By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– When the next college football season will begin remains unknown. It could start as scheduled late this summer, or later in the fall, or in early 2021.
More than two months after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down college sports, there’s still no consensus on how best to proceed, but Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall knows what he wants to see in whatever plan is chosen.
“I want the safest possible,” Mendenhall said. “I want the most secure possible. I want what’s best for our student-athletes at the highest level before we even think about playing football. And whatever that is, that’s what I want. To say there’s no risk right now, I don’t think is fair. What that might look like in the spring, I don’t know. And so we’re doing the best we can every day trying to look at what risk––if it’s going up, if it’s going down––and how might we mitigate it for us all.”
Mendenhall, who’s in his fifth year at UVA, spoke for about 40 minutes Thursday on a videoconference with reporters. The NCAA announced this week that colleges would be allowed to begin holding voluntary on-campus workouts in three sports (football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball) on June 1. That doesn’t mean Virginia’s players will be back in town then.
“The states and each institution really are determining what is safe,” Mendenhall said. “So we’re following the state and [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines and working with our own medical people.”
UVA’s practice facilities, offices and weight rooms remain closed. “So even though the NCAA has said voluntary workouts [will be] allowed June 1, the University of Virginia will not allow, and the state of Virginia will not allow, those workouts to begin,” Mendenhall said. “So until our state, the CDC, our medical staff and our institution says that it’s safe and we have the structure and we have the resources and we have the testing and we have all the protocols in place, until then our players will not be returning to Grounds.”
States are slowly re-opening, and Mendenhall believes college football will be played in the fall. The Cavaliers, coming off a season in which they won the ACC’s Coastal Division, are scheduled to open Sept. 7 against Georgia at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta.
“It’s too soon to tell whether [the season] will start on time and what it will look like,” Mendenhall said. “The way that I think about it simply is, football supports and enhances humanity. It’s not in place of or more important than, and that’s the way I’m going to [move] forward and run our team. When it’s safe and when it’s appropriate and when all can benefit, I’m for playing the game. If that’s contrary to benefiting others or the health of others or maybe even philosophically seeming more important than, I’m not for that.”
With final exams over, UVA’s coaches are allowed to meet virtually with players two hours a day, for no more than eight hours a week. In team and position meetings on Zoom, the coaching staff has been “installing and talking about our season and re-emphasizing our goals, and then also just checking on the well-being of each of our players,” Mendenhall said.
“The highlight of each day is seeing my team online and having some interaction with them for the first couple hours of every day.”
There are three sessions of summer school at UVA, the first of which began this week. The first two are online. A decision on how classes will be taught during the third session has not been made. A handful of players are in summer school now, Mendenhall, and most of the team will be enrolled in the second session.
Of the recruits who signed with Virginia in December, three enrolled in January: tight end Joshua Rawlings, quarterback Ira Armstead and defensive back Donovan Johnson. The other incoming freshmen can participate in the team’s Zoom meetings once “their course work is done in their high school,” Mendenhall said.
Virginia has added three transfers for the coming season: running back Ronnie Walker from Indiana, quarterback Keytaon Thompson from Mississippi State, and wide receiver Ra’Shaun Henry from St. Francis (Pa.). Walker, who has two seasons of eligibility left, completed the semester at Indiana and is already participating in meetings with the Wahoos. He’s requesting a waiver that would grant him immediate eligibility.
Thompson and Henry are graduate transfers. Once they’ve graduated from their current schools, they’ll be allowed to take part in meetings at UVA. Thompson has a class that won’t be finished until the middle of next month, but Henry may be able to join the Cavaliers virtually as early as next week, Mendenhall said.
Thompson, who has two seasons of eligibility left, will compete with Brennan Armstrong for the starting job. Armstrong, who backed up Bryce Perkins in 2018 and ’19, will be a redshirt sophomore next season.
Armstrong knew the Cavaliers would be adding a graduate transfer at quarterback, Mendenhall said, so Thompson’s arrival won’t faze him.
“Brennan, he’s confident,” Mendenhall said. “That’s one of his greatest strengths, and he loves competition, and he really doesn’t acknowledge anyone else. He focuses on what he can control.”
Mendenhall said he doesn’t believe a team “can win the ACC Coastal, or win the ACC, or have a successful football program, without two very good quarterbacks. I loved the situation we had with Bryce and Brennan, and I really like the situation we have now with Brennan and Ketaoyn.”
HOT STREAK: In recent weeks, Virginia has received numerous commitments from players in the Class of 2021. With off-campus recruiting prohibited since the pandemic struck in earnest in March, the Cavaliers’ coaches have had success connecting virtually with recruiting targets.
“We’ve just shifted a lot of our focus that would have been on our team for spring practice into the talent acquisition and selection process,” Mendenhall said. “And so we put increased emphasis on it, designed protocol and processes that use technology, and we worked really hard. Coming off the success and the growth of our program the past four years, we have momentum. We’re leveraging that. Our messaging is really precise, and we put that with the right processes and the right emphasis, and the yield is reflecting that.”
In recruiting, Mendenhall said, the staff is “just so much more clear as to who will succeed at UVA, who will succeed in the ACC, who will succeed in our systems in the ACC, and who’s going to thrive in the academic and social environment here.”
SELF-GOVERNMENT: This is an unprecedented time for the Cavaliers, who have players not only from the United States but from Canada and Europe. That’s created challenges, but “if the team is relying on me to motivate them right now, then I’ve failed as a leader over the four years that I’ve been here,” Mendenhall said.
“This is about our players, this is about their team, their teammates, their leadership and accountability to one another. I just help with the structure and the framework and architecting it. They bring it to life. And so even though there aren’t captains, we have task-unit leaders, and that structure was in place before COVID hit, and it’s always been in place for the summers. And so their interactions and their reporting lines and how they interact, that’s really autonomous from anything that I do, other than providing that structure.”
His players are “trustworthy and they’re accountable,” Mendenhall said. “They’re not perfect, but they do want to be successful, and that’s what’s contributed to the growth over the past four years.”
After posting a 2-10 record in 2016, their first season under Mendenhall, the Hoos have steadily improved. They finished 6-7 in 2017, 8-5 in 2018, and 9-5 last season, when they defeated Virginia Tech for the first time in 16 years and made their first appearance in the ACC championship game.
HIGH STANDARDS: How UVA players carry themselves during virtual meetings does not escape the coaches’ notice.
“I love habits, I love learning, and I think a Zoom screen can reflect intent, and I think it can prove intent,” Mendenhall said. “And so we ask our players to prove their intent by what their screen looks like, and I’m talking about lighting, I’m talking about notebooks, I’m talking about pens, I’m talking about what they’re wearing, their countenance. And so we have Zoom rules, and we hold them accountable to those Zoom rules.”
ELDER STATESMAN: Defensive end Richard Burney, who came to UVA in 2015 as a tight end, is returning for his sixth year. Injuries and medical issues have hindered Burney at Virginia, but he appeared in every game last season, with six starts.
“My hope is that Richard could be a steadying force much like Eli Hanback was,” Mendenhall said. “Eli was the anchor and the rock of our program and really the epitome of all the things that I found and I find really valuable in terms of guiding principles. And so that’s passed on now from Eli to Richard, and Richard’s job is to be the gatekeeper and the holder of the keys basically for that culture, and I think he’s embracing that and I think he’s done a really nice job with it.”
Hanback, who competed as a graduate student last season, was a four-year starter on the defensive line.