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July 15, 2017

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The University of Virginia football team will play at Scott Stadium seven times this fall, starting with the Sept. 2 opener against William & Mary. Four of the Cavaliers’ first five games, in fact, are at home, and head coach Bronco Mendenhall understands the importance of that early stretch.

In 2016, the Wahoos’ first season under Mendenhall, they started 0-3 and finished with a 2-10 record. Two of UVA’s first three games were on the road last year.

This year, after playing W&M, UVA hosts Indiana on Sept. 9 and Connecticut on Sept. 16. The `Hoos visit Boise State on Friday, Sept. 22. Then, after a bye week, Virginia plays its ACC opener, Oct. 7 against Duke in Charlottesville.

The front-loaded schedule affords the Cavaliers an opportunity to build momentum, Mendenhall noted Friday at the ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte.

“I’m not going to not acknowledge that,” he said. “I would love to get off to a fast start, which just means that I’ve got to get our fundamentals and our schemes and our habits to hold sooner than what we did a year ago. Especially this year with how the schedule’s lined up.”

Mendenhall heads into his second season at UVA with a strong core of upperclassmen, a group that includes quarterback Kurt Benkert, safety Quin Blanding and linebacker Micah Kiser. But the `Hoos are thin at several positions, among them quarterback, nose tackle and the offensive line, and shoring up those holes is a priority for the coaching staff.

“The No. 1 need for the program right now is roster development,” Mendenhall said, “which means adding the right number of players at the right position in the right years to build sustainability. That is the No. 1 focus. I know the season is coming, but if you’re talking about building sustainability and building a competitive program year in and year out, it’s all about the people.”

The Cavaliers expected to add four graduate transfers after the 2016-17 academic year, but only two of them — offensive linemen Brandon Pertile (Oklahoma State) and John Montelus (Notre Dame) — made it to Charlottesville.

That the other two, quarterback Marvin Zanders (Missouri) and offensive lineman Colin McGovern (Notre Dame), did not enroll at UVA “affects us directly,” Mendenhall said, “because graduate transfers are added to fill a need, not only to be on the team, but to contribute, as well as get their master’s degree.

“The two that came, they’re doing a really nice job, and they’re giving immediate help to the offensive line, and I can already see it happening in the summer, and I’m so thankful that they’re here, and they’re having an amazing experience already, which is rewarding as a coach.”

Zanders was not admitted to the University, and McGovern decided to give up football. Zanders was projected to back up Benkert this fall and figured to be the leading candidate to start for the Cavaliers in 2018.

In Zanders’ absence, true freshman Lindell Stone is expected to back up Benkert and is unlikely to redshirt this fall, Mendenhall said. Stone, a graduate of Woodberry Forest School, enrolled at UVA last month for the second session of summer school. Most of the Cavaliers’ freshmen arrived this month for the final session of summer school.

Stone has been working closely with Benkert, a graduate student who’s heading into his second year as Virginia’s starter. Benkert transferred to UVA last year after graduating from East Carolina.

Benkert and Blanding were UVA’s player representatives at the ACC’s annual media gathering in Charlotte.

Asked about Stone, Benkert said, “He’s a sponge. He’s an accurate passer. He’s got good footwork, and he’s confident for how young he is, and he’s just been following me around, listening, learning.”

Mendenhall said the arrangement is mutually beneficial for Benkert and Stone.

“The best way to learn, I think, is to teach,” Mendenhall said. “Research says that. So as you teach something and go peer to peer, it actually facilitates your own learning. So Kurt is benefiting, and Lindell is benefiting.”

Another option behind center is redshirt freshman De’Vante Cross, an explosive athlete. Cross came to UVA as a quarterback last summer but spent more time at wide receiver as spring practice progressed this year.

“We really liked what we saw from De’Vante at receiver in the spring,” Mendenhall said. “His role now will have to be multi-faceted … Is he a receiver that’s getting reps at quarterback, or is he a quarterback, in those meetings, getting reps at receiver? That’s still a work in progress, but certainly he’ll be both. I can’t tell you where home room is for him yet, where he starts his day, but there will be multiple facets there.”

That Benkert is the Cavaliers’ No. 1 quarterback is unquestioned. That was not the case last year, when Virginia’s other QBs included Matt Johns, the starter in 2015.

The situation was awkward, Benkert acknowledged Friday, but Johns helped make it work.

“As the season went on and I was named the starter, his support for me was awesome,” Benkert said. “He was behind me, he was on every single sideline, cheering and everything like that. And he was always ready to play too.

“I think the way that he handled last year and the way that he helped my transition into being the quarterback for the program says a lot about his character.”

This year, Mendenhall said, “not only does Kurt know he’s our quarterback, the team knows he’s our quarterback … You look to him, and there’s something to be said for clarity in terms of a team’s identity, when there is a single quarterback.”

Benkert missed the 2015 season at East Carolina while recovering from a torn ACL. He’s in much better physical condition now than he was last year. Benkert is leaner, and his knee is back to 100 percent. He’s also much more familiar with his teammates.

“Having time with people, this past offseason, the winter, the spring, all the extra seven-on-seven [drills the players have] been doing this summer, has allowed me to go into the season knowing who I’m throwing the ball to and knowing what they’re good at, what their strengths are,” Benkert said.

Last year, he added, “I didn’t know some of the guys’ names until week 3 or 4, especially some of the first-years … I think just being in the program a year has helped me kind of figure out who’s who and where our strengths lie on our team.”

The right-handed Benkert injured his left shoulder when he was sacked in Virginia’s third game, a 13-10 loss at UConn. That limited his effectiveness for the rest of the season, but Benkert continued to play.

“I think playing through that difficulty really kind of showed me who I was and what I could take as a player and kind of helped push me to my limits,” Benkert said Friday. “I’m really looking forward to playing and starting the season healthy and getting through it that way. It was something that was difficult, but I got through it, and I was really happy I was able to do that.”

WORK IN PROGRESS: The strength of this UVA team should be its defense. On that side of the ball, eight players return who started at least seven games apiece in 2016, led by Kiser and Blanding. Still, the loss of nose tackle Donte Wilkins left a major void in the middle of the Cavaliers’ base defense, the 3-4.

Mendenhall, also Virginia’s defensive coordinator, knows he may have to get creative this fall.

“My passion is 3-4 defense, but my stronger passion is great defense,” he said. “And so if we do not find a player that I think is capable of playing [nose tackle], then scheming around it is the exact right thing. I want results, and innovation is something I love to do as well. So as we move forward into fall camp, if I don’t see the play at that position being able to be handled by a single player, or if it can’t be platooned in [an effective] manner, then there might not be a nose. There might be another front, or varied fronts that allow us to get the result we’re after in maybe an unconventional way.”

Sophomore Juwan Moye worked with the first-team defense at nose tackle during the spring. Another possibility is sophomore Eli Hanback, who started at defensive end last year.

“I really like Donte a year ago, and, man, I wish he was back, and I would love to have him,” Mendenhall said. “But we don’t have him. And so now what and how we play, it might look different … Luckily, with the amount of experience and knowledge of style of play, there’s enough answers there to deliver in a different way if needed.”

ALL IN: Blanding, a second-team All-American as a junior last year, considered forgoing his final season of college eligibility and leaving for the NFL. He returned in part because Blanding wants to help Mendenhall revive a program that once ranked among the ACC’s best.

“I believe in the system,” Blanding said. “I trust the system. I trust the process. [So] why not go one more year and go out with a bang and increase the status of Virginia and go out with a bang?”

BUILDING BLOCK: Mendenhall’s enthusiasm was palpable when he was asked about Joe Reed, who averaged 25.1 yards per kickoff return as a true freshman last year. Reed also is a talented wide receiver who’s expected to play a prominent role in the passing game this year.

“If all first-year players that we recruit to UVA could be like Joe Reed, the acceleration of this program would be rocket-like,” Mendenhall said.

“He is a great person, a great student, and he’s a very good player. We saw him just a year ago only in kickoff return, but I think we all got to the point where if they kicked it to him, we knew likely something positive was going to happen, and he has a great work ethic and he’s so humble.”

The `Hoos plan to “use Reed all over the place,” Mendenhall said. “We might direct-snap to him. Who knows? Now that we’re clearer who our best players are, what they can do and in what context, our job now is to get them the ball in a way that they can do what they can do at the right time and the right context. Joe is good with the football.”

Blanding said: “It really doesn’t matter where you put him right now. He’s going to succeed at it.”

Reed is from Charlotte Court House, a town of approximately 460 residents located about 50 miles southeast of Lynchburg in Virginia.

“It’s different, because he grew up in the country,” Blanding said. “Sometimes he has to go home on the weekends to take care of the pigs. So his work ethic is really different than most people that I’ve come across, and he doesn’t take no for an answer. He just goes and works.”

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