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Sept. 19, 2016

Virginia Football Media Conference
Monday September 19, 2016
Bronco Mendenhall Press Conference

COACH MENDENHALL: We are more clear of how much we can do and with whom and against what opponents and what that looks like, which is, again, very streamlined and simple, but hopefully effective.

Offensively, I think that we started very fast, moved the ball very effectively for the first half, in particular, and second half stalled, not really due to any adjustments that UConn made. Their plan was the same plan, first and second half. We just weren’t quite as sharp with our execution in the second half.

In particular, first downs. When we’re effective on first down, the chains tend to move, and we get rhythmical and we have more success. When we’re not as successful on first down right now, we’re not as successful. We’ll continue to look offensively to use our personnel the best way possible. We’ve taken steps toward that, to where we personnel almost every play, which means certain players in certain positions on certain plays to get the ball. That will continue.

We certainly need our long term and intermediate passing game to improve. We like the ability to have shots and chunks at a higher level than we’re currently getting. A good example of that would be on the two-minute drive, the first play to Doni Dowling, and then the fourth down play to Keeon (Johnson). We have players that are capable of that, and we would like to see more of that mixed throughout the game, rather than just the situations that expose or call for that.

Special teams-wise, our cover units — our punt team has been very strong the entire year. Our kickoff coverage unit, just watching them attack and run downfield, I thought that was improved, and that was something I wanted to see a focus on. Not many return opportunities on the punt, but Daniel Hamm had an 11-yard return on one that I thought he did a nice job of. Kick return is probably an area right now that I’d like to see more opportunities and a higher level of execution. But the kickers we faced, they’re putting the ball in the end zone.

So with that, I think, as a general summary, I’ll take questions now in terms of specifics and things you’d like to know.

Q. For you as a head coach, this is uncharted territory, being 0-3. Has this shaken your faith in your principles at all?
COACH MENDENHALL: No, it hasn’t, but it’s not easy. I was sharing — I just left the defensive meeting room, and Coach Ruff and I were talking. This is a first. I haven’t been 0-3 before. It’s interesting, it doesn’t feel like that to me now. I’m focusing so much on what I see as growth and improvement, and I’m completely engrossed in the task. This is a massive change effort, it really is, at every turn. I want these kids — number one, I’ve grown so close to them already, at least from my perspective, and I want them to have success.

There’s a lot to work on still. But, yeah, I’m not used to it, but motivated by it. I’m trying to use that command influence, so to speak, to help the players learn and channel that difficult things mean that you work effectively, you analyze. You reframe. And then you go again. I’m doing my best to ensure they’re able to learn those lessons. Does not make it any easier for someone that’s more mature and has more experience. It’s still difficult. But I came here to do hard things, and this is hard. I’m looking forward to seeing it through to the kind of success I believe we can have.

Q. Obviously, when you got here in January, you evaluated every position on the roster. Can you walk us through how the kicker situation came to be? You had a recruit. You had Andrew King. They’re not here anymore. How did this come to be that you had to bring a guy, like Zach Bradshaw said in reference to Alex Furbank, kind of off the street in August?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think you hit on it pretty quickly. We had a signee at midyear and an existing player in the program. One player — the midyear signee, and one player is no longer with the team. That happened earlier in our off-season cycle. And then our other player that was with our team was removed from the program for violation of team rules as well. As well as a long snapper becoming academically ineligible. So our snapper and both placekickers that were here, are not in the mix.

And then Dylan Sims, our — the kicker that we had been using, had a groin injury all week, and took no kicks in terms of PAT field goals nor kickoffs. So we used him for the kickoff but had no PAT and field goal work. Furbank handled every snap on every kick all week long. The team was completely behind him, and he did a really good job in kicking a field goal and an extra point.

Difficult situations on the last one. A brand new one and a lot of pressure, but he had a great week, and he earned the chance to be our kicker for that week.

Q. So will he stay there?
COACH MENDENHALL: He’ll stay there and compete for it. So if Dylan becomes healthy with his groin and can practice, then we’ll see who and how that plays out and who’s the most accurate week by week. If Dylan isn’t able to practice, then Furbank will get all the reps and remain in that spot.

Q. Has Andrew King been permanently separated from the team, or is he just under suspension?
COACH MENDENHALL: Just under suspension at this point.

Q. Bronco, I know you didn’t spend a lot of time of looking at the accolades and stuff of the guys that were here when you got here. When Andrew Brown came here, he came in with Quin (Blanding), two five-star guys. Everyone thought he was going to set the world on fire. To a lot of people, Saturday was the first time he really kind of showed what he could be. What’s been his development since you got here, and what are your impressions of him?
COACH MENDENHALL: He’s gone from a player that has had very little experience to a player that’s emerging within his assignments, within his technique, and understanding not only our system, but situational football. That is a work in progress.

He’s capable. He’s quick. He’s fast. And he’s — we have a saying in our program of less drama, more work, and Andrew’s threshold, like a lot of young players, is becoming heightened, which means what it takes to rattle a younger player is normally here, but with seasoning it becomes higher, and Andrew is becoming much more mature as a football player and as a person, and he’s handled his role very well.

He’ll be the first to tell you that there is a play or two per game that he might go the wrong direction or be a little bit wild, but, man, the number of plays he’s putting together consistently with production, by the way, that’s what people are starting to see.

I think everyone saw the potential of and maybe a flash here or there, and I don’t think he played much. But I think he’s very, very capable, and much like the other seven or eight players out there defensively that are getting a lot of experience, he’s growing consistently. One of the differences with Andrew, though, is he just has the size and speed and play making ability to when he does his job correctly and/or he’s at the point of attack, he really stands out as a playmaker.

Part of what we’re uncovering about our team is not only who will try hard and whose assignments to sound, but who is capable of making a play, and where do we put them, how do we leverage them, how do we design the calls to help our best players be at the point of attack most frequently?

And that’s offensively and defensively.

And what we thought in week one became different in week two. Now that we’ve seen week three, that’s different. So quite a few changes still being made in trying to help this current group of players be in the positions where they fit best.

Q. Bronco, when we were talking to Andrew, mentioned that you’re a man of numbers. In showing — explaining to the team they improved from week one to week two to week three, you showed them numbers not only from this year but BYU. What kinds of things are you showing them, and how does it help them?
COACH MENDENHALL: Just simple metrics. When — I love research, and I love numbers, and I’m a holistic thinker, but under pressure, I go right to the numbers to validate and to clarify the picture. So we have a really clear idea of how many yards per rush that will lead to success, how many yards per pass, per attempt, what a turnover margin needs to look like, how many points we can allow, what field position looks like.

And with data of now about 13 years worth that says this equals that, and it equals that — I’m not really interested in any statistic that’s not over 85 percent because what I frame everything off of, to be an exceptional football program, that’s ten wins or more per year. So we know exactly what statistics and how they lead to certain numbers. So I’m able to share that with the players, and they’re able to see where they’re making ground up, where they still have significant improvement to go. It puts a lot of objectivity into it, not subjectivity because, certainly, I can tell the team they improved, but I like to see where, and I like to have the numbers that substantiate that.

It not only helps me design practice and help me figure out which players play where and how frequently, but it also gives me metrics that are tangible and reliable.

Q. One of the elements of throwing downfield is protection. How has that influenced your decision making there and maybe your success or lack of it?
COACH MENDENHALL: So I think that’s a fair question. Against Oregon, we allowed six sacks, which discouraged my comfort level on throwing intermediate to downfield because negative plays, especially when you’re learning to grow as a team, are hard to overcome, as well as when we have a good quarterback, it’s — man, you don’t want him to get hit, and we have a lot of season to play. So it has weighed in.

What I will say is, in this game — and UConn did not bring much pressure. They did bring some, but our protection was substantially better. We did not turn the ball over (UVA had one turnover), and we took it away twice. Part of not turning it over was because of our protection and because of what we’ve done, not only how long we’re holding the ball, but where we’re throwing it. So the protection has to continue to grow and develop so we can, and at the same time, for the routes and the concepts, intermediate to long, develop.

Those are working components that go together. I think that has to happen for us to have another breakthrough offensively.

Q. Tim Harris didn’t play on Saturday. What is his status?
COACH MENDENHALL: I’ll address the injury question more specifically when we get into conference play. I think that’s just what I’ll leave that as right now.

Q. Seems in the off-season, that there have been more stories written about time management than I can ever remember, game and time management. You get the ball 1:33 left and do a good job with the time management down the field. How do you work those decisions toward the end of the game like that?
COACH MENDENHALL: There really was a low level of anxiety. I’m talking from a coaching staff perspective. I think our players were prepared well. We knew we were going, first, to win. We had no time-outs. We wanted to get a significant chunk somewhere early in the first couple of plays. That usually puts the defense on their heels. It takes a significant amount of pressure off of us because now you have more time for less distance. So we knew we needed at least one significant play, which we got right off the bat.

Then it allowed us to make a decision toward the end. Again, we were going for the win first, and so I want to make it clear that the running play that we designed, I think, was a great play, and we had two of our very best blockers one-on-one, where defenders had to beat blocks and make the tackle on our quarterback. So we had Albert Reid and Jackson Matteo, and their guys did a nice job, but the defense was extended and spread to play coverage, which is exactly what we wanted when we had quarterback lead draw with the numbers that we wanted.

So in that one case, I thought it was a great call. It didn’t work out. But we also had the, again, what we call Toro, but our hurry-up field goal. That was discussed from about from — man, as soon as the change of possession happened, we knew we were going for the win, but Toro will be ready. So that was reiterated the entire way down the field.

And even then, there could be a player or two that gets lost in the moment, but from our perspective, it gave us a great chance to at least tie the game that we were going for the win first.

Q. Anae second guessed himself on that.
COACH MENDENHALL: I know he did, but Coach Anae, as you know, leaders, they take the blame when things don’t go well and don’t go as expected. If you don’t run the football, if you throw it, there’s a little more time, but having had that play score on us in fall camp, I endorse the play. It gave us a chance to tie it because it did score on us as a defense because I wasn’t expecting it. I was expecting to cover.

Certainly, we can all question it now, but, again, having it score against us, I liked the call, and I thought it was innovative. Any time a play caller calls something or goes for two and it doesn’t work, that’s just part of the thing. And Robert is not someone that’s going to shy away from second guess — or taking the blame for that.

Q. Bronco, you mentioned in your opening statements about how there was kind of maybe a drop-off in execution offensively. I think the way Coach Anae put it after the game is that guys on this team just aren’t accustomed to playing for four quarters. How do you kind of deal with that? How do you combat that?
COACH MENDENHALL: We started in the off-season with just the physical conditioning, but there’s a difference between physical conditioning and mental conditioning, and there’s a difference between mental conditioning and confidence. So being physically conditioned to play four quarters is one thing, which we are. Being mentally conditioned to play assignment football for four quarters is something different, and we’re growing into that. We’re not there yet.

Having the confidence and belief to know the outcome, that is another level in the hierarchy. I think I was accustomed and ready for the win, and 1:33 was plenty of time, but this is a football program that hasn’t come behind from much and hasn’t won on the road much, as I’m learning, and confidence really, and true confidence only comes from doing. So we’re still building on the simple successes, critical plays made by Doni and Keeon, which are great, and then finishing is something that we need more work on.

I would like to expedite that process as soon as possible. That’s why all the situational work happened, more than we’ve ever done in any program I’ve coached or team I’ve worked with. And it got us close. Still work to do.

Q. Mark Hall seems to have found a niche in the role. What’s his trajectory been? Was he dealing with anything coming out of the spring?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, out of the spring, Mark hadn’t — he didn’t make his tempo runs for the majority of spring. So we didn’t see him much. Then as Steven Wright and Eli Hanback and Jack Powers and others had been diligent, consistent, Mark was fighting hard just to have any role.

Then somewhere along the line in fall camp, because we had no nickel plays — or nickel defense installed in spring practice, but as we installed that starting from fall camp, Mark started to show flashes of being capable and quick and have a niche for getting after the quarterback. So as time has gone on and as we’ve seen what Dante, what his work capacity can be, how to keep him most effective in our base defense and early downs, we found a volume of plays that might have been too much for Dante, and we’re thinking, well, who else might be able to play a role. And that’s when, not only Mark Hall, but Steven Moye, a true freshman, they both started to find a niche.

Really, they did a nice job in a game that had a lot of nickel in it. Those two players, especially Mark, he showed a flash against Oregon on the screen play, but he was a player just this morning we were talking about him. He used a very similar role, looks like he found a niche. He’ll help our team if he continues to work in that regard.

Q. You don’t strike me as somebody who believes in jinxes or in jinxing himself, but two weeks ago, you came in here and said it was maybe the first time one of your teams had not been penalized. Now you’ve had back-to-back ten penalty games. What did you think about the penalties the other day, particularly the interference calls on Thornhill?
COACH MENDENHALL: Man, I’m not sure what the ACC’s rules are regarding if I can comment or not.

Q. No.
COACH MENDENHALL: So I guess I can’t.

Q. What about the fact you had ten penalties?
COACH MENDENHALL: So I’m certainly responsible because the team in the opener, I thought, was soft and non-competitive in terms of mindset, and I worked really hard, and have worked really hard to make sure they’re very competitive and very aggressive.

Certainly, those penalties would be a direct reflection of how I’ve coached them. So most likely time now to encourage the type of penalties, whether it’s a selfish penalty or a penalty of aggression, going to make a play, what I will say is the majority of penalties I saw in that game, they were very aggressive and within the context of how they’ve been coached. There were few — I could think of two — that I was not happy with.

Q. Bronco, when Kurt was named starter, you and coach and I talked about the depth of that quarterback position, how much you liked it. When Kurt was getting that shoulder looked at on Saturday, Connor Brewer warmed up. What is kind of your backup quarterback situation?
COACH MENDENHALL: Connor was the backup for that particular game and has earned that role. We have a lot of confidence. He was — I really — after I saw Kurt, I wasn’t — I didn’t think he’d go back in. I could tell he was in pain. And so it was the next man up, and Connor was ready to go.

The team rallied behind him, and I think everyone will see he’s a really good decision-maker and has earned that role, at least going into that game.

Q. Bronco, there was almost a joy after the Oregon game when you saw things you wanted to see that you hadn’t seen against Richmond, and the players came in, and they talked about how fun it was. Obviously, the game Saturday kind of has a totally different ending and kind of a bitter feel. How has the team been since, and do you sense that that same — it seems like a pressure cooker, like when you guys win, it’s going to just blow.
COACH MENDENHALL: I have that feeling. I don’t know the timing, I really don’t. I can tell you what I told the team, without being too intimate, I enjoyed coaching this team the past two weeks, and they want to win, and they’re doing — they’re eating up whatever we throw at them that we tell them will help, and it is helping.

I was emotional and am emotional because I can see how hard they’re working, and I can see how close they’re getting. I would like that break through to happen as much or more than anyone, but I also know there’s still a significant way we have to go, and we have to earn those victories. No one’s going to give us a thing. I’m in uncharted territory as the coach, having a 0-3 start, but they’re uncharted in terms of maybe being praised or compliments on things that are maybe hidden to others.

My primary focus is to help these kids develop as football players and as people, and I gave them until tomorrow morning, because that’s about what it’s going to take me, to come back and be ready to go, and they will. That was harder because we saw even more improvement from week one to week two. And I think we took a bigger step from week two to week three, and we could almost see it, touch it, almost what that would look like, and we’re just not there yet. And it’s not an accident. We’re just not there yet. My job is to help our team get there.

I really want that to happen sooner rather than later, but, again, I’ll re-emphasize, a lot of work still to do.

Q. Central Michigan has a veteran quarterback who’s putting up great numbers without turning the ball over much. What challenge, in particular, does Cooper Rush present?
COACH MENDENHALL: Just what you said. When you face experience, as we have a number of times this year — UConn was another experienced team. That doesn’t mean dynamic or explosive or great, but it does mean mature, and that, in college football, is — at least a consistency which a lot of times leads to winning.

I think that what Central Michigan has is that, and there’s a few positions that really influence the team and have an impact at a higher level than most, and they happen to have experience and a quality player at one of those positions with a very good staff, a very good scheme, and a history of success.

So, again, I know now enough about central Michigan as to what they are, and that really is intriguing into I go right back to now who are we and what do we want to do? You might get tired of hearing this, but as soon as I’ve seen them, the focus went completely back, and it’s only on us. We still have so much work to do to have that significant step forward. It’s just now what scheme and who are we doing it against?

I think for a long time it will just be on how we improve our program.

Q. Kind of off of that, not mentioning Central Michigan specifically, but they are averaging over 40 points a game. Your defense is coming off of a really good game. What’s the next step for your defense to make it consistent back-to-back weeks?
COACH MENDENHALL: So I think it’s been a consistent game and a half. So the second half against Oregon, I saw signs of consistency coming, and then there would still be a breakdown here or there. But I see a momentum, and so the next step simply is against a very good offense, which our opponent is, to have a consistency in terms of point production and execution that it doesn’t seem as up and down.

And the UConn game was very steady for the most part of that game in terms of defensive performance. So it’s now we’ll know where we stand if we can start putting a string together of not only quarter by quarter, but half by half, and then game by game. And when that happens, then we can say there’s been another step forward, and that’s what I think was the answer to your question is sustaining it.

Q. I suspect that having Sunday as your day off is a personal decision. You’ve seen it done both ways by coaches here. Are there advantages to like having a day to clear your head? Are you able to put it out of your mind at all on Sundays?
COACH MENDENHALL: There are advantages both ways. For those that choose not to take Sunday off, clearly, just the volume of work you can put in.

So a typical day for coaches who don’t take Sunday off, they will do all of the film work with their players that we do today. That means they put the UConn game to bed. A lot of times they get a lift in and a workout with their players, and then they introduce their new opponent. So that happens all on Sunday. And then Monday would be the players’ day off, but the coaches are still working.

I work hard to teach young people balance and perspective, and college football is difficult for even someone that’s 50 for the value of a win and a loss. You’ve seen grown men do things and act ways they normally don’t when they win and high step and celebrate and cheer. It’s an emotional, and it’s an exhilarating feeling.

On the other side, it can lead you to a place mentally that’s pretty dark and not very fun. It can help you lose sight of what’s really important, and I would love to say that I — I’m still working on being the same person with my wife and my kids with a win or a loss, but by not, working Sunday, what helps is I watch the game immediately after we play it. Once I see it, I know what to do, and then I can have Sunday to reframe and to recharge and hopefully be the best version of myself for my team and my family going forward.

And I’m usually over it by the time I show up at work Monday morning, and our meetings start at 5:45 on Monday morning, and we work — we do all of what teams normally do on Sunday, we do that Monday, and then it’s a fast, fast turnaround. Our longest workday of the week is Monday, sometimes until midnight on Monday with an early morning practice, but that Sunday, to be with family, and for many of us, to focus on a day of rest and our faith is something that we think is essential.

So I’m going to my original point. I’m trying to teach the players balance, and they are not defined only by being a football player, and I see so many of these kids struggle when they leave the NFL because they’ve always been defined only by being a football player. I’d like them to discover who they are in addition to that, and I work — and we work as a staff to design it that way.

So hopefully somewhere in there, I answered your question. It’s essentially for me personally, I’ll just put it this way, to have that day to meet the rigors of this profession and to have any kind of sustainability. I wouldn’t be able to keep going, certainly not for 11 years, and hopefully for a long tenure here to lead to success. I wouldn’t be able to do that without that. So I knew that enough about myself, and then I’ve tried to Branch that out and teach others.

One side note to that I have to say, after our first game against Richmond and we didn’t play well, and everyone saw that. Coach Ralph showed up at the office on Sunday. He didn’t believe it. He thought the BYU staff was just tricking him. I think he showed up — you have to ask him. I think he showed up twice. He disclosed that on Monday where he goes, you mean you — and he back and told Erlene, his wife, they’re really not there. That was like — he couldn’t grasp how that worked.

It is real, and my staff has been called liars when they tell like coaches at the convention that we don’t work on Sunday, and they say, man, we’ve never known you to not tell us the truth. So it’s hard to believe because it makes it — but if the work model’s in place, I think it can work. I want it to work not only where I’ve been, but I want to work here.

Q. Central Michigan beat Oklahoma State a couple weeks ago, the crazy ending. You opened last year what seemed like every game winning that way, whether it was Nebraska or Boise or whatever. What can that do for a team? And then contrasting, what can your loss, heart-breaking loss do for a team both ways?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think there’s lessons to be learned either way. Identities are fragile of teams and of programs, and especially this early. I’m going to give you a philosophical stance first, and this will help frame it.

I don’t think the polls should come out until after week eight because I don’t think anyone knows how good anyone is nor what comparative victories and all that. I think it drives TV ratings really well, and I think as soon as you put numbers by someone’s name, viewership goes up, and attendance goes up, and there becomes more intrigue than if there are no numbers by the side of a team.

And I voted on the USA Today panel for three or four years in a row, but that would be my suggestion. But it can influence who you think you are, and so that does happen. So a year ago, after a couple close wins, we thought we’d earned the wins, and we thought, man, we have a fantastic team. If you don’t have a coaching staff that’s looking behind the numbers to verify that, you can set yourself up for a giant fall. If you do have a staff that’s looking for that, you can be realistic with your team and say, man, amazing win. Now let’s take a look at what this really shows.

And the same thing can happen for losses. So I think the best way to frame either one of those is the head coach and the leadership has to have the perspective that is real in relation to the current situation. It doesn’t take any luster off the wins. That doesn’t take any sting off the losses. But the perspective is what has to be in place to carry on. I think that’s what a leader’s job is to do so to make sure that perspective is in place based on real data that will help the team continue to improve.

Q. Bronco, kind of following up on your Sunday theory about needing that day and all that stuff, and you being in uncharted territory. How does what you’re going through now and all that affect your — how you spend your non-negotiable 90 minutes a day?
COACH MENDENHALL: Oh, man, that’s a great question. It’s been tempting to cut into it because of the volume of work to do, but I go into sustainability again. Man, I believe, if I don’t have that, I won’t be at my best, and I won’t enjoy what I’m doing. I get to do something I really like to do. Doesn’t mean it’s easy. And I think the only way I can do that at my best, to give our team a chance is to maintain that.

I don’t think my mental or physical health is something that I’m willing to trade. I want to be the coach and the person that again does and, that you can have a great football program, you can be a great husband, you can be a great father, you can be a great friend, and, and, and. That’s what I would like to do, and I don’t think you can do and unless you’re putting energy into the tank.

I’ve chosen an appropriate amount of time with staff members that are very capable, and I think we work very well together. At some point, I don’t know when, it would be fun to say, man, I’m glad we stuck with it because now you can see what it looks like. Certainly, every right to question what it is?

I don’t intend to change it even though the human side of me is — wants to give every minute of every hour to these team members, but what do I give them when I get home? And that’s not a trade I’m willing to make.

I don’t think it’s a trade. Again, I think it’s and. I want to do it all, and I’m hoping to prove that I can.

Q. Do you ever get strange looks from like bait shop owners —
COACH MENDENHALL: Haven’t been to a bait shop yet, and really my renewal time to this point has been running and lifting. I ride my bike on the Ravana trail. It’s a nice little single track back there where it feels like you’re in Columbia or Nicaragua or something on a mountain bike. That’s an hour and a half is just doing that is I’m ready to work when I come back, and I work really fast, really hard, really effective with kind of hard charging coaches that are doing the same.

We do think there’s a principle that work expands to the boundaries you set. I’ve been on the staffs where the head coach won’t leave, which means the assistants won’t leave, and they just space out their work, the same amount of work, because they know how much time they have. Well, what if you don’t have that much time but the same amount of work? We work frantically when we’re at work, and I’m anxious for the fans, this community, and these kids to see the benefit of a quality program consistently in winning, but I’m also not going to sugar coat the brutal facts that we have a long ways to work, and we have a culture existing that has not been successful.

I would love to see it can turn overnight. It’s not going to turn overnight. It’s longer and harder than what I thought, but it is still correctible. I’m sure of that, and I’m willing to work hard to make that happen.

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