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Nov. 7, 2016

Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall

Bronco Mendenhall: After contemplating and thinking about our game this past weekend against Wake Forest, I’ve just come to realize how much I like this team. They’ve embraced so many new things and have tried so hard and really are working hard to success.

What I’ve seen is kind of three stages of this season to this point. The first two games I’ll put in one stage, which is really the discovery. You’d think that spring ball and summer and fall camp would be enough, but it clearly wasn’t. So the first two games are really discovery as to where this team really is, where are we starting from, and where, really, do we launch from? The next five games I saw really, and I’ve seen really as growth and progress in many different areas. So we’d play a game and there would be an area that we’d show up and pretty strong in, and another that we’d need to work on. So we’d hit that and target it and improve.

That cycle, I think, manifests itself through about the next five weeks where we continue to get better and address different things at different times, looking for a collective football game.

Then the next or the last two games I think what’s happened is we’ve earned pressure. Meaning that we’ve played comprehensive and collective football well enough to have the game be determined at the end. And that’s a whole different stage. That’s not a stage that’s accidental nor is it a stage that’s happenstance. That stage has been earned and worked toward. Now, really the next phase of development is to have consistency of remaining in that pressure-filled format, but then also execute and manage the game in a way that’s appropriate for this team to give them their best chance for success.

It’s fun to show up at work every day and see resilient players, resilient people that really like each other, and we like them and they like us. I’m encouraged and gratified by the experience I’ve had so far. There is nothing easy about it. Nor did I come for anything to be easy. We want significant change.

Each phase in each game is rewarding in its own right, and I look forward to the next test that comes up. So I’ll take questions.

Q. One thing we didn’t ask you about Saturday that was major in the whole game was going for two after the first touchdown?
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah, going for two, and so there’s I’ll frame this the best way I can. There’s quite a bit of latitude given when we go for two. Based on how the opponent is aligned. And if they’re scrambling and if they’re uncertain and if there’s chaos, then the simple instruction is to run our two-point play. We’ll see if they’re aligned correctly. If they’re assignment sound, if they have the appropriate leverage. If they do, then we’ll kick the football. If not, then we’ll run our play. The framework though is if the play’s run, it’s expected to work. Meaning if there is any hesitation that the play might not work, then don’t run it. So I’ll continue to set expectations even more clearly so scrambling and being uncertain, that doesn’t necessarily override. That has to be measured against the belief that the play will work if we run it. And if it’s anything less than that, that’s kind of the expectation and criteria that you default to. So I’m never happy when we take points off the board. Not meaning an extra point is guaranteed, but it’s more likely than a two-point play unless all criteria are met. Hopefully that answers your question.

Q. So all the criteria weren’t met?
Bronco Mendenhall: They weren’t.

Q. It’s customary after a game to look at the defensive stats and see Micah Kaiser and Quin Blanding up there. Not as common to see Matt Terrell’s name up there, he had 10 tackles. I think that’s the most he’s played in a game. What’s he done to earn the coaching staff’s trust, and where is he in his development?
Bronco Mendenhall: He’s earning that over time and practice. He was a few weeks off of really kind of Landan Word’s opportunities, which came through Zach Bradshaw being hurt. And that’s really how Jordan Mack got on the field. You didn’t hear much about Matt early because of a suspension that happened in the off-season. If I remember right, it was either two or three games. But methodically and consistently, Matt has just been working at practice. And what Matt provides is a physical edge to our defense. I’m not talking about mentality, while he does that as well. I’m talking about the edges set physically. It became really clear after the third series the way forest was going to be very conservative on third downs, would rather hold on to the ball and run and pass efficiently if they could. But hopefully their defense would force our offense to make some mistakes, so when that happened, Matt’s style of play and what he’d done in practice seemed to fit well. And he did a nice job for the volume of plays that he had. Still lots to learn and lots to improve on, but he showed capability: And he showed capability next to Eli Hanback. Those two in concert ended up doing a really nice job consistently for the day as the running backs really had and the running game for Wake had really little success, the one quarterback scramble was really the play.

Q. Jackson (Matteo) was just sitting here and had an interesting evaluation of Kurt (Benkert) going forward, and how these next three games are big for not only him but this program in making the next step. Obviously, no Bowl to play for. But what do you want to see from him? Is it simple as getting some confidence back? What things have been lost with him? What things do you want to see gained back?
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah, I’d like to see before I address Kurt specifically, just our team continue to grow. And my assessment, and I think I’m our own harshest critic, we’ve earned the chance to be in pressure-filled, game-ending type of drives and scenarios the last two weeks. That phase is preliminary to the next phase of executing and playing at a really high level in those contests.

So we absolutely need to continue to work and prepare in a manner to get back to those situations as frequently as possible. That’s where a lot of this next phase of growth is going to happen for not only our team but for Kurt.

I think our best chance to get back to that will come as poise and confidence are just reinstilled with the simple evaluation that the protection will hold, stay in, deliver the ball quickly and accurately. Again, from the pit experience and that stretch to them, a strong performance, I thought against Louisville and the strong finish, just a little bit too eager and a little too antsy when pressure comes to leave the pocket. Think about extending the play rather than just running the play. There are times when receivers are open, and routes are coming open. But the pressure or illusion of pressure is just having him not quite as confident or comfortable.

Q. (Indiscernible) good and creates plays when he does?
Bronco Mendenhall: Just clearly defining. And this is really the next phase. I would say collectively as a coaching staff, and I’ve thought a lot about this for the upcoming phase of where this team currently is, and that comes down to game management. Meaning that coach (Jason) Beck, one of his primary jobs that I see now is not only coaching the play that’s going to be run, but the context of the game in which it’s being run. So just simple reminders of we’re up by three. A punt is not a bad thing here. It’s this play and a simple idea of the progression of four yards is fine here. We don’t need 12. So just putting the plays now in context of, I think will lessen this idea that everything has to be done with a route conversion and a giant throw and a play being extended.

There are methodical and really good things that we have. And if you look at the first drive specifically, those things are possible. Escapable of. Sometimes the context of the game is overriding the play being called rather than just the reminder of we don’t need it all right now.

So I think that we can as a coaching staff do a better job, a more clear and thorough job of coaching and framing expectations that way. I think that will help Kurt a lot, because he doesn’t have to do it all by himself, and he doesn’t have to do it on every play. That, to me, reflects communication and leadership from us.

Q. Bronco, before the season you talked about the difference, there being a huge difference between losing close games and winning close games. You bring up the three phases, now in the pressure phase. Obviously this team has been in close games and has lost close games. But does it take this kind of a phase, a pressure phase to get over that? And is there something measured that you’re seeing from the team that indicates they’re closer to that point?
Bronco Mendenhall: Yes. So it’s a giant jump to go from the phase that it’s not an official title, but just from what I sense right now, of earning the chance to be in the pressure filled games that come down to the last drive. One was against a current team that I think most people have as a very good team in the country, and now it’s against the team that just qualified for their first Bowl game for a while. We’re capable, regardless who we play. That to me is what the last two weeks have said, and it would be hard to argue against that. However, the ability to confidently and focused, laser-like focus, having laser-like focus in those situations to put the play into context is something that we’re still learning to do. From what I understand, there were a number of those opportunities last year.

The points of reference, easy for habits to go to existing points of reference. So we’re looking to have new points of reference, and have breakthroughs whenever possible. The best way to do that is by how we prepare. I think there has been stage by stage and incremental by incremental improvements. The outside world will look only at wins. My job is to acknowledge we’re at the very beginning of what I think is going to be a great program. I see things pretty clearly in where we’re developing to. We need to establish some new points of reference so they can be habitual in moving forward. The only way that happens is if we continue to focus with even more diligence and determination. If there’s any thought now of easing off or stepping off or looking ahead, none of that is relevant right now if the intent is to continue to improve. Which it is for me and from what I saw from our team, I think it’s from them.

Q. You actually just mentioned that this is like the first step of building a program. For seniors, that can be kind of an odd spot because there is no next year. This is it for them. How have the seniors on this team kind of embraced that and being part of the foundation, I guess?
Bronco Mendenhall: Just by how they’ve worked and how they’ll continue to work. I have multiple goals for this program. The easy focus is on what’s the outcome on the field and how soon we’ll win, and how soon we’ll be in postseason, and how soon we’ll be able to expect that consistently.

At the same time, I want them to have an amazing experience, an amazing life experience, an amazing football experience, amazing relationships. And I’m very gratified in regards to that, and I think they are as well.

I had a number of players that caught me off guard that we’re coming to me after the game saying they’d let me down. Like not having a winning season or not playing postseason was something that I don’t know. That they wanted to do, not only for themselves, but for the new coaches and myself I feel just the opposite. I would love them to have a great experience. Yeah, it’s complete if you can have an amazing friendship with your teammates. An amazing relationship with the position coach and head coach, feel the program developing and get wins. And we have a great opportunity this week against a really good opponent coming in here.

I want each day and each game to be an amazing experience and hopefully sooner rather than later the outcome will be the next phase added on to that. And I think the seniors are recognizing this is the front end, and I think they feel there’s some amazing things that will happen here.

I think they feel fortunate to be part of it. I just keep telling them I’m lucky that they’re here. I couldn’t have asked and can’t ask more than what they’re currently doing, and I think that will remain the case for the next number of weeks we have.

Q. I think it’s 39 straight games now with a turnover, and only 9 of those are with you here. But what are you seeing from the team in practice? Is that something that can help some of these close game situations?
Bronco Mendenhall: Sure. I think I said absolutely, yes is the answer to the question. The main and primary difference in that last game was number of takeaways. So Wake Forest had three. One of the reasons for the pooch kickoff was to steal a possession back. As it appeared Wake Forest was going to be very careful and methodical with the football. So I viewed that as ending up minus two rather than minus three with the intent to take one back. But that was with the clear realization with number of possessions and where the ball or where the offenses are going to start with this football is going to matter. So as you look at the ten points that Wake Forest was going to score, they were scoreless without takeaways.

So we have a simple saying that hasn’t gone all the way into our culture yet, but it’s reinforced frequently, and I wish it showed more at this point is the ball is everything. At some point it we’ll play in a manner that shows that and that streak will end and maybe we’ll have a streak that will reflect something else.

Usually it reflects leadership and coaching, so I haven’t been able to get that point clearly across or across deep enough yet for it to show.

Q. Jordan Ellis had a nice run on the touchdown in the first score. I know there are only so many carries to be divided among the running backs. But is he a guy you expect going forward, if not this year, but next year, to figure more prominently in the offense?
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah, I think he’ll have to. I really like how Albert Reid runs the football, and I really currently like how smoke is running the football, and I like Daniel Hamm as the return man, Albert is kind of a journeyman contributing whenever he’s called and through special teams. As the first jersey selector of this year, and so one of the reasons I think he was selected to do that is he’s unselfish. He’s team first. He’s hard working, and he’s really happy for his teammates when they have success.

So his time will come. It’s fun when he get his job to see him have success, because everyone realizes who he is and how hard he works.

Q. Bronco, what is the difference between, you were talking about the phases and things, your first year at BYU and here. Is it talent, familiarity with the players, personnel, or losing and having a lack of confidence?
Bronco Mendenhall: Really good question. And I’ve tried not to draw comparisons just to keep the focus on this team. But I will address it maybe in this way.

At BYU, I had the advantage of being an assistant coach for two years prior to being the head coach and seeing two years of losing. So I had a much clearer — no, I had a very clear idea of where we were starting from and what had to hatch. What were the things that absolutely had to be corrected to give us a better chance. It took at least two games. And on some of those next five, to see how deep some of these reference points were and uncover all the thing that’s truly needed attention.

Sometimes, and I’m fully responsible for it, sometimes the only way to see that is in a game. And sometimes the only way to see it is against a style of an opponent or the situation. I’d love to say I could have predicted and it’s my job to do so. But this has been a process. So the biggest difference is this team is absolutely more willing and eager than I ever would have expected.

If anything, I didn’t have or didn’t use quite enough time in relation to the previous years I had at BYU before I became the head coach of seeing the culture and being part of it and knowing what had to change. So I think it’s a bigger change effort with less time in relation to learning about what the issues really are here.

But it’s been nothing the players have done. They have absolutely done everything we’ve asked them to do in relation to my job is to ask them to do the thing that’s will make the most difference in relation to where they are. And I’ve learned more of what those things are as we’ve gone on.

Q. As somebody who is pretty numbers driven, back-to-back years now, Virginia’s going to have the one and two leaders in tackles. One is a team that’s 4-8. The other is a team that’s not going to a bowl. Obviously there are a lot of tackles out there, but how do you in relation to Quin (Blanding) and Micah (Kiser)?
Bronco Mendenhall: I can present it to in relation to what I’ve seen since I’ve been here, and I think that would be fair. Micah and Quinn are excellent football players, would be strong contributors and producers on any team that they played for. They both are consistent. They both are resilient. They both have very strong leadership, and they’re both very, very good tacklers, and we’re playing them in positions where they’re able to make plays on both sides of the football. Meaning, the more you are aligned over the ball, the more you can make plays right or left. And we did something similar with (Brian) Urlacher at New Mexico. And they both are aligned a lot of times right over the ball so they can make plays both ways.

They are setting a culture for amazing numbers of youthful players around them, and really showing them not only how to play Division I football, but to play really good Division I football from a defensive perspective.

A reference point I might give that might be relevant now, and you can use it as you’d like, when I was hired at the University of New Mexico under Rocky long, we won three games our first year, and that was the first year Urlacher had started. The next year we won four after working like crazy, and the next year we won five. He led the nation in tackles in a lot of different things. He was never a part of a winning team there as a starter. What was interesting though is when he left all the younger guys that were around him, they’ve then won six, they’ve won seven and they then won eight. And I think Quin and Micah are having a very similar influence, and the story isn’t written yet. But I watch the guys playing for the first time. I watch Matt Terrell, and I watched Jordan Mac, and I watch Eli Hanback, and I watched to some extent, Andrew Brown as a first-time significant contributor. And then I watch Bryce Hall and I watch Juan Thornhill, and I watch where they’re looking and who they’re looking to and when people speak. Or when there is film, I point something out and kind of see them nod and see who they go to when they have questions, and it’s those two. What they’re doing for our program and what they already have done, my guess is that they might sleep in some of the shade of the trees that are still growing. I saw that once before in my career, and it might be something similar. I don’t know for sure yet. But that’s the closest comparison I can give.

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