By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — After the drama finally ended at Scott Stadium and Virginia became bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011, NFL rookies Taquan Mizzell and Eric Smith went on Twitter to salute their former teammates and coaches Saturday night.
“So happy for my boys,” tweeted Mizzell (@Smokee_4), a running back with the Chicago Bears.
“They deserve it! #NewStandard #Wahoowa,” tweeted Smith (@Rico_Smith71), an offensive lineman with the Miami Dolphins.
“Like I told Coach Mendenhall on Saturday, when I see the team winning, I’m smiling from ear to ear, I feel like I’m winning,” Wilkins said by phone Tuesday.
“Those are my guys. Except for the new freshmen, I’ve trained with every single one of them. It’s just a blessing to see that they’re getting what they deserve. It’s a beautiful story.”
Mendenhall came to UVA in December 2015 from BYU, which had advanced to a bowl in each of his 11 seasons as head coach. His bowl streak ended in emphatic fashion in 2016, when the Cavaliers finished 2-10.
Fast forward 11 months, and the Wahoos are 6-3 overall and 3-2 in the ACC heading into their game at Louisville (5-4, 3-3) on Saturday.
This team’s success, say UVA’s players and coaches, would not be possible without the work put in by the 2016 seniors, a class that included Mizzell, Smith, Wilkins, Zach Bradshaw, Matt Johns, Jackson Matteo, Albert Reid, Nicholas Conte, Kelvin Rainey and Keeon Johnson.
“Those guys laid the foundation,” redshirt junior tight end Evan Butts said Monday. “I can speak [only] for myself personally, but I wouldn’t be the player or person I am without those guys. They really showed me the right way of how to go about doing things in this program, and the coaches will confirm that as well … The success we’re having so far this year is just as much on them as it is on this current team.”
At his weekly press conference Monday, Mendenhall said, “I liked my team last year. It was frustrating that we couldn’t accelerate the process fast enough for them to see some of the reward. But they tried hard and they practiced hard, and they were willing from beginning to end. That began this culture of belief, that this [system] could and would potentially work and have success.
“There wasn’t any significant resistance. I think that embracing of what we were doing and how we were doing it preceded [on-the-field success]. As I’ve said, the culture precedes performance, and they did a great job embracing what we were doing and kind of setting the groundwork or planting the seeds for this group.”
Mendenhall took over a program that in 2015 had finished 4-8 under Mike London, the Cavaliers’ fourth straight losing season. Mendenhall, who doubles as defensive coordinator, installed a 3-4 scheme that differed significantly from the 4-3 London favored.
“It’s a process, basically, when a new coaching staff comes in and you have to learn a new system,” said Bradshaw, who’s in Charlottesville finishing work on his bachelor’s degree this semester.
“It would be nice if it got better overnight, but just for personnel reasons, we had 4-3 personnel trying to play a 3-4. I don’t want to say it’s unrealistic to think that things can get better right away, but for the most part in life it takes time.”
“We were like the trial run of the Bronco Mendenhall era,” he said. “But, yeah, we set the foundation. It certainly stinks a little bit to not be a part of it, but to see people that I’ve played with for the past four years, three years, two years, get to finally get a taste of some success, it feels good.”
The Mendenhall era did not start on an auspicious note. In its 2016 opener, UVA fell 37-20 at Scott Stadium to Richmond, which competes in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision.
Losses to Oregon and Connecticut followed. The Cavaliers’ first victory under Mendenhall came on Sept. 24, 2016, against Central Michigan, and a week later they won at Duke, ending the program’s 17-game road losing streak. But Virginia closed the season with seven consecutive losses.
Several of those defeats came in games the `Hoos were in position to win — see the losses to UConn, Louisville and Wake Forest — but breakdowns at critical points doomed them each time.
The transition to Mendenhall’s system involved “more than just learning the plays,” said Bradshaw, who started at inside linebacker last season next to Micah Kiser. “It was breaking bad habits. That was another big thing. This year you see in the games that we win, we’re pretty penalty-free.”
Previous seasons were marked by “dumb penalties, stupid mistakes in crunch-time game situations,” said Bradshaw, who cited UVA’s 24-20 loss to Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium in 2014.
“In the games we’re winning this year, you don’t see mistakes like that being made.”
Virginia’s graduate assistants this fall include Matteo and Reid.
“I’m still here, and it’s surreal,” Matteo said of the Cavaliers’ turnaround, “and I appreciate how people say that we laid the foundation, because we did have something to do with it. I’m just happy for the guys, because they’re experiencing the success first-hand as players, which is something I didn’t get to do.”
Johns, who hopes to become a GA in a college program next year, is back home in Chalfont, Pennsylvania, where he’s helping coach at his high school, Central Bucks South.
He still stays in touch with current UVA players such as Kiser, Jack English, Kurt Benkert and Jack McDonald, as well as with Mendenhall, assistant coaches Marques Hagans and Jason Beck, and director of football performance Frank Wintrich, among others.
“After almost every win, I’ve texted those coaches to say congrats, because I know how important each win is,” Johns said by phone Tuesday.
They’ll text back and “say a lot of this has to do with the foundation you laid, and that means a lot,” Johns said.
“We put our heart and soul into that program and didn’t really see any benefits. We got to go to a great school and play the game we love, but we didn’t have a lot of success on the field. I’m just happy these guys are actually doing it.”
The team’s current seniors include wideout Doni Dowling, who spoke Monday about how gratifying it is to finally see UVA headed to a bowl.
“I kind of wish I had it with the guys from last year, just knowing how hard they worked,” Dowling said. “I really got close to guys like Keeon Johnson, Taquan and Donte, so I really wish we could have it then too. But, yeah, it’s something to cherish.”
Wilkins, a defensive lineman who hopes to make an NFL roster in 2018, received a warm welcome from his former teammates and coaches when he returned to Charlottesville for Virginia’s Oct. 21 game against Boston College.
On Saturday, Wilkins watched on TV as UVA rallied to defeat Georgia Tech 40-36 at Scott Stadium.
“After the game I just texted Coach Mendenhall and thanked him for all these things he’s done for me, when I was there and since I’ve been gone, and for the other guys in the program,” Wilkins said. “I thanked him for not giving up on us and for coming and just changing everything.”
His first losing season as a head coach tested and taxed Mendenhall. Still, senior defensive end Andrew Brown said Monday, “I felt like he kept his spirits up, and being the overall leader of the program, I felt like he set the example for everybody to follow. Don’t be discouraged just because of one year … The great thing about football is you can line up and do it again the next year.”