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Sept. 26, 2016

Bronco Mendenhall
Press Conference

COACH MENDENHALL: Fun to see the players happy and excited and to have a tangible result for all their hard work. Really some nice moments in the locker room between coaches and players, and just a reminder of, man, the thin line between success and failure, at least from the scoreboard. But nice to be able to acknowledge and just have something tangible to show for their efforts.

Really impressed after analyzing the game and going through it of Kurt Benkert’s performance, the delivery, the timing of the delivery, the accuracy, the decision making and the consistency. I thought he was exceptional. I was especially impressed because of the injury he suffered the week before and how resilient he was in practice. He was looking for ways — didn’t miss a single rep by the way in practice all week. He was in quite a bit of pain and he’s really tough. But that mind-set in practice led to his performance and I think inspired our team. But quite frankly, he’s going to do whatever he can do help our team.

I think we are getting more clear about the roles and the usage of our offensive personnel. I thought coach and I and the offensive staff did a really nice job of getting the ball to the right players on the right type of plays to highlight what they are able to do. And so I’m speaking specifically about Albert, I like his role. I like Olamide’s role. I like Smoke’s role. I like Doni’s role, Keeon. There are starting to be some pretty clear not only performance abilities, but cap ties that are starting to match now within our offense and where players are getting the ball and how they are getting it and when they are getting it that gives us a chance to be more consistent

I think it’s the second week in a row where our quarterback has not been sacked, which is also sort of eliminating minus yardage plays as well, and I think for the most part we played cleaner from a penalty perspective with the exception of one play I can think of during the game from an offensive perspective in terms of penalties.

Defensively it was also the best we had performed for the longest amount of time. The number of big plays against us is continuing to go down. The run defense consistency, still I would say is improving and is ahead of the pass defense consistency. Part of that is by just nature of the number of players playing in our secondary to this point.

Really impressed with Andrew Brown, especially in pass situations. He continues to just be completely disruptive and teams that don’t have some kind of plan to chip him or double him or do something, we end up sacking the quarterback pretty early and pretty often and then if they don’t adjust, that will keep happening.

Jack Powers is emerging as just a size and — with his size and consistency to be in the throwing lanes and as well as playing the run effectively as well as Eli Hanback. So those two players took a step forward in this game. Zach Bradshaw’s best game of the year to this point, and consistent play at the safety spots.

And so again, I thought it was a step forward. If there was anything that I thought one of the biggest plays of the game was Kareem Gibson’s interception that was following right around the time of Joe Reed’s long kick return. So there was a cycle of plays in there that I considered critical plays that helped us win and move the game forward.

Nick Conte still continues to be a weapon for us at punt, on the punt team and as our punter, and I think for the fourth straight week, our team improved, which I’m taking gratification in.

Having said that, we certainly have not arrived. I’m excited about the progress we’re making. I’m excited about the win. But you’ll find with me, this is a fairly consistent approach, or actually a very consistent approach and now it’s right back to the things that we need to continue to work on and to improve.

So yeah, that’s what I thought about the game and I’ll take questions if you have some.

Q. With Juan unavailable, Kareem and Myles went pretty much the whole way. What are realistic expectations for them in their first year of serious playing time?
COACH MENDENHALL: Both Kareem and Myles, I like the way they played. So Myles, man, he was consistent from beginning to end. If you watch the game, the play that will be most noticeable was the stop and go that went for the long yardage. But if you think about now where the ball went to his side and what else and what other plays were being made, there weren’t many, so he really played well within the defense and played consistently.

Kareem Gibson, the same. Gave up one play, a post corner, but other than that, have played very consistently. That position is one that were mostly negative plays remembered more than positive plays, other than Kareem’s interception. I was encouraged, I really was.

So they played assignment sound football for almost the entire game against a quality passer with each having basically one play that was noticeable from a negative standpoint and a lot of really positive plays that weren’t noticeable by the public, just by the nature of how they played. But they both stepped up and performed well, in a short amount of time. I’m talking about Myles in particular, as Juan went out the first play of the game.

Q. I think you mentioned way back in your introductory press conference visiting with David Cutcliffe, being impressed. What was it you took away that impressed you?
COACH MENDENHALL: Coach Cutcliffe is one of my favorite people that’s also a coach. When I was still the coach at BYU much before UVA ever came on the radar, I was looking for maybe similar approaches and similar settings with people that I thought had character and integrity and were getting the most out of their players and matching a program to a place, allowing that place to have success.

On the AFC board of directors, the two people that sit on each side of me are David Cutcliffe and Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern and Duke, and I’ve become friends with both of them and really admire both of them. They are bright and articulate and have depth and substance and have designed really nice programs for each of their places specifically.

I thought simply to ask, as at BYU, I thought we had a lot in common; would they be interested in exchange, and I would come to them. So on that same trip, I visited Coach Cutcliffe and Pat at Northwestern. I was really impressed with the depth, the substance and intent of how to get the most out of young people, but also how to get the most out of them in a specific place and environment that really emphasizes academics and character, and I thought both, and still think both, do a really nice job.

And so I’ve remained and I still consider good friends with both and I admire and respect both. And this will be the first time I’ve coached against Coach Cutcliffe, but man, I think the world of him. I really am impressed.

Q. As a defensive guy, I’m sure there are Saturday nights when you look at some of the scores that come across, and your game, Duke’s game, Pittsburgh, North Carolina, where it’s shocking to see how much offense is being played or maybe how much defense isn’t being played. Where is the line there? Is it that the spread offenses have just become so much more sophisticated that defenses can’t keep up or are people using all their best athletes on offense now?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think as you look, college football is changing. There is one rule in particular that is driving a substantial amount of this, and this is the offensive linemen being able to go downfield. And that in and of itself creates what are called RPOs, run pass options. Which means the offense can basically block a play like it’s a running play with, linemen, even though it’s supposed to be three yards downfield, regularly downfield five to six. And then, if the run doesn’t look exactly right, can throw the ball, as well.

And so basically, defense is very difficult anyway, knowing it’s reactionary and you have to identify specific cues to determine run or pass. Well sometimes if those are not determinable until a little bit after the play has started, not initially, but the play then has commenced and not quite midstream and then you find out whether it’s run or pass, with mobile quarterbacks, that becomes quite different.

I don’t think the rule is good for college football but it is good for entertainment. Those two things sometimes are different. If viewership is up, I’m sure the rule will stay the same. If viewership is down, then there will be possibly another rule. But the nature of the offense is based on rule change, has now made it to where it’s quite difficult.

Quality of players at quarterback, meaning dual threat, with offensive linemen being able to go downfield, has now made it significantly different, regardless of who is playing. If you look, I guess maybe one of the industry standards right now you would say Alabama and so Alabama plays Ole Miss and there’s 40-something points on the board. And you’d say, how come? Those are really good coaches. Those are really good players.

So there’s a shift in terms of just within what rules and specifications are now as to which side it’s tilted, and I think that attributes for a lot of it. Even more credit to those programs that consistently play good defense. So what we’re finding right now is we’re learning to play stretches at a time but you can also see with a lapse here or there, how quickly points can go on the board. It really requires a concentration and maturity and execution level that comes through volume to be able to handle that and keep it all in check for four quarters.

Q. As a numbers guy, how do you have to change the way you assess whether you guys did well or not?
COACH MENDENHALL: Well, I have a really clear idea. Yards per play matters a lot. Yards and points per play matter a lot. Because so many teams are going fast. Total defense, not so relevant and scoring defense. So scoring defense not necessarily only in terms of how much is given up during the game but versus how many plays you’re actually asked to play. I’m not in any position right now, at least here in Virginia, to be speaking toward leading the country yet or anything like that, but I know exactly what it looks like and I know exactly what metrics are to be in the Top-25 and we measure consistently against that.

Because it just simply allows us to know how many plays and possibly which positions are outside of that framework to where we can get them caught up as fast as possible, which is happening in relation to the type of offenses that we are playing against. But in terms of how I measure, points still rule the day, but also points versus number of plays. And those two things, if your program isn’t designed well, you can end up playing pretty well but giving up a lot of points because you’re not intentionally managing it offensively or special teams-wise, also.

Q. You said Saturday your margin for error defensively was thin, with Juan being out, Tim being out, I assume we’ll know more on Thursday —
COACH MENDENHALL: I can address one thing now, thanks to Jim, as I learn rules, at least in relation to the ACC but also UVA specifically. We have four players out for the season: Tim Harris is out for the season. He has had shoulder surgery. Malcolm Cook is out for the season, and I’m just going to say medical condition on that. Christian Brooks is out for the season. He’s a first-year with a really bright future with a shoulder surgery and Sean Karl, an offensive lineman, is out for the season with a back injury.

Other players, their status will be updated on Thursday when that happens. But yes, in relation to Saturday’s game, the two players that we anticipated being the starting corners, Juan and Tim, were not available, which that’s just part of college football.

Q. With that being said, still going forward, your secondary is kind of not probably as deep as you want it to be. Your secondary coach, also defensive coordinator, he doesn’t speak with us at all yet but can you give us some background on him? I know one year he called plays for you at BYU. How far do you guys go back and what do you like about him taking on this challenge?
COACH MENDENHALL: He’s an exception the Seoul. I’ll give you the history first. Every one of my defensive coaches, other than coach rough obviously, either played for me or was a graduate assistant for me. I always intend to do it that way. I think the best organizations and from my passion about studying organizations, hire from within and it allows your program to accelerate and be seamless.

And that doesn’t mean to have yes men; but also points to have diversity of thought but also points a reference of trust that’s already been established and certain methodologies that really allow you to continue success, but also, I love fresh thinking, new thinking, innovative thinking and energy, and so between Nick Howell and Kelly Poppinga and Shane Hunter and Vic So’oto as a defensive graduate assistant, we have been through a lot of different things together.

Coach Howell was one of the best graduate assistants that I’ve ever had, who also trained Kelly Poppinga. Kelly Poppinga trained Shane Hunter and Shane Hunter is training Vic So’oto and so there’s a pedigree that’s happening that will end up being wildly successful wherever these guys end up going. I hope they never leave.

But Nick, he knows our defense. He’s a master of our defense. In fact, when other staffs want to learn about it, he’s the one that they request and want to know from, every possible way to leverage and gain an advantage for a secondary player for us defensively, he’s not only known it and explored it and studied tape and taken professional visits. He’s one of the best minds I’ve worked with from a defensive perspective. Right now he’s running the clicker and the reason he doesn’t speak to you guys as media is because I still call the plays, and in essence, it would cut into our competitive work to have two of us doing that when that can be going full speed I can and be doing this anyway, so it allows us to move forward.

Going back to the time where he did call plays, all that happened was I realized by me not being involved, No. 1, I missed having an influence on game day but it was slowing us down as I allocated the other coach to the offensive side counting for me to be on the defense, and so the number of resources, number of experience, but also our work force model wasn’t as efficient and it wasn’t versus his capability.

Q. Albert Reid was on fire after the game talking about that college game day. At what point did you learn about it, and what was your reaction?
COACH MENDENHALL: I don’t know about it to be honest.

Q. Where he said Virginia probably wouldn’t win a game —

Q. Also said that Central Michigan wouldn’t look past you guys — you guys were like a look-over game —
COACH MENDENHALL: Well it shows you how much — well, it’s an authentic view of how much I pay attention (laughing). I didn’t know and I didn’t know my players knew, so I guess you can look at that a couple different ways. I have plenty to work on just to make sure our team is ready — good. Maybe I ought to send him a thank you.

You know, there is college game days and entertainment show that centers around college football, and — and, fill in whatever else you’d like. (Laughing).

Q. I understand Eric Smith had a pretty good game the other day. Can you talk about his progress this year and what do you think about him overall?
COACH MENDENHALL: Eric is full of energy and he’s a catalyst for our team. I don’t know if he’s ever had a bad day sips I’ve been here, and if he has, it was covered with a smile, and a boisterous and confident approach.

If you have a chance, and I don’t know how you would get to see this play, but on one of our scoring plays, he was downfield at least 30 yards running full speed and makes a block on about the five-yard line — there you go, will development, and he was on the catapult was clocked at 16 miles an hour on that play for an offensive lineman. That’s hauling. When you see it on film, it’s impressive.

And so he’s been trained to do that in our practices, but just by his nature, he’s doing it as well. The offensive line is developing, again, two games without a sack, and he’s good for our team and he’s a good person and a good player, and I would take as many of Eric Smiths as I could in our program.

Q. Got a couple glimpse into Joe Reed’s play-making ability Saturday. What do you hope to get from him this season? What’s his learning curve?
COACH MENDENHALL: His learning curve, we’ve had him at two or three different positions already because he is capable and he is athletic and we knew right away that he was going to be able to help in his first year. Then he suffered an injury that kept him out most of fall camp, which by then, other positions started to solidify and we had an idea of where we thought we were going to play him now, that position possibly might be okay and we moved him into another spot.

But in the meantime, as he’s developing at the inside receiver spot, that he would be able to certainly help us return kicks.

The return to the 50-ish-yard line was one of the plays that helped us be resilient and battle back in the game, and the team and the coaches have known what his ability is and have been anxious for him to have a play like that. Not only him, but our team. And so I don’t think it surprised anyone but it was really timely when it came out. His role will continue to expand as he now has a chance to settle into a position.

It’s no fault of his own that he has not been playing as much offensively or on offense yet, because we’ve moved him a number of times.

Q. You’ve spoke a few times about reverting to bad habits when things don’t go well. When you guys blow that lead, did you see any of that or were you concerned/pleased with the way they then kind of regrouped?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, I think a couple of things. There were two plays that contributed to the so-called blown lead and I give Central Michigan credit. I think they are 3-0 for a reason and I think they are a good football team. But the long pass that happened against us and the interception for a touchdown, both of those plays, momentum is a huge part of the college game and both those plays helped to shift momentum, and there was a time and I said this after the game, that it wasn’t — it wasn’t the same feeling as Richmond, but it was related. And you could sense it, and our coaches worked especially hard, our players worked especially hard and we have a few mantras and different things we talk about when adversity hits to keep fighting, to keep playing, to move on to the next play, and I heard all of those things.

And eventually our entire culture, meaning not only our team, but the support people, the administration, the staff, just anyone associated with UVA football and the fans, at some point will put enough positive experiences in the bank with success, where there will be more hope and resiliency when that happens. It’s clear where we are starting from and because of that, I was even more pleased about the way the kids battled back. And we had the lead, we lost it or it got to even and man, they found a way in the critical times to make critical plays to win.

Regardless of who that is against and when, that now goes in that vault, in that bank, to use as a positive frame of reference when people can say, oh, you remember Central Michigan. You know, they got their team caught up but we bounced back and that’s now something that can be used as a positive.

Q. You talked about small successes keeping you going, but also the importance of getting a result. Was this the week that you needed it? Did you sense that that result had to be there?
COACH MENDENHALL: Man, if you ask me, I think we needed it in week one. The players, it’s pretty simple, we earned this one. I’ve tried to frame that from the very beginning that we are going to earn how we are viewed and how we are supported and how, what our reputation is over time. I think we are making steady inroads through the first four weeks, what are they going to improve next, what’s the next area that’s going to be better. I think there’s a sense of intrigue around that, not just of optimism around that, that I think is growing with the reality of man, we have a lot to do still and we’re still at the very front end but we’re working at a really feverish pace with new design elements to try to accelerate this team’s learning in a way that, we haven’t used before that are starting to become effective.

Q. A lot of guys had big offensive days on Saturday. Doni had a career day that got lost in the shuffle because of the numbers, can you talk about his progress?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, Doni, he’s really tough and much like Kurt, if anyone knew or saw what it’s like for him on a daily basis to be practicing and just the grit and resolve it’s taking, they would be even more impressed with the numbers.

And he’s a consistent and reliable and explosive presence at the outside receiver spot, and now when we’re matching him and possibly Keeon on the other side or in different places with Olamide and Smoke and Albert all out there at the same time, we become now more capable, and Doni is not only doing a great job on the field, but if you had a chance to just watch him on the sideline, he was everywhere.

And from a motivation standpoint and leadership, a maturity is starting to emerge from him that this team needs and he’s providing a lot of that now from an outside receiver perspective that’s allowed Kurt now to stretch the field, which we’ve talked about for a couple of weeks. Not an accident that he had a career day and the ball is starting to go down the field more. Just we are chipping away at it and there are some signs that this is getting some traction now.

Q. I know you are aware that UVA has had struggles on the road. You talked about in your presser after the game last week how you felt the here we go again thing when it got tied up. How do you shed this sort of road struggle going into this game? What do you think it’s going to take to finally win a road game?
COACH MENDENHALL: I don’t think it’s going to take anything different than what winning any normal game on the road was, and I’ll be pretty blunt and transparent with you. I didn’t know how long — I just had to ask Jim walking down the hall, how long it’s been, and that doesn’t really matter to me. I know what exact preparation looks like and I know what confidence looks like and I know what the here we go again, certainly didn’t come from myself or my staff. I did feel it kind of culturally but that’s not part of who we are as a coaching staff nor as a football program, and we’ve been — I think the players understand that and I don’t think it was — and I don’t think it is something that, other than how fiercely we prepare, needs to be addressed. And certainly has to be by those covering the sport because of what I understand now is — was it 15 or —

Q. 17.
COACH MENDENHALL: There you go. But right now we play Duke and I know exactly kind of where our team has to improve and grow and where our focus needs to be and the more I focus on things which can’t be controlled, which are all these other games, what good would it do for me to do that. So I’m looking forward on what we can do, not what hasn’t been done.

Q. Going against him as a defensive minded coach, how much fun is that to match wits?
COACH MENDENHALL: It’s the first time that I’ve been able to study an offense that’s been led by him and it doesn’t take more than three or four or five plays or one series to say, oh, no wonder they are good. The design is good within the players that they have and the scheme they use and how it’s been implemented to make the most of the program at Duke. They have the exact right person. They’ve got to keep him as long as they possibly can, because he gives them a fantastic chance to compete against anybody, as they proved against Notre Dame this past week. It’s not an accident. And good people are drawn to good people and Coach Ruff will say: Real recognizes real. They have players that recognize a real coach and a real setting and it has authenticity and capability, and so Duke’s successes under Coach Cutcliffe are not an accident.

Q. Jack Powers was an offensive lineman at Arizona State but was a pretty stand out defensive player coming out of high school but was only recruited as an offensive player. What led you to make that transition for him?
COACH MENDENHALL: Need and opportunity met. We had a need for another big, physical body as a run stopper, and add a physical presence to our defensive line. At the same time, we received a release from Arizona State, which I investigate all those when they come across.

We watched film, went back to his high school film and saw it and thought there would be capability there. Took a chance, after we met him and realized who he was and learned reports about how he worked. Wondered if he had enough grit and work ethic and resolve to be in our program; I was convinced on all those things, and he did his part.

So now after four games on the defensive side, he’s starting to emerge with docking down passes and being strong in the interior and defending his run gap. Man, he loves being here and he loves playing, which again, I love coaching guys that are appreciative and thankful for the opportunities they have been given, and he certainly is one of those.

Q. Imagine seeing guys in practice and scrimmage is one thing but seeing them do it on game Saturdays is different. From what you’ve seen from Kurt who had never started a game, how much does that allow you guys to expand some of the things you do? He’s got a pretty strong arm and how much does that maybe allow you to put more stuff in that would allow you to go down field like you have?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think that it’s sequential and it’s systematic and it’s methodical, and through four weeks, we’ve seen our offense continue to grow and improve and grow and improve. And UCONN, maybe hang for a second and be on the verge of growing and maturing in a couple different ways and then taking a pretty significant step forward.

But I think the biggest step forward in Central Michigan came because of some of the things we learned from the UCONN game and as Doni just walked in, seeing Doni and seeing Albert and seeing O and seeing Smoke and seeing Albert, and then realizing, oh, wait, if we did this with that person, then that wouldn’t be able to be taken away.

And so really, that slight step back against UCONN actually accelerated us what we call falling forward versus Central Michigan. The key will be now with Kurt is not giving too much, too fast, but continuing to look at what the roles are and look at how we might be able to expand slightly within what we already execute well without the risk of setting ourselves back by putting too much in and not being able to execute it because right now we’re looking for consistency and execution as a team and not necessarily the roller coaster, up down and in between.

Q. What impressed you about Duke being able to pull off the upset at Notre Dame?
COACH MENDENHALL: I’ve coached at Notre Dame and it is a tough place to do that. Just simply their ability to be consistent in that environment. Notre Dame made a number of mistakes in terms of where their fits were, their eye control and basically just big plays. Those were created by Duke’s scheme and their players executing and to Duke’s credit, they weren’t intimidated at all. They gained confidence as the game went on, and clearly, the momentum had shifted and they believed they could win and had not only the physical presence to do so but the mental capacity to pull it off. I’m sure that they view that as a huge win for their program, rightly so, and a momentum generator and rightly so, and they earned it, because they played a better football game than their opponent in that stretch.

Q. Brian Kelly had an observation before he came here, he was interested to see what the stadium looked like and he had never been here before. Have you ever played any of your four remaining road teams this year? How many ACC stadiums have you been to and are you curious what the setups are?
COACH MENDENHALL: I played at Georgia Tech at BYU and we won there. Wake, no. What were the other ones? Virginia Tech and Duke. Duke I saw under renovation when I was visiting Coach Cutcliffe. In terms of coaching and playing against those teams, only one. But I’m intrigued. Not so much as it will influence outcome but just to see what the cultures are at the different places. It’s always interesting. You notice it usually for about five minutes as you walk into the stadium before the game starts and after that you don’t notice it much.

Q. You’ve been using an interesting defensive line, at least for this game, not sure if that was something you played with at times — what was the thought process that went in and was it something you stumbled on to? Was it something you wanted to see with Juan at nose tackle and Mark with Andrew, how did that come about?
COACH MENDENHALL: It’s right now emerging as a nickel or pass rush specific combination of players that are fast and active and athletic enough to not only pressure the quarterback but play screen and react to perimeter plays and chase things down, and so again, we’re looking for as many players as possible that can contribute, that can have a role and help our team grow and mature. So Mark is finding a role and as well as Jawuan, and it’s fun to see that. You’ll also probably have seen Chris Moore out there, another freshman at the nickel spot being developed.

Q. When I asked you last week about the deep ball targets, you said there were more plays called and the ball didn’t go there — this game you were successful with the downfield pass. Was it a play calling change or it’s with a an execution change?
COACH MENDENHALL: It was both. So a slightly more, slight difference in targeting. Again, but targeting only gets you as far as the look and is there separation and are you open. And if you’re not, then the ball is not going to go there.

And so as we continue to put the right players in the right spots and the right matchups with the right plays, then the result is, the ball actually is delivered sometimes to where the first target was and that’s the way I define targeting and we are getting just simply more clear about which players in what roles and at what time will help our team the most. I’m impressed with the roles that our guys are playing and the names that I’ve listed off today are doing a nice job.

Q. Are you shock how many times the ball goes —
COACH MENDENHALL: I won’t share but yes, we do.

Q. The defensive line again, if you tack for in the nickel, you’re playing eight or nine guys that you have confidence could go in the game. Has the depth there exceeded your hopes for that position? It looked thin at the outset.
COACH MENDENHALL: I would say this: That the effort in which we want our players to play, how hard we want them to play, they are learning and adjusting to what that looks like, as well, and so Coach Ruff does a really nice job of anticipating and seeing if it’s not 100 percent as hard as they can go, then they are not going to stay in.

So there are players that their level of, the confidence that we have in them is growing. But we’re not certainly not going to have someone out there that won’t try as hard as they can try by conditioning or mental toughness. We’re not going to allow that to happen for the sake of keeping an experienced or maybe more capable player in. We are going to change him and so that message is being sent because of the simple pace that we would like to play.

Q. Follow-up on one of those defensive lineman. I know Moye will get bigger as he gets older. Could he grow into a 3-4 knows tackle eventually?
COACH MENDENHALL: He might. He’s quick and explosive and it will be fun to see if the — for any of our first-years, not just Juan (ph), if any of our first years, they embrace the academic rigor, if they embrace the program rigor, if they will continually do what’s right and mature day-in and day-out to develop into that, and that’s something they have to show and demonstrate. For all our first years, they could have bright futures if they choose to and if they want the help necessary. But the only way they are going to have success — but again the only way they are going to have the success on the field is what do they look like in the classroom, what do they look like in the community, what do they look like in support of their teammates and if they do all that and can play well, then we’ll see what he ends up looking like.

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