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Aug. 28, 2017

Virginia Football Media Conference
Monday August 28, 2017

Bronco Mendenhall
Press Conference

Bronco Mendenhall: I was just telling Jim, it feels like I’ve been here longer than one season. Lots of work has been done, and lots more to go. I’ve made comments in the past, in the recent months, that I’m both optimistic and realistic.

I am really excited about what can be accomplished here in our football program, and what I believe will be accomplished. But I’m also realistic about the amount of work and the timeframe that that might take.

We are steadily improving step by step, sometimes inch by inch, second by second, working on consistency and maturity and identity in all phases of our players’ lives to generate what will hopefully lead to a stable, high-performing football program over time.

I’m invigorated by the work. There hasn’t been an easy day, but that’s exactly why I came. I’m thankful for the players that I have, how hard they’re working. I’m anxious for them to have success, and want that more than anything. I also know that has to be earned on the field.

So there’s a lot of progress happening behind the scenes within our culture, within our identity and the direction of the program. At some point that will manifest on the field of play. When those two things come together, that will move us to a different stage of our program.

Looking forward to our opening game. And I’ll take questions.

Q. On defense, you have a number of players back who were first-time starters last season, including Chris Peace. Have you seen the improvement from that group in general that you were hoping for, and also from Chris in particular?
Bronco Mendenhall: I would say yes to both, to this point. I can’t say I’m ever sure exactly how we’re going to play until I see us play a football game. I’ve never been completely accurate, no matter what season, or even sometimes what game. That’s why you play the games. There’s always some uncertainty.

But they are more mature, the defensive group, more consistent, they are more experienced. From practice to practice, I don’t see any way ups, way downs, highs and lows, I see consistent work. The mindset is developing. The execution is developing. They are becoming a group that I really like to coach. I think the yield will show that. It will really be up to them and me as to when. It’s still going to take a lot of work.

But Chris, he’s kind of the epitome or great representation of where the group is as a whole. I think he’ll try hard. I think he’s learning how to play his position. I think he’s mastering that in the context of their schemes, what we’re calling and why. Hopefully as they continue to be really durable, really consistent, really productive as a group, that will shape an identity that will help us.

Q. You said during camp that the proof of where they are actually will ultimately show itself on the field. How much anticipation do you feel for what you’re going to see? How much do you kind of think you have an idea of what you’re going to see? What will you draw from the way the first game goes?
Bronco Mendenhall: Really hard to put a percentage on it other than, again, I’ve never known exactly how a game will play out. But I do know, and I can measure intuitively, behind the scenes just as to what I sense is progress happening. Whether the outside world will see that by how we play football week one, I’m not sure. But that won’t take away the simple successes I’ve seen behind the scenes or what I see at practice.

In terms of how you play, especially in week one, there is always surprises. No matter how much preparation, there could be personnel surprises, someone might perform as a higher level or lower level than expected. There could be depth surprises where some positions you think you’re going to be deep, an injury or two all of a sudden you’re not so deep. There possibly might be chemistry and confidence issues that you see that don’t manifest until you actually play a game, or different settings within a game.

I think that’s why game one, there’s so much anticipation and so much value, is simply because the feedback you get actually adds probably the most clear reference point that you’re starting from for that year. Up until then, until you play as many scrimmages as you do, live work against each other, I would love to say I’ve been able to determine that. We’ve played more football against each other than any camp that I’ve been a part of.

Still with that there’s question marks. We’ve just tried to eliminate as many as possible while accelerating the growth of our program.

Q. When will the backup quarterback receive his jersey number? Still going to stick to your no double numbers rule with this?
Bronco Mendenhall: So the simple answer is, I’m not one that chooses the selection order. Our team was pretty strong when the task unit leaders got together, Joe Reed, Jordan Mack, I think, because the team really liked a lot of our first-year players. Jordan Mack and Joe Reed said, No, no, no, wait a minute. A year ago we weren’t allowed to get our numbers in the first draft, which was the first week. So there’s already a tradition being developed as those first years are protecting that, where they want to ensure a player, when he’s awarded his number, is performing on and off the field in a manner that they can endorse.

So it’s coming from our team.

My guess is this upcoming Thursday is when the next jersey selection comes. I don’t think any of our kickers — well, Lester, maybe that just happened Saturday, I forgot. We had a draft again there. But next Thursday is our next chance. I don’t know what number that will be for not only our potential backup quarterback but anyone else.

Q. So no double numbers?
Bronco Mendenhall: That’s not my plan.

Q. I don’t remember you being pessimistic at this stage last year. Can you compare the way you feel now compared to last year?
Bronco Mendenhall: I think more educated is the way to say it. I have a clear reference point where our program is, what it needs to move forward, where we’re going, at what stage.

I don’t remember much about last year. I remember a few moments of the opening game. It’s like, Oh, this is who we are, this is where we are, this is how we are. That was all really valuable information. Then trying to take that knowledge and accelerate it and apply it into our program.

So I just feel more clear about where we’re starting from. It doesn’t mean that one game won’t change my mind in terms of that reference point, but I’m clearer than I was a year ago.

Q. Eli at nose tackle, how good do you feel about him, your ability to stick with the odd front?
Bronco Mendenhall: Eli has done a really nice job. I’m not sure I would say it’s a surprise because I think he played well a year ago, but he’s really done a nice job. It’s allowed us to have him there as an option to play what we normally would play at a 3-4 defense. We’re still identifying and looking to find the best 11 football players defensively to put on the football field at the same time. So defensively we are still a work in progress. But I am capable — I do believe Eli is capable of playing nose tackle at a level necessary in our traditional scheme.

Q. You had Juwan working there. He’s listed as a starter at end. What have you liked from him at that spot?
Bronco Mendenhall: He’s emerged as one of our best three D-linemen going into our opener. Rather than having two of them stacked at the same position, it seemed wise to put them all out there on the field at the same time. He’s earned that opportunity. I’ve been encouraged by how he’s playing, as well, at least against ourselves.

Q. We started the conversation talking about the youth growing up and maturing on the defensive side of things. Jordan Mack in particular, does he have the veteran feel even though it’s a new position to him?
Bronco Mendenhall: ‘Veteran’ is too strong a word, but second-year starter would be better. That stops short of being a veteran, but it’s different than being a rookie. It’s a compliment to him that we asked him to change positions because we think simply the more he can do, the more he can do.

You’ll probably see him at both positions somewhere through maybe the first game or even the season because we’re not very deep at linebacker, so we’re not hesitant to put him at either the outside backer spots at needed to get the best combination of players out there.

He hasn’t done that yet, but his training is so deep, and his knowledge of the defense is becoming so strong, we think he can do that. He can really play any of the four linebacker sports which gives us more of a true two deep there.

Q. You opened training camp in July. Your first game will be in September. What has it been like managing a training camp, a pre-season that long? Do you think there will be talk among the coaches association about reevaluating the pre-season calendar?
Bronco Mendenhall: There already has been talk amongst the coaches. The general consensus to this point, it’s premature in terms of it being adopted, but the general consensus is, we as coaches would rather have a uniform number of practices rather than a uniform start date. It seems to us that somewhere between the 25 and 21 mark are the number of practices that most of us would like.

This particular season it has been long. I acknowledge. We designed a plan to manage how long it was. If our program wasn’t at its inception in the beginning stages, I wouldn’t have been for coming in an extra week. Given all things, all things considered, I thought we needed the time. I think that we’ve managed it as well as we can with limited injuries, to try to accelerate our program.

But in the future, I think what will be happening is there will be a specific number of practices, and it will be fewer than what we’ve had in the past, especially considering student-athlete health and well-being.

Q. You have a number of young kids in the two deep. Moved some guys around. What did you see from your 2017 recruiting class and how did they make their way onto this depth chart?
Bronco Mendenhall: The ’17 class is a strong class. I tried to express that I think the wordy used was ‘foundational’. There’s very few of the 2017 class that have surprised us in terms of what we thought we were getting. We wanted good football players who were good students, good people, that are coming to help us really improve UVA’s football team and our program at-large. They haven’t disappointed. It’s really fun because, again, the players are the ones choosing when they get to select the jersey number and to see their peers, upperclassmen, recognizing that number of young guys that early, that itself is a pretty strong endorsement.

If we switch places and I was in your shoes, I would look at that as a pretty authentic endorsement that they think the younger class are good people, good players, are going to help our team.

Q. Obviously the objective this Saturday is to win a football game, but they’re still evaluating the team, figure out the depth chart. You have new guys on the offensive line. Looking at the line, how do you balance the challenge of establishing cohesion but also trying to figure out who the best 11 guys are on the field?
Bronco Mendenhall: It’s one of the reasons we came in a week early. I can’t promise there’s not going to be changes after week one. Seems like there always is, no matter how much meeting time we put in, practice time, sometimes the lenses we see things through are practice lenses. Game lenses are different.

We need consistency up front. We need consistency at the quarterback position. Those two things are really what usually drive a team and a program. I think we’re deeper at offensive line than we were a year ago. What that performance is going to look like yet, we don’t know. We’ll find out. That will really determine where we go from there.

I have been impressed with Kurt, his consistency, his conditioning, his leadership. So I really like what I’ve seen there. That combination I think you can’t separate one without the other, they go together. We’ll get an idea soon enough what that combination looks like.

Q. Looking at the offensive line, you have a sophomore in Proctor who is at top of the depth chart. What did you see from him? How did that competition go?
Bronco Mendenhall: He’s athletic. He’s been working hard. In addition, Jack McDonald has had a knee problem. Man, if you saw the size of the things they took out of his knee, it was amazing he was playing and walking with that, the injury that he had. He’s really, really tough.

As you look at how this lines up, it was kind of a combination of not only how well RJ was playing, but Jack, even with all of his experience, he’s been recovering from injury. So they’ll both play and they’ll both play a lot. Jack has already proven he’s a very good lineman and will help us.

So I think once he’s back to 100 percent, which I think he’s close to now, then that whole thing could shift again.

Q. Left tackle with Dillon [Reinkensmeyer], obviously the suspension to English. What have you seen from him that gives you confidence?
Bronco Mendenhall: Physical play, work ethic and assignment sound. Pretty fun to have another young player stepping in. But youth sometimes leads to volatility. He just seems to be consistent at managing his role in all the live work we’ve done against each other really well. But he’s a physical football player and has tried hard.

Q. Have you started many freshmen at left tackle?
Bronco Mendenhall: I have not. But I’ve done a lot of firsts here at UVA. It’s an amazing challenge, which again, it’s why I came. I like it. Doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Q. Keeping Kurt upright would be seem to be of paramount importance to you this year. Last year he showed he’s willing to be a guy who puts his head down, stick it in in places. What have you tried to instruct him on how to take care of himself so some heroic three-yard run doesn’t dramatically change the season?
Bronco Mendenhall: He’s one of the best football players on our team. We expect through his maturity, and his knowledge of the game, to manage that appropriately. So we don’t want him taking extra shots. If it’s a difference of a first round and getting an extra yard, then get the first down, that’s good enough. If it’s a first down and there’s a chance to get five more, get out of bounds, get out of bounds. We’re talking about not only being successful in each game, but we’re talking about being successful hopefully for an entire season.

Like many positions on our team, there isn’t a lot of depth. So that has to be reflected in how they play. That does not mean soft or passive, it just means smart.

The team voted on our captains last week, I believe on Friday. We have three captains that have been selected. We’ll rotate a fourth weekly through special teams. Kurt Benkert is one of our captains. Micah and Quin are the other two captains. The team voted on those three players. Again, there will be a special teams captain that will be the fourth each week, and that will be rotating based on performance.

Q. You’ve talked about the football team can be a rallying point for this city, this community, this university. This is your first chance now to get out in front of people and have them use you as time to heal, push things forward. Do you embrace that with your guys? What kind of symbolism will you have jersey-wise on Saturday?
Bronco Mendenhall: There is a Hoos Together movement that’s been initiated by the athletic department and the head coaches. A lot of us have done things already independent of each other. It wasn’t coordinated. Our team, as you know, took a picture in front of the Rotunda with our players supportive, arms linked, showing diversity and unity at the same time, which is our simple message: you can do both, and we like both.

This is a place where we think that should be emulated, I’m talking about Charlottesville. Our program wants to be an example of that. We would certainly like to be able to perform in a manner that would be admirable to show that not only can you do it, but you can get results that way also.

So we recognize the opportunity. But to say then that the more we focus on that usually means our mind is elsewhere, other than in the moment of what we really need to do.

We’ve acknowledged it. We know that’s our intent. Okay, now the tactical and the realistic part of what do we have to do day by day, minute by minute, practice by practice, play by play, that’s the only place our mind can be. Now that we’ve acknowledged it, unified around that idea, we’d love to help. Now it’s the execution of how we really help.

Q. It looks like two of your starting offensive linemen are players who didn’t play a lot elsewhere. Has that been a pleasant surprise at all, to have the two of them look like they’re going to start this game?
Bronco Mendenhall: It has. When I talk about our roster, I talk about a number of things. First is who we bring, which is really the recruitment part and the self-selection part of people choosing to be with us. That is one part of our roster development.

The second part is player development. That means players that are currently in our program. I think our human performance team under Coach Wintrich’s care is exceptional, not good, not average, but exceptional. We’ve been spinning that wheel as fast as we can, that’s player development, to elevate players’ current capabilities while we’re adding new players. Those initiatives are separate. Here is the new players being attracted and choosing UVA, but here is the player development, which is a whole other initiative, which in and of itself is exhausting.

The younger guys on the team that are stepping up, they’re products of that. I would hope that would happen yearly because really the idea as a college football coach in any organization is to continue to bring in players that are better than what you currently have, better people, better students, better everything. That’s one of the ways you continue to elevate your program.

But if the development program is going full cycle, there’s always tension and competition going because the existing players, as they’re developing and becoming better than what they were, there’s always that nice competition, a depth that’s established because of it.

This is just the early signs that that’s starting to happen.

Q. What about the two graduate transfers?
Bronco Mendenhall: Both grad transfers, man, I’m glad they’re here. We needed depth at the O-line, experience, capabilities. They might have been the two biggest impact recruits in our class because of need and necessity, just to function as a team.

Again, you’ve seen a couple young guys develop. Then we’ve added two other grad transfers which that combination is allowing us to at least get to the point where we can compete in game one.

Q. Talking did guys, they all say 15, 20, 25 pounds bigger than last year. From that physical standpoint, how much better prepared is this team?
Bronco Mendenhall: I think we’re much better prepared in relation to what I’ve seen of our league, what I know our team needs after watching us play. Sometimes I listen to the way we play rather than watch the way we play. There is a sound of physical football. There’s a sound of contact with physically prepared people, as well as mentally prepared with the intensity.

The number of times that I heard that a year ago, it was lacking. It was a wake-up call. We had spent so much time on just conditioning our players to where we could get through practice, the tempo we wanted. It is sequential. I’m not sure I would — I wouldn’t have done it the same way again because there was so much work to be done in terms of core fitness. Once that baseline has been established, we’ve been able to target more size and strength to where hopefully the game sounds and looks different than it did a year ago. That’s our intent.

Q. More like it’s supposed to sound?
Bronco Mendenhall: More like it’s supposed to sound.

Q. Chris Moore is listed behind Malcolm at one of the outside linebacker spots. Was Chris always going to grow into a linebacker or is this just a function of the lack of depth there?
Bronco Mendenhall: It’s more of a lack of depth. Chris just continued to play well wherever we put him. We had used him at both safety positions. We’d actually played him at inside linebacker one day. He just as emerged as someone that deserves our attention. Day in, day out, he seems to be making plays.

When you look now for depth, what might that look like, where can you establish it, what we play and how we play might look a little different if he’s playing. But he’s a good football player. He’s, again, earned the chance for us to notice him and try to make accommodations for him to help not only his performance but our team’s.

Q. Looking at the secondary, you have 6’3″, 6’2″, 6’3″. Seems like you are going to be playing more press, pushing up at the line. Was that a style you kind of adopted more going into this year with some of the freshmen that you’ve added?
Bronco Mendenhall: I think what any coach tries to do is look at the resources that he has and then match a style of play to what resources are there, what schemes can you use with the resources that you have.

Some of those guys, if they’re 6’3″, I’m 6’5″, just to be clear (laughter).

Q. I’ll change that on your bio.
Bronco Mendenhall: That’s good. I’m not 6’5″.

They’re all tall, but over six foot. I like size, I like speed, I like length. They all have that. Sometimes that allows you to be more aggressive. When we’re looking for defensive backs, we go out to select, I do like size, and I do like speed. If we can find that, that’s great. If not, players come in all different shapes and sizes. There are profiles that we look for, and right now that’s kind of reflective of not only what we’ve inherited but kind of the direction we’re going in the future.

Q. Do you think the height will lead to more turnovers?
Bronco Mendenhall: Man, I hope. Yeah, we didn’t get enough a year ago. We’ve been targeting it. We’ll see if that manifests.

Q. Looking at this special teams depth chart, Andrew King really could have helped you last year, couldn’t he?
Bronco Mendenhall: Thanks for bringing that up (smiling).

Q. He’s kind of come back out of nowhere. What has he shown you during the pre-season?
Bronco Mendenhall: It’s not only what he’s shown us. A.J. Mejia, as well. It’s nice to have competition. Depth breeds competition. That usually generates a higher level of performance, not always, but usually.

Between A.K. and A.J., that’s a really nice battle going on there in a supportive and healthy way. So I think it’s just nice to have depth at a kicking position, and a year ago we didn’t.

Q. At this point last year, obviously Malcolm already knew the news he wasn’t going to play. He became your specialist on the sideline. A year later, he’s going to play. What does that mean to you personally to see him out there on Saturday? From a football side, how much will he impact you and help your defense?
Bronco Mendenhall: Personally it’s very rewarding. You really couldn’t get lower than what he was mentally and spiritually. Man, his soul was damaged. To see his recovery over a year’s time to where he gets a chance to play football again, I’m excited for him to do that.

He now is the equivalent of a first-year starter. Even though he’s older, that doesn’t mean now that his performance is going to be perfect and consistent, there’s going to be this dynamic impact. Even though he’s capable of that, he’s going to need to be built over time, just like the eight first-time starters were a year ago. There are going to be plays we look at and say, Holy cow, that was a great play. Then plays where we say, Where is he going?

He is consistent and more mature. He hasn’t played much in a starting role. To expect that to be like a fifth-year that had maybe started four, I don’t think that would be fair. But I’m glad he’s playing and he’s going to help us.

Thanks, everybody.

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