Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall held his weekly press conference with the media on Monday. The Hoos are coming off their second straight loss, which dropped their record to 2-5 overall and 1-2 in the ACC.
North Carolina pulled away from the Cavaliers this past Saturday in Scott Stadium, securing a 35-14 win. The Cavaliers once explosive offense has struggled for the last game-and-a-half, a major factor in consecutive home losses to Pitt and UNC.
Virginia’s offense needs to find its rhythm quickly with a talented Louisville defense coming to Scott Stadium this Saturday at noon. The Cardinals also boast a dynamic offense led by Heisman Trophy candidate Lamar Jackson, a dual-threat quarterback who has guided his team to a 6-1 record and a no. 5 national ranking in the latest AP Top 25 Poll.
At his weekly presser, Mendenhall discussed UVA’s performance in the loss to UNC, the Aidan Howard lawsuit, Cavalier true freshman Landan Word, Louisville’s Jackson, and much more. Here’s an initial look – paraphrased as always – at some of the comments from Mendenhall’s Monday press conference. The full transcript has been added to the article.
No Quarterback Controversy
Before being replaced by senior Connor Brewer in the fourth quarter of the UNC game, junior Kurt Benkert had played every snap at quarterback for Virginia this season. He was outstanding in wins over Duke and Central Michigan as well as in the first quarter in the loss to Pitt, throwing for 903 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions in that span. Benkert has since struggled, completing 30-of-62 passes for 258 yards and an interception with no touchdowns in his last six quarters.
Mendenhall acknowledged Benkert’s recent struggles before proclaiming the former East Carolina Pirate will be UVA’s starting quarterback moving forward.
“I have confidence in him,” Mendenhall said of Benkert.
Mendenhall felt allowing Benkert to watch from the sidelines helped. He added that Benkert was eager to get to practice on Monday.
While Benkert’s grip on the starting job remains firm, the competition between Brewer and senior Matt Johns remains ongoing, Mendenhall said. Based on what Mendenhall said today, if an injury sidelined Benkert there is a solid possibility that Johns would take over.
The Cavaliers scored one touchdown with Brewer at the helm against UNC. Brewer’s stats were not impressive, though, as he completed only 2-of-12 passes for six yards.
Mendenhall praised Johns as “remarkable” from a character standpoint while also crediting the senior with playing an important role in the development of this team. While you can’t see the improvements from a wins/losses standpoint, there have been improvements in the program. And Johns, who started all of last season, has served as the Scout team quarterback and helped this team along.
Linebacker Landan Word subbed for Zach Bradshaw at the Buck position against UNC, a development in the making given the true freshman’s consistent performances in practice. Bradshaw suffered an ankle injury early against UNC and tried to play through it, but in the second half Word gave the senior a breather and then played most of the fourth quarter as well.
Mendenhall said Word “did a really nice job” and looked “fast” and “active.”
In addition to Word, Mendenhall named true freshman safety Chris Moore, redshirt freshman Chris Sharp, true freshman outside linebacker Matt Terrell, and senior cornerback Wil Wahee as players who are emerging and could help from a depth standpoint.
Louisville starting quarterback and legit Heisman candidate Lamar Jackson has “really impressed” Mendenhall as a player that throws well, runs well, and can be “super explosive” at any given time. Mendenhall said it would be unfair to make a comparison but did say Jackson reminded him of when BYU played against Nevada and quarterback Colin Kaepernick. On September 25, 2010, a Kaepernick-led Nevada squad beat BYU in Provo, 27-13. The current San Francisco 49er threw for 196 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 85 yards and a touchdown in the win.
Jackson gets the headlines, but Mendenhall was quick to point out that the star quarterback’s supporting cast is “dynamic as well.”
Additionally, instead of focusing on Jackson, Mendenhall tells his players to keep the focus on their own execution. Virginia needs to continue to focus on becoming more consistent and improving each game.
Mendenhall said the Aidan Howard lawsuit was/is a distraction for his team. However, he said he tells his players that distractions come every year and take different forms. What he wants his players to do is control what they can control and be selective with who they listen to. Rely on trusted sources.
Further addressing the lawsuit, Mendenhall said the investigation has been ongoing since fall camp. He and those involved have been cooperating and working behind the scenes regarding the investigation since August.
Offensive Line: Redshirt freshman R.J. Proctor is “on track,” Mendenhall said. He believes Proctor will be a good player and says it is encouraging to have young depth on the offensive line. Mendenhall, though, acknowledged that there is not a lot of depth at the position.
Bryce Hall: True freshman corner Bryce Hall was picked on by UNC, an experience Mendenhall believes is invaluable. Hall had “good coverage” but not “great coverage” against UNC, Mendenhall said. The difference? Good coverage is being there. Great coverage is being there and being able to knock the ball away. Mendenhall said Hall was for the most part on his receiver but maybe half a step off.
Moving forward, Virginia’s coach believes a hard-working Hall will use the UNC experience and improve from it.
Separation: Asked why UVA wasn’t successful with long passes against UNC, Mendenhall credited the Tar Heels secondary with sticking with the receivers. He said the Virginia receivers just didn’t get separation.
De’Vante Cross: Cross, a true freshman quarterback with dual-threat skills, is serving as UVA’s Scout team quarterback for Louisville week. Mendenhall described him as fast, athletic, dynamic, and maturing. He also said Cross has played some receiver and some quarterback on the Scout team this year.
Kickoff coverage improvement: A reason for Virginia’s improvement on kickoff return coverage? Bringing experience to the special team. Quin Blanding, Juan Thornhill, Kelvin Rainey, and Daniel Hamm were among those on the coverage team against the Tar Heels, who averaged just over 17 yards per return in three tries.
Bronco Mendenhall Press Transcript, Courtesy of Virginia Athletics Media Relations
Bronco Mendenhall: After two days, well a day and a half to think about our last game and to watch it, it was a unique challenge. With one of the first times in the last few times we didn’t moved the ball quite as frequently and successfully, and that made a different spin on the became.
Kurt struggled I would say the last six quarter, from the six half of Pittsburgh through this game, not quite as sharp, but really just a little bit antsy in the pocket. And so it was great for him and for to us have him step back and he was eager to get back in, I think after he had a chance to catch his breath, see what was happening, just have things slow down for a second, but he will be our quarterback moving forward, and I have confidence in him.
There’s always growing pains along the way and chances to learn, and I think that’s one of the things that not only our quarterback, but our team is working to overcome. Our special teams for the most part played more consistently. We personneled them more accurately and the production was improved. Kick return, kick coverage, punt return was solid, and punt cover was, toward the end of the game, was strong but early on, uncharacteristic. There was a few balls that didn’t really go where we’re used to seeing them go. And so that would probably be the only thing that was a little bit off.
Defensively, we executed fairly well for about three and a half quarters, and then the difference in the game in my opinion, we had two balls go over our head, a reverse and play action, still 28-14, we had a play-action pass go over our head. And so that’s been a fairly consistent theme throughout the season is big plays over the top in the pass game. We need to continue to work on securing our secondary, and big play potential there with a lot of habits that just have to continue to be reinforced.
Eventually I think we’ll be more consistent with our entire team on game day but that wasn’t the case on Saturday. My job is to make sure they play consistently, execution is sound and the transfer from practice to game is at a high level. Right now there’s still quite a bit of what I call slippage, which means when you put something in place in practice and you go to the game field there’s usually a drop off of some level and that still continues to show. We’re practicing well.
We’re working hard. I’ll continue to try to find ways to put our players in the best position possible and our coaches, but it’s going to take time and it’s going to take effort and it’s going to take consistency, and there isn’t a magical answer, it’s just time and effort and consistency and repetition.
Question. You said after the game that Carolina went after Bryce Hall. I think he was credited with nine tackles. Did he win some of those battles and what does that experience kind of do for him going forward?
COACH MENDENHALL: It’s just that, the experience part is invaluable. North Carolina has a run/pass option where they target the single receiver side for the boundary throw and they had that coming into the game and we touchdown back and forth with — but their tempo wasn’t allowing us to switch corners with Juan and Bryce, and we believed that he would be capable. And for the most part he was on the receiver at the right time but just a half a step away from knocking the ball down or making the critical play.
Good coverage is being on the receiver. Great coverage is knocking the ball down or preventing first downs. He played good. He didn’t play great but he played good. They target him a lot with a good receiver and so he got more experience. We try to simulate that as much as possible in practice but it isn’t the same and so with his mind-set and how hard he works, I think he’ll use that and his game will improve from there.
Q. Could you talk about Landon Word, looked like he made some plays early on. Was there a decision to play him more?
COACH MENDENHALL: So he’s been on the verge of playing more for about the past three or four weeks. Assignments have been coming quicker and quicker to him. He’s becoming more consistent in practice to where we’ve been on the verge of having him have a more significant role again for three or four weeks. Zach Bradshaw hurt his ankle and hurt it relatively early and we tried to have him play through it.
When we put Landon in, it was really fun to watch because he made plays. He looked fast. He looked active and he made — he stood out by not only what he was doing but how he was doing it in terms of production. Bright spot of another first year that was out there playing. So at one point that was, I think eight of the guys had significant roles for their first time, not just first years, and Landon did a really nice job.
Q. I know that obviously you can’t comment on the investigation — coach acknowledged it was a distraction to handle it. How do you as a head coach — what’s your position on handling all that, as well?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, I mentioned to my team a lot, No. 1, it was a distraction but there are distractions that come every year in some way, shape or form and they take different forms and they take different identities and they come from different sources. That’s part of dealing with as many young people as we have and being in a role of leadership, handling diversity — or distraction as part of that.
What I share with our team is be very selective about the voices you listen to and control what you can control. So adds you all know, I’m very careful about what I listen to — because it all has an effect on you, whether you think you’re thick-skinned or not, it has some influence.
And so I asked our team to rely on trusted sources. But then, I more specifically have them focus entirely on what can they control, and anything else, they have to let go. And there will be an appropriate time and an appropriate place for us to talk openly about the investigation when it’s over. But in the meantime, the biggest distraction was just — not that the investigation has been ongoing; that’s happened since fall camp, and I’ve been able to keep that kind of in the background. The biggest distraction was when it hit kind of the reports or the national reports hit, and we didn’t know when or how or if that would happen. So that was just a reminder off, oh, yeah, this happened. This investigation started a long time ago but now everyone is talking about it.
Q. So Coach Anae’s comment about being blind-sided was in regards to the lawsuit being announced.
COACH MENDENHALL: Exactly, because we’ve been cooperating and working behind the scenes since August.
Q. You’ve coached and faced a lot of dual-threat quarterbacks during your career. What’s your impressions of Lamar Jackson and just how good is he and what can you do against a guy like that?
COACH MENDENHALL: Really impressed with him so far. You know, it really isn’t fair to make a comparison. I’ve been asked that and that seems to be a question that comes up most frequently. We defended Colin Kaepernick at Nevada in a game, and I don’t know how many years ago, but watching him on film, that would be a similar, not identical comparison, a similar comparison.
This quarterback is very dynamic. Throws the ball well, runs the ball well and is super explosive at any given time. Quite a challenge. So, man, leverage is super important on a quarterback like this.
They have quarterback-designed running plays with blockers to block for him. They are certainly the scramble threat. It would be different if that was all there was, but the supporting cast is explosive and dynamic, as well. They are able to score as many points as they are scoring by not only what their quarterback is capable of doing but the supporting cast and how spread out they are and you really have to kind of pick and choose your poison as to where and when you choose what to stop.
Q. Same topic I have a question on. Which is easier or harder to defend? Is it the designed runs where he’s such a good athlete or the scrambles where you’re doing everything else?
COACH MENDENHALL: They are both really difficult. Any time you have a quarterback that can run, you’re really one defensive number short. So for instance, if you’re defending a pass formation and use conventional coverage, you can have enough defenders to be fairly consistent stopping the pass game. That does not account for a quarterback scramble.
How you account for quarterback scramble is a defensive lineman beating a block and making a tackle on a quarterback in space. So what happens is most teams use some form of man coverage, a little bit of man free coverage, are pretty exotic in the pressures and where they are not sound underneath in coverage just to have their eyes on the quarterback, so that answers the scramble part of it on quarterback runs but that leaves you very vulnerable to the pass game.
As you watch Louisville highlights, there are a lot of balls going over the top of people, as well and that’s because of the quarterback.
Q. In terms of your scout team —
COACH MENDENHALL: DeVante Cross, and he’s a very good athlete and we’re lucky that he’s here.
Q. I don’t know how many snaps he was out there for but Chris Sharp was in the secondary some from scrimmage. Is he a player whose role could grow in the second half of the season?
COACH MENDENHALL: We’re looking for at many players roles to grow as possible. The season is long, via the pace we want to play at, as fast and physical, if anything, I want that to be increased, not decreased, and the workload is mounting up so. As many players that can qualify that we can put in that we can trust, we would love to do that.
Landon was one of those. Chris Sharp is another. Chris Moore is starting to emerge a little bit. Will Wahee, Matt Terrell, those are some of the names that are emerging.
Q. You talked about earlier in the season, maybe even preseason, about how you didn’t have the versatility offensively; you had to be able to run at the pace you want to. At some point do you get to a place where not being able to run your place really hurts your offense, because seems like Carolina was able to match up with your personnel Mack age —
COACH MENDENHALL: They were.
Q. Time and time again. Would you be better off throwing some guys out there and see what you can do? What’s the thought process?
COACH MENDENHALL: Not necessarily. We still like and really like our personnel packages. I think what happened is Carolina’s approach was different than what they had shown. They chose two-match, meaning aggressive man-to-man coverage, their safeties were deep, traditional quarter step, and they were using them in man support with kind of man under coverage. That’s why they have been fairly susceptible to yardage in the run game and we had a 100-yard rusher.
I think the way I would answer your question is, possibly the timing and tempo of our offense, especially based on whom we are playing and what the game looks like, I don’t think is affected by who we put in in terms of personnel packages but what we might do is influence how long we work to hold on to the ball and possession time with the more dynamic offenses we play.
So I wasn’t as disappointed with how we used our personnel, but possibly possession-time increasing that as much as possible might be more of an emphasis.
Q. You mentioned some of the young guys on defense, on the offensive line, R.J. Proctor has played maybe for a month now, consistent offensive snaps. What’s his development looking like?
COACH MENDENHALL: He’s on track and we think he’ll be a good player in the future for us. It’s encouraging to have young depth at offensive line. We’re not very deep but we do have him and probably the next most significant is the underclassman, or first-year over there is Joe Reed, he’s doing a nice job.
Q. When you’re looking at Kurt (Benkert), how mindful are you that it’s probably a two-year project and there could be some ups and downs along the way?
COACH MENDENHALL: Mindful. And I think his development and his production has been on track to this point. And now that we’re playing better, better and better teams, his execution, his performance is having to climb at a more immediate pace, and that’s only realistic if he’s prepared for that, and so we’ve seen a few teams. We’ve seen some looks, he’s beat up a little bit and that’s impacted his kind of poise and patience in the pocket just a hair.
So again, when we come out of this, which we will, and he will, I think he’ll be more poised and mature and ready because of it, but again the road is steep right now in terms of conference play and the opponents we have coming up.
Q. Have you noticed teams, one of his base strengths, particularly against Central Michigan, Duke, is him going long a lot of times. Seems like these last two weeks, have teams done something to prevent him from that at all?
COACH MENDENHALL: No, not necessarily. Really all that’s happened is he’s just, again, a little bit more insecure in the pocket, escaping a little bit too quickly and so the rush has not converged quite enough for him to get out, so he’s escaping and looking to escape prior to the rush collapsing, which means that when escapes, there’s still existing leverage. But the coverage and the rushes he’s seen really haven’t been that different.
Q. You mentioned obviously Kaepernick is the closest thing you’ve seen so Jackson, but you have faced someone with hype, Sam Bradford (Oklahoma). How do you get your guys not to feed into everything else about an individual player and just see him as an opponent?
COACH MENDENHALL: Man, we again have, our meetings today, we’re so focused on just our own execution, which there’s significant lapses in consistency right now. I mean, my point simply to the team is we have plenty to work on just within our own organization, and so my intent is to keep their focus on us, on us, on us, knowing the external environment will be talking about Louisville and their quarterback.
I’ve got to work to make sure that the voices that are the listened-to voices and the trusted voices and the ones they want to, are the ones that are most compelling are coming from inside. Certainly the rest is going to happen; just focus on what can we do and what can we control. But they are kids and they hear it through social media. They hear it, ESPN, they watch game day. To me it’s more taking what can we do and what can we control.
Q. Going back to DeVante Cross, Coach (Robert) Anae said he’s the prototype of what he’d like quarterbacks to have the skill set. What do you like about him and how much pressure is on him to do a good job?
COACH MENDENHALL: Oh, lots and lots of opportunity for him to help us get ready. And I think he’ll do a great job of simulating that, as he has this year to this point. He’s been not only playing quarterback for us with the scout looks. He’s been playing receiver, as well.
He’s fast. He’s athletic. He’s good with the ball in his hands. He’s dynamic and he’s maturing. So yeah, a big role for him and we’re lucky that he’s here to help us.
Q. Smoke had kind of an atypical day, had enough long runs to rush more than a hundred yards, seven receptions for 25 yards and the long passing game didn’t show much. What was the issue there?
COACH MENDENHALL: Their coverage. Quite frankly, we didn’t separate nor did we get open enough and create enough opportunities to deliver the ball down the field. North Carolina’s coverage was stickier and more consistent than our ability to get open and that makes it hard on the quarterback.
So I credit North Carolina. When I watch the game in our game film, I watch it from a really objective view, as I’m not with our offense very much and just simply, we didn’t separate well enough and frequently enough to have the long game work.
And so the yardage reflected that. Our points reflected that. And I think that’s a great indicator right now is when you tie points to what that game looked like without the downfield throws, what we found is we’re not consistent enough yet to put the ball in the end zone frequently enough.
And so that was one of the takeaways from the game.
Q. Louisville’s offense gets a lot of attraction, but their defense is pretty darned good. Can you talk about what makes the defense so good, and is it easier to play that kind of defense when you have that kind of offense?
COACH MENDENHALL: So they are well coordinated, first. Their defensive coordinator has a lot of experience and a lot of success. They also have good players.
So when you have a combination of good coaches and good talent, that ends up having a lot of success and that’s over the years, Louisville has done that. They have added good football coaches and they have recruited very good talent to fit their schemes and vice versa.
In terms of the style of play, when the offense generates as many points as they are generating, that usually forces teams to be playing from behind. When they are playing from behind, that usually means they are more one-dimensional. When they are more one-dimensional, you’re able to call plays that are more aggressive and more specific and one-dimensional and that helps. So yeah, I think it all ties together.
Q. You talked about DeVante and the scout team. Matt John said he was also working with the scout team last week. Just talk about what you’ve seen out of him in terms of maybe leadership.
COACH MENDENHALL: He’s remarkable. I wish my vocabulary would allow me to use even a more profound word than that. He is our scout team quarterback, and the role that he’s playing is giving us our best chance to develop this program as fast as we possibly can to what everyone wants it to be.
And without Matt embracing and helping us in that regard, we wouldn’t be making nearly the improvement or progress that I see, even though it hasn’t resulted in the record nor the tangible on-field results in terms of wins at the rate we want. I still see, man, simple success is happening every day and Matt’s right at the core of all that. He’s just an amazing person and his leadership and who he is is exceptional.
Q. Along those same lines, I know you mentioned beginning of the year that that back up quarterback position could be kind of influx, obviously we saw a little bit of Connor (Brewer), the difficult situation he went in on Saturday, but didn’t produce a whole lot. Where are you with that? Is that still an ongoing competition for you?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, it’s an ongoing competition and so there possibly might be a shift in roles or assignments there. If for some reason Kurt got hurt or happened to struggle or we need to have him take a step back again, it might be Matt. So we talked about that this morning and we’ll kind of take a little time to sort that out but it’s ongoing; it has been.
Q. You talked about the different personnel shifts and particularly kickoff coverage. We saw Quin (Blanding) there on Saturday. How did he do in terms of his whole kind of work capacity and what other starters did you have there that you didn’t have before?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, our kick coverage identity completely changed. So Quin Blanding was on that unit. I wish I had my notes in front of me — and did really, really well.
(Juan) Thornhill was on it and did really well. Kelvin Rainey is also on it, Daniel Hamm is on it and did really well. So there’s really, I think every player on the kickoff cover team as I’m trying just to think about them in my head is a starter somewhere else in addition to being on that unit, and the results showed. They did a really nice job and basically took something that was volatile and unpredictable and made it sound pretty quickly. And yeah it does affect them in terms of their roles offensively and defensively, as it adds another full speed and dynamic sprint. But our depth is what it is and they are doing a nice job.
Q. The meeting you had with Coach (Robert) Anae and Coach (Jason) Beck, was that today or Sunday?
COACH MENDENHALL: No, that was today. Over the weekend, because we don’t come in Sundays and that’s the day of rest for our players and our coaches, there’s texting that’s going on back and forth, and then there’s some conversations after the game. We are all kind of debriefing. And so again, we are looking to find just the right situation backup wise in terms of the meeting that most — that will fit the offensive plan most similarly to Kurt. So if we do put in either Connor or Matt, it will be a very similar plan, so the rest of the cast can be the same.
And so we have most of those meetings, we have that meeting Monday morning, so that’s when it happened.