By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– A handful of additions will arrive next month for the final session of summer school, but most UVA football players are already on Grounds, taking classes and training with Shawn Griswold, the team’s director of development and performance.
The Cavaliers are heading into their fourth season under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, and numerous standouts, including quarterback Bryce Perkins, are back from a team that finished 8-5 in 2018. UVA blanked South Carolina 28-0 in the Belk Bowl to end with a victory for the first time since 2005, and expectations are high for the coming season.
Virginia’s newcomers include three graduate transfers: offensive lineman Alex Gellerstedt (Penn State) and wide receivers Terrell Chatman (Arizona State) and Dejon Brissett (Richmond).
UVA opens the season on Friday, Aug. 31, on the road against one of its rivals in the ACC’s Coastal Division, Pittsburgh. In an interview this week in his McCue Center office, Mendenhall discussed the opener and many other topics. Highlights follow.
JW: In each of your first three years at UVA, your incoming recruits did not get to Charlottesville until July, for the final session of summer school. This year, most of them arrived in early June and enrolled in the second session of summer school. What prompted this change?
Mendenhall: “Our first-years arriving a month earlier for the second session was a design element incorporated after the discovery and analysis of the current state of affairs of our program. We have found two of the last three years that we’re playing a lot of young players. We’re also a program that places a premium on high demand and conditioning and effort, and what we’ve learned is that one [summer-school session] for our first-years, to get on board and become prepared for the experience in fall, was not enough. So the need was there, and the support I’ve received from [athletic director] Carla Williams and the administration and the University has created this opportunity now for this class to be here earlier.
“So our hope is that they will be more prepared, more acclimated and ready to contribute at a higher level faster. It will also affect their graduation from the institution in a timely manner, which is already going positively, and the launch into their careers, in even a maybe more efficient and successful way.”
JW: From a football standpoint, how much do you expect the extra month to accelerate the newcomers’ development?
Mendenhall: “What we hadn’t been able to do previously, when our first-years arrived, was do any testing. So we did basically introductory and orientation-type activities and an initial conditioning segment to prepare them for fall camp, which never was enough. What is happening now is we’re able to have a seven-week cycle, which is a normal testing cycle. So the first-years can come in, have an entire strength cycle and then test, which then allows us to see where they truly are before the season even begins. That then sets a new reference point for the rest of their development that previously had been held off until the winter semester after the season. And so this is a more accurate reference point to begin their careers, with then more specificity to be included from the testing to allow the growth and development to be individualized for each young person to reach his potential.”
JW: Did you consider having players here for all three sessions of summer school?
Mendenhall: “After assessing our program, what I thought was most important, and what we’re moving toward with [deputy athletics director] Ted White’s help and Carla’s help, is having the first session of summer school every year be for internships and externships, and maybe study abroad. I couldn’t reconcile all three sessions for our entire team. I didn’t think that that was best for the student-athlete experience, and I thought our players needed some chance to demonstrate that they could do an internship and train on their own at a high level and manage their lives –– what we call ‘and.’
“Some teams are doing all three, and there is a benefit to that, but I think for UVA and for our philosophy, where we are now fits this institution, my style and philosophy at a really high level.”
JW: What’s your initial assessment of the first-year class?
Mendenhall: “My impressions are really favorable. They’re really good young people, and our assessment of them athletically looks to be on point, from what I’ve seen. I think we’re accurate in our assessment character-wise, and I think we’re accurate in our academic assessment. So after a one-week window, I would say this is the most balanced and comprehensive and complete group yet. I have to reserve the right to change that, but first impression is, we’re all really excited.”
JW: What about the grad transfers?
Mendenhall: “Alex Gellerstedt, as has previous grad transfers [on the offensive line], fills a huge need, and we have him for two years. The length, size and potential appear to all be in place for him. Strong work ethic. Great fit for our culture and character.
“Terrell Chatman is long and he’s fast and he’s dynamic, and he will be a potential big-play threat that we were hoping he could be on the outside to keep extra numbers off Bryce Perkins. So we’re super excited.
“Dejon Brissett also will be an explosive playmaker. He arrived with some hardware in his foot, and he just had surgery to take out that hardware. It needs a little bit of time to heal. So he’ll probably be up and ready by the second week of fall camp [in August]. But having played against him, we know he’s a capable playmaker that will be a great complement to Chatman and then Hasise Dubois and then Terrell Jana and then Joe Reed. And so all of the sudden, with that influx of grad transfers, as well as the younger [receivers] we have, it should be more difficult now for teams to disregard wideout play and focus on quarterback play.”
JW: Your 2018 captains –– Olamide Zaccheaus, Chris Peace and Jordan Ellis – were seniors who set a high standard for the rest of the team. Have you been able to fill the leadership void they left?
Mendenhall: “They actually set a new standard. As much as a coach works to do that and is given credit for it, that’s really not how it happens. The coach presents it and the coach teaches it, but until it’s claimed by the players, it either takes root or it does not. And Chris and Jordan and Olamide, they became the new standard. There’s no chance that we just as coaches could have had any success unless they chose to do that.
“They left a void, and [new] leadership is emerging and being discovered, but it isn’t yet established. So by default it went to the best [returning] players. It went to Bryce Perkins, who kind of was emerging as a de facto captain a year ago, and it moved toward Jordan Mack, because of how he much he’d played, and it moved toward Bryce Hall, because of how much he’d played. It probably would have moved toward Joe Reed, but he was injured [in the spring].
“Where it ends up, I’m not certain. Charles Snowden ended up filling a role where he’s now viewed as a strong leader. Terrell Jana, when it came down to [choosing] our task-unit leaders, which is the equivalent of the leadership council in some programs, was one of the highest vote-getters on the team. [Leadership is] still emerging. It needs to be clear and emerge as fast as possible, with the opening game being a conference game on the road, and coming off 8-5 with higher expectations, this is a whole new set of challenges. So we have our work cut out for us.”
JW: What are your thoughts about opening on the road against a Coastal Division team that has dominated Virginia recently? In each of your first three seasons here, UVA opened against an FCS opponent.
Mendenhall: “I like it and I don’t like it at the same time. So I like it from the urgency [it generates], I like it from the challenge, I like it from the opportunity that it creates, and I like it that we were chosen in launching the ACC Network. It’s not an accident that we were chosen to match up against Pitt, as that game basically decided the Coastal Division champion a year ago. None of that’s accidental. What we’ve earned is our chance to be in that game to launch the network against that opponent. So all that reflects growth and a positive prospect for our program.
“What I would have preferred at this time, going into Year 4, is a very similar start to what we’ve had. You always like the ability to grow and play and develop into your conference season. I think most coaches would prefer Option 2 if given a choice, but Option 2 is not an option, so we’re excited [about opening at Pitt].”
JW: How comforting is it to know that in Bryce Perkins you have one of the ACC’s top quarterbacks?
Mendenhall: “It is an immediate advantage over anyone we play that doesn’t have a returning quarterback. The team is farther along [with Perkins back]. Even if all other 10 starters on offense were gone, if the quarterback is back, most of us would view that as a positive thing. With a quarterback returning and a defense returning most of its experience, if you’re going to play an ACC game on the road to start the season, I like the prospects of what we have coming back in relation to that opportunity.”
JW: As the start of training camp approaches, what are your major concerns about this team?
Mendenhall: “My biggest concern right now is the lack of an identified starter at running back. We have depth and we have possibilities there, but I was hopeful that at this point we’d have a clearer idea of who our starter is.
“Dejon Brissett’s injury at wide receiver and ensuring he’s ready [for the season], because we’re counting on and need that depth and that production.
“The loss of some experience on the offensive line is also a concern, though our numbers and our youthful experience don’t make that as big a concern to me. And then replacing Juan Thornhill and his production. We have candidates, but Brenton Nelson’s health, Joey Blount’s health, and their ability to be durable and productive and consistent are going to be, I think, a big part to our secondary.
“And then punter. From what I saw in the spring, I like our prospects, but we don’t have a returning punter.”
JW: “One of the major components of the Master Plan will be a new football operations center. How involved are you in the planning of and fundraising for the new facility?
Mendenhall: “I’m active in both phases. I’ve been active in the fundraising and basically on call for Carla and Jim Booz and Dirk [Katstra], for the VAF, whenever I’m needed. The simple agreement is, when asked, I’m coming. And their job is to use me effectively.
“We just had our second meeting about the building design and the practice field design, and so I’m totally involved in the design and identification and description of what I think will help this program. The caution is, there have been times [at other schools] where the head football coach, in these kind of circumstances, does a great job of building the facility for someone else, where it’s so encompassing that he loses track [of his primary responsibilities and struggles] to manage the current team and roster and season. There’s no chance that’s going to happen with me. I’m going to do everything I can to help the fundraising and help the building design. My first priority is to my current student-athletes and my staff. We’re all agreed on that, and that’s what we all want. So my job is to execute all that at the same time, but in a sequential and prioritized manner.”