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Oct. 23, 2017

Virginia Football Media Conference
Monday October 23, 2017
Bronco Mendenhall

Bronco Mendenhall: After watching the film and spending a long weekend assessing our play, a few comments. First of all, again, I think our opponent did a really nice job on that particular day, but we absolutely contributed. Three giant plays against our defense in the first half really changed the game. There was a long run that went around us, there was a flea flicker that went over us, and a screen in empty field that split us. So uncharacteristically those three plays let to a point differential that really was a unique position for our team to be in.

Offensively we never really did establish or find the rhythm necessary in recovering to that. We had given up the points so quickly that really the game management changed and really the whole flow of the game became different, and we didn’t recover.

In contribution to the mistakes that were made, again, as most teams across the country right now, we had a number of players that practiced only one day or a partial day of the week, and a lot of those players were the ones contributing to some of the mistakes that we had. And so the team and the roster is not deep enough yet to have partial weeks of practice and then play really sharp. As the opponents get better and better and the margin for error thins, that manifests, the combination of those things showed up.

Our punting game was very strong. Our 1st and 2nd down defense was very strong, which was almost the entire focus of last week, believing if we could get them to 3rd down we’d have a great chance for success. Did, but we didn’t focus much on 3rd down because I kind of believed that part was already set and we were playing well, which just shows every part of the plan needs attention.

So we didn’t play particularly well on 3rd down, so that’s my assessment of the game, and after already seeing Pitt, ACC teams are good. They’re well-coached. They have good talent. They’ve played a strong schedule, much like BC had, so I see a lot of similarities between the two teams. I think they’re physical, I think they’re well-coached, I think they’re fast, and again, they’ve had a tough schedule to begin with, but I was really impressed with their game against Duke last week.

Q. Lester has had a few punts he’d probably like to have back, but for the most part he’s been very effective this season. Did you see this coming at all coming into this calendar year?
Bronco Mendenhall: I really didn’t. We awarded Lester a scholarship right after fall camp that he had earned, but based on earning the starting job and how he was punting, but he’s exceeding expectations to this point. We thought he would be solid and capable. We didn’t know that he’d be capable of the kind of things that he’s doing, and doing it consistently.

Q. I see Malcolm Cook back on the depth chart. Is that continuing the good news from last week or is that hopeful?
Bronco Mendenhall: That’s hopeful. Based on all the information I’ve been given, Jim came and asked me and I said, yeah, it looks like that’s going to happen. He’s yet to practice with us, so that’s supposed to happen tomorrow. Really from there, I’ll be able to give you a more accurate assessment. He’ll know and I’ll know both whether it’s going to be this week or not.

Q. You’ve talked about the leadership and some of the people that are voices on this team; in keeping things in line when things were going well, how did you see that group handle what happened on Saturday?
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah, there was a powerful message. So I waited for all the players to come off the field before I closed the door and went in the locker room, and when I closed the door, Quin Blanding already had the entire team called up and he was addressing them. I walked up into the circle, and Quin’s message continued. I didn’t have to say a thing. Quin said it best and said it more appropriately than I could, and he claimed ownership of not only the outcome but setting direction and going forward, which is pretty impressive.

What he said and how he said it I think was authentic. It was real and effective. The team is certainly disappointed, but they also understand how much they contributed to the outcome. This wasn’t an outcome that was imposed on them, this was something that through our preparation we certainly could have played at a higher level and didn’t, and we were all accountable for that, players and coaches, and that was all — he was certainly claiming the players’ part of that.

Q. Was it something you saw coming during the week?
Bronco Mendenhall: No. I was really surprised. We had a strong week of practice from an effort and intensity and confidence standpoint. One thing that I did see that contributed in hindsight, and now just to speak openly about it, is the anticipated outcome of none of these players had been to a bowl game before, and the rumblings were — I never addressed it and took it head-on because my intent is just to keep us right here, but I started to hear and feel and whisper, hear some whisperings around the edges as to this is what’s going to happen and what’s that going to be like. That took a little bit, I think, of the focus off of exactly what this needs to be. Our team needs every ounce of energy, every bit of concentration and every bit of preparation we can do to be on the field at the end of the game with a possible chance to win, and that’s playing complementary football. That’s the offense, defense, special teams and our foresight of the ball all being completely dialed into that. That’s when we have a chance. If any of that comes off just a little bit, that lessens our chances.

I saw enough of it in hindsight to say there’s probably some effect, but I still thought the practices were strong enough that we would play well.

What I underestimated is the impact in assessing where some of our players through six games or so, what they had — the experience that they’d gained, I thought that would hold at a higher level, but I guess the different opponent and the different style, it didn’t hold, and so when they were called on to play, they were substandard, and they hurt us.

Q. You mentioned the fact a lot of these guys haven’t played in a bowl game and one win away from doing that. How do you change the message or manage it from being the pressure of getting to a bowl game to more about bouncing back?
Bronco Mendenhall: I don’t think it’s really either one of those things. My message has been consistent and will remain consistent. There is no space in this program with what we — with all the work we have to do, there’s no space for anything other than Pitt. There’s no other space. And the minute anything else is considered, talked about or even acknowledged, that lessens our chance to reach whatever goals we have.

That’s been my constant message, and the team is still relatively young, and the start they’ve had, I think there’s a lot of folks in the community that were anxious, as well, and so my job is to continue to bring that back to — every spare thought or spare moment that’s thinking about something else other than their play versus our next opponent is actually working against us, not for us.

Q. Did you sense any pressure from the players about that?
Bronco Mendenhall: I didn’t, uh-uh.

Q. You talked about the big plays early. One of them was that play after the clock expired. I asked you about it the other day. What do you think of that rule? Obviously they went by the rule, but what do you think of the rule?
Bronco Mendenhall: Not much at this point (laughter). Hadn’t paid much attention until then, but yeah, it doesn’t take many of those, I don’t know, stressful moments or felt needs when it works against you that you realize, hey, why is that a rule.

Q. He has not played much from scrimmage, but Lamont Atkins had a couple nice special teams plays. How do you impress upon young players in particular that special teams can be a way to carve out a niche maybe until their opportunity arises?
Bronco Mendenhall: Well, it’s the only way, meaning that we won’t consider a player offensively or defensively unless they’re a starter on a special team. It’s right in alignment with all of our guiding principles, and getting on one is one thing, actually playing well and making plays is something else. So when a player actually earns a chance to start on a special team, but then secondly starts to make plays, then it’s, okay, now what else can he do. Until then, there’s not much additional attention given.

But once there’s a play or two made like what happened on Saturday, then it’s maybe he’s ready for more of a role.

Q. How has he been progressing in general?
Bronco Mendenhall: Just probably as this meeting is going, we haven’t really talked much about him, and now we just talked about him. So now after seven games, he’s now talk-about-able.

Q. How do you spell that?
Bronco Mendenhall: I don’t know. (Laughter.)

Q. You mentioned earlier some similarities between BC and Pitt; for the second consecutive week you’re facing a running back who went for two plus the previous game. Is there a similarity there on offense and how they like to approach things?
Bronco Mendenhall: There is, and it’s actually good timing because we’re coming off an opponent that uses some bigger personnel sets, and now Pitt uses some bigger personnel sets, and there’s different motions and shifts and different things like that, a lot which we saw a week ago. So after not having really seen any of those sets until last week, it’s nice now to have a foundational approach to be able to build off of for this week. I really think their running back is a good player. I’ve spent all day watching him to this point, and I think he’s really capable and has great vision and runs for power and speed. Their game against Duke, interestingly enough, there were two giant plays, 70-ish or 80 yards on both of them, where one player at the wrong place ended up changing the course of the game for Pitt, and the running back is — I think he’s very good.

Q. Last season you had kind of offensive explosions against Central Michigan, Duke and Pitt in a row. This year it was Boise State and UConn. Last year it tailed off, it’s starting to tail off again. Did you learn anything from last year to kind of get the offense back on track?
Bronco Mendenhall: You know, I think a lot of it has to do with our experience, Kurt’s health and strength of opponent, and so what we learned is as the teams get better and better that we play later in the year, it’s a combination of all those things. So keeping our quarterback — we pulled him I don’t know where in the game, end of the third quarter, early fourth. He’s starting to take some hits, and he’s starting to have some wear and tear, and he doesn’t play, nor do most quarterbacks play as well when they get banged up. And so his health versus strength of opponent and our experience is all coming together, but really where our program is at a point where this isn’t one-dimensional, meaning that we can win a football game with one side taking over or the other side. The offense and defense have to have good days, and then special teams, as well. That gets us to the end where we can sack a quarterback to stop a drive or maybe get a 1st down. That is our current state of development.

Kurt has to do his part. Our offense has to do their part. Defense, the big plays and the point production has to stay down, how it’s been most of the year, and special teams has to continue to kick and cover the ball well. When we do all that, we have a good chance, or we have a chance. Without that, we’re not to that point yet.

Q. Forgive me for not remembering when Juan Thornhill went down, but how much does that show how valuable he is?
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah, not only Juan went down, Brenton Nelson went down, and then toward the end, Bryce Hall and then Quin. But it was kind of in that order. So there’s one thing, we’ve worked hard through seven weeks to establish a style of play to maximize what our existing players can do, and you have to travel that road pretty far, and then if one of the key elements within that goes out or isn’t playing to capabilities, again, we’ve innovated so far and are so specific to where that causes a lot of in-game adjustment, and Juan is a huge part of that. So it took us — I’m not sure we ever did recover, but it took us a lot to try to figure out how to recover from that.

Q. You mentioned the big plays BC hit on. Obviously Carolina hit on a couple, too.
Bronco Mendenhall: They did.

Q. Do you notice similarities when you look at those plays?
Bronco Mendenhall: Not yet. Not yet. Just the margin for error. On three of the plays, three of the five, we’ve had unblocked players at the point of attack, and so again, after having kept points down almost the entire year and playing really well, as it goes on, again, with the roster development and also with fatigue and/or concentration and with different styles of offense, it just shows that that is the margin for error, and an unblocked play is really as good as you can design anything defensively, but really great defenses beat blocks and make tackles, and that’s my expectation. So three of the five have been unblocked players. So that’s more of just a performance standpoint.

Anything that schematically if they have more guys at the point of attack than us, that’s obviously a coaching issue.

Q. As it relates to De’Vante Cross, he’s been thrown into some spots, obviously going both directions. What have you seen from him from a development perspective and even from an attitude perspective being asked to do all these different things?
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah, he played three positions Saturday; he played quarterback, receiver, and in the secondary. He’s athletic and he’s competitive, so we’re either doing him a service or a disservice right now. We’re using him in every way possible because he’s giving us depth that we don’t have at each of those positions. But by playing as many positions as he is, it’s hard for him to be fully developed at any of them.

So it’s moving a little bit more to week to week which of the three needs him the most, and that kind of is his home room for that week. We’re assessing that right now going into this game.

Q. I apologize if you’ve addressed this already, but what was kind of your assessment of the offensive line play on Saturday and maybe how much was BC disruptive, maybe how much did Kurt hold on to the ball too long?
Bronco Mendenhall: I think all the things that contributed is the big plays we gave up defensively right from the beginning made us more one-dimensional, which means more pass-oriented, which then means more pass defense, which also means more aggressive front charges where they don’t have to play the run as much. A combination of protection, holding for a while, and then sometimes not holding enough, and then that affected Kurt. So it was a combination. But all those things, again, that’s not our ideal script to play from, again, giving up the points we did in the first quarter or first quarter and a half then shifted the whole narrative, which then affected how we protected and how we threw the ball.

Q. It seemed like last year you mentioned Kurt being banged up. When he was banged up last year and when the offensive line wasn’t really up to snuff, he kind of got happy feet I guess as the season went along.
Bronco Mendenhall: Yep.

Q. Kind of looked like that a little bit Saturday. What do you do to kind of bring him back to where he was so that doesn’t become the trend for the rest of the year?
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah, I agree, and I think it’s a fair assessment. Our approach, again, where we’re currently are, complementary football is everything. We have to do the best we can to control the narrative and not be as reactionary, and that’s both sides working together and the special teams part. Really Lester did his job in terms of field position on where they had to start from. But again, if we were able to concentrate and play better on the three big plays in the first half, the way they have to defend us becomes different, and then Kurt’s development just keeps rolling at a different level.

Once the narrative switched, we’re currently not at a place where the workload can shift just to the O-line and the quarterback and now we’re going to just throw our way back to victory. That’s beyond where we currently are.

Q. Obviously a lot of thought went into the decision to play Lindell Stone on Saturday. Does he run the scout team, or is there somebody else? Has Matthew Merrick showed you anything in practice?
Bronco Mendenhall: They split time, so if let’s say there were two victory team periods, Lindell will run one of them, and then he’ll go over and spend the rest of the time with our offense, and then Merrick will run the second one. Merrick is doing a great job. They both are. There’s a difference between that setting and, as we saw, being in the game. But really as much as we wanted to redshirt Lindell, managing the rest of the season and trying to keep Kurt as healthy as possible, tough call, but that’s what we chose to do.

Q. You had an opportunity over the weekend to spend some time with Carla Williams who’s coming here from a school with a very successful football program. What was your first impression?
Bronco Mendenhall: Well, I was really impressed with Carla as a person, not only from a professional standpoint and all the things she’s done preparation-wise and things on the resume that have helped her build her career to this point, but I was very impressed with the communication skills. I think the core principles in which she operates from, and the successes that she’s had. I’m really encouraged. I had also a chance to talk, and Carla said because she supervised Mark Richt, so I had a chance to talk with Mark at Carla’s request, and he also was just really favorable about the kind of person but also the kind of professional and the insight and vision and results that she’s able to get. Not only was I impressed but everything that I’ve heard, and I wouldn’t have reached out to anyone unless she asked me to, and it just has been glowing endorsements, and I’m really excited for the chance to build an exceptional football program, and I think with her experience at the University of Georgia and within that league, there’s some really nice points of reference that I think will be helpful, and so I’m looking forward to partnering with her, and I think it’s an exciting time for UVA.

Q. How would you assess the season Andrew Brown has had?
Bronco Mendenhall: It probably depends what metric. I think probably the best thing I can say is what I tell the professional people when they come in is he’s becoming a complete football player. He’s gone from a player that hasn’t played much, and that was prior to myself and my staff arriving, to learning how to play pass defense in terms of pass rushing, and that’s really what he only wanted to do a year ago and really all he could be trusted to do, to now he’s becoming not only an every-down player, but he’s becoming an every-down player and then a nickel pass rusher, and then playing a position for us that we played Bronson Kaufusi, which required some coverage, as well. That development, it might not sound like much, but that development in that amount of time is not only average or good, it’s pretty remarkable. So I’m really excited about him, and I think he’s doing a very good job for us.

Q. Last week you said you weren’t pleased with some of the special teams units. Were you more pleased this weekend?
Bronco Mendenhall: I was. Punt especially, obviously not just because how we punted the football, but I liked our coverage at a higher level. I think that our kick cover for two weeks in a row is becoming consistent, which the field position and the yardage given up wasn’t quite as good, but the execution of our scheme was better, so I liked that part.

Kick return I think for two weeks in a row has not been what I hoped it would be or could be, and so still needs some work that way. And I think punt return was kind of just what we have is a really consistent punt catcher who gets positive yards, but it’s yet to make a difference in separating us or in terms of being a huge advantage of field position swings. But again, it has to start with catching the punt and then getting positive yards, so from that standpoint, I’m very happy with it. There is another step, and that’s, okay, now what else. But until then, I’m comfortable there.

Q. Micah said after the game that he thought maybe some of the guys had gotten too high and were not as humble as they needed to be. Kind of what’s your read on how — I know you haven’t spent a ton of time with them since, but what’s your read on how they’re responding to not only the loss but the way you lost, which I think Micah seemed to think was better that you lost that way than a close game because I guess he felt like it showed that you guys weren’t ready. What’s your read on how they’re responding to that?
Bronco Mendenhall: Well, I think that it’s the next lesson. It doesn’t mean I wanted to go through it and it doesn’t mean I chose to prepare the team to go through it, but if indeed they were looking or anticipating or expecting to get win No. 6 and that took anything off their focus, that’s a valuable lesson. That was basically my point I shared in the team meeting today, and I addressed this before you came in. But again, any thought, any minute, any moment, any conversation that’s not happening about today’s practice, our focus, our assignments, our performance actually eliminates the chance for us to have success that week. That’s not where the program is.

However, if we’re completely focused and execute our plan on all sides, that gets us a chance to be right in it there at the end, and that played out exactly — I think it played to that point this past Saturday. It also lets everyone know that the ability to stay durable and consistent from game 1 to game 12, that’s a big thing, and as players start to get banged up and beat up both mentally and physically, that resiliency to be durable and consistent, not only on Saturday but what last week showed is you cannot be consistent Saturday if you’re not consistent on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. That’s where all players are in our team, from defensive back to quarterback to O-line to D-line, and any day off or any period off, even though they might be hurt, that does affect their performance on Saturday. We’re not far enough along yet for that not to, and so that played into it, as well.

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