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Oct. 30, 2017

Monday October 30, 2017
Virginia Football Media Conference
Bronco Mendenhall

Bronco Mendenhall: Option week. Already four minutes behind schedule. Looking to rectify that as fast as possible. I thought I’d address just what I saw after watching the film, after being with my team, and kind of just looking now through, what, eight games is where we are.

The reality of where we currently are is the Boston College loss was I think a surprise in the way the game played out. I think it hurt our team more than what I anticipated. I thought our team played sluggish and uninspired after watching it. We were right by assignment a lot of the time on Saturday, but not right by mindset and edge and emotion and passion. There were some lingering effects as I see it on film, met with my team. I didn’t see it in practice during the week as much.

Sometimes it’s harder in practice because it’s more workmanlike, but I did see it on Saturday. I think there’s a resetting going on. I’m not going to say ‘reset’ because I don’t know yet if it’s reset. I think there is a resetting and a team that has had some early success is now redefining themselves against different opponents and now reframing what this game will look like as far as moving forward.

There’s a lot of different back stories going on, which I think have just created what I call, again, interference, what if this, what if that, we need this one, that one, what could this mean, rather than just the day-to-day grind of week number nine in college football.

I’m not presenting any of that as excuses. I’m just saying matter of factly now that I’ve seen it, now that I’ve been with my team, looking for the best way to approach, I think that has had something to do with it.

I look forward to, man, this game, this challenge. I’m always excited to take on really challenging things. All of these contexts and stories kind of are coming together as this team is shaping for the next what I’m calling last third of the season. Two-thirds are done, and a significant test starts the last third, which is not only mental but also physical. Again, I think there’s a reset that is happening. I’m encouraging and pushing for. How fast we get that done, we’ll all see I think at the same time.

Q. The phrase you probably hear most when Georgia Tech is next on the schedule is ‘assignment football’. How is that different from what the defense must do against an opponent with a more conventional offense?
Bronco Mendenhall: It’s really not that much different. My issue right now with our team but also the defense individually, assignments aren’t much of an issue to me right now as mindset and how they’re going about with what passion and with what concentration and with what intent. The assignments are certainly a huge part of playing football, no matter what the scheme is.

The exceptional teams, though, there is an air and swagger and confidence and optimism and belief that comes with repeated success. That needs to be in place versus option teams as well, because at any time, as we saw last year, man, the control of the game was really in our favor the majority, but one player off here or there, seen it a couple times this year, the play can go a long ways. About the third or fourth or fifth play against Clemson, there was one that that happened. So it can happen against anybody.

Q. It seems like this team has several times presented you with challenges like you’re talking about mindset-wise that you probably never dealt with at BYU. How much does that maybe take away from your film study? You have all these books in your office you might consult on how to help expedite the change you need to see.
Bronco Mendenhall: It’s just all part of exactly where our program is and this team is. Handling some success and also handling setbacks is with higher expectations of themselves and a different level of optimism. I think that’s making some of the downward thing more vibrant and alive than when you know you’re going to win the next one. You’re just expected to get back on track.

What I’m learning now, and I sensed it as I watched the team come in today in their body language, we’re working through it, but it’s not worked through is where I would describe this.

I love the challenge, but some of these roots are deeper than what I’ve experienced before, which just — it will make it — I think I’ll have more gratitude and be gratified more when we overcome it.

Q. Obviously you know who your team leaders are. It sounds like some of those guys have been pretty outspoken about telling the rest of the guys to get it together. Do you ever pull those guys aside, have a meeting in your office with them, Whatever you’re doing, I need you to do more?
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah, I rarely do that with team leaders. I have a pretty simple philosophy. The more meetings you have, the more it signals that any program or any team is malfunctioning. To me, the matter is pretty clear for any of us. When you have a significant setback, the ‘more’ is, my wife will say, Snap out of it. The more you can snap out of it and get back to work with the right mindset, the better chance you have to get out of your current predicament. That really is where we are.

So the urgency, what I’m trying to do is expedite that. The leaders will be the ones that determine the pace of that. They really will be. I’m trying to inspire and motivate and teach and prepare schematically all at the same time, which is a great thing. I mean, I love my guys. I really do. I would love to see them happy. But I’m also seeing them right now struggle with this mindset of recovery and resiliency and optimism and belief.

The best way to handle that is to prepare in such a manner where you have the best chance for success. So for this team, and for the program, from year one to year two, it’s a different place currently with a new set of challenges. I’m not taking that as a negative.

Q. We saw Jack English get carted off the other day, not on the depth chart. Do you have an update on his status?
Bronco Mendenhall: I don’t. Other than if he’s not on the depth chart — I came in yesterday. After church I come into the training room and make an appearance, see all the guys, see how they’re doing. I didn’t get whether he’s in or out at that point. From what it looked like on Sunday, it doesn’t surprise me that he wasn’t listed.

Q. What was Jack’s injury?
Bronco Mendenhall: That’s a great question. What I know about it is a kneecap I think subluxed, came out, went back in, is what I think was the injury. There was an MRI I believe that was happening last night. I don’t know the results of that.

MODERATOR. It’s today.
Bronco Mendenhall: Okay, today.

Q. When you talk about Georgia Tech, whether you call it cut block, chop block, what is the key to teaching your defensive linemen how important are hands, what do you teach them basically different?
Bronco Mendenhall: There’s an individual focus every day on playing low blocks. Low blocks are still legal in college football. What’s not legal is what’s called the chop block, which means the one player is engaged with the defender, then another player engages at the same time low. There’s a high and low at the same time.

The officials, they’re in a position where I don’t think they can be right. The minute a high block leaves and a low one takes over, man, there’s split seconds in there. I think based on what crew you get, they could call it very frequently or they could not call it.

Matter of factly, it happens. When you play on option team, we tell our players that you can’t whine or complain or be all drama about it. This is what’s going to happen between the tackles. We then teach the technical part well enough to keep them playing really hard. As soon as they focus on those things or possibly getting hurt, they’re not effective.

Q. Until I just looked it up, I didn’t realize how similar Saturday’s game was to the Indiana game earlier in the season. Both games, 17-point margin. In both games you out-gained your opponent by I think six against Indiana and four on Saturday. In boat games you were hurt by punt returns. Talk about your kick coverage. Is that one of those things where it’s hard to decide between putting veterans out there and newcomers.
Bronco Mendenhall: I’m glad you brought it up. It really bothered me. We had given up a return a year ago versus Pitt and spent a disproportionate amount of time this week, had I think our best players on the field. The initial kick coverage pattern was where the ball was to be kicked. It wasn’t kicked there. By the way, Lester is doing a really nice job. So that can’t be lost in this.

Anyway, that particular kick just didn’t land right. So Micah had the first shot and laid out. You can’t stretch out any more. Took a swipe with a leg and missed. If you just went basically along the lines of our best players on our team, they all had kind of a diving swipe with Quin having the last shot on the two yard line. You can’t stretch any more.

Our margin for error on that kick, it just happened to be maybe one yard more than what our pattern could cover off target. It’s pretty reflective of just where we are right now program-wise. Those are some of the margins for error. Working as hard as we can to expedite that process and make it faster.

But I did think we tried hard. Unlike the Indiana game where we looked really slow by the time that one hit, we were playing fast and we were playing aggressive on that particular play. Their player just made a better play on probably five guys that had a chance. Not a great chance, but a chance to make a play on them.

It did hurt. When you consider points allowed, man, and momentum, those things, they hurt.

Q. I think Jake Fieler has played every offensive line position over the course of his career. If he is the center going forward, what is your level of confidence in him in that role?
Bronco Mendenhall: High level of confidence. Jake, it seems like no matter what configuration we put out there, he has to be part of it there. When you count the best five, it’s Fieler, who else? It hasn’t been like that each week in terms of him being the first name. But really as the season has gone on, he’s the first name.

As you know, team’s chemestries, individual bumps, bruises, mindset, all those things can kind of morph and change throughout the year. He’s consistent, tough, productive, and has been the whole season.

You could see, again, we are already know about English, but when you get to week number nine, there could be other changes still in that unit. So that’s something just to stay tuned for.

Q. During the TV broadcast, the analyst said Virginia doesn’t attack the middle of the field very much. He asked a rhetorical question. He said, Why? I thought I’d ask.
Bronco Mendenhall: Offensively you mean?

Q. Offensively. Is there reasons behind that?
Bronco Mendenhall: Well, I think we’re attacking it maybe more so than sometimes what the entertainment world would acknowledge and what tactics sometimes would say. The number of shots we take downfield is usually, man, heightened when we catch it, then we attack the middle really well, and when we don’t, we don’t attack the field very much. The outcome is having a lot to do with it. The past three or four games, we haven’t connected, so we’re not scoring enough. That’s just kind of a brutal fact. We’re not scoring enough collectively as an offensive unit, and we’re not connecting downfield enough to influence the scoring.

If that’s what their intent made by their comment, then they’re right. But we’ll attack wherever the options are for us to be open. But currently our point production is below expectations and our downfield connections are below expectations. Both those things need to change as fast as they can.

Q. We talked about this a little bit after the game, but Juan Thornhill, his absence, do you change some of your coverages?
Bronco Mendenhall: Oh, yeah. I mean, we’re changing as much as we can every week to adapt, without completely reconfiguring schematics, but changing enough to compensate to highlight the best 11 players that are currently available.

There was an early fade that was caught, first series maybe, De’Vante Cross. They had a touchdown going in on our left. Joey Blount had a great chance. Joey is a real good tackler. In the coverage, missed the tackle. Of the play went onto score. Those are two things that come to me, besides special teams pool.

Again, every team is going through something like that. One of those was a man coverage, one was a zone coverage. Again, working to best accommodate and help whoever is out there have success.

Q. Thornhill, does he look…
Bronco Mendenhall: I don’t know.

Q. Malcolm Cook?
Bronco Mendenhall: Reentering. Inconsistent, but capable. I forget how many weeks he was out, five maybe. It looked like that. So he’s capable, but just not as consistent as he was prior to being hurt.

Q. This is true of probably every team, but it seems especially true of this team. Not to put it all on him, as Kurt goes, you guys go. There the three games you’ve lost, he’s been not very good. Two games you won, he was not very good for a while. Is that perfect natural or is there something more to that?
Bronco Mendenhall: I think it’s just matter of fact. Most quarterbacks and most coaches, they’re a huge responsibility that comes with the position, and it’s tied to outcome. That just is the way it is.

What we do know as a team is we have to play complementary football. In six of our eight games, the defensive yield in terms of points, I’m comfortable enough. I’m not talking about with interceptions or punt returns. It’s probably close enough to have one more win. Offensively, we’re probably one or two games off of that.

If there’s games like that where a quarterback and/or our offense isn’t having the kind of connection, chemistry, confidence and performance we need, that has to be compensated for. Man, if you had a special teams play in there, interception for yardage or something like that, that makes it more difficult.

When we don’t play well, that’s kind of seems to be what’s happening. When Kurt is capable and on and confident, man, I really like him. Like any player, when he’s off, the visibility of that spot is apparent to everybody.

Then there becomes a test of mental resiliency, with that knowledge, the impact it’s having, can your self-concept and leadership still be maintained. That happens at any age. We’re working on that. I think any team does that with any quarterback.

I’m glad he’s with us. I think he’s a very good player. We’ve seen his successes and his struggles. He knows that.

Q. Whether he’s on or off throwing the ball, was he more comfortable back there this week than last? How would you assess how his struggles have affected his ability to lead?
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah, I think it does affect. Many people in any position, you want to lead by example, you want to lead from the front, meaning you’re capable of being out front. That means usually that you’re performing at a high enough level to be out front.

The quarterback position you’re going to be out front no matter how you’re performing. Again, it just comes with the position. Same with coaching.

In terms of the impact and leading, man, how you handle setbacks is really important in your leadership role. You can have a rough game. A good example of that would be Quin versus Boston College. There were three significant, big plays, which doesn’t happen much against our defense, and he had a hand in all of those. By the time I got in the locker room, he already had the team called up, was basically giving my speech at the end. He was looking to address it, take it on, own it as fast as he could. Those are the lessons in leadership I’m trying to promote with all the young guys in my program before they go on into life. He’s doing that at a high level, he’s not shirking it, but he’s owning it.

Q. Did he look more comfortable back there?
Bronco Mendenhall: I think he did. I think his comfort level is his — it probably was higher than the level of protection he got as the game went on. So I was proud of him for that. The week before, I couldn’t say that. This one, he was poised and he was standing in. A lot of times at the end, as the game went on, the pocket wasn’t stand-inable.

Q. Obviously winning games is more important than setting records. When you look at what Quin has dealt with over his career in terms of wins and losses, does it make you any happier to know he’ll leave with this record?
Bronco Mendenhall: I want him to leave with everything he wants, for the team and the program, and for himself. I don’t take lightly his choice to come back, nor Micah’s. The greatest thing for me is when I see those guys happy. I love seeing them feel good about their team, and success. When they have individual accomplishment, those two, that feeling, that look, their presence, is different than when the team has success.

I want them to accomplish whatever they have individually, but I see them happiest when the team does well. I’d like to see that again this season. I think that’s what they would want, as well.

Q. John said Kurt has a shoulder issue bugging him. Kurt is not going to come out and say that. For you guys, where is his health?
Bronco Mendenhall: He’s a quarterback that’s taken a lot of hits, mentally and physically, going into game nine. That’s the best way I could put that.

Q. I asked you about the triple option. In practice, how physically can you simulate that without putting a roster at risk this week?
Bronco Mendenhall: Therein lies the question of accelerating a team’s growth and progress as the season goes on, knowing that you cannot simulate this without risk.

I haven’t decided yet how we’re going to handle that for this week.

Q. How much does Georgia Tech tinker with what they do offensively game to game, year to year? You have guys on this defense who are familiar with that offense by now.
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah, they tinker probably as much as we tinker. There’s a starting place, then there’s wrinkles of the week or wrinkles against an opponent that you have history with. We have history with Georgia Tech, having played them twice at Brigham Young and I think ’12 or ’13, ’13 or ’14, then once last year. Their core approach kind of starts this way. Each year there’s a number of things that happen off of that. That has to happen for us, as well, in order to stay ahead and add some intrigue and unpredictability, a critical stop or two or three. Without that, I think both staffs are too skilled in planning to not do that.

Q. Last year was the first year anybody had played in your system against that offense. How much does it help having so many players that played last year?
Bronco Mendenhall: It accelerates and goes back to the question here. Hopefully that allows us to practice in a way where we can be building momentum and health into the game rather than trying to play a game every day to say what it’s going to be like in our system. Still got to weigh that.

Every game this year has helped to have all those guys back. We’ve been able to do more. We’ve been able to do it more effectively, and with strong consistency, not perfect consistency. So I think probably the same gains that have been made in the regular weeks should be seen in this one, as well.

Q. Have you spent any time prior to this week working on the triple option? Will you change things in practice?
Bronco Mendenhall: Practice is always different. This week, it almost is like two separate teams practicing. There’s always offense, defense division, but we always have some crossover that happens as well. There’s no time for that during a week like this.

Our plan is usually set every summer for an option team because there’s not enough time during a regular week to get that done. So most teams do that. You target specific opponents. That happens before you ever get to game week.

Q. Will you have specific guys, scout team quarterback?
Bronco Mendenhall: Still deciding. That’s a huge decision as to who plays the quarterback position. We have a couple candidates there that we’re still choosing between, having a dialogue about. But, man, in fact, my previous program we recruited an option quarterback every year just for the sake of that. It was, in my opinion, well worth it.

Q. What do you think of their quarterback?
Bronco Mendenhall: I like him. He’s dynamic. The best player on the field on a Georgia Tech offense is their quarterback. He’s the best athlete. He’s the best leader. He’s the most dynamic player. He’s the most capable. Usually the fiercest competitor. I really like him. I think he’s very good.

Again, as most quarterbacks go, their teams go. It’s no different with the option. Maybe even more so.

Q. I don’t know if you’ve had time to study their defense, but what is your impression?
Bronco Mendenhall: Actually I haven’t studied them this week, but I’ve seen them in crossover because we played some opponents where, as we were playing other offenses, I saw Georgia Tech on defense. They do a really nice job. There’s a very clear number of plays they’re going to play because the nature of their offense, it keeps the ball so well. But they’re fast and they’re talented and they’re really sound. They manage the points really well. That’s all part of Georgia Tech’s complementary nature how they play football.

Possessions are huge. Your offense doesn’t get many. So you have to play really well defensively and get off the field as much as you can to give enough possessions to your offense to have a chance to score. The way they’re set up, they make it difficult to score.

Q. I’ll go with some levity here. It seemed like the most shocking halftime speech you gave this year was maybe also the most effective. Do you discuss with your wife and kids the possibility of revisiting that tactic?
Bronco Mendenhall: I’m not calling it a speech. It was a sentence. It was a halftime sentence. A short one, at that (laughter).

I don’t know whether that will ever be revisited again.

Q. Was it disappointing Saturday after halftime to see them come out and just kind of run the ball right at you guys as effectively as they did?
Bronco Mendenhall: Plenty of chances to stop our opponent. I was disappointed that we missed opportunities. When you have opportunities, you need to take advantage of them. We had plenty of opportunities to stop them.

I think in the second half, there were, if I remember right — there was one more touchdown scored and a field goal. I was hopeful for none, no more points. I thought we were capable of that.

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