By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Head coach Bronco Mendenhall arrived at the University of Virginia in December 2015, which meant the upperclassmen among the team’s returning players would be able to spend only part of their college careers with him.
“Only have two years playing for Coach Mendenhall, you wish you had four or five,” wide receiver Andre Levrone said.
“I’m always jealous of the young guys,” said inside linebacker Micah Kiser, another fifth-year senior. “They have four to five years to be with Coach Mendenhall … Great coach. Great person. Great hire. Best direction that this program could go in, honestly.”
At 8 p.m. Friday at Scott Stadium, UVA (6-5 overall, 3-4 ACC) and No. 24 Virginia Tech (8-3, 4-3) close the regular season with their annual battle for the Commonwealth Cup.
Before the game, Levrone, Kiser, quarterback Kurt Benkert, safety Quin Blanding, wideout Doni Dowling, defensive end Andrew Brown, offensive tackle Jack English and running back Daniel Hamm will be among the players recognized in a Senior Night ceremony. Then the Cavaliers will try to end their 13-game losing streak in this series.
At John Paul Jones Arena on Monday, several of the seniors discussed playing for Mendenhall, who came to UVA after 11 seasons as head coach at BYU.
“It’s been a great experience,” said Blanding, who put his NFL dreams on hold to return to Virginia for his final season.
“The thing about Coach Mendenhall is, he teaches us a lot. When he teaches us, he puts it on us to teach each other, so it’s something where he’ll give us a message of the day and we apply it to each other and we guide each other. He just gives us the format and the plan and he just expects us to do it. I really respect him for that, for [wanting] us to be a player-run team. He’s the head coach and he runs everything, but he wants it on us. He puts the pressure on the captains and the leaders of the team to really get the team going, and that’s just what I love to do. I love to lead and I love people following me and I just love being an example.”
English said the experience has “been really rewarding. I think Coach Mendenhall is really good at empowering his players. He talks about sort of the power of choice a lot, and I think he really lives it too. I think guys have the opportunity to be what they’re capable of being in this program. I think there’s a lot of hard work that goes into that. Nothing’s given to you. I think guys have grown a lot both as players and personally in the time since he’s gotten here, and I definitely have experienced all of those things.”
Mendenhall challenges his players, physically and mentally, Levrone said, and “he will check your ego. You will need to be a humble person or he will humble you. If not, it might not be the program for you. But it’s been truly a blessing to be able to play for him. The order that he brought to our program, the discipline, the structure, the messages that he provides us every morning [are] things that you’ll teach to your kids one day, his laws about being a competitor.
“I love it. He’s a consistent type of guy. Every single day you know what you’re going to get from Coach Mendenhall. He’s never overzealous and he’s never somber, so it’s extremely gratifying to be able to play for someone like that, who wants to see the best out of each and every player, and he’s going to pull it out of you, even at times when you might not feel as though the things that you’re doing are necessary. He’s been there and we just trust him, and we’re trusting the process with him. This year has been a great year for foundational purposes for our program, and I have no doubts moving forward that he will have extreme success on this level.”
Kiser agreed. One of the team’s mantras is that “everybody is somebody,’ and [Mendenhall] really means that,” Kiser said. “We don’t call our scout team the scout team. They’re called the victory team, because they help us win. So if you’re on the victory team, that is an important role, very important on the team. You can earn a number [on the victory team] by doing your job as hard as you can.
“He knows every single player. That was something that was kind of interesting when he first came in and he learned everyone’s names in, like, a week. Whether you were a walk-on, whether you were Quin Blanding, he knew who you were.”
Moreover, Levrone said, there’s “a lot of cohesiveness on our coaching staff, and I think that’s something that we lacked with our past staff. And it’s been great for our team because it passes straight down to the players in the locker room, so all the messages are exactly the same. There’s no wondering what this coach is thinking or what that coach is thinking. Coach Mendenhall sets the ship where it needs to go, and all the other coaches are just paddling away, keeping us going in the same direction.”
After finishing 2-10 in 2016, the Wahoos were picked to finish last in the Coastal Division this season. With a win over Georgia Tech on Nov. 4, however, they became bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011, and the `Hoos would finish tied for second in the Coastal with a win over the Hokies.
“We have a chance to be pretty good this year,” Kiser said, “but I think our program is still developing, and four or five years down the line, you’re going to be like, `UVA football, wow. Coach Mendenhall, wow. What a coach. What a program.’ ”
A report last weekend linked Mendenhall to the coaching vacancy at Oregon State, his alma mater, but he stated emphatically Monday that he’s not interested.
UVA “is exactly where I want to be and, man, it’s just getting fun,” Mendenhall said. “We’re just starting to do some cool stuff. I haven’t seen this to fruition yet or even close, and I’m anxious and excited to do that.”
TIGHT BOND: About six months after Mendenhall took over as head coach, Benkert enrolled at UVA after graduating from East Carolina. Benkert arrived with two seasons of eligibility, and he’s put his name in the program’s record book.
With 2,876 yards passing, he’s closing in on Matt Schaub’s single-season record of 2,976. Benkert has thrown 25 touchdown passes this season. Only Schaub (28 in 2002) has thrown more in a season as a Cavalier.
“Kurt has a special place in my heart,” Mendenhall said, “as we both came through together. We’ve gone through unique challenges, and we’ve had some successes. It’s just been gratifying to have someone to work with and partner with in that position that really wants to be a good player, really wants to help our team, and really wants to do things right for not only himself, but the program.
“I’m grateful to him, first and foremost, for coming to UVA and working as hard as he is, but I’m also excited for him for the successes that he’s had, the interest he’s garnering from [NFL teams] and what his future might look like and the chance to lead our team two more times … He is the quarterback that’s bringing this team back to postseason after a significant drought.”
Benkert said he believes the “priorities in my life have helped me to align with this program and the things that the coaches have been teaching and just wanting us to be. So I think I fit in really well and I just wish I was here longer. I enjoyed my time at ECU too, but I feel like I haven’t been here long enough to really accomplish everything I wanted to, to help this team go where I think it will go in the next three to four years. But I it’s been a great ride so far, and I’m really excited for the next two games we have.”
The 6-3, 225-pound Levrone has been Benkert’s favorite target on deep throws. Junior wideout Olamide Zaccheaus leads the Cavaliers in catches (76) and receiving yards (794), but Levrone is averaging a team-high 20.8 yards per reception. He’s also first on the team in touchdown catches, with seven. (Zaccheaus and Dowling have five apiece.)
Levrone recalled one of his first impressions of Benkert, who “was throwing footballs from the 50-yard line to a basketball hoop in the corner of the end zone. So I was like, ‘This kid is pretty talented.’ He’s extremely accurate. He’s got an extremely powerful arm. The kid’s fire. He loves to compete … When he’s protected and he has time, and he’s playing with confidence, there’s nobody who can put the ball in better places than Kurt.”
Virginia Tech is known for producing stellar defensive backs, and its current secondary will be among the best the Cavaliers have faced this season.
“It’s a great challenge,” Levrone said. “I can’t wait. Last week, we played some good DBs [in a 44-28 loss at No. 2 Miami]. The week before, we played some good DBs [at Louisville]. So it’s only been getting tougher, and I love it: the challenge to show whether you can rise to the occasion or whether you put in the work earlier. Because you truly don’t rise to the occasion; you just fall to the level of your training.”
Injuries have hindered his UVA career, but Levrone has stayed healthy this season, and “it’s a blessing,” he said.
“I can’t wait to go out here on Friday night and finish my career in Scott Stadium in front of Charlottesville and with my teammates and all the coaches and all the guys that believe in me and the guys that I’ve put endless work in with. That’ll be a great night, and we’ve got to go out right.”
WELL-BALANCED: Under longtime coordinator Bud Foster, the Hokies’ defense has traditionally ranked among the nation’s stingiest. Tech’s defense can overshadow its offense, but Kiser said Virginia’s defense will face a serious challenge Friday night.
On offense, the Hokies are “very creative,” said Kiser, UVA’s leading tackler. “They do a lot of good things to really play with your eyes, deception kind of things, whether it’s pulling guards and making you think it’s a run, and then they throw a pass behind it, little things like that to try to get a numbers advantage. They’re well-coached, they have really good players, a young quarterback [in Josh Jackson] that’s really good.”
The Hokies rank fifth among ACC teams in scoring offense (30.5 points per game) and seventh in total offense (409.5 yards per game).
OLDER AND WISER: Blanding starred at Bayside High School in Virginia, but he didn’t fully appreciate the UVA-Tech rivalry until he started playing in it.
“It’s a different experience to watch it than be a part of it,” Blanding said. “I think a lot of people don’t understand that. A lot of fans went to either Virginia Tech or to Virginia and they feel the passion, but it’s totally different when you’re actually playing in the game. It’s just something that you have to get used to, and I’m used to it now and I just can’t wait for this weekend.”