By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The state of University of Virginia football was among the topics outgoing athletics director Craig Littlepage discussed at his press conference Wednesday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.
Since 2005, when they posted a 7-5 record, the Cavaliers have finished above .500 only twice: in 2007 (9-4) and 2011 (8-5). They’ve lost 13 straight games to Virginia Tech.
In December 2015, UVA hired Bronco Mendenhall, whose record in 11 seasons at BYU was 99-43, as its head coach. The Wahoos finished 2-10 last season, but Littlepage said he’s convinced football can equal the success other sports regularly enjoy at the University.
“No doubt in my mind,” Littlepage told reporters at JPJ. “I’ve said this many times: Coach Mendenhall is as creative and as bright, innovative and as hard-working as any coach in any sport that I’ve ever been around in any level. I see the trust that his staff has in him. The trust over these past two seasons is being built within that team and that locker room. He’s going to be successful.”
Littlepage and his wife, Margaret, plan to stay in Charlottesville after a new athletics director is hired at UVA. In a recent conversation with Mendenhall, Littlepage said, he told the coach, “I’m waiting for that opportunity to give you that big hug where we’re both holding a trophy.”
The Cavaliers defeated William & Mary 28-10 last weekend at Scott Stadium — their first season-opening victory since 2013. UVA hosts Indiana (0-1) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in a game ESPNU will televise.
REINFORCEMENTS: At the end of practice Thursday morning, three more players picked out their jersey numbers. Offensive tackle Jack English will wear No. 67, defensive end John Kirven No. 98, and fullback Alec Shifflett No. 49.
English, a fifth-year senior from Richmond, missed the opener while serving a one-game suspension for violating team rules. He started seven games in 2015 and 11 last year and is expected to play a significant role against the Hoosiers.
English will “have to earn his spot back,” Mendenhall said Monday, “but we anticipate that happening, just based on how he was performing prior to his suspension.”
Redshirt freshman Dillon Reinkensmeyer started in English’s place at left tackle in the opener. Redshirt sophomore RJ Proctor started at right guard, but there will be more competition at that spot, too.
Fifth-year senior Jack McDonald, who started 11 games at right guard in 2016, has arthroscopic knee surgery last month and didn’t play against W&M. He’s expected to be available against Indiana.
Brandon Pertile, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma State, started at right tackle against the Tribe. Having English and McDonald back, Pertile said Monday, is “reassuring, because they’ve been around for five years. It’s nice to have those guys back in the lineup, back around. I know English has been scouting Indiana since he found out he was going to miss the first game. His excitement level was through the roof Saturday after the win. It was inspiring.”
POSITIVE FIRST IMPRESSION: Redshirt junior Lester Coleman made his UVA debut last weekend against William & Mary. After the Cavaliers’ opening possession stalled, Coleman had a 40-yard punt.
Coleman, whose older brother, James, preceded him on the team at Virginia, averaged 43.8 yards on his four punts against the Tribe. His final kick went for 63 yards and pinned W&M back inside its 10. Another punt was ruled a touchback after a Cavalier narrowly missed downing the ball inches from the goal line.
“One of the nicest surprises [against W&M] was Lester Coleman’s punting,” Mendenhall said. “He did a really nice job.”
Asked Thursday if he was nervous before his first punt, Coleman said, “I think I thought it would be, but it all happens pretty fast. You get out there and you just take a deep breath and you’re like, `Well, let’s have fun with it.’ ”
His long-snapper, classmate Joe Spaziani, also joined the program as a walk-on in 2014. Each was awarded a scholarship before this season.
“It’s been a ton of fun for us to just be a part of the process and work hard for four years and see the field,” Coleman said.
Coleman said he was pleased with the punting operation in the opener, “but I still think there’s some things we can improve upon, in terms of location and hang time. It was a good start, but there’s still a lot more work to do.”
Crowell, a 6-0, 190-pound true freshman who enrolled at UVA in January, has football in his blood. His father, Germane Crowell Sr., starred at wide receiver for the Wahoos and finished his college career with 2,142 receiving yards. His uncle Angelo Crowell played linebacker for the `Hoos and, like Crowell Sr., went on to play in the NFL.
“I like everything about him,” Mendenhall said of the player known around the program simply as `G.’
“He’s competitive, he’s fast, he’s long, he has great ball skills. I would like as many more players like him as we can get to come to UVA.”
Crowell “will be battling for a spot as we consider the right guys to put out there, but we have confidence in him and we really like who he is,” Mendenhall said.
“What matters to me, not most, but what matters a lot to me at that position is: As a young player, does he think he can go out there and do it, and how bad does he want to? And G’s not hesitant about saying that he’s ready and wants to be out there. And at that position, that’s important, because it’s very difficult to give someone the confidence to go out there and play on the island.”
TOUGH BREAK: Harris, who played in 11 games as a true freshman in 2013, appeared in only two last year before a shoulder injury ended his season. He received a hardship waiver, and the `Hoos had high expectations for him this fall, but Harris suffered a serious wrist injury against W&M.
“It’s very tough,” senior safety Quin Blanding said. “Tim’s a very close friend of mine and he’s truly a brother. I’ve known Tim since going into high school and being at different camps with Tim. It’s a brotherhood. It’s a tough loss for us. We’re right there behind him and we’re going to keep him going and keep him strong. And he’s going to keep us strong.”
Fifth-year senior running back Daniel Hamm echoed Blanding.
“It’s incredibly sad,” Hamm said. “Just knowing Tim and who he is as a person, as a player, you want all kind of success for him. Just knowing that this has unfortunately happened, we’re just trying to keep him up, keep each other up on the team. It saddens everyone, I think, even if they don’t know him that well.”
Harris is “my brother,” Hamm said, “as close as it gets without being blood.”
Should Harris decide to apply for a sixth year of eligibility, the NCAA almost certainly would grant his request.
Harris graduated from Varina High School, where Doni Dowling, now a UVA wideout, was a class behind him. Instead of his customary No. 7, Dowling will wear No. 5 in Harris’ honor this season.
“Doni asked me [Sunday] if that would be appropriate or if he could wear that jersey, and I said I thought it would be a great idea and a nice tribute,” Mendenhall said.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: In the opener against W&M, Kurt Benkert completed 27 of 39 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions. But he came away from the game knowing his numbers could have been better.
“This week I just want to hit those open shots,” Benkert said. “I had a few that I missed that I normally don’t, but I’m looking forward to capitalizing on those opportunities this week.”
There were few surprises from offensive coordinator Robert Anae against the Tribe. And that, Benkert said, was by design.
“I think we just barely scratched the surface of what we can do, and that was the game plan going into Week 1,” Benkert said. “I think as we need things, we’ll unfold them, because we have a long season ahead of us.”
MORE MOORE: On William & Mary’s first play from scrimmage, Virginia had five defensive backs on the field, including redshirt freshman Brenton Nelson. Not long after that, however, secondary Nick Howell replaced Nelson with sophomore Chris Moore in the Cavaliers’ nickel package.
The 6-2, 210-pound Moore played extensively and finished with five tackles.
“Brenton Nelson had been really holding that spot for most of fall camp and going into game week,” Mendenhall said, but “momentum shifted a little bit late in the week and early in the game to where Chris Moore had more game experience and ended up playing well and playing well early, and so Coach Howell and I just stayed with him.”
Moore said: “I expected to play a lot, but not that much.”
As a true freshman last year, Moore played in 11 games, with one start. He finished with 14 tackles, eight of which came in the season finale against Virginia Tech.
In 2016, Moore “was just out there to play,” Blanding said. “He didn’t really know what to do. But now he’s experienced. He knows what to do, and he knows his job and his assignment very well, so he’s just going to execute it.”
As for Nelson, he’s “still in the mix and can play any of our spots — corner, nickel, or either of the two safeties — so we haven’t seen the last of him,” Mendenhall said.