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Oct. 16, 2017

Virginia Football Media Conference
Monday October 16, 2017
Bronco Mendenhall

Bronco Mendenhall: In the way of comments, I was proud of the resiliency of our team. I think we fought hard and played hard. Much like the Duke game, there were some ups and some downs, a few sideways in between.

But I think we’re gaining confidence. I think we’re gaining a sense of capacity that’s increased. I think the team is very unified. I think they’re focused. I think he want to continue to improve and work and develop and get better. They’re very coachable. They want to know what they can do better.

I think that the last two games are reflective of where our program currently is, that we will play hard, we will try hard, and we’ll execute just well enough, at least against the last two opponents, to get the victory.

I anticipate the next number of games looking similar. I think that’s just the stage that we’re in. I might be surprised and there might be a game like Boise that’s thrown in there where we break out one way or the other. But again, I just sense that’s the phase we’re working through. It’s where our current roster is, where you’re current level of execution is. It’s barely good enough, but it is good enough.

I think that our time of possession offensively helped us significantly in that game. I think their punter was an influence on the game in terms of field position. Our third down defense was exceptional, and their inability to throw the ball was very helpful on the three turnovers we created. I think in a nutshell, that was the game.

I’ll take questions.

Q. You have faced a number of spread, no-huddle, quick-paced offenses. Will BC break that mold? What kind of challenge does Dillon face?
Bronco Mendenhall: They’ve done both. They’ve actually played with some tempo. They have a mobile quarterback, but more traditional in the sets they’re aligned in. They have some 11 personnel sets, they prefer to have multiple tight ends in, if possible. Tight ends and wings, the appearance of two backs in the backfield with run and play-action, a physical run game with play and power and counter and play-action that comes off of that. They’re not afraid of tricks or gadgets when they cross the 50.

I haven’t yet been able to spend enough time to see their defense at all. All I’ve been studying so far today is their offensive side. But I think they’re a tough, physical football team. I think they played a difficult schedule so far.

Q. Fans and the media have been talking for some time about the prospects of Virginia becoming bowl eligible. If you were to win this week, obviously that would be the case. Do you mention that at all? Do you think about it at all? Is it some kind of goal for the team?
Bronco Mendenhall: Sure, the team has that goal. They’re anxious to return to postseason play, to see and feel what that’s like. That is one of the initial metrics along the way for this team. It’s not the ultimate metric. I don’t think it would be completely satisfying to the team if that’s all that happened. I think they want that and whatever they can gain in addition to that in terms of number of wins and improving our program.

We will acknowledge it. I don’t have a thing to say about it right now. Haven’t mentioned it to our team. I think they all know that. I think any additional talk about it, again, you’ve heard me say the term ‘interference’. Anything that’s not helping us play this week with our assignments and improving our technique and our intensity is just a waste of time.

I think everyone knows: Okay, now let’s get ready to play the game.

Q. It seems like reading between the lines a little bit, you cautioned us against expecting too much. Now you’re 5-1. You won four games in a row. How surprised are you by what you have been able to do?
Bronco Mendenhall: I don’t know how to gauge the surprise. I’m grateful. I feel a lot of satisfaction just because the team, they’re so much fun to be around, and they’ve worked so hard. I’m not just talking about this year, I’m talking from last January on.

It’s really fun to see them enjoy themselves in the locker room, enjoy the camaraderie of teammates, get a sense of what it’s like to play well on the road, to play well at home, to have the support of each other, the genuine friendship of each other, the culture we’re building, as the team calls it, the new standard. I think they’re claiming ownership of that.

I think they feel special and kind of a guardianship over that now. Again, I am cautionary because we’re still, again, I’m a big picture thinking, we’re at the beginning of all this, but I’m happy for the players’ start. I kind of summarized it today as in scaling Everest, there’s different base camps along the way, you assess supplies, see look at your team, see what needs they have, see who looks strong, who might need to stay behind, what your rations look like.

We’ve done statistical metrics. We’ve looked at the health of our team. We’re making roster shifts to try to add the depth necessary for kind of phase two of this journey. That’s the framework they’re hearing. They’re not really hearing anything beyond that.

Then they’re hearing it’s going to take everything we possibly have to find a way to be successful this week. That’s the best, I guess, caution or realism and brutal facts that I can present.

Q. He’s not on the depth chart, an update on Malcolm Cook?
Bronco Mendenhall: Malcolm, I came in on Sunday after attending church. He was on the underwater treadmill running, which he had a big smile on his face. When he saw me, he had a little swag run going, showing off, which was cool. Most likely I would anticipate that. I can’t speak definitively, but most likely that’s for our game following this one, not for this one, is what I would say.

Q. You intercepted nine passes all of last season. You have nine already this year. What do you attribute that to?
Bronco Mendenhall: Experience and coaching and time. Coach Howell, there’s a reason I brought him with me here. I think he’s a very, very good football coach, not only schematically, but technically. The players that he’s coaching, Juan Thornhill is a very good football player, Bryce Hall is a very good football player. The biggest surprise and story of the year is Brenton Nelson, the role he’s having, allowing us to play the kind of aggressive defense we’re playing.

Quin’s mindset is more ferocious, fierce, physical. The NFL people coming through are saying it’s the best football they’ve seen him play in his career here. Then we kind of call Chris Moore the Swiss Army knife. He kind of can do anything.

So when Tim got down, that would be scary if Tim was still healthy, but when Tim went down, Brenton Nelson and Chris Moore have allowed us and have contributed really in a very unique way to the success we’re having defensively to this point, with the coaching and the preparation that Coach Howell is giving them. That has all just started from a year ago. You’re just starting to see an accumulation of what those practice habits and that teaching looks like.

The good news is all those guys are back, plus Tim. That could be a great foundational piece of what we’re doing defensively for a while.

Q. This may be kind of along the same lines, but early last season you made the decision maybe there was too much on the plate of the defense. Where are things now in putting things back on that plate?
Bronco Mendenhall: There’s a lot on the plate. We ended up playing the second half of that game with some things that we hadn’t practiced for a while that just ended up kind of matching the way that game was going, where it was going to be kind of a run only and non-pass game. Our players adjusted to that really well after just a few small miscues that ended up allowing North Carolina to get back in the game.

But they’re handling it well. There’s concepts, we threw a lot at them in fall camp, we can really kind of pick and choose almost at any time in the game to pull something out, whether it’s been practiced or not, if they know the concept, they can apply it. They’re doing a pretty good job with that.

A much different call sheet than a year ago, and a much different capacity in terms of the aggressive nature that we can go after quarterbacks with and cover with, which really wasn’t in place a year ago.

Q. It seems fair to describe you as a metrics guy (laughter). Besides wins, what in-season metrics do you most value, and what are they showing you about this team’s progress?
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah, I value most points scored, points allowed. Really, there’s so much other noise that fills up and that talk shows can occupy hours worth. They’re all interesting, they really are. There might be, man, some thread in there that is revolutionary. Mostly we have pretty simple pillars that were foundational, points scored, points allowed. I look at that first. Then I go right to turnovers and what that margin looks like. Then I go right to field position differential. Really, between those three things, almost every game is documented pretty clearly.

Right now our turnover differential is pretty strong for where we are. Field position, not quite as strong as what I would like it to be. But the points allowed, especially, as long as that remains, we have a great chance in every game we play as long as that stays. If that stays, if that holds, our time of possession offensively contributes to that, and that means a lot of games that go right down to the end, which is a good position to be in.

Q. Evan Butts already has more than twice as many catches this year as he did all of last year. Does that reflect greater confidence in Evan from Kurt or from the coaching staff or both?
Bronco Mendenhall: It’s both. Starting from spring practice on, many of the critical situations when we were competing against each other, Kurt would find Evan, bang off an inside backer, outside backer, ball would be thrown on the opposite shoulder, he would get a subtle push-off on a DB, where he a had a size differential, catch it and fall forward. A lot of crucial first downs were going to the tight end. With each one of those there was an increase.

So trust is built with time and consistency. With time and the number of consistent plays Evan was making, not only in the off-season, but early in the season, it’s just his number is called more. It’s also called more in critical times. He always seems to catch it. He always seems to fall forward. It always sounds like another Cavalier first down (laughter).

Q. It seems like maybe the most important hire you’ve made since you came here was Coach Ruffin because that brought you Kurt Benkert. Can you talk about the acceleration of this turnaround you’re experiencing right now?
Bronco Mendenhall: I think he’s accelerated the turning around, not turnaround yet, but turning. It was a unique situation because there were experienced players and an existing starter already here with two guys I really, really liked in Matt Johns, who had done so much for our program. So that was a unique thing.

We also wanted wins and we wanted to create the competition as best we could. There was an upside to Kurt as far as the way he can make every single throw, then the possibility of having him two years, that ended up making a lot of sense to us.

So really to have in year two of our turning of the program, to have a senior quarterback, it’s really helpful stability-wise. For it to be his second year in the same system, that just helps a ton.

As we can see from other ACC games, when your quarterback goes out, your team is altered. Ours would be as well. We’re a long way away from the succession planning we need to have a stable program. So we have Kurt, but Lindell Stone is our next quarterback, and he is a true first year. So we won’t be opposed, and don’t be surprised if you don’t see another transfer quarterback or two, until we can get the staging right of graduate one while developing another while grooming a third, having that just cycle to where the consistency can take effect.

I’m so glad Kurt is with us, but we’re one play away from having a different football team, as well.

Q. It’s not often that two guys finish 1-2 in the ACC in tackles two years in a row. The fact that you never hear anybody say a bad word about Micah or Quin, the fact that they both chose to come back to be part of what your vision was, what their legacy might be, how critical has that been so far?
Bronco Mendenhall: Maybe even magnified, it’s like Kurt on the other side. They had plenty of reason not to come back. A new coach and a 2-10 season on top of very little winning football. But it matters a lot to me that they trusted me and gave me the opportunity and were willing to kind of give me a second chance, that they saw enough that this could be better, and thought it was going to be better.

I didn’t lobby much. I said what it was is what it’s going to be. I think we’ll be farther along because of the time, and history says it will. To this point, I feel good just because I think that they’re having a great experience. That’s what I wanted for them, if they did come back. I wanted them to have a great experience and possibly to do things as a team that they hadn’t been part of yet. I really hope that’s what happens.

Q. If you were in need of a 45-yard field goal, would Mejia kick it?
Bronco Mendenhall: He would. So right now, so you know the dialogue on the headset for that last game, there is some pregame assessment, the moves a few yards either way. Right now the 25 yard line and in is where we would feel comfortable from. But I’m trying to think of the series, you’ve already seen me well enough, I don’t remember the specifics very well, but we were about on the 28 or the 30, trying to decide in that context of the game. If you make the field goal, I think we would have been two scores ahead.

But that was, man, just right on the borderline, but too far to try to convert a fourth down. But I have a lot of confidence in our pooch punt, downing the ball inside whatever it would be. This was right before we turned the ball over at the end of the game I think, if I’m remembering the scenario correctly. All that dialogue was going on. We felt on that day where we currently were on that fourth down, we were trying to get the ball inside the 25 to get to field goal line because that’s where we currently feel we need to be, at least on that day. On practice days it’s been closer to the 30, even when we’re competing against each other, that it will work.

Long answer for a probably not very long question.

Q. Boston College has a couple of bruising tailbacks, especially Dillon. What is the challenge from your defense and physically getting those kids on the ground?
Bronco Mendenhall: Just that. It’s the continued nature and resiliency of playing your gap with the right mindset, the right leverage and right productivity for a long time. We have to continue to be good on third down. Even when all the tempo teams we’re playing, our ability to get off the field on third down with a very high level with our offense converting and holding onto the football, the play count that all these teams are after is stopping far short of what their ideal is. I think we played 50 something plays the last game, which for teams that want 80s or 90s, it’s hard to score enough points to beat us.

It will be a different test, but our ability to play first down especially against the run will have a lot to do with our ability to play third down. You have to have a stomach for contact in this kind of game because your gap is your gap regardless of the number of times the 240-pound back smashes in there with another body, puller. You can’t ever get tired of taking that on. That’s the kind of game Boston College likes to play.

When you commit too many or are too aggressive, a little bit too risk taking to make a stop, play-action is when they move the chains that way. That’s their identity.

Q. There’s a similar narrative about tackling Jordan Ellis. Do you see a parallel there?
Bronco Mendenhall: I think that’s a fair analogy. I think we saw that, again, not only in the Duke game, but in the North Carolina game. About the middle of the third quarter through the fourth, JE is falling forward, there’s two or three or four more yards. You get tired of hitting someone that just keeps running hard, runs low, runs physical.

Again, that’s all part of the cultural emphasis way back to January, just the beginning of what we’re trying to build here, of playing harder, longer. That also means grit and resiliency, which also means playing a team like this, having the stomach to keep throwing your body in there, even though the depth might not support that.

Q. In the last four games, there’s been two decisive wins or two that were come-from-behind. You talked previously about the mindset of the team, developing the enthusiasm on the sidelines. Seems like the players are having more fun. Is there something you can pinpoint when that switched? How important is that down this stretch?
Bronco Mendenhall: Man, I’m not sure I can pinpoint a thing or a moment, but I do know it’s very difficult to be confident without results. So even though the feeling around our program a year ago, if you were inside of it, around the building, we were enjoying it and loving being with each other. But it was more hopeful than confident.

Now that there have been some results that have gone in our favor, there’s an air of confidence and expectations that they would be disappointed if they don’t play at a certain level or have the success in terms of wins and losses.

I think just an accumulation of successes, and as many as they’ve had this early, is what’s happened.

Q. Back to the defense. In your off-season analysis, the numbers last year weren’t very good. Dramatic turnaround. Is it more simple than just the players stepping up? Did the coaches have to do some serious thinking about how to approach things?
Bronco Mendenhall: It’s been both. We spent a lot of time, and I traveled a lot. We always have a best 11 meeting of who is our best 11, then how do we utilize them. The scheme has some similarities to a year ago, but not as many as maybe what people would assume or think.

Again, the role that Brenton Nelson is playing in terms of his ability to cover a slot receiver aggressively and man-to-man on occasion has been really helpful, and he’s a very solid tackler.

We’re, in essence, playing, and having playing, without a true Sam linebacker most of this year. We planned for that. We had a plan in place as a contingency because of that knowing we had Malcolm and Chris Peace, but that’s all. There was no other player with experience left, but we had extra defensive backs. We worked really hard to have a contingency plan in place.

We’ve needed it, man, after game two. I forget how soon we started using it. That’s been very helpful. A lot of research went into that. Quite frankly, to myself and my staff, this feels normal. A year ago did not feel normal. This feels like home, at least through six games.

Q. Can you imagine getting any more out of a player than you’re getting out of Micah? Do you think there’s more he could give?
Bronco Mendenhall: I don’t think there is more he can give. If we collectively lifted him up and held onto his ankles and shook him, I don’t think any other effort or commitment comes out. If we took him and I took one end, we tried to wring him like a wet towel, I don’t think there’s another drop of commitment or leadership or passion to play UVA football. He’s giving everything he has. Man, it’s pretty fun to be with. He’s fun to be with.

Q. If I’m not mistaken, Joe Reed had a 40-yard kickoff return against Duke. It seems like more and more players from both teams, your team and the opposing team, are having trouble getting to the 25. What do you feel about that?
Bronco Mendenhall: Well, we took a significant step forward in our kick coverage. Man, it’s been a revolving door trying to find the right combination of players. So much youth on that team. That’s, again, reflective of our roster.

We’re having to try to — we’re looking at play count of starters, what their catapult numbers say, who can we put where. So that’s been keeping — Coach Howell is the lead coach on that. It’s been keeping him up at night to where teams aren’t crossing our 25.

We were feeling pretty good about our kick return after the Duke game, felt like we were gaining momentum, about right on track. But we did not play well in that phase of the game against North Carolina. Our front line blocks were poor. The number of players getting to our shield, under our wedge in the back end, our double-teams, was not positive. So the blocking really broke down.

Joe is capable, but there there simply was not place to run. That was a unit I was not happy with. I was not happy with our punt team and our punt return I thought it was average. Three of the four phases I did not like on Saturday. Again, for what we want to accomplish this year, all of those units are going to have to improve. Hopefully the kickoff team can remain consistent after some improvement.

Q. How far back in the end zone do you want Joe returning it?
Bronco Mendenhall: Joe can bring it out wherever he thinks he can get it past the 25. I like to give principal boundaries rather than exact boundaries. I think exact boundaries paint you into a corner. If he can get it past the 25, then get it past the 25, wherever he has to catch it and do that from.

Q. Some of the results this weekend kind of highlighted what an unusual year it is in the league. A lot of teams, you guys, Miami, North Carolina State, that haven’t been very good for several years, are kind of in the mix. Is it good that all these teams that have been down are rising?
Bronco Mendenhall: I think it’s good for the league, but I also don’t think it’s an accident. I think each institution, Syracuse, Miami, I would venture to say UVA, have decided that they want an improved football program, they want to be and are learning to be a serious player in the ACC, and possibly without really good football it’s hard for the athletic department to thrive because it affects all other sports.

There are two sports that are considered revenue sports. That doesn’t mean more important. It means more visibility. It also means when those succeed, man, so many things that benefit. Every other sports benefits, the community benefits, the branding of the institution benefits, especially if the head coach is aligned with an institution and values the education and the moral values. If your football program represents the school in that light, it’s just one other cool things to do in Charlottesville and the whole state. There’s nothing negative that comes out of any of that when the alignment is in place.

Those teams, I’m not saying that’s the motive for each school, but if you find a coach and a program that can do that, be the flag bearer or the standard for an institution, talk about the impact you can have, that’s what I like to think of.

So Miami currently, I think they hired a coach that made a lot of sense. I think Syracuse has hired a coach that’s made a lot of sense. Remains to be seen if Virginia has hired a coach that makes a lot of sense (laughter). I think Wake Forest has done that.

With that comes a level of credibility and confidence when football is good. There is a different view of that institution. Right or wrong, there is, especially if the morals, values and ethics are aligned with the institution, not diminished because of football, but actually enhanced through football.

Q. Did you play multiple centers on Saturday?
Bronco Mendenhall: Man, I don’t remember to be honest.

Q. Jack McDonald played some there.
Bronco Mendenhall: Yes, we did.

Q. Was there a reason?
Bronco Mendenhall: I don’t know. Sorry.

Thanks. Let’s finish on that one.

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