Oct. 18, 2017

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the home sideline at Scott Stadium, Bronco Mendenhall is the picture of concentration. Not only is Mendenhall the University of Virginia’s head football coach, he’s defensive coordinator, too, and those roles demand his total focus.

Still, he’s not unaware that when UVA’s offense is clicking, P.A. announcer Chuck Young will sound a familiar refrain: “That’s another Cavalier …. first down!”

Mendenhall, who’s in his second year at Virginia, has come to associate that phrase with tight end Evan Butts’ receptions. A 6-4, 250-pound redshirt junior from the Philadelphia area, Butts has 16 catches this season for UVA (5-1 overall, 2-0 ACC), which hosts Boston College (3-4, 1-3) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.

Of those receptions, six have gone for first downs and another one for a touchdown.

“He always seems to catch it,” Mendenhall said Monday at his weekly press conference. “He always seems to fall forward.”

Mendenhall smiled. “It always sounds like: `Another Cavalier first down!’ ”

At the other end of those passes is quarterback Kurt Benkert, the strong-armed graduate student with whom Butts continues to build strong chemistry. Benkert has confidence Butts will get open and then make the catch.

“I think it’s the product of a lot of reps, a lot of film, a lot of trust, conversations … just kind of everything that’s gone into it this offseason,” Benkert said Monday. “He’s got sure hands, he finds ways to get open, and I trust him. I think it’s a good little relationship.”

That bond was not nearly as strong last year, when Butts caught only seven passes (for 46 yards and one touchdown). But there were extenuating circumstances.

Butts, who caught 16 passes for 182 yards and three TDs as a redshirt freshman in 2015, had shoulder surgery when that season ended. A lengthy rehabilitation period followed, and “I missed the first spring under the new staff,” Butts said.

“I don’t want to make any excuses, but I was kind of behind the 8-ball.”

Benkert, meanwhile, didn’t arrive in Charlottesville until May 2016. He transferred to UVA after graduating in three-and-a-half years from East Carolina, where he missed the 2015 season while recovering from knee surgery.

“He was new last year,” Butts said of Benkert, and the same was true for virtually all of the coaching staff. Mendenhall came to UVA from BYU after the 2015 season, and most of his assistants followed him to Charlottesville, including offensive coordinator Robert Anae.

Anae also coaches the Wahoos’ inside receivers and tight ends. In 2016, the former group included Olamide Zaccheaus and Keeon Johnson, who caught 100 passes between them. But the tight ends — Butts, Richard Burney and Tanner Cowley — combined for only eight catches (for 49 yards and two TDs).

In a program that under previous staffs became known for its elite tight ends, those were stunningly low numbers. In the offseason, Butts and Benkert worked to strengthen their connection.

“We watched film together, threw routes and stuff like that,” Butts recalled. “We developed a chemistry. So I think not only was it the fact that I was healthy, with it being Kurt’s second year in the system, everybody’s more comfortable with the offense and what we’re being asked to do.

“We’re on the same page.”

Virginia is coming off a 20-14 win over North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Butts had three catches for 33 yards to help the Cavaliers end a seven-game losing streak to the Tar Heels.

One of his receptions went for a 10-yard touchdown. Another produced a 16-yard gain on third-and-17 from the UNC 26. On the next play, running back Jordan Ellis powered through the line for a 2-yard gain, and the drive ended with a 20-yard field goal by A.J. Mejia.

“Kurt placed a great ball where only I could get it,” Butts said of his 16-yard catch, “and I just made a play. It kind of comes down to backyard football, throw and catch.”

With every clutch reception by Butts, it becomes easier for the coaching staff to call his number again, Mendenhall said. “It’s also called more in critical times.”

Butts, whose parents are Temple alumni, attended the prestigious Episcopal Academy, about 15 miles west of Philadelphia. Growing up, he played a variety of sports, including baseball, basketball, lacrosse and, yes, water polo, but he focused on football in his final two years at Episcopal.

He committed to UVA during the summer before his year, turning down Boston College and Pittsburgh, among others. He’s never regretted his decision.

“I love the school,” Butts said. “I love Charlottesville. Great food here.”

He’s a die-hard fan of Philly’s professional sports teams, including the Eagles. Still, the exploits of Steelers tight end Heath Miller, a former UVA great, did not escape Butts’ notice.

“I definitely appreciated his game, and then when I found out he went here, I was like, `Wow, that’s really cool,’ ” Butts recalled.

The success of another tight end at UVA, Jake McGee, added to the school’s appeal for Butts.

“It would have been a dream to be like one of those guys,” Butts said. “I was definitely aware of the tight end culture here.”

Butts, who also starts on two special-teams units, kickoff return and PAT, is a psychology major who’s on track to graduate in May. He lives with long-snapper Joe Spaziani and wide receiver Ben Hogg, who’s recovering from season-ending knee surgery.

All three enrolled at Virginia in 2014. The Cavaliers finished 5-7 that fall, then dipped to 4-8 in 2015, after which Mike London stepped down as head coach, and to 2-10 last year.

This year has been different. At the midpoint of the season, the `Hoos are a win away from becoming bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011.

“In terms of UVA and this team, it’s definitely rewarding,” Butts said. “We’ve always worked so hard. It’s hard for fans and other people to see that, but it’s equally as frustrating to us not being able to win and bring UVA and Charlottesville football success. But so far this year — and we’re not done yet — it’s gratifying that all this work has paid off so far.”

Mendenhall acknowledged Monday that bowl-eligibility is one of his players’ goals.

“They’re anxious to return to postseason play, to see and feel what that’s like,” Mendenhall said. “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.”

Butts was part of another rebuilding project in high school. After finishing 3-7 in 2011, his sophomore year, Episcopal posted a 10-0 record in 2012. The Churchmen finished 8-3 when Butts was a senior.

The Cavaliers’ record in 2016, when they lost their final seven games, did not reflect the strides made in the team’s first year under Mendenhall, Butts said.

The groundwork for a new culture was being laid. Learning about “the buy-in, in terms of what you’re doing both on and off the field, how you carry yourself, how you handle yourself, that’s huge for a football team,” Butts said.

“In Year 1, that was a huge learning experience. From a cultural standpoint, Coach Mendenhall has a specific set of standards that he wants us to meet, and rightfully so. His standard is a championship standard, so that first year we were sort of figuring out and navigating how to fit that mold. Again, we’re not perfect. It’s still early in this whole process, but we’ve definitely come a long way and we’re definitely getting there.”

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