are unique and challenging.

It was interesting, I was a graduate assistant for Brady Hoke who is the defensive coordinator at Oregon, and he came up to me before the game and he said I can’t believe how long and hard it is to get them to go from two gap to one gap. He’s doing the same thing on the opposite side. Those are just unique challenges when you inherit and take over new philosophies.

But we have good enough players, we have good enough mindset, and we have enough eagerness with the players and buy-in. They’re good enough to coach. I really like this team. And I’m anxious to help them have the success that I know they can have as quickly as possible. I don’t know how long. But I think it might be a little sooner than what people think, even though the early results have been not that. I just, I’m encouraged, actually. I saw it quite a few things I liked in that game that in between the breakdowns I think we’re gaining momentum there and we’ll continue to target the ones that are most visible to see in terms of big plays on the third down along the way.

Q. Your secondary has two really experienced guys at safety, and right now with Tim out, two relatively green guys at corner. How would you evaluate — you mentioned that those things have to be figured out in the back end. How have you looked at that secondary to this point?
Bronco Mendenhall: I really have been impressed with Juan Thornhill since I arrived. And I think maybe I ought to speak collectively first. There are four players defensively that, with Tim being hurt, the two inside linebackers in Micah and Zach and our two safeties, the other seven right now are relatively new, which is fun.

I mean, all these experiences are brand-new and fresh to them and every rep leads to great experience.

Jordan Mack got a chance to lineup against a world class sprinter and the ball went over his head as a true freshman. We asked him today in the meeting what did he learn, he said probably if you’re covering someone who is an Olympic sprinter, you ought to back up. So lesson learned (laughing). I mean, painful, but this is not life or death. We played and we’re playing better. But with that coverage tag versus that alignment versus that player, he learned better back up, if not the ball goes over your head really fast. So he’s part of the secondary the way that we consider it. Juan Thornhill learned on 3rd and 39. Not necessarily was it his mistake. There should have been a free safety there. An experienced player who actually made a mistake. But it’s probably good against the same guy that was in the Olympics to maybe back up a little more and make sure you’re on top. So there are some situational awareness things that seem so obvious to any of us watching that in real time versus tempo are being lost in the shuffle that my job again is to prepare them for that. We’re just not quite fast enough in recognizing and aligning and adjusting in relation to not only the scheme but the situation and personnel to be playing at a high enough level yet.

So I think somewhere in there is the answer to your question. On the other side, Myles Robinson is competing hard, not quite as far along in terms of sustainability as one. But Bryce Hall is coming along and giving us some depth there as well.

Q. Kurt seems to have done a good job when he’s running not to subject himself to undue contact. On your final touchdown drive he had the 13-yard run. I don’t think this was a called play. Are you comfortable with how much he’s running? Would you like to look for opportunities if he can do it safely?
Bronco Mendenhall: It’s the right amount right now. Again, sequentially, and I’m not presenting a message of we don’t want to win right now in every single game. With the plays that are called for him to throw, the more that he can remain in the pocket with poise, go through his progression and deliver the football before leaving, the better it will be for our team. Not only in the short term but also in the long-term. The sooner and faster the quarterback has success in leaving the pocket and running, the more likely he is to leave the pocket and run more frequently and faster in the future, which then takes your offensive execution from this usually to that. Which then usually increases the chance for your quarterback to get hurt.

So it’s just right. There are some called runs with lead draw and those kinds of things happening now and he’s sliding appropriately. So I think we’re right on the mark with how we’re using him with his legs at this point.

Q. You’re obviously not going to talk to us about injuries.
Bronco Mendenhall: You’re right.

Q. But you did have obviously Doni Dowling wasn’t listed on the depth chart and came back to play. Was that that happened in the week that he moved further along in the process? Was that something you guys were planning on? How did he perform given the fact that he had that shoulder injury?
Bronco Mendenhall: The only thing that I can really speak to is Doni’s really tough and he’s really committed and he has a really high pain tolerance and wasn’t cleared or even imagined to be cleared until Thursday. A lot of that was because of just his resolve and resilience and him convincing others that he could play. Then all the medical examinations bore that out. But he’s really tough. I like him a lot.

Q. You were talking a little bit about Kurt and pocket presence. How do you evaluate that over all? Nine sacks, thorugh two games, looks like he’s rolling out more than stepping up. Is there a fine line there?
Bronco Mendenhall: Kurt is comfortable and very effective stepping out of the pocket and not up into the pocket, which I love. So I don’t think there is an advantage either way other than the results that you get. To me alluding pressure is either up or out or sometimes both. I think our issue right now that we’re having that are leading to the sacks really isn’t quarterback driven. It’s protection oriented.

So on Saturday we actually were more skilled and more execution sound, and more consistent in our run game blocking than we were in our pass game blocking.

So I don’t think it’s a quarterback issue right now. I think it’s just our mid to down field throw game and protection long enough to allow that to take a step forward. Pretty secure and confident right now in our execution of the shorter pass game and the perimeter pass game. But our protection and execution mid to deeper is where we really need to improve.

Q. You averaged two yards per carry, your rushing game against Richmond went all the way up to 7 yards per carry against Oregon. You addressed it in your opening statement. But what did you specifically work on this week during the week that made for such a dramatic improvement?
Bronco Mendenhall: More simply a recognition after game one that one of the strengths of our team, again, coming through fall camp and the spring we assessed our running backs and our running game. Somewhere along the line in that first game the emphasis placed and the production of didn’t come to fruition. We know as a program and as a team for the season that has to be part of what we do. So increased emphasis, increased planning, and some personnel changes in terms of how we use players and whom and where and what type of runs. I think that all led to an increased performance which we’re all hopeful will remain and we think we need it to to have the kind of offensive break out that we need. We took a step closer in terms of really moving our offense forward, but there’s more still.

Q. Kurt said that after the game maybe he’s holding on to the ball too long. Is that something that’s just a product of having not played that much in real games? Also how would you evaluate him as a passer after two games?
Bronco Mendenhall: I think Kurt – I’ll go in reverse order, I think he’s an excellent passer who is making really strong choices. I think Kurt is one of those leaders that will shoulder as much burden as possible. So when asked in relation to sacks and everything else, it doesn’t surprise me at all if he’ll say he’s probably holding the ball too long. That’s what any of us in a leadership position want to do. It’s our responsibility to make plays to help teams be successful and to bear as much of that burden and responsibility as possible.

In my opinion he’s holding it appropriately and our execution of the protection and routes and the entire collective of mid to down field routes and our pass game has to develop more. But I like what he’s doing.

Q. It sounds like you made some significant progress in kind of working the mindset of the players after the Richmond game to get them to go out there and play better. They haven’t won a road game around here in a long time. How did you assess kind of how they were out there and what do you look for this week with going to Connecticut?
Bronco Mendenhall: We were so much more assertive, confident, and decisive across the way than we were in our opener and a little bit of that is time of just getting to know this team. Again, I was very surprised in week one of what our team looked like in week one and there were some expressions and some looks and body language that caught me by surprise that simply allowed that to be a target and an emphasis that has to be for us to play the way we need to. And we played significantly better week two to week one regardless of where it is. So rather than where we’re playing, the approach to playing the game is what the focus has been on and what that looks like and what it sounds like and what it feels like.

So we’re modeling as a coaching staff. We’re encouraging that. I’m showing it on film as players on what confidence looks like. We did a much better job of the entire football program in carrying ourselves and playing at a level that was increased and improved from the week before. Certainly a long ways to go, and I’m not presenting anything other than that. But I’m clearly optimistically completing a step forward that I think we can build on and I expect to build on in terms of the mindset. Because, again, it’s hard to have a breakthrough as a program, organization or a family without the belief and sincere belief that you’re going to. And I think we are. I’m point things out to our players where we think they are. And, again, the question is when.

Q. The positive feed back you give the team after the game, the way you can see on film the way they were different against Richmond, how much can that kind of confidence building and stuff become a momentum thing that feeds on itself?
Bronco Mendenhall: It’s the intent. We’re working night and day to improve this program in every way possible. Like I’ve said, the execution and what the football looks will actually catch up at some point. But the impetus before then is the belief, sincerity and work ethic it takes to earn the chance to believe it’s going to come along, and it will and I’m certain of that.

Again, I don’t know how long it’s going to take. And the mountain now is steeper and longer than I expected. But it’s invigorating.

There were players after that game that said in their entire time at UVA they’ve never felt like they’ve felt after that game. That means in terms of confidence, enthusiasm, optimism, and having fun. And there’s no reason that when you’re trying as hard as you can try and running into people and knocking them down and celebrating with your teammates that you still can’t have positive feedback and putting new habits in place even though the score doesn’t reflect that. And they’re starting to understand that. The score is at the end. But until then, being completely present in each moment and flying around as hard as you can with guys that care about and they’re cheering you from the side, eventually that will become a formidable thing when the execution and consistency and position mastery all then is woven within that. And they see that, and they see it’s sequential. So I think we’re gaining momentum. At least from a belief standpoint?

Q. You didn’t seem incredibly confident in your place kicking situation in spring leading into camp. Two games in, haven’t attempted a field goal yet. We saw a missed extra point. How confident are you in Dylan at this point or is that still developing?
Bronco Mendenhall: It’s still developing and still improving and still a work in progress. We have a very clear range where we think field goal range is. We’ve implemented fourth down strategy as well through the first couple of games. That will continue. Based on what I see in practice will determine how frequently we kick and where we kick it from. So work in progress – just like the rest of our team.

Q. Was that 39 yards in Dylan’s range?
Bronco Mendenhall: So the 39-yard line, I had a specific range, the very first time we got within a given range we were going to fake it. If we were coming off — not only where we were but where we were on the field because of how we were going to align, and they aligned exactly like that. We thought the fake would work and Oregon defended it a little better than what I thought. But still thought we had a good chance at it.

Q. Having not seen UConn yet really a whole lot, looking at their personnel, lot of size, multiple tight ends that type of thing, what kind of a challenge does that present to your defense with some of the limitations and size that you guys have?
Bronco Mendenhall: Just a unique challenge that you have to make up with leverage and intent. So when you play with great leverage and when you play with a fierce mindset, then it’s not always the biggest who ends up having success so our focus still just to be really blunt is very little on whom we’re playing. I mean, we have so much work to do just on mastering our own schemes to accelerate that.

Yes, it is in relation to opponent and we took a big step forward last week of moving toward opponent preparation, but there is so much right now that is still about our own fundamentals, our own alignments and our own techniques that will give us even a better chance of then putting too much emphasis on whom we’re playing, we’re not to that point yet.

Q. You talk a lot about the execution catching up and the other things you need to master first and those things. Just how much more of a challenge does that become because you are in the season now and you don’t have that much practice time and you’ll be traveling this week and things like that?
Bronco Mendenhall: It’s a challenge, and it’s a great challenge. There are two opposing forces working. This is for anyone that’s in my position as a head coach and maybe inheriting a program that hasn’t had success. We are building the foundation for an amazing football program that will win consistently at the university of Virginia. And I know what that looks like. I know what it feels like and I can see it. I see the discrepancy between that and how we’re currently playing, and then here comes the next opponent. I’m not going to take shortcuts. That does not mean I don’t want to win. It doesn’t mean I’m not going to help our team prepare the best as possible. But I’m not going to jump around some of the things that have to be addressed now for the sake of having this program. I don’t want to have to come back and repeat something that sequentially could hurt us in having a great program.

So we’re doing both at the same time. I’m going to do everything I can to help this team be ready for this week to win and to play well within the context of helping this program become exceptional overtime. Time is the issue. We all get the same amount of hours in NCAA football and players with a little more experience, programs with a little bit more experience usually can accelerate a little quicker. So that’s our task right now is to accelerate as fast as possible but still make sure the building blocks are in place deep enough to move on.

Q. Steven Wright head had two tackles for a loss. Did the game slow down for him for the second time?
Bronco Mendenhall: Steven’s role matched his current level of preparation. So he went into game 1 against Richmond as a starter, and we gave him, much like I gave many of the defensive players too much too soon. So he played a role in the Oregon game as a role player. He was fast, he was fresh, he was assignment sound and he could do his thing. So as he continues to do that, that role will keep being added as we go. So I’m getting a lot clearer idea after two weeks now how much and what to do with each player that I didn’t have as clear a picture of after going into our first game. It will become clearer after week three, clearer after week four, and then we’re into conference play. So we’re adjusting and manipulating those things, and we notice that as a staff, and we’re really encouraged. Because he practiced well. We gave him a role that suited him better for where he currently is. And we’re optimistic about expanding that even still.

Q. You’re 115th right now in rushing defense, clearly that’s something that you guys, it’s a big pillar of your program and you have to stop the run first. What’s been the issue so far? Fundamentals, alignment? What can you point to?
Bronco Mendenhall: Two simple things. Alignment, assignment, and doing what you’re supposed to do, and then simply the execution of doing it. I view execution as one or more players. Assignment is a single player. Execution is multiple players. So there was a season in reference that, man, I think a team that I coached started 1-4, and we might have been dead last in the country early on in rush defense. Made some significant changes with some pretty young players over time, and ended up finishing, I think at 25th and they’re in the top 20. We have a similar task ahead. There is fundamental work everywhere. There is position mastery work everywhere to improve and there’s execution. That means multiple players at the point of attack. If for some reason it breaks the line of scrimmage, there is execution in the back end that has to get the players on the ground. So clear point of reference from where we’re starting from. That hill is also steeper and longer than I expected. And I’d rather now how long than guess, and now I know. So we’re working on it feverishly, and I think we’ll see some improvement.

Q. The last time you played UConn was last season, and you overcame three turnovers and still won that game. I think in fall camp you were asked do you have a turnover margin in mind that leads you to victories? Obviously you’ve been on the minus side of that to this point. How do you overcome that and get to the plus of that?
Bronco Mendenhall: Constant attention, constant emphasis and leading to the things that have happened on film and showing the outcome of what that leads to. Man I don’t remember our game against UConn last year nor the score. As coaches we’re on to the next one without — at least in the head coach’s position you basically talk about last week’s game until you play the new one. But we’re already on to UConn. But I don’t remember really much about our game when we played against them a year ago. But I know exactly what our formula is to give us our next best chance to win, and we’re not there. Good news if you’re looking for sunny side, is that we cut it in half. Bad news is that’s still not where we need to be.

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