Dec. 14, 2016

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — It’s the middle of December, and for the first time as a head coach Bronco Mendenhall is not preparing his football team for a bowl game.

“So, if the question is, how do I feel about it? I’m unfulfilled,” Mendenhall said in his McCue Center office.

Virginia, in its first season under Mendenhall, finished 2-10 this fall. The Cavaliers won’t play again until Sept. 2, when they open the 2017 season against William & Mary at Scott Stadium.

“This is a really foreign feeling to me, and an introspective time that I’ve put to good use,” Mendenhall said. “There’s been a lot of contemplation and assessment, and we’re recruiting and analyzing. I would much rather be, and I’m used to, preparing to play an opponent.”

UVA’s wins came against Central Michigan (Sept. 24 in Charlottesville) and Duke (Oct. 1 in Durham, N.C.). The victory at Wallace Wade Stadium ended a 17-game road losing streak for Virginia.

The season-ending loss to Virginia Tech, which won 52-10 at Lane Stadium, was the 13th consecutive in the series for the Cavaliers. In Blacksburg, Mendenhall said, the `Hoos ran into an opponent “that was very well-prepared, that currently is more mature as a program and more confident in its abilities and has more capability currently than our program.”

After starting junior Kurt Benkert at quarterback in each of the first 10 games, Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae went with senior Matt Johns against Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

Against the Hokies, UVA rotated Johns and Benkert, sometimes changing quarterbacks from play to play.

The experiment failed. Johns completed 4 of 10 passes for 17 yards and was intercepted twice. Benkert was 9-for-26 passing for 122 yards and one touchdown, a 39-yarder to sophomore wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus.

“Any innovations that I tried [in Blacksburg], including the quarterback rotation, hoping to close the gap or give us an advantage, worked the exact opposite,” Mendenhall said. “And so we strayed probably too far from some of the areas that we were gaining in, with the attempt to maybe create an advantage. Without substantial preparation and unique roles defined, our consistency and our execution actually stepped backwards rather than forwards in that setting.”

In first 11 seasons as a head coach — all at BYU — Mendenhall never finished with a losing record. As frustrating as his first year at UVA has been in some regards, Mendenhall believes it will help him prepare for his second season.

“I learned a lot about what we have, but I also learned a lot about what the ACC has,” he said, “and that’s helpful in knowing what the players look like, what the skill looks like, what the teams look like, what the coaching looks like.

“I think we have a great league, a competitive league. And so I was impressed, but also encouraged [about UVA’s potential]. With that framework of what we look like and what the opponents look like, I also know what we need. This isn’t now about exposure [to a new system] and introduction of schemes. This is now really about playing football with a physical-development component that allows us to play the game more consistently in a real context that moves the program forward.”

On a recent Wahoo Central Podcast, UVA’s director of football performance, Frank Wintrich said one of primary goals this offseason is for players to add size and strength.

That’s essential if the Cavaliers are to succeed, Mendenhall said. “We’re lacking a physical presence, meaning a maturity and a size and strength component on this team, that will allow us to take over a game from a physical nature.”

On both lines “in general,” Mendenhall said, “we don’t look like ACC players yet, and we’re not playing in a physical manner enough to give us an advantage or compete at a level that I would like us to.”

The `Hoos lacked depth on both lines this season, and that presented the coaching staff with “some pretty unique challenges, of trying to keep continuity without losing bodies but also developing consistency through how we play [in practice],” Mendenhall said. “But we did not protect well enough, nor did we block well enough to be able to throw or run with the consistency we needed. And so we need more size, we need more strength, and we need more numbers. That’s priority 1-A, after [landing] a transfer quarterback, in terms of the offense.”

The Cavaliers are likely to have only three scholarship quarterbacks during spring practice: Benkert, who’ll be a senior in 2017, and De’Vante Cross and Sonny Abramson, who’ll be redshirt freshmen. Mendenhall wants to add a dual-threat quarterback who’ll help bridge the gap between players already in the program at that position. A transfer would most likely have to sit out the 2017 season.

Quarterback is not the only spot at which the absence of a clear succession plan has hurt the team, Mendenhall said.

With more consistency in player development, he said, “then you just reload rather than rebuild. In programs that don’t have consistent success, it seems there’s elements of rebuilding rather reloading. And so I’ve talked to our players and said, `Not only do each of you need to become more physically capable in strength and size, but now I need to continue to bring the next players in to be developed while you’re getting stronger and playing.’ ”

His message to Virginia’s recruiting targets hasn’t changed much, Mendenhall said. He points to his success at BYU, where he won 99 games, and tells prospects that “the reason I came to the University of Virginia is to make a difference,” Mendenhall said.

“And the program needs a difference made, the community wants a difference made, the institution is craving a difference to be made, and I would love for [recruits who] want to make a difference to come join us. Here are our needs, here’s the opportunity, here’s the direction, and it will take a lot of hard work, but I’m interested in anyone who wants to roll up their sleeves and join the fight.

“And it’s amazing how resonant that message is, because most of us want a role, and most of us want to make a difference, and most of us want to do something special, and those are the exact reasons that I came. So, basically when I share that with our potential players, I say, `If you chose UVA, you’d be coming for the same reason that I came, and that kind of makes us related.’ ”

Final exams end Friday at the University. Before heading home for the holidays, each of the Cavaliers’ players had an exit interview with Mendenhall.

The team practiced with enthusiasm and intensity all season, even as the losses mounted, and “that’s a great compliment to these kids,” Mendenhall said.

“They’re learning how to work and become resilient, and I was very impressed with. That shows a willingness and a hopefulness, but that’s different than true confidence and belief. That usually comes with time and/or success. And so this team is willing, it’s hopeful, and almost all the comments from the players are, `Coach, we’re better than our record showed.’ And my point is, if that’s true, then the record is an indication of areas that need to be improved.”

PUMPING IRON: Once Wintrich’s offseason strength-and-conditioning program officially gets under way next month, the returning players will spend more time lifting weights than they did this year.

“Our program is built sequentially,” Mendenhall said, “and while I wish I could say we could do it all at the same time, with the thought of players being able to get through one of our practices we almost had to choose [this year].”

Mendenhall favors high-intensity, fast-paced practices, and so the focus last winter and spring was on “base fitness and conditioning, to get to where we could practice,” he said.

“Now, we would like to maintain that, but add the size and strength necessary [so] practice actually sounds like football. It sounds more physical and it sounds more dominant, with bodies that are more capable of hitting each other longer and not having an injury. Especially with our interiors.”

There’s also more emphasis on recruiting bigger players, especially linemen.

“If I bring in a 6-1 player, there’s a good chance he’s going to stay 6-1, unless he’s young,” Mendenhall said. “If I bring in a 6-8 player, there’s a good chance he’s going to be 6-8 [when he leaves UVA]. So, there is a recognition of those paramaters, and, very specifically, we’re intentional about what we’re after.”

However, Mendenhall added, sometimes he sees a smaller player “with a grit and a mindset and a physical [nature], who’s so productive that he captures my heart, and I’ll break from the execution of our normal parameters.”

LONG-TERM GOAL: Neither Benkert nor Johns was a serious threat to run the ball this season. Eventually, Mendenhall wants UVA’s quarterbacks to be more versatile.

“That would be my absolute ideal,” he said, “and that’s the direction we will go as soon as [possible]. Until then, we take best-available [QB], but ideally this program will be stacked with one dual-threat quarterback after another … and that way the system can be repetitive and consistent and doesn’t have to morph or change very much.”

A quarterback who can run takes pressure “off the rest of the players,” Mendenhall said. “A lot of times when the quarterback is mobile, the execution demanded from everyone else can be at a slightly lesser level. And that helps critical plays be made and helps programs that are learning to win, win a little bit faster.”

Abramson, like Benkert, is a pro-style quarterback. Cross showed off dynamic running skills in 2015 at Parkland High in Allentown, Pa. In addition to passing for 2,947 yards and 26 touchdowns, Cross rushed 216 times for 1,385 yards and 19 TDs.

REVIVAL: Mendenhall said he believes pulling Benkert from the starting lineup had the desired effect.

Benkert did not play against Georgia Tech, but he practiced well leading up to the season finale, and “when he went in [against Virginia Tech], he was eager to go in,” Mendenhall said. “And when he went in, pressure was relieved, meaning he didn’t have to do it all, and he delivered the ball pretty well.

“If anything, I might have done it sooner, in terms of allowing him to step back and just assess and recover. There’s a lot [of pressure] on the starter, especially a starter that’s playing for a team that’s learning to win and is showing quite a few inconsistencies and then is getting hit. So there kind of became a tipping point in there … Probably if I were to do it again, I would have done it a little earlier, because it kind of rejuvenated him. I saw a little bit more edge and swagger coming back, and that’s when anybody plays best, when they have that.”

Benkert transferred to Virginia from East Carolina after the 2015-16 school year. In his first season as a Cavalier, he completed 338 of 406 passes (56.2 percent) for 2,552 yards and 21 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions.

AREA OF CONCERN: The Cavaliers entered the season without an experienced placekicker, and that phase of special teams proved problematic for them.

Alex Furbank, a walk-on, made 1 of 2 field-goal attempts before losing the job to Sam Hayward, a former UVA soccer player who joined the football team in September.

In UVA’s 13-10 loss at Connecticut on Sept. 24, Furbank missed a 20-yard attempt that would have sent the game into overtime.

Hayward was 4 for 8 on field goals, with a long of 36 yards.

Having a more reliable kicker “would have made a difference,” Mendenhall acknowledged. “I’m not sure it would have been the difference. I want to be consistent and skilled and competent at every position, and also in each facet of the game.”

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