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Oct. 10, 2016

Virginia Football Media Conference
Bronco Mendenhall

COACH MENDENHALL: My philosophy, plenty of work to do and plenty of momentum to gain. And certainly there’s an argument for rest and rejuvenation, which I think we balanced appropriately. But we’re gaining momentum and improving because of the volume of work we’re putting in.

And so with a game not scheduled that wasn’t motive or reason for us to then slow down. So we accelerated. I think we’ve improved again. Hard to say, because there wasn’t a Saturday game to demonstrate that. But I feel really good of what we accomplished in the bye week.

And looking forward to just our next test. We had a great chance to bond, I guess, is the right word as a team. My house is relatively done now, and so the team was able to come out, even though it was pouring rain, we had a nice kind of bye-week closure after practice on Saturday and culminating event of the bye week, rather than play a football game we had a chance to become closer as a team, and that set the framework and the stage for us moving forward for the rest of the season.

So I’ll take questions based on any of that.

Q. When there’s not a football game on Saturday, how do you gauge the quality of a week of practice?
COACH MENDENHALL: Most of it is by the intent of practice. And so there’s a lot that can be said and shown through body language. And there’s a lot that can be said and shown through competitive spirit. And there’s a lot that can be said and shown from what practice not only looks like but what it feels like. And I love the idea of, as a head coach, of trying to hold the team back.

And after as hard as we worked during the bye week, they were eager to practice Saturday morning. They were eager to run into each other. They were eager to compete and they’re passionate about improving.

And so even though we worked hard the whole week, I found myself having to step back or stop things a little bit short because of how it was escalating. And so I gauged it based on that.

We didn’t put them in as many situations against each other later in the week. I’m talking about our offense versus our defense. We did that early in the week.

But we moved into more victory teamwork against Pitt later in the week. And they just — the team couldn’t get enough of that work and the questions and what do they do here.

And so without a test to show and demonstrate the execution, it was more by chemistry and demeanor is the best answer I could give you.

Q. How does the timing of the bye week of the season and the timing of where you are in this program play into the way you handled that this week?
COACH MENDENHALL: I would love to say I know for sure. I think we’ll know after the fact. Any bye week, I think there’s arguments either way anytime you have one of what the pluses are in terms of momentum and what the negatives are in terms of possibly losing momentum, the health of your team.

I really believe we are improving because of the consistency of the tests and knowing there’s another one coming. And so without that I wasn’t quite sure the program was mature enough and how they would approach the practice. But we did a nice job from the minute we finished celebrating in Duke’s locker room, I framed this will be a difficult week.

And our team does well if we understand the why. And the why was, in my opinion, is we’re gaining momentum and improving as a program because of the work, because of the volume and because of the urgency.

And so planting those seeds right then, I think, helped them understand the framework we were going. I chose to frame it that way because I think that’s what has been helping us improve.

And if it was a different team, a different stage, a different era, maybe differently than that. But this plan was specific to this team during this week of the season.

Q. Jackson talked to us last week and specifically talked about how he was going to use the bye week, a little part of it to kind of gauge that line of aggression and going over it. Have you addressed that at all with the team, and how have you gauged from game one, where you didn’t have any penalties, to game five, where you had some, where they are in kind of — starting with that line?
COACH MENDENHALL: That’s a really good question. I’ve actually struggled to find the right way and the right timing, the most effective way to present that, just in relation to the exact scenario that you said.

And the best way that I’ve framed it now is any of those things that are after the play or late, those are the ones, to me, not acceptable at this point.

Effort, penalties within the play, I’m still willing to reserve head coach’s judgment if I think that’s still smart, and there will be plenty that will argue against that.

But the ones that are happening after the play or late, we’re very clear in what I presented to the team today is there’s a clear statistical mark. If you have a 15-yard penalty against the defense, what the offense’s chances to score are when you have a 15-yard penalty and vice versa. And I shared that with them today.

Again, this team does well when they understand the why. And so that’s the best way that I could frame it to them is I love the aggression and the improvement in that area. Now let’s talk about where those boundaries are. And the cleanest way I can say right now is any of those things after the play or before the play, because those are really concentration or selfish issues.

During the play occasionally there’s going to be an aggressive thing that I’m not going to curtail at this point, because the program still needs to have confident, aggressive football players that I’d rather hold back than encourage.

And so I’m working that balance the best I can.

Q. After the UConn game Robert came in and told us that one of the things holding back the offense was the deep passing game and intermediate routes, and he vowed to fix it. You guys are now fifth in the league in passing. What did he do specifically to turn things around?
COACH MENDENHALL: There was just a really focused and clear intent to find out what players on our team can play what roles and who is best in the intermediate to long range. And once we’ve identified them, where can they do it from. And so we identified the personnel that was best, the formations then that put the right complement of those guys on the field at the same time or to highlight whoever was best, and then design plays specifically to target that individual.

So it was really intentional on coach and I’s part and the offensive staff rather than running plays that are intermediate to long, it’s okay, now with whom, and where do we put that player to give him the best chance and us our best chance? So we’re literally personneling every play, meaning here’s the formation and then we’re calling out names as we send them out there, where they’re aligning to give that play within that scheme its best chance to fulfill maybe medium, long, et cetera. That’s how we’ve done it. That’s how he’s done it.

Q. You’ve talked about simplifying things for the defense. Will there come a point in the season with this group where you can start adding on or is that for another day?
COACH MENDENHALL: Sure. And that will happen more probably in the nickel situations than in the base. The base situations there’s — and we have, from the UConn game through Central Michigan through Duke, there’s been a nice run of consistency there. Not perfect. But a nice run of consistency that I’ve seen taking a step forward.

That’s because of consistency in base calls, which is improving. Base techniques, which is improving. Base communication, which is improving. Base fits, which is allowing them to play faster and more consistently without so many big plays or wild plays along the way.

Our execution, we’re usually fairly elaborate when it gets to third and medium or long, and can hit the quarterback about any way we want to with multiple coverages and different things. That’s a little bit more vanilla than I would like. However, that’s where we are. So I would see that part probably expanding at some point, but the core part of the defense right now is we’re just starting to kind of show signs of becoming consistent with that. So I don’t see that changing much for a while.

Q. All four of the players who were in here talked about the horses on Saturday.
COACH MENDENHALL: Who was in here? (Laughter).

Q. Donte started out. Is that something with the horses that you did out at BYU, and I assume a few more of the players out there had been on horses before. Talk about that whole experience.
COACH MENDENHALL: I haven’t had a chance to have the family to my house yet since I’ve been the head coach at UVA. And so that was the first motive, is just that I wanted to continue to form great relationships and a connection with the team.

But then Holly and I really wanted them to be able to experience something that maybe they never have and have just an amazing college experience.

And we just so happened to have horses. So we thought, well, let’s saddle them up. And I had no idea. So the practice ended and I told the players give me at least half an hour to get home and try to get ready.

I was still saddling and in my practice gear, and I never made it to the house. I was taking — so it was four and a half hours of players in line standing out in the rain in the middle of our pasture, taking them four at a time — myself and three, three at a time. There’s one horse they’re not ready for called Hot Rod, and I kept him — because injuries during a bye week would not have been very smart. So Hot Rod was in the corral and they kept a wide path around him. But the other three that they were able to ride I had no idea. I saw every emotion possible. I saw hearts beating and shaking hands and — petrification, would that be a word?

Guys so scared. And I saw exhilaration and I saw more smiles — I never knew smiles could stay on that long. And selfies and Snapchats and talking to mom, and the guys just could not believe this was Charlottesville and they had that experience. We have a pond as well. At the same time Dom Sheppard and Gladimir Paul were in our boat, in the canoe. Dom is from Miami, and Glad’s trying to fish and is catching the back of his head at least three times.

It was just really fun. And so Donte, Smoke, and those are just two that kind of come to mind. Mike Mooney dropped a rein and his horse went just into circles, and, Coach, Coach, Coach. There was a story for almost every one.

Just really, really fun to see the players in a different light. But also for them to see me in a different light. And Coach Wintrich was on the grill and we had a pool, none of the players swam. They were all lining up to get on the horse. And it was pouring, pouring rain, and they were out there. It was four and a half hours straight with the horses of just leading tours and really fun.

I think a memorable experience. And they’re still talking about it today.

Q. Kind of branching off the question, Jerry asked about the deep ball and things like that. Are you okay where the balance is between pass and run? It’s like 40/30, I think, but you’re having a lot of success throwing the ball. Do you still like the run game? It’s a reflection of coach and I’s offense, what do you think about the balance right now?
COACH MENDENHALL: It’s all driven — to me I don’t have an ideal balance. I know how many points I want. And so my job is to frame to him we need this amount of points. We call it our pillars. And we know when we hit the pillar we have a great chance to win, over 85 percent over our time at BYU and prior.

So I want him, Coach and I and the offensive staff, to put the best players in the best position to get us the points necessary, no matter how it is. And some games it might be tilted a little bit more run than pass and vice versa. But where we’re skilled out now is extended plays and having routes convert, and then throwing the ball over the secondary’s head.

We might be better than that than just design plays. Our scramble drill is something we’ve worked on. I should have included that in the first part of the answer. But the scramble drill is something Curt is very comfortable with and we’ve worked very hard at.

So that’s another part, besides the personneling and the formations, the type of plays, when you have the ability then to extend that’s been helpful to us also.

Q. How difficult is Donte’s job? And just assess how good he is at doing it?
COACH MENDENHALL: We would really be in trouble if Donte wasn’t playing for us this year. We don’t really have another true nose currently in the program that’s to the same skill as Donte is.

And when you play 3-4 defense, the nose is where it all starts. And the ball is not being run in either A gap and hasn’t been all year. And he’s done a really nice job with that. Plus he’s a fierce and violent competitor and player. And he has his presence of leadership that adds an edge. Most great defenses have an edge.

And he helps provide that, which I really like. And he does a nice job of setting the tone for that group. But I’m not sure there is a more valuable player on the team.

And not many will notice him doing his job. But for just our chance to continue to build momentum and have the season that we’d like, his play is essential to that.

Q. You mentioned a lot of guys riding horses. Maybe this gives me a creative way to ask this question. You didn’t mention Andrew Brown. So did he ride any horses?
COACH MENDENHALL: I did not see Andrew Brown. Eric Smith was another highlight, though, and he called himself a natural. I didn’t call him a natural, but he labeled himself as a natural when he was out there.

Jack Powers would have been, I think, a team hit as well as he broke the speed record at least of any player that was riding. I’m not sure it was intentional. But that happened.

Q. Is there a way for Andrew’s status for Thursday?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yep. (Laughter) gotta try. I’m ready. No matter how they come at that one, I’m ready.

Q. Quin hasn’t practiced as much as you would have liked. Given that, how pleased have you been with his performance and how he’s been able to handle that as a veteran player?
COACH MENDENHALL: It’s been difficult for not only Quin but for us. From fall camp on Quin has practiced one day a week. That’s on Thursdays. His injury has been more significant, longer lasting than any of us had hoped or expected. He’s not played yet to full speed, nor full potential. And I think the bye week, if it will benefit any player, Quin is probably the one that will have benefited most from that in a little bit of additional time. And we monitor his volume a little bit more than the other players.

It would be nice to have him but even with that, he’s one of the best tacklers I’ve ever coached or been with. He just doesn’t miss. He’s so clear and so precise with his communication. He and Mike, the game is just slower for them because of the preparation level. And there’s a huge difference when Quin is in, and when he’s not in in terms of being able to coordinate what our tags and checks are. So even if he’s not 100 percent physically, it more than makes up for that just by having him out there to help everyone else.

Q. Jordan Mack became something of an Internet, ESPN sensation because of that hit. He’s listed at 205, which I’m guessing is a lot lighter than your outside linebackers typically are. How much can he reasonably grow physically over the course of his career? And what do you see as his long-term potential?
COACH MENDENHALL: I really like Jordan. And, boy, he’s really — when Malcolm Cook became unable to play, that was a huge blow. And we were considering all different kinds of options, even schematically, to find our best 11 players to put them on the field. And we decided to give Jordan a try first.

And we saw enough through the volume that he was getting to show that he was capable, even though he’s just a first-year. And even with his size, and so we’ve tweaked a few things, but I think Jordan will end up being similar to the linebackers that I’ve coached before.

And again all these guys all the outside backers have gone on to play in the NFL or had that opportunity. He’ll be a guy like that, meaning 230-ish at some point in his career, being tall, lean, fast and long, who can cover well enough and pressure well enough.

So he’s really, for a first-year player, he’s really doing a nice job in terms of maturity and consistency. And what’s fun about Jordan is he rarely makes the same mistake twice. He’s very intent and consciencious. So the long ball he gave up against Oregon versus the Olympic sprinter, I don’t think that will ever happen again because he’s so clear now what his assignment is, how fast it can get upside down on you and it’s just helped his urgency. Boy, he’s growing leaps and bounds by his fifth game. He’s really playing well again for his level of development.

Q. Since you mentioned it, I thought I’d ask. Malcolm Cook, is there a chance he might play again here in another year or whatever, or is he done?
COACH MENDENHALL: No, there’s — from what I’ve been passed on, and I think this is fair to talk about, there’s a chance that he will play again. And I would say it’s probably likely that he will play again. Not this season, but in the future.

Q. Bryce Hall, a guy, 6’3″, 200 pounds, pretty prolific receiver in high school. When you got him here, obviously you inherited him in the recruiting class, what was your make of him? Was it to play him offensively? How did you look at him and how has he progressed at corner?
COACH MENDENHALL: Coach Hagens, I had just been hired and Coach Hagens had seen Bryce at a playoff game. He had something like 200 yards receiving.

And even though the previous staff had slotted him to play in the secondary, Marcus was saying based on how we look at receiver he’s certainly capable. And we watched the film and Coach Howell and Coach Hagens were lobbying all the way into fall camp.

It only took one or two days in looking at our secondary and what Bryce was going to be able to do, and being a defensive head coach that he was going to play on defense.

Corner play is really important and that was the best — both corners had played at the same time thus far to have Bryce and Quin, this was the last game I’m talking about — not Quin, Juan. Sorry. Juan and Bryce playing at the same time. That collective performance by both those guys was really a nice step in the right direction. So to have another first year doing that, that’s really cool.

Q. Did you like the way he can kind of play press a little more, do you want to continue —
COACH MENDENHALL: So I love having long, physical and fast corners. Because I’m not someone that enjoys free access. Free access meaning if you’re off you can just stand up and throw it and it’s second and three.

And I don’t like free access. But to not allow free access to the receivers you have to have corners that are capable of pressing. And Kareem and Myles were a little bit more comfortable playing off and are more comfortable playing off. It adds a different dimension as a play caller and as a defense when you have the chance to not have to have or allow free access. And just it’s a little bit easier to control third, getting to third down and with how much distance remaining.

Q. Nicholas Conte was one of the guys we had in here earlier. How much of a weapon, how valuable has he been just the way he’s been able to pin teams?
COACH MENDENHALL: He’s amazing. And so we have very clear parameters or metrics on what we want from our punt team. And he exceeds expectations almost every week.

And especially in the first two or three weeks as the defense is continuing to learn and grow and plenty of work still to do there. By him making them start so far away from the opponent’s goal line, or our goal line, it just really has been helpful because it’s just allowing us more time and more plays to mature.

And he is, I think, weapon is the right word and a punt is not necessarily a bad thing for us. When you talk about the field position change and where the opponent will get it and if you think about the play against Duke, the Jordan Mack play, that’s not only because of the defense, that’s because of where the ball was kicked.

And we have some players that are really starting to get skilled at keeping it out of the end zone. And Curt Gardner is one of those but we have players diving and we’re practicing because Nick is so good at it.

So right now we’re happy with field position. And it’s allowing me as a play caller and as the head coach to then assume where we might go for it on fourth down, where we might not. Trading that versus knowing they might have to start inside the 5. So now that I’m seeing that consistency, it’s helping me define maybe some — or maybe curtail some of the aggressive nature of when we go and when we don’t go.

Q. How have you looked at kick return coverage at this point? That’s one word, nobody’s broken one yet but got good gains, have you changed personnel how do you address that?
COACH MENDENHALL: We continue to change personnel and tweak and work on schemes and move guys around. And we are average to this point at best. We have a lot of work to do from what we want to be, what we know we can be, and what our current threshold is.

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