UVA was within three points of Miami at halftime of last Saturday’s 2016 home finale. Unfortunately, problems that have plagued the Cavaliers all season long — turnovers, inability to move the ball consistently on offense — arose once again against a Miami squad that outmatched Virginia on both sides of the line. The Hurricanes held the Cavaliers scoreless in the second half and cruised to a 34-14 victory.
The loss dropped Virginia to 2-8 overall and 1-5 in Atlantic Coast Conference play. The Cavaliers’ final two games, beginning with Georgia Tech on Saturday, come on the road. Seeking a spark, head coach Bronco Mendenhall revealed a change at quarterback at his weekly Monday press conference.
Paraphrased as always, here is a rundown of Coach Mendenhall’s Monday press conference. The full transcript has been added below.
Making The Change
Senior Matt Johns will replace junior Kurt Benkert as Virginia’s starting quarterback, Mendenhall announced.
There are two objectives at play in making this move. Johns, UVA’s starting quarterback all of last season, hopefully will provide a boost to a team that has lost five straight games. Secondly, taking a step back is a necessary step in Benkert’s development.
Mendenhall lauded Johns’ character, calling the 6’5” senior an “amazing human being” and good leader. He added that Johns, who completed 3-of-7 passes for 64 yards in one quarter of action versus Miami, deserves this opportunity through consistent play in practice.
As you might imagine, Benkert, who has started all 10 games up to this point, was disappointed with the decision. Mendenhall’s message to the junior signal caller was that he loves him, still believes in him, and that this is still the beginning and not the end. Virginia’s coach says he is investing in Benkert’s growth, adding that he is not sure if Benkert can move forward development-wise without first taking a step back.
Mendenhall is banking on the move helping the team the rest of this season and helping Benkert heading into next year.
From his time at New Mexico and then with BYU, Mendenhall estimates he has 15 years of experience playing against option football teams. He is excited about the challenge.
“I like defending it,” Mendenhall said of the option.
It seems obvious and really is the case against any team, but even more so against an option team like Georgia Tech: You must make them play from behind. UVA wants to get ahead early while Georgia Tech wants the opposite, Mendenhall said.
Being assignment sound against the triple option is a must. This could be tricky with the inexperience Virginia has on the perimeter of its defense, so the challenge will be to make the game plan simple but effective.
News & Notes
– Mendenhall says he doesn’t single out players very often in the locker room after games, but he did just that with senior tailback Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell last Saturday. Mendenhall praised the toughness and effort Mizzell put in from beginning to end against Miami before describing the versatile back as mature, unselfish, consistent, durable, and an “exemplary teammate.”
Mizzell eclipsed the 1,500-yard career receiving mark in the loss to Miami, becoming the first player in ACC history to total 1,500 yards rushing and 1,500 yards receiving.
– Upon arriving at UVA, Mendenhall noted that the quarterback and offensive line topped the list of depth issues Virginia needed to fix in the coming years. Coach Mendenhall wants to have a clear line of succession in place at each position, and neither of those positions have that right now. He mentioned the possibility of having a freshman backup at quarterback next season. Taking another transfer is not out of the question in order to establish the line of succession.
Discussing the offensive line, Mendenhall says he likes the commitments they have gotten, knows they need more, and adds that it could take two more years before he gets the numbers and succession where he wants it. When he says succession, he means being in a position to reload and not rebuild.
– Cavalier true freshman De’Vante Cross will be running the QB positon on the Scout team ahead of the Georgia Tech game. Cross, a terrific athlete, had the same role the week of the Louisville game, and Mendenhall said the team was better prepared for the Cardinals as a result.
Looking ahead, Mendenhall indicate he has not decided where Cross’ best fit is position-wise. Cross is currently listed as a quarterback but could play multiple spots.
FULL TRANSCRIPT OF BRONCO MENDENHALL’S NOVEMBER 14 PRESS CONFERENCE (Courtesy of Virginia Athletics Media Relations)
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL’S OPENING STATEMENT: I really like my team. These kids are resilient and they’re tough. They really want success. I’m yet to be able to help them execute long enough with the collective, that means offense, defense and special teams, to make the jump that we’re hoping to make.
Anxious to have another chance at it this week. And the nature of that particular game, the ball security in the fourth quarter was a big issue, as it was versus Wake Forest. So that particular component right now is the easiest thing to identify as what is correctible and fixable and through emphasis, which is my job first and then to our assistants and then to the players. So increased emphasis on our saying that the ball is everything and how much that it controls outcome. That was just reinforced again this past week. But I just like how hard they are trying. I like still the progress that I’m seeing for lots of the game. Not all the game, but lots of the game. And through about almost through three-quarters of that one, I was encouraged by what I thought the outcome would look like. But still areas to improve, habits to build, consistency to grow.
Having said that, at this point in the year, I think it’s going to be really important for Kurt’s (Benkert) growth to step back. I’m going to allow Matt Johns to start the upcoming game. I think he’s earned the chance through not only his career here, but the season in leading our scout team offense and how unselfish he’s been battling his way to back into contention at quarterback. And I think it’s not only the right thing to do, I think it’s the fair thing to do. I think it’s the best thing for our team. I also think it’s the best thing to do for Kurt. I think he’ll grow and develop more so by playing this role for a little bit.
And I have to let Matt have his chance. He’s done way too much for the program and he’s competed in such a manner where that’s got to happen just from my standpoint as the head coach. So it was my decision, my decision only. I’m sure my coaches would have supported either way. I met with both quarterbacks today and I’m sure they will handle it great. I haven’t made it formal to the team yet. But I’m anxious for this program to continue to grow and develop and I think it is.
The outcome and the record at this point doesn’t show. But my internal day-to-day with these guys is really, really enjoyable. I think there’s a super foundation being laid at least in terms of expectation. The execution is starting to catch up, not holding consistency enough and especially when games are close to keep playing at a really high level long enough to those areas. We seem to get outside of ourselves when games are close and try to do extra and more which usually leads to more mistakes and sometimes less execution. And my job as the head coach is to really address that part and continue to work and chip away and see if we can make some improvement there.
Unique challenge coming up with Georgia Tech, but I love playing option football teams. It’s a great challenge. I like defending it and I like the all-inclusive nature of what your week looks like when you go into something like that. I look the opportunity for our team to continue to grow and ready for the next one.
So I’ll take questions.
Question. I don’t know how aware you were of it Saturday, but when you put Matt in the game, there was a really warm reception from the crowd. He’s wildly popular with his teammates. He’s demonstrated leadership and all that stuff. He’s a fifth year senior with a lot of other guys who aren’t going to get that carrot of the bowl game, but maybe a good finish would be — how much of that goes into this and what kinds of boost do you expect the team to get?
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: I really wasn’t aware of the response, but I’m glad that that happened. He deserves it. I’m genuine, authentic when I say this. He is an amazing human being and a really good player and a good leader. I think our team recognizes that and no one wants success for him more than his teammates.
However, that alone isn’t why he’s going to have a chance to lead the team. He’s a capable football player, as well. I think that he should and deserves a chance to lead the team and give us a boost.
But I also think it’s imperative for Kurt to step back. And for his growth, I’m not sure he could take another step forward without stepping back and kind of reassess. So all that together has gone into the decision or my decision.
Q. Seemed like the punting game didn’t go as smoothly the other day as it has. Are you kind of feeling effects of having had four different long snappers since the spring?
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: I’m not sure it was the long snappers. It wasn’t our best day at the punting spot. On that particular play, we’ve been using tempo, especially against teams that are aggressive. Meaning that the more we think a team will come after a punt, the faster we snap the ball and get aligned to not allow them to get ready.
In this particular case, there actually should have been a penalty on us. We had a player on the line of scrimmage still getting set because of — we were trying to hurry and just because of that. And the snap was not — it wasn’t perfect, but it was face level rather than chest level. Certainly catchable. But I think the tempo and rhythm was slightly ahead of what both our punter and our front was ready for and that led to a miscue. It just happened to be at a time where there was some other miscues that had happened. As I was watching it, there seemed to be a cumulative effect going on there.
Q. On using four different long snappers.
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: World record, as far as I know. But again, this particular experience for me, there’s been a lot of firsts. Adapting and adjusting and coaching through them the best way that I know how at this point.
Q. At one point this year, Matt was third on the depth chart and a lot of it, we thought, was attributed to the fact that this wasn’t really the offense for him. His skill set didn’t match everything. Has he made strides there? He made that change after the North Carolina game where he bumped up to two. Where is he now with that offense?
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: That’s a great question. I would say still because he hasn’t had the majority of reps yet, I don’t think I can answer that question fairly. What I can say and, as the head coach, I get a firsthand look at him every single day because he was running our scout offense, and I was just impressed and impressed and impressed and impressed and impressed to the point where, when we had a chance to play Connor (Brewer) and a chance to see Kurt continuing along his current progression, it just was — I was watching Matt every single day. He was making great throws and he was leading his team and he was just displaying all the things I’d like to see from a quarterback. That’s when I started to move him up in my own mind, regardless of anyone else’s mind. I was watching him every day and he was completing passes against our defense. Just the way he was leading.
So it just has all come to this point where it’s added a level of clarity for me that it has to happen.
Q. When you were at BYU, did you ever have a similar case with a quarterback where he took a step back and then returned either that season or the next season a better player?
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, sure. John Beck, in his first season, his freshman year, was a really hard year. And he was kind of playing out of necessity. And I don’t remember all the circumstances, but when you ask the question, there’s something in there that resonates. And it took a little time and it took — and we might have rotated.
Then there was just this poise and maturity and decision making and the game kind of slowed down. And the emphasis on what to do with the football took a significant jump. So I’m banking on and trusting that this will not only help our team with Matt, but it will also help Kurt. Intuitively, maybe more so than factually, that is what I’m basing this on.
Q. Wanted to ask you about Smoke (Taquan Mizzell). I’m not sure expectations are the right word, but when you got here and saw what he is capable of, how has what he’s produced aligned with what you might have hoped?
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: In the locker room after the game, I mentioned Smoke specifically. I rarely do that and single out players. But he ran hard, and he ran hard from beginning to end.
I just think he’s done an amazing job. He’s a very good football player. He is mature. And I didn’t coach him before, but he is mature and he’s unselfish. I’m not sure those are words that have been descriptors in relation to him a lot, but I like him a lot. I like his consistency and durability. Those are two separate things. I mean, he’s been consistent every week when he’s been given an opportunity and he’s durable for someone his size. And that’s a huge compliment.
Sometimes skill players or players that get a ball a lot, don’t practice hard, don’t practice frequently. They have drama issues. We’ve had none of that. He’s been an exemplary teammate.
Q. During the presser on Saturday, you talked about maybe the inconsistency from your team being total volume of plays more so than have to have. With a team like Georgia Tech, depending on the game script, the volume of plays could go either way. Does that lend itself to a different offensive game plan approach?
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yes, it does. There is a delicate balance in there between trying to generate enough points and keep Georgia Tech from having the number of possessions, or if we’re able to play good enough defense and getting them off the field. And that script is you have an ideal going in, but that each time we’ve played Georgia Tech or Air Force or others, it kind of morphs as it goes. You are never quite sure until you get into the situation.
Preferably we would love to get ahead. This is versus any option team. We would love for them to have to play from behind and we would love for them to not have the ball very long. They would want just the opposite, to be ahead and have the ball as long as they can, which means converted third-and-shorts. And I think that’s pretty standard.
Q. Should we assume that DeVante Cross will be running that offense in practice this week and what do you see from him long-term?
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: That’s our hope and our plan is to have that athleticism and experience at that position to help us get ready. It won’t simulate it perfectly, but he did a really, really nice job helping us get ready for Louisville to the point where we could assess what the schematics might look like and what they might look like against Louisville’s personnel. So that would be similar here.
You never can simulate the look identically or exactly, but that part will be pretty close.
Q. And long-term?
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: Long-term, to be determined. DeVante is a really good athlete. Multiple positions that he could play. Where he might be suited to fit our team best, I would say still that’s something that we’re considering.
Q. One of the biggest question marks entering the year was developing depth on the offensive line. You’ve played 10 games, you basically used the same five guys. It allowed 31 sacks. The run game hasn’t been great. You haven’t subbed in a lot of guys to try to find improvement. Where are you right now with the depth? Where do you see that position moving forward? How important is that to solidify that spot?
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s essential. The deficits are two of the main deficits in the program as we just assessed, roster management and taking over. The very first was the management of the quarterback position and having succession planning there. Right after that or equal to that was the same on offensive line. There isn’t now the next class of five juniors ready or the next class of five sophomores ready. It’s not even close to that.
So we are addressing. Hasn’t been addressed yet. We have some excellent commitments in our classes ready. We need to work on some more. We need to do that at least two more years in a row to then have the plan in place for the type of consistency that we’d like there. We rotated at least two other players fairly consistently in this past game. R.J. Proctor getting significant reps. And one was a little bit more forced because of Jackson Matteo’s injury. I would say R.J. Proctor is the one that’s benefitting the most or getting the most experience.
We would love to do that with two or three others, but the depth, quite frankly, isn’t there to allow that. There’s some younger players we’re working hard not to play. And then the recruiting classes, not just one, are going to have to take effect.
This isn’t a program that the roster management is just turnkey and now here you go. This is now massive efforts to build succession planning is the best way that I put it, to where each and every year you’re just reloading and not rebuilding. Some of the youth that we’re playing right now defensively, it will be the equivalent of that at least offensively next year as you look at some of the players moving on. So there’s still a level of inconsistency with just the personnel management part of this that’s going to take some time. And that does not mean we won’t have success or can’t have success, so I’m not just presenting it as such. Just that this cycle is we have a lot of work to do in terms of staffing the team.
Q. Obviously you’ve had a lot of success against option teams. Is it your way of attacking, the old traditional way, where you shut down the dive and then force the pitch and get that guy or are there different ways of attacking it?
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: There are different ways and rarely against a coach as good as Paul Johnson in schemes can you use the same plan every year because they adjust really well. There’s a lot of in-game adjustment that goes on with this system and the counting of numbers and formational adjustments and type of plays being run.
The worst mistake really, a less than effective approach is just to play it one way. But what you do have to be is assignment sound. And the fullback adds consistency. If you can’t take away the fullback, the time of possession just overwhelms you. You never get the ball.
But there’s a reason you put your best player at quarterback in the option. And he’s one that makes the entire thing go. If you are going to err anywhere, it would be erring on the side of making sure the quarterback is handled. You can’t put all your focus there; otherwise you never get the ball back because of the fullback.
Then if those two things happen to be handled well, the volatility and really where the big chunks come, which is the third phase, which is the pitch and play actions, rarely do you get to those unless you’ve gotten to the other ones. I think sequentially that would be the best way for me to explain my view of defending the option. And so we’ll do our best to, again, address all of those things.
Q. It seems like there’s a number of guys on this team that have played big roles this year that you would describe as having wallowed here before you guys got here. Andrew Brown, Keeon Johnson, bunch of guys. How much have you noticed that the younger guys who might have felt like they were wallowing have kind of noticed and maybe stepped up their effort to become part of this?
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think one of the things when you have a new coaching staff is opportunity and that doesn’t mean — different coaches take over programs in different ways. Sometimes you just move on and other times it’s more open tryouts, so to speak.
What we’re finding is there are players that are very capable here. Andrew and Keeon would be two examples. What you also find and what we’re uncovering, and I think you probably can see it, is when a player has a chance now from wallowing to emerge, emerging is different than consistency. And so you’ll see flashes in these roles these kids are taking on that are new and different, and the volume of plays is new and different and their production is new and different. But also they’re learning how important consistency is and going the wrong way at a critical time gives up a first down or maybe running the wrong route at a critical time gets a quarterback hit.
So there are growing pains along the way and that really is affecting — and I’m working really hard to get the team as consistent as possible. Those two things are almost opposing forces of lack of experience from wallowing, to now emerging, and then the next step from emerging is consistent play regardless of number of plays. We’re still not to that point of being able to put an entire game together on both sides of the ball and special teams and have that hold from beginning to end.
I do think there’s been progress and I see it more consistently and for longer. But there is still, as we can see and you can see, mistakes that happen that reflect inexperience and youth.
Q. With Donte Wilkins, (Micah) Kiser, (Zach) Bradshaw, (Kelvin) Rainey, Quin (Blanding), you have veterans and experience kind of in the middle of your defense. On the outside you’ve got (Matt) Terrell, (Chris) Peace, (Jordan) Mack, (Eli) Hanback, Steven Wright sometimes, guys who have not played Georgia Tech. What is the challenge with the young guys this week, I guess, to teach them but not overload them this week?
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s just that. I think the question is fair. I would actually add Donte into the mix of the outside, because even though he’s an upperclassman, he hasn’t played tons and tons of football for UVA.
Really, when it comes to experience, the way that I think it would be fair to say Micah and Zach and Quin and Kelvin. But that’s been basically the case all year, other than when Zach is hurt, Landan Word is in there. So if Zach is healthy, those four have had a seasoning experience of playing Georgia Tech, and there’s no way to simulate it. So what that leads to or lends itself to is lack of consistency, volatility and possibility of big plays.
So the key then is to put a plan in place that’s simple enough and effective enough that we can execute it based on our current personnel against a scheme like that. But that’s been our challenge the whole time. I welcome the challenge, but this is just the next offense to do that against which is unique and different.
Q. It seems that one of the penalties that really hurt you the other day was the hands to the face?
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yes. That was his second one of year, same penalty.
Q. Hadn’t heard very much about that penalty in recent years. Are they looking for it more and how does it occur?
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: So the way that they call the penalty, and again it was his second, which again, it’s rarely called on a defensive player, usually more on offensive players than not. But the penalty is called if there is continual hands to the face. So that means that he was rushing the edge and was extending his arm to get the edge and missed the guy’s shoulder pad, went up and got underneath the guy’s chin and the bottom of his face mask. So as he was trying to rush the edge, that was his focal point and it stayed in contact with the guy’s face mask. And that’s why they called it. So it was there for about three steps and there it is.
Q. You had mentioned, when you took Kurt on, one of the big things you were attracted to him about was the fact that he had two years eligibility?
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yes.
Q. You probably wouldn’t have looked at him if he had just one. Was that emphasized when you talk to him? And how did he take the news and how does he kind of appreciate the fact that he’s still got another year to figure this out?
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: He was disappointed, just as anyone would be that’s a competitor. But my simple message to him is I love him, I believe in him and this is still the beginning, not the end. Meaning that I’m investing in his growth as much as I’m investing in Matt Johns’s growth. I think he will be better because of stepping back. I don’t think he could continue under the same circumstances and make the jump that’s necessary. There needs to be a stepping back and reassessing and reframing before he goes back in.
And the next part to this is when you consider our backup quarterbacks right now, in Connor and Matt, there’s a giant jump now to a true first year. So there very well could be another transfer come in to then try — if not, then your backup quarterback for next year is a first year. Most coaches, including myself, would prefer a player in between that. So this isn’t necessarily as much about Kurt as it is our entire team, our entire program. So Matt, I think, will help Kurt. But then again, when you are thinking about the whole roster management issue, it’s not ideal to have a senior and then a first year. That’s reflective of the offensive line, it’s reflective of the quarterback, reflective of a lot of positions on our team.
So you’re going to see through the upcoming years of recruiting, we have a lot of decisions we have to make in terms of when to take a transfer and where to get us maybe to bridge a gap. And that could very well happen at this position.
Q. I have two questions. Couldn’t Kurt have two more years if he got that medical red shirt for last year?
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: So in looking into that, and I don’t want to speak too much on that, but in a medical red shirt, it has to be a loss of two full years in relation to injury. So a red shirt has to have been caused by a season-ending injury and then there has to be another year lost by a season-ending injury. How that will fit, if it’s possible, I’m sure we’ll do all the work to do that. If it’s not possible and the documentation doesn’t support it then we won’t. I haven’t looked into it far enough yet. I just know the rule on two full years lost by injury.
Q. Does Georgia Tech present unique challenges because they played — everyone thinks Justin Thomas is their best player, and he didn’t play last week. I don’t know how similar the way the guy who played played to Justin Thomas, but what kind of challenge does that present in preparation?
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: Option is option and it’s very difficult. Most likely, if you have been at a place long enough, like Coach Johnson has been at Georgia Tech, they are not talking about the same issues we have. There’s a clear plan where it’s this quarterback. Then if he’s not in, it’s this quarterback. If this running back is not in, there’s another running back. And there’s a development plan that’s going on where it’s more seamless moving from one to another. Usually that means there’s been enough repetition to where there’s not the giant drop offs that a lot times happen in newer programs.
So I think that their program is mature enough to account for that.
Q. I don’t imagine there was much humorous about the game the other day, but did you see how furious Jackson Matteo was about having to miss two snaps out there?
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: I did. He was there on the field, knowing how much he cares about playing, I asked him sarcastically, You just taking a rest or are you really hurt?
And he said, Give me one play, give me one play and I’ll be back.
So even if that moment — I’ll remember that forever. It might be the only thing I’ll remember about the game. It’s been that way through my career. We were watching film today of past games and different things and I don’t remember a single call or the game at all, the score, but I remember an interaction here or there. So I’ll remember that.
He was already mad that we were out there because that would mean he would have to come out of play.
Q. You got the majority of your recruiting class before the season started, but you still picked up some notable guys here of late, particularly one on Saturday. I know you can’t you talk about them specifically, but what has been your message to them that you continue to have success despite the record not being the best?
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: It really hasn’t been that difficult yet, meaning that families and young people are pretty clear and they do their research. All they are saying is which is holding more weight – 11 years of success and consistency or what we’re seeing through one year? What they are seeing and what they are hearing from our players is really optimistic and positive. The number of wins, no. But the success or the progress they are feeling, yes.
So they’re based on an investment portfolio, kind of early investors in a great opportunity. That’s the way they are viewing it. They are getting in at the time where they can make a real difference, which is actually why I came is to make a real difference. Not being promised a return right away, but knowing that I could contribute to something of real significance. And they are seeing that and they like that. It’s real.
And then I have really good coaches. The relationships are everything to us. And these kids are connecting at a really high level with my coaches and want this experience for what they think it will be and what I think it will be.
So it’s been fun and it uplifts me to come in after talking to the team in the locker room and talking to the coaches in a locker room and come out and a family is in tears in committing to join. So put that in context of coming off the field in that game and coming in and have a family so excited to join. It’s a really cool thing and encouraging.
Q. In a lot of Virginia’s games against Paul Johnson’s teams, Georgia Tech has come out and had a lot of success on the first couple of series and then it seems like the defense gets adjusted to the speed of the option and settles down a little bit. Was that your experience against Air Force and Georgia Tech? Is the defense particularly vulnerable right out of the gate?
COACH BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yes is the easy and clearest answer. The more experienced your team, the less so. The less experienced team, the more so.
So yeah, we’re vulnerable to that. However, in the past three or four or five games, we’ve actually started pretty well defensively in terms of 3-and-outs. Y’all can do the research. So I think that our practice model is doing a pretty nice job to help us start pretty quickly early. Whether that will help enough versus this opponent, we’ll find out. But that’s pretty typical regardless of who any option team plays and trying to get a feel for that.
So we’re aware of that and recognize that challenge, but this is now, let’s see, five years at New Mexico plus then 13 total at BYU. Not every year was against Air Force, but that’s 15 years straight of defending all different kinds of option football. But there’s been a pretty good learning lab of what might work and what might not. All that does is give us a reference point to start from for this particular team and this particular situation. And that’s helpful but it doesn’t help our team in this particular situation. And that’s helpful, but it doesn’t guarantee success.