UVA football finished the 2016 season no. 112 in the nation among 128 FBS schools in total offense and no. 93 in total defense, mustering only two wins in 12 games. You don’t have to tell second year Cavalier head coach Bronco Mendenhall that major improvements are needed.
“There really isn’t a place in the program that I don’t think has to take a giant jump and needs to take a giant jump,” Mendenhall, who prior to last season had never endured a losing campaign in 11 seasons as an FBS head coach, said during a March 24 teleconference ahead of spring practice. Spring football ends with the Spring Football Festival on Saturday, April 29 at 3 p.m.
Learning all about the Virginia program, including the team’s strengths and needs as well as the competition they face in the Atlantic Coast Conference, was key for Coach Mendenhall and his assistants, most of whom came with him from BYU. Mendenhall and company are now looking to grow from last year’s lessons.
While a struggle on the field, year one enabled Mendenhall to establish the roots of his desired culture. That is, instill in his players the core beliefs and guiding principles of what he wants his program to become. While there is still work to be done on that front, Mendenhall is pleased with the way the players have embraced his philosophy. There is a new focus this spring.
“The next step is increased emphasis on playing the game itself, on the fundamentals that are required to play the game as well as the execution,” Mendenhall said.
In addition to instilling a new culture, Coach Mendenhall was also busy implementing his offensive and defensive schemes last spring. Compared to last year, this spring, Mendenhall said, has “already been just a lot of fun to see the points of reference be so drastically different. I’m just talking about where players align, their knowledge of the assignments, why we might make a certain call, what context we might use it in. It’s not as much installation now. It’s adaptation to our who our personnel versus who we play. That presents a whole second-level thinking and performance stage that we’re able to start from.”
“We’ve made significant progress, at least in where we started from,” Mendenhall said. “Hopefully, that will bear out in the results.”
More from Coach Mendenhall’s March 24 Teleconference
Offensive linemen Ryan Bischoff (RS Soph) and R.J. Proctor (RS Soph), defensive lineman Andrew Brown (Sr), wide receivers Warren Craft (RS Soph) and Doni Dowling (Sr), and defensive backs Kirk Garner (Sr), Darious Latimore (Jr), Chris Sharp (RS Soph) and Brenton Nelson (Soph) will sit out spring practice because of injury.
Additionally, defensive lineman Christian Brooks (Soph) and cornerback Tim Harris (Sr) are limited this spring. Three others, Mendenhall said, haven’t qualified to play. Richard Burney (TE, RS Soph), Malcolm Cook (LB, Sr), Myles Robinson (CB, Jr) and Dominic Sheppard (ILB, RS Soph) are coming back from injury but are expected to practice.
Cook, who showed real promise at outside linebacker last preseason before missing the year due to illness, is impressing the coaches once again. According to Mendenhall, the speedy senior is “more physically fit” than last year and is “reading ferociously and training vibrantly.”
Provided he stays healthy, the Richmond native is one to watch this coming season.
“We think his role could be significant,” Mendenhall said of Cook.
Blanding, Kiser Return
The decisions of 2016 first-team All-ACC performers Quin Blanding and Micah Kiser to return to Virginia for their final seasons provides a boost to a program in need of one. With a more mature group around the star free safety and inside linebacker, the Cavalier defense could prove to be formidable in 2017.
No question, Mendenhall is happy to have this dynamic duo back.
“I think both believe in leadership of program, the direction of program, and the contributions they can make,” Mendenhall said. “I was humbled by trust they were placing in myself and the staff. I was very grateful and excited.”
Benkert The Starter?
After winning last summer’s quarterback competition with seniors Matt Johns and Connor Brewer, East Carolina transfer Kurt Benkert started 10 of 12 games for the Wahoos last season, completing 56.2% of his passes while throwing for 2,552 yards with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Benkert was benched in the second-to-last game, though, and split time with Johns in the season finale against Virginia Tech.
Mendenhall revealed that Benkert, a rising senior, is the starter this spring and the frontrunner to begin the 2017 season as the team’s starter. The backup right now is rising sophomore De’Vante Cross, a dual-threat signal caller out of Pennsylvania. Another rising sophomore, Sonny Abramson, is on scholarship, and this summer Virginia will add Missouri dual-threat transfer Marvin Zanders and true freshman Lindell Stone to the mix.
“I would say he has an edge,” Mendenhall said of Benkert.
Mendenhall mentioned that Benkert suffered a shoulder injury against U-Conn last season. It was Virginia’s third game. Benkert didn’t miss any time but was impacted by the injury according to Mendenhall, who felt the 6’4”, 220-pound signal caller’s comfort-level in the pocket deteriorated in the games thereafter.
Word, Terrell Departures
Virginia’s defensive depth was dealt a blow recently, when we learned that linebackers Landan Word and Matt Terrell were transferring. Both played significant minutes as true freshmen last season, and Word perhaps had an inside track toward starting alongside Kiser at inside linebacker this season.
Discussing the transfers, Mendenhall said: “Certainly saddened and disappointed because I liked both young men and I want the best for them. I would have loved to see them stay, but I love the power of choice as well.”
C.J. Stalker, Jahvoni Simmons, Dominic Sheppard and Rob Snyder are candidates to start alongside Kiser this spring. Virginia adds more linebackers to the mix this summer, when Matt Gahm, Zane Zandier, Elliott Brown and Charles Snowden arrive on Grounds.