By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – Brothers often squabble, and Charles and Jordan Mack are no exceptions. When they’re home together in the Atlanta area and the subject turns to football, arguments inevitably arise.
Jordan is the harder-hitting of the two, he’ll tell his older brother. Charles’ default response: Who won when the brothers were on opposing teams in 2016?
“He is usually pretty quiet after that,” Charles said.
On Sept. 3, 2016, the Richmond Spiders, whose secondary included Charles Mack, came into Scott Stadium and spoiled Bronco Mendenhall’s debut as Virginia’s head coach. UR, which competes in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, won 37-20 over UVA, a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision.
That game also was Jordan Mack’s first as a Cavalier. He became the first true freshman to start a season opener at linebacker for Virginia since Ahmad Brooks in 2003.
“My head was definitely spinning,” Mack recalled after practice this week. “I didn’t know what to expect. But now, with all the experience I have, I’m a little more settled and ready to go.”
Mack, who started at outside linebacker in 2016, moved inside last season and helped the Wahoos advance to a bowl game for the first time since 2011. He’s one of the defensive leaders on a team that opens the season Saturday at 6 p.m. at Scott Stadium against Richmond.
His brother graduated from UR and now works in event management with the University of Georgia Athletic Association. Even so, this remains a big game for Mack.
“It’s a new year, and it’s another chance for redemption,” he said.
Mendenhall and several of his players fielded questions from media members Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. The 2016 game against Richmond, not surprisingly, came up frequently.
“It still kind of leaves a bad taste in our mouth,” fifth-year senior running back Jordan Ellis said of the loss, UVA’s first in the series since 1946.
Ellis, who led the Cavaliers in rushing last season, said the program is “light years” ahead of where it was heading into the 2016 opener.
“Two years ago, we were just getting started with Coach Mendenhall and his schemes with the offense and defense,” Ellis said. “I feel like now, being an older guy, I know more about what he expects, what [offensive coordinator Robert] Anae expects from the offense, and I feel like everybody else is in that same place.”
Mack said: “I definitely agree. It’s not the same team. It’s a different mindset.”
The 2016 opener also marked the college debut of Mack’s classmate Bryce Hall, who’s heading into his third season as a starting cornerback.
At that point, Hall said, the program was “going through a huge culture shift. There was a lot of emphasis on how we wanted our culture to be established, and almost more important and necessary than the outcomes of the games was the way we wanted go about doing things, the way we believed in this program.”
The Cavaliers, who finished 2-10 in 2016, improved to 6-7 last season.
“I think that’s shown our progression,” junior defensive lineman Eli Hanback said, “and that’s going to continue this season.”
Hanback, who’s from the Richmond area, is one of eight starters back on defense for UVA.
The Cavaliers returned a solid nucleus on the other side of the ball, too, including Ellis, wide receivers Olamide Zaccheaus and Joe Reed, tight end Evan Butts, and offensive linemen Jake Fieler and Dillon Reinkensmeyer. The offensive scheme has changed, however, to capitalize on the mobility of UVA’s new starting quarterback, Bryce Perkins.
A 6-3, 210-pound junior, Perkins enrolled at Virginia in January. He guided Arizona Western College to the National Junior College Athletic Association title game last fall.
“What I’ve seen to this point is a dynamic athlete who’s explosive and fast [and] has all the physical tools to really extend plays and to create,” Mendenhall said. “What I’m hoping to see, and what we expect over time, is the proficiency of playing the position of quarterback with the execution and the mastery of that position, as well as the leadership that comes with leading a football team.”
That Perkins is an exceptional athlete has been apparent since his arrival in Charlottesville.
“The biggest surprise is [his] poise and consistency,” Mendenhall said. “A lot of times with the new players, especially at that position, day by day there are way ups and way downs.
“With him, it’s been more of just solid, steady decision-making. There are still days of or plays of volatility, but I’ve been most surprised and impressed with his consistency, especially demeanor.”
Former UVA assistant Danny Rocco was the head coach of the Richmond team that won at Scott Stadium two years ago. Rocco left for Delaware at the end of the 2016 season, and UR hired Russ Huesman to succeed him.
The Spiders posted a 6-5 record last season and have 14 starters back from that team.
“They know how to win,” Mendenhall said. “Those are the expectations and just part of their identity.”
That was part of the identity of Mendenhall’s teams at BYU, where his record in 11 seasons was 99-43, with 11 bowl appearances, and he’s working to make that true at UVA, too.
Like his players, Mendenhall is eager to get his third season at Virginia started. The Cavaliers haven’t played a game since losing to Navy in the Military Bowl in late December.
“Practicing against each other becomes monotonous over time,” Mendenhall said. “Once there’s a true opponent that’s on the schedule, there’s a different energy and focus that shifts. I think that’s good for everybody.”
Whether it be in player-run seven-on-seven drills, in spring practice or in training camp, the Cavaliers’ offense has been battling the defense for much of the year. That changes Saturday night.
“It’s always good [to get] a fresh feeling going against a fresh face, someone you haven’t seen all summer and all spring,” Perkins said. “We’re pumped up. We’re excited to go. No holds barred.”