By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. –– He was still learning his way around the league when he traveled to the Queen City for ACC Football Kickoff in July 2016, about six weeks before his first game as the University of Virginia’s head coach.
Since then, however, Florida State, Louisville, Georgia Tech, Miami and North Carolina have changed coaches, and Bronco Mendenhall has moved well up the conference’s seniority ladder.
“I thought about that in the coaches’ picture today,” Mendenhall said Thursday afternoon at the ACC’s annual preseason media event, “and so it’s exciting, but also frightening and a reality at the same time. College football is difficult.”
After posting a 2-10 record in 2016, the Cavaliers improved to 6-7 in 2017, when they advanced to a bowl game for the first time in five years. In 2018, they finished 8-5 after defeating South Carolina 28-0 in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte.
With returning players such as quarterback Bryce Perkins and cornerback Bryce Hall, both of whom joined Mendenhall at ACC Football Kickoff, Virginia is expected to contend for the Coastal Division title this season. UVA opens the season Aug. 31 against defending Coastal champion Pitt at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
“We know what we have on our team,” said Perkins, a senior. “We definitely have the talent and we definitely have the mindset, too.”
Hall said: “I think internally, as a program we had high expectations for ourselves, even when nobody else really believed in us. And so we’ve kept that same expectation, that same work ethic.
“I think our hard work is starting to be manifested and starting to pay off, and people are seeing that and taking a little notice to that. I think all that’s really changed is the spotlight has been more on us in different aspects. We’ve always had this expectation and motivation to be all we can be.”
The assistant coaches on Mendenhall’s first team at UVA were Robert Anae (offensive coordinator/inside receivers), Jason Beck (quarterbacks), Garett Tujague (offensive line), Marques Hagans (wide receivers), Ruffin McNeill (defensive line), Shane Hunter (inside linebackers), Kelly Poppinga (outside linebackers) and Nick Howell (defensive coordinator/secondary).
Of those coaches, only McNeill is no longer at UVA. When McNeill left after the 2016 season, Mendenhall promoted graduate assistant Vic So’oto to D-line coach.
Anae, Beck, Tujague, Hunter, Poppinga, Howell and So’oto followed Mendenhall from Brigham Young University to Virginia after the 2015 season. At BYU, Mendenhall won 99 games, with 11 bowl appearances, in 11 seasons as head coach.
Such stability is rare at the FBS level, and it’s contributed to the Wahoos’ resurgence, said Hall, a senior who enters his senior season as an All-America candidate.
UVA’s coaches “know what the standard is, they’re enforcing it, and you’re getting the same thing,” Hall said. “The message is consistent, and you trust them, because they’ve been in a program that’s had a lot of success and developed that. So you can trust what they’re saying is true, because they’ve been preaching it since they got here.”
When he came to UVA, Mendenhall said, “I brought friends that I trusted, admired and I thought were competent. I’m not in this business for the sake of outcome only. Every day does matter to me, and whom I’m with matters every day. I might be one of the few coaches at the Power 5 level that gets to work with his closest friends, and that matters a lot to me. That our families are friends matters to me. That doesn’t mean I’m not accountable for results. I just want both.
“Stability certainly matters, and I think it matters to young people. There’s something to be said for coming home from school on the same schedule and knowing which parent will be there. It certainly matters when you know what a teacher’s going to be like and how they’re going to teach, and I think momentum and confidence can be generated that way.”
Still, Mendenhall is realistic. The more the Hoos win, he knows, the more attractive his assistants will become to other schools.
“With our growing success in football, I don’t think it will be long before some of my staff members are sought out,” Mendenhall said. “They’ve all been grown from within. All that will mean is I’ll elevate the next graduate assistant, because I believe in our way, and I like the stability, and I think young people thrive on that.”
Perkins, who began his college career at Arizona State, later attended a junior college before enrolling at UVA in January 2018. Hall has been around Mendenhall longer, and he’s seen his head coach change.
“I think at the core of who he is, he’s the same, and I love that about him, because he is who he is, and he’s an awesome man,” Hall said. “As a coach, I’ve seen him adapt and be able to progress through being more self-aware and understanding who he’s playing with and the guys on the team, and then developing a game plan and using that understanding to put us in the best position to use our strengths.”
In 2018, for the fifth consecutive year, ACC media members picked UVA to finish last in the Coastal Division. The Cavaliers ignored the prognosticators and ended up tying for third with Miami and Virginia Tech.
They could have accomplished more. The Hoos closed the regular season with back-to-back overtime losses, falling to Georgia Tech in Atlanta and Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. In each game, UVA lost after holding its opponent to a field goal on the first possession of OT.
“Those overtime losses weren’t accidental,” Mendenhall said. “We were outplayed and we didn’t execute in the critical moments. But we did apply those learnings. We worked relentlessly and shut out an SEC opponent, and that was another indication of our capability.”
The loss to the Hokies motivated the Cavaliers as they prepared to face the Gamecocks in Charlotte. It “set the mindset about practice, how practice should be,” Perkins said. “Coming off a loss, the only thing that is going to make you feel better is the next week and a win.”
Leading up to the Belk Bowl, the Cavaliers were “just mad, just ferocious,” Perkins said. “Looking [back at] the South Carolina game, we have to make sure we know what it takes to perform at that level. Let’s not have it take a loss for us to get back to that level of competitiveness.”
Hall said: “Nothing’s guaranteed to you. Nothing is going to be given to you. With that mindset and approach, it helps us put in perspective that we’re going to have to come out each and every week and earn everything that we get.”
Perkins played most of the final two regular-season games with an ankle injury he suffered in the first quarter against Georgia Tech. Even so, in his first season as a Cavalier he a program record with 3,603 yards of total offense.
“I’m very thankful and lucky Bryce chose UVA,” Mendenhall said. “He’s the primary reason we jumped our win output from six to eight. He’s one of the primary catalysts for our program. I acknowledge his role. Quite frankly, how he goes, we go.”
UVA’s goal, of course, is to return to Charlotte in early December. The ACC championship game will match the Coastal winner and the Atlantic Division winner on Dec. 7 at Bank of America Stadium. Virginia is the only Coastal team never to have advanced to the ACC championship game.
The ACC’s preseason poll will be released Monday and the preseason all-conference team on Tuesday.
“We have as good a chance as anyone on our side of the division to win this league,” Mendenhall said. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that. We have a returning quarterback. We have a strong defense. We have a culture of excellence. We have confidence. We have an expectation that that’s what we’re capable of.
“Now, doing that is the next part. So we’re optimistic, we’re excited, but also acknowledge the challenge.”
ACC Football Kickoff was held at the hotel where the Cavaliers stayed ahead of the Belk Bowl.
“Man, it’s fun being back here, because all I thought about was our bowl game, and it’s fun to have great memories,” Mendenhall said.
MEDICAL REPORT: Mendenhall said the Cavaliers will be without offensive lineman Alex Gellerstedt (knee) and running back Justin Zollar (Achilles tendon) this season. Gellerstedt is a graduate transfer from Penn State who has two seasons of eligibility left.
Recovering from injuries but expected back late in the season, Mendenhall said, are wide receivers Ben Hogg and Darnell Pratt. Kicker Hunter Pearson also is recovering from an injury.
Another graduate transfer, wideout Dejon Brissett, had foot surgery this summer and will have a limited workload in training camp next month. Brissett caught 86 passes for 1,282 yards and nine touchdowns during his career at the University of Richmond.