By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Bronco Mendenhall calls them “pioneers,” the fourth- and fifth-year seniors who embraced the philosophy of a new coaching staff and played leading roles in the revitalization of the University of Virginia football program.
Some of those players, such as Eli Hanback and Richard Burney and Tanner Cowley, were already in the program when Mendenhall took over as the Cavaliers’ head coach in December 2015. Others –– Joe Reed and Bryce Hall and Jordan Mack and Hasise Dubois among them –– had committed to UVA for 2016 but, after the coaching change, were unsure what would happen next.
Mendenhall chose to honor the scholarship offers extended by the previous staff, and the recruits remained committed.
“I’m so grateful and lucky that they did,” Mendenhall said Monday.
Mack, who’s from the Atlanta area, remembers the home visit he received from Mendenhall and assistant coaches Nick Howell and Kelly Poppinga, who had followed Mendenhall from BYU to UVA.
A four-year starter at linebacker, Mack said this week that he bought into the “message they preached and everything they said, and when I watched [BYU film] and did my research on Coach Mendenhall and the staff, it was an easy decision.”
Reed, who grew up a UVA fan in Southside Virginia, had a similar experience.
“I enjoyed what [the new coaches] were saying, and I enjoyed being around them,” Reed said. “It just felt like family, so I had no doubt that they were going to turn this thing around when I got here.”
On his radio show this week, Mendenhall reminisced about the coaches’ visit to Mack’s home.
“It’s played out exactly as I would have hoped,” Mendenhall said, “because of the character component. Certainly the ability is there, but the character has been just remarkable.”
The seniors’ character has enabled them to endure trying times. Transforming the culture of a program can be a slow, frustrating process, and UVA finished 2-10 in 2016, ending the season with seven straight losses.
In 2017, however, there was tangible progress as the Wahoos advanced to a bowl game for the first time in six years. In 2018, they won eight games and finished the season with a victory for the first time in 13 years. And now, in their fourth season under Mendenhall, the Hoos have an opportunity to win the program’s first Coastal Division title and advance to the ACC championship game.
“We certainly could not and would not have made the progress without not just their consistency, but really the willingness to trust us,” Mendenhall said. “You can’t coach someone effectively unless trust is established. They made a decision early on and have maintained that decision. They call it trusting the process. They tell that to the younger players: It works, so trust it. That doesn’t mean they even always understand it. They literally chose to trust before they saw results here. I’ve been so grateful for that and to them.”
Hanback, a four-year starter on the defensive line, said the seniors are “all very close and good friends, and I think that helps our chemistry and allows us to be locked in and talk to each other and communicate with each together. We have a very tight bond.”
A victory Friday would enhance the seniors’ legacy. Not since 2007 have the Cavaliers won nine regular-season games. They can reach that mark this year, but to do so they’ll have to end a streak that, Mendenhall acknowledges, hangs over the program.
At noon, UVA (8-3 overall, 5-2 ACC) hosts No. 23 Virginia Tech (8-3, 5-2), which has won 15 straight games in the series. The Cavaliers’ seniors will be recognized before the game, whose winner will represent the Coastal next weekend against Atlantic Division champion Clemson in Charlotte, N.C.
“We just talk about it each and every single day,” Mack said of the opportunity, “how we just have to seize the moment.”
The Cavaliers are 6-0 this season at Scott Stadium, where the seniors will play for the final time Friday.
“That’s probably not going to sink in till it’s over,” Hanback said after practice Wednesday.
The seniors’ focus has been on preparing for the Hokies, who like the Cavaliers come in on a three-game winning streak. “I think there’s been a different sense of urgency and different sense of preparation this week,” Hanback said.
The Hoos let one slip away last year in Blacksburg. With two minutes left in the fourth quarter, Virginia led 31-24 at Lane Stadium. But the Hokies rallied to force overtime and won 34-31 when UVA quarterback Bryce Perkins lost a fumble on a botched exchange with running back Jordan Ellis.
“We know how close we came, but almost isn’t good enough,” Hanback said. “We’ve had a lot of focus this week, and we’ve been locked in. We’re ready to go.”
Ellis was a senior last season, but Perkins returned this year and again leads Virginia’s offense. Virginia Tech has a first-year starter in quarterback Hendon Hooker, and he’s been impressive, too. The Hokies have averaged 37 points in their past three games.
“I think they’re really trying to establish the run,” said Poppinga, UVA’s co-defensive coorindator. “I think they’ve done a really good job of identifying what they’re really good at … They’ve had a very similar identity the last three or four games.”
Veteran defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s charges have been even more impressive in recent weeks. Tech shut down Wake Forest’s high-power offense in a 38-17 victory, then shut out Georgia Tech (45-0) and, last weekend, Pitt 28-0.
Foster, who’s retiring after this season, does “an excellent job, both in scheme, but also in mentality,” UVA quarterbacks coach Jason Beck said. “Those guys play with an edge. They play really aggressive and play really hard. I’m sure as much as anything these last few weeks, they’re really playing hard for him.”
Like Hanback, Mack says he hasn’t dwelled much on the Senior Day aspect of the regular-season finale. But he’s determined to “take it all in,” Mack said, “and remember my first time at Scott Stadium and realize that this is my last game playing in there.”
In team meetings, Mack said, Mendenhall talks about the trajectory of the program.
“You always want to be better than [the previous season],” Mack said. “We have it pasted around our meeting rooms: Be greater than, not equal to. So we just work hard to improve [on] what the last class and the guys that came before us have built, build upon that each and every single year.”
The goal, Mack said, is “to leave the program better than we found it.”
Reed, a standout return specialist and wide receiver, said he and his classmates often reflect on their first-year experiences, “and it’s just hard to believe [that] that’s where we were … We tell the younger guys basically just how lucky they are to be in this program right now, like they came in at the perfect time. The program is only getting better. Jordan is right: We want to leave with the program in great hands, and I think we’ve done that.”