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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE – The spring semester started Monday at the University of Virginia, where snow covers much of the Grounds. Some eight months before the start of the 2019 season, UVA’s football team is back at work, too.
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall held the first team meeting of the new year Monday morning, and director of football performance and development Shawn Griswold’s winter program began early Tuesday. 
Such mainstays as Chris Peace, Jordan Ellis, Olamide Zaccheaus and Juan Thornhill are gone, but numerous veterans return on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Bryce Perkins, from a team that finished 8-5 after defeating South Carolina 28-0 in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C.
That victory capped Mendenhall’s third season at Virginia, where his first team finished 2-10 and his second went 6-7. In an interview Friday in his McCue Center office, Mendenhall covered a wide range of topics as he looked ahead to his fourth season with the Cavaliers. 
The 2018 season was the first in which UVA started a dual-threat quarterback during Mendenhall’s tenure. Kurt Benkert, a talented pro-style quarterback who’s on the Atlanta Falcons’ practice squad, led Virginia’s offense in 2016 and ’17.
In 2017, when the Wahoos advanced to a bowl game for the first time since 2011, they averaged 22.5 points and 342.2 yards per game. In 2018, with Perkins at quarterback, the ‘Hoos won eight games for the first time in seven years and averaged 28.5 points and 384.8 yards.
Perkins, who enrolled at UVA last January, passed for 2,680 yards and 25 touchdowns. He rushed for 923 yards and nine TDs. 
“In Year 3,” Mendenhall said, “we captured the essence of the impact of a quarterback. The style of play [the coaching staff prefers] is what we showed this year, and finally being able to recruit to that position and find the player that we wanted to match that, I think it just gave Virginia football and our fans a glimpse of what this looks like now.”
Perkins, who played at an Arizona junior college in 2017, “exceeded expectations,” Mendenhall said. “And so the first thing I learned [this season was] the impact of a quarterback. The second is the value of good defense. If teams can’t score, you’re in every game.”
In 2017, the Cavaliers allowed, on average, 28.4 points and 365.1 yards per game. Those averages in 2018: 20.1 points and 330.5 yards.
The next challenge for his team, Mendenhall said, is to improve its “end-of-game management and end-of-game work.”
UVA lost by four points at Indiana on Sept. 8. The Cavaliers closed the regular season with back-to-back overtime losses: the first at Georgia Tech and the second at Virginia Tech. In each game, Virginia played defense first in OT and held its opponent to a field goal. 
His team needs to find ways to win such games, Mendenhall said, and that will be a point of emphasis this year.
“The expectation in Year 4 is, every game is a winnable game,” he said. “Not some. But every game is a winnable game. And then knowing and preparing as such to win the Coastal Division in the final moments, against whomever it is. That focus now is, you take everything else we’ve already done, and we keep doing that and then say, OK, now expect the last three minutes to be meaningful, every week, no matter where you are, and if you handle that well, you’ll win the division. And that’s not a prediction. That’s just a focus.”
Spring practice will start on March 26, Mendenhall said. 
WORKS IN PROGRESS: The Cavaliers have steadily improved up front on both sides of the ball during Mendenhall’s tenure, but not to the point where they regularly dominate the lines of scrimmage.
Garett Tujague coaches the offensive line and Vic So’oto oversees the defensive line. Those groups will “have to take another step this upcoming year, and then another one the next year, and, to be honest, really another one [in 2021], for people to say, ‘OK, Virginia’s in town and you better buckle up,’ ” Mendenhall said.
“I’m talking not necessarily about mindset and ability, but about depth. Meaning, the number of players to get through the ACC [schedule]. At one point in the bowl game, I looked on the sideline, and we had 14 players lined up that were hurt, and for our program at this time, that’s a significant thing.”
The ‘Hoos had only four healthy defensive linemen for the Belk Bowl: Eli Hanback, Aaron Faumui, Tommy Christ and Dylan Thompson.
“And so the quality is increasing, the preparation and development is accelerating, but the depth is still an issue, and as hard as we’re working on it, that will be [the case] for the next two years, and then after that,” Mendenhall said.
The good news, Mendenhall said, is that in most games there’s no longer the disparity in talent up front that existed in 2016 and ’17.
“So it’s becoming neutralized,” he said. “But we’re not looking to neutralize. We’re looking to own the line of scrimmages from beginning to end. And I’m talking about the beginning and end of a game, and also the beginning and end of a season. Right now our depth is prohibitive of doing that. The mindset and the ability are increasing, but the depth right now is imposing the ceiling that we’re having to work around and innovate around to finish the season.”
INSTANT IMPACT: Mendenhall was delighted with the strength and conditioning gains the Cavaliers made in Shawn Griswold’s first year in Charlottesville.
Griswold, who came at UVA last January, has also run the strength and conditioning programs for football at Arizona State, Pittsburgh, Tulsa and Utah State, his alma mater.
“He did exactly what I was hoping he would,” Mendenhall said. “He established a culture of less drama, more work, but he also gave tangible metrics to hit.”
Newcomers to the program are outfitted in white workout gear. As players achieve specific fitness and strength goals, they’re awarded new apparel in different colors. The progression is from white to gray to orange to blue to, for the top performers, black.
Thornhill and Ellis were the only UVA players to earn black gear in 2018.
“The players know exactly where they stand by what they’ve earned,” Mendenhall said. “They fight like crazy to get the next level, and there isn’t anything subjective about it. The numbers they move equals the gear they earn, which then really predicts how they play. In almost all cases, our All-ACC players and our highest-grading players were the ones in [orange, blue and black]. The highest colors equal the best players.
“So in the system we’re developing, it’s not where the strongest guy gets all the stuff, but might not be able to play. What the system is predicting is, if you come out of [the offseason program] and you’re in orange or blue or black, there’s a great chance you’re going to be an All-ACC player and you’re going to be a significant contributor to our team and you’re going to help us take the next step in our program.”
WAITING GAME: One of the most highly regarded recruits in the class that enrolled at UVA in 2017, defensive back Germane Crowell, has had to deal with a series of medical setbacks.
Crowell, who appeared in three games in 2017, played in only four in ’18 before Virginia’s medical staff shut him down because of concussion-related problems, Mendenhall said.
“It’s never been an ability issue,” Mendenhall said.
A decision is expected this offseason on whether Crowell, whose father, Germane Sr., starred at wide receiver for UVA, can resume his playing career. 
“It’s unfortunate if he doesn’t, because of his ability and his mindset and what he could contribute from an athletic standpoint,” Mendenhall said. “If he can’t play football, though, he’s bright, he’s talented, he’s articulate, and he’ll have an amazing career in something that will support and help him.”
HEAD START: Three of the 21 recruits who signed letters of intent last month – wide receiver Dorien Goddard and defensive backs Chayce Chalmers and Antonio Clary – have enrolled at UVA for the spring semester.
The next signing period opens on Feb. 6. Mendenhall said the Cavaliers would like to add three more scholarship players for the 2019 season: two graduate transfers (a wide receiver and an offensive lineman) and, in all likelihood, a defensive lineman who’s currently a high school senior.
STATUS QUO: Asked if he expects all of his assistant coaches to remain at UVA this year, Mendenhall said, “That’s my hope and that’s my guess, but I’ve learned never to say never. This is a strong staff. What we’re accomplishing reflects that, and it’s just a matter of time [before the assistants have other opportunities].
“Résumés are being built, and competencies are being demonstrated. I have bright young coaches and good people.”
Most of his assistants followed Mendenhall from BYU to UVA after the 2015 season. Each of the Cavaliers’ defensive coaches — coordinator Nick Howell (secondary), co-coordinator Kelly Poppinga (outside linebackers), Shane Hunter (inside linebackers) and Vic So’oto (line) – is a former graduate assistant under Mendenhall.
Seeing them grow as coaches has been gratifying, Mendenhall said. 
“I’m now watching four guys that have come through the system work together in the defensive room and hold South Carolina to no points,” Mendenhall said. “And I love that part. So if they choose and end up elsewhere, the next graduate assistant will move up, and it just keeps cycling. I don’t want that to happen faster than they’re ready for, but I also want those opportunities for them, if they want them and when they want them. My job is to help them be ready.”
VANISHING BREED: Evan Butts was a fifth-year senior in 2018, which means the ‘Hoos will head into spring practice with one tight end: Tanner Cowley.
“It hasn’t been that we’ve been looking to not play with a tight end or not recruit a tight end,” Mendenhall said. “We just haven’t been able to dial in and find, for whatever reason, the exact tight ends we wanted, in relation to who else we were recruiting. And so what we’re doing offensively kind of reflects that, but we’re still looking for a great tight end that can do a lot of things, and when we find it, we’ll sign him.”
Cowley, who was used primarily as a blocker in 2018, caught four passes for 68 yards.
MULTIPLE OPTIONS: Ellis led the Cavaliers in rushing attempts (215) and rushing yards (1,026) in 2018. Of the team’s other running backs, only PK Kier (26) had more than four carries.
Expect “to see the touches spread out more” this coming season, Mendenhall said.
Joining such veterans as Kier and Lamont Atkins will be incoming freshmen Mike Hollins and Seneca Milledge. Hollins, who was listed at 5-10, 214 pounds on signing day, mixes power and speed. The 5-6, 170-pound Milledge is “Olamide-ish, except faster — 10.4 100 meters — and he’s physical for his size,” Mendenhall said.
Virginia plans to use Milledge and his fellow running backs in a variety of ways, Mendenhall said. “To me, the more diversity of touches, the harder we are to defend. We’ll be heading that direction based on if these guys earn those roles, but that’s my ideal.”
R.I.P.: Mendenhall said he’ll fondly remember the time he spent with George Welsh, who stopped by the McCue Center regularly when he was in good health. Welsh, the winningest football coach in UVA history, died on Jan. 2 at the age of 85.
“The conversations weren’t much about how he coached or what his philosophy was,” Mendenhall said. “He was supportive, he was encouraging. When I asked for advice, he would give it, but it was never condescending. It was in a helpful way. But he appeared to me as very clear, very intentional, very direct, and very certain about what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it [as Virginia’s coach]. My hope is, for the program, that it returns to that level of consistency, year in and year out for a long time.”
Before his introductory press conference at John Paul Jones Arena, in December 2015, Mendenhall met Welsh. Mendenhall remembers looking out in the audience later and seeing Welsh.
“I was basically to myself thinking, as other words were coming out, ‘There’s the standard. There’s the history. That’s the legacy, and can you re-link the program to that? And if so, well done,’ ” Mendenhall said.