By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He’s had six weeks to reflect on his team’s 2017 season, his second as the University of Virginia’s head football coach, and Bronco Mendenhall has given that considerable thought.
“The two words that come to my mind most are progress and growth,” Mendenhall said Tuesday in his McCue Center office. “But I acknowledge there’s room for more progress and growth.”
After finishing 2-10 in its first year under Mendenhall, UVA improved to 6-7 in 2017. But the season ended on a humbling note for the Cavaliers in Annapolis, Maryland.
In their first postseason game since 2011, the Wahoos lost 49-7 to Navy in the Military Bowl. On a frigid afternoon, the ‘Hoos scored first — Joe Reed returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown — but then were thoroughly outplayed.
As painful as that afternoon was for Virginia, Mendenhall said, “I really like that being the last game in terms of framing an offseason, because it clearly shows what we still have to do. It’s no fun, but I like it.”
The ‘Hoos had too much variance in their performances last season, Mendenhall said. There were memorable moments, especially during the first half of the year, but Virginia lost six of its final seven games, and its offense sputtered late in the season, totaling 191 yards against Virginia Tech and 175 against Navy.
The Cavaliers have not “even stepped foot down the path of what consistent and exceptional football looks like,” Mendenhall said.
“I think we took steps toward consistency, toward competitive play, really toward growth in every area of our program. And that brought us to a gate being opened, without us yet walking through.”
Spring practice begins March 27 for the Cavaliers. It will conclude April 28 with the spring game at Scott Stadium. Talented players return on both sides of the ball, but gone are such mainstays as quarterback Kurt Benkert, linebacker Micah Kiser, safety Quin Blanding, defensive end Andrew Brown, wide receiver Andre Levrone and offensive tackle Jack English.
New to the program are four players who enrolled at UVA last month, including two dual-threat quarterbacks; director of football development and performance Shawn Griswold; and special teams coordinator Ricky Brumfield.
Starting this year, Football Bowl Subdivision teams are allowed to have 10 on-field assistant coaches, one more than last year. Brumfield will be Mendenhall’s first full-time special teams coordinator. Kelly Poppinga, who coaches the Cavaliers’ outside linebackers, also oversaw special teams in 2016 and ’17.
Under the direction of Griswold, the ‘Hoos started their winter strength and conditioning program last month. Mendenhall said he’s charged Griswold, who spent the past six seasons in the same role at Arizona State, with increasing the players’ work capacity.
UVA wore down physically and mentally during the second half of the 2017 season.
“We not only need to be big and physical, but we need to play with a physical mindset,” Mendenhall said. “That means I would like this team to do more hard things … Just simply, the sheer volume of weights lifted, load created, time under tension, is going to have to be increased.”
MOVING PIECES: Depth remains a concern for the Cavaliers, especially on the defensive line. Three D-linemen with eligibility remaining have left the program since the end of last season — Juwan Moye, Steven Wright and Christian Baumgardner — and a fourth, Christian Brooks, has had to give up football for medical reasons.
A fifth, defensive end John Kirven, who impressed as a true freshman in 2017, suffered a concussion during the lead-up to the bowl game, Mendenhall said, and has yet to be cleared to practice again.
“And so there’s concern there,” Mendenhall said. “If he is cleared and can play, man, we like him a lot. Right now that’s uncertain.”
After UVA’s 2017 regular-season finale, a 10-0 loss to Virginia Tech at Scott Stadium, Richard Burney moved from tight end to defensive end, where he’s a candidate to start this year. More position changes may be coming, Mendenhall said, as the Cavaliers try to bolster their lines.
“We’re contemplating that even as we speak,” Mendenhall said. “There could be offensive players moving to defense, defensive players moving to offense.”
He smiled. Because of the team’s lack of depth on each line, “I toss and turn every night,” Mendenhall said.
NEW DIRECTION: Benkert had a record-setting season in 2017, when for the second straight year UVA built its offense around his passing skills.
“We were playing a style that fit Kurt really well,” Mendenhall said. “The style that we play now will look different than that.”
At BYU, where he was head coach for 11 seasons before coming to UVA, Mendenhall had success with dual-threat quarterbacks, including Taysom Hill. That’s the system favored by offensive coordinator Robert Anae, who also worked with Mendenhall at BYU, and that’s what UVA is installing this year.
Junior-college transfer Bryce Perkins, who began his college career at Arizona State, is likely to start spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback, Mendenhall said. Also in the mix will be true freshman Brennan Armstrong, who like Perkins enrolled at UVA last month, rising sophomore Lindell Stone and rising redshirt sophomore De’Vante Cross, who also has played wide receiver and defensive back.
Of those four, Stone is the only pro-style quarterback.
Perkins, who’s listed at 6-3, 215 pounds, is “super athletic, super shifty,” said Griswold, who trained him at Arizona State. “He’s a freak when that term comes around for athletes.”
Asked how much contact, if any, the quarterbacks would take in the spring, Mendenhall said, “That’s really hard. We’ve been through it at Brigham Young, with Taysom [Hill] especially. When you don’t have an abundance of depth at any position, it makes you want to limit contact. But if you’re certain that your team needs to play lots and lots of football, those two things work exactly opposite.”
Griswold and his staff will monitor the quarterbacks’ workloads during practice, Mendenhall said, and the coaches will have to trust their instincts as to how much contact is enough.
“So you need objective and subjective measures working at the same time, in real time, not only through the course of the spring and the fall, but even within a practice,” Mendenhall said.
“Sometimes [the quarterback is] going to need to get hit, and every time that happens all of us will be nervous.”
CHANGE OF HEART: Outside linebacker Malcolm Cook will be back for his sixth season at UVA, Mendenhall said. Cook started six of the nine games in which he played last year.
At the end of last season, Mendenhall said, Cook wasn’t sure he wanted to continue as a student for another year. “And then somewhere along the way after the bowl game, it was, ‘Yes, I am going to do this,’ ” Mendenhall said.
The 6-1, 230-pound Cook is big, strong and fast, but he’s struggled to stay healthy at UVA.
He hurt his right knee in 2013 and redshirted that season. In 2014, an injury to his left knee limited Cook to three games. In 2015, he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the Cavaliers’ third game, and he missed the 2016 season after being diagnosed with a heart condition.
A foot injury kept Cook out of three games in 2017, but he recorded 46 tackles, four of them for loss.
Also back for his sixth year is cornerback Tim Harris, whose UVA career, like Cook’s, has been marred by injuries. Harris started seven games as a true freshman in 2013, five in 2014, and nine in 2015. He missed most of the 2016 and ’17 seasons with injuries.
“Those two guys give us a better chance than what we would have had,” Mendenhall said, “because they’re experienced and they’re good.”
TOP PRIORITY: The Cavaliers struggled to run the ball last season, which adversely affected their passing game, especially against Virginia Tech and Navy.
“One simple thing that I’ll add to that is when the quarterback position is not mobile, that puts increased pressure on every other position,” Mendenhall said. “Everything has to be at a higher level: the blocking, the running, the catching. Once the quarterback can run, there’s less pressure on everyone else, and usually that facilitates growth and progress at a faster rate.”
No matter what, Mendenhall stressed, the “offensive line has to be better for this program to advance. It can’t stay the same, and it can’t be even close to the same. And hopefully what we do schematically and through changes and innovations will help facilitate that.”
HIGH CEILING: Mendenhall is also the Cavaliers’ defensive coordinator, and he’ll be working with a lot of talent this year. UVA’s returning players on defense will include Harris, Cook, Eli Hanback, Mandy Alonso, Chris Peace, Jordan Mack, Charles Snowden, Elliott Brown, Zane Zandier, C.J. Stalker, Juan Thornhill, Bryce Hall, Brenton Nelson, Chris Moore, Joey Blount and, the Cavaliers hope, Kirven.
Kiser, Blanding and Brown were outstanding players, Mendenhall said, and will be difficult to replace. “Having said that, I expect [the defense] to be better.”
Defensive back Myles Robinson, who started three games in 2016 before suffering a season-ending injury, was academically ineligible last fall. He’s expected to return to the University and rejoin the football program this summer, Mendenhall said.
ON THE SAME PAGE: Mendenhall praised new athletics director, Carla Williams, who came to UVA from the University of Georgia. The Bulldogs, of course, played Alabama for the national title in football last month.
“I think that Carla’s experience at Georgia, and Georgia’s success, is the exact point of reference I was hoping for in an AD coming in,” Mendenhall said.
“I was asked what my criteria were, and certainly having a good person [was one of them], but I wanted someone who has experience in exceptional college football and knows what that truly looks like.”
Williams, who was Georgia’s deputy AD, understands the commitment needed for success in football, Mendenhall said, “and we’ve talked a lot about that. And she recognizes [UVA’s] needs, much like I have, and I’m really excited that she’s here, because of the point of reference that she’s operating from, and that is essential to where we want to go and what we want to be … Because it’s not hard to understand how [a successful football team] can affect every sport here, as well as the University, as well as the community. She’s just left that experience.”