Virginia Football Coach Bronco Mendenhall Press Conference Notes: UConn Week

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Redshirt freshman De’Vante Cross is now listed as a backup cornerback and could provide head coach Bronco Mendenhall with some new depth at the position. Cross remains listed as a backup X-receiver as well. ~ Photo by Kris Wright

University of Virginia head football coach Bronco Mendenhall holds a weekly press conference every Monday during the 2017 season. We will provide paraphrased notables from the presser with Coach Mendenhall’s full transcribed quotes added once they become available.

This Saturday at noon EST, the Cavaliers will host the University of Connecticut at Scott Stadium. Ahead of this important early season contest, in which UVA is looking to bounce back from a disappointing 34-17 loss to Indiana last weekend, Mendenhall provided some roster updates and addressed questions on the offense, defense, and special teams. Before getting to Sabre Editor Kris Wright’s notes from today’s press conference, there is some roster and depth chart news. (Click here to view the updated depth chart.)

– Senior cornerback Tim Harris underwent successful surgery on his injured wrist. He’ll miss the entire 2017 season but plans to apply for a medical hardship to be able to play next season. Mendenhall has said previously that, based on similar cases the NCAA has evaluated, he expects Harris will be granted a sixth year.

– Mendenhall is hopeful defensive back Myles Robinson will return to the team next fall. Robinson, who was listed as a safety before being removed from the 2017 Roster, has potential at cornerback and safety for the Cavaliers. The 2017 season was going to be his junior season. If he does indeed return in 2018, he should still have two years of eligibility remaining.

– Senior defensive back Kirk Garner is expected to play against U-Conn this Saturday. While Garner saw some action in the defensive backfield in 2017, his return is a bigger boost on special teams.

– Depth chart notes on defense …

De’Vante Cross remains listed as a backup X receiver but is now also listed as Bryce Hall’s backup at boundary cornerback. Juan Thornhill is officially listed as the starting field corner with true freshman Germane Crowell his listed backup. Redshirt freshman Brenton Nelson is the starting strong safety (Sabre position) with true freshman Joey Blount his listed backup. Chris Moore is the listed backup to Malcolm Cook at outside linebacker and to Quin Blanding at free safety. Finally, true freshman Zane Zandier is the listed backup to Micah Kiser at mike linebacker.

General Note

Coach Mendenhall says the offense and defense played at a higher level in week two than in week one. Thought special teams did not. Kick placement on kickoff and punt can improve significantly. Field position had a huge influence on the game. Defense made huge execution strides, as big as any time since he’s been here. Running game efficiency and big plays through the air on offense not at the level necessary.

Offense Notes

Kurt Benkert wasn’t accurate on deep balls this past week. Mendenhall said team took 7 shots downfield, which is about the right percentage number but they need to win 50% of those to help the offense and that’s not happening. That combined with running offense troubles make the offense too one dimensional.

– Offensive line took step forward in protection, but run game and targeting the right blocks aren’t to a point to run as effectively as he would like.

– Redshirt freshman Dillon Reinkensmeyer had the highest grade among offensive linemen last week. The starting left tackle in Week 1, Reinkensmeyer played center against the Hoosiers, spelling starter Jake Fieler. Fieler could be another option at guard should the coaches decide to do some offensive line reshuffling.

Evan Butts has earned the role to catch more passes. Like catches and consistency and to move chains more frequently and he’s producing/playing really well.

– Benkert held the ball too long on the big hit he took in the 4th quarter. On the play, Benkert was drilled and an Indiana defender scooped the ball up and returned it for an apparent touchdown. Indiana’s defensive end was called for targeting, however, negating the defensive score. Virginia capitalized soon after with a Joe Reed touchdown.

– 1st and 3rd down not efficient in first half. Have to do better on both of those downs, particularly early in the game.

Defense

Jordan Mack (16 tackles) played best game he’s played yet at UVA. Played really well compared to any linebackers he’s coached.

De’Vante Cross has length, size, ball skills to play DB. Has a role offensively, but not a volume role, and doing a nice job on special teams. Great chance he’ll be playing both ways for us going forward. Don’t know how or what that might look like yet. The more you can do, the more you can do and we need as many players as possible right now.

Of note, Cross originally committed to Boston College as a defensive back before Virginia offered him as a quarterback. He de-committed from the Eagles and then chose the Hoos late in the recruiting process.

– Defensive end Andrew Brown played best game since Mendenhall arrived and played assignment sound, reliable, consistent football Saturday.

Special Teams

– Personnel changes happening on special teams. Some freshmen might go from on two teams for special teams to all four. Some players might get dropped off.

Kirk Garner will be helpful to get him back on all 4 phases this week. Said he was the best player other than punter Nick Conte last year on special teams.

– Fake field goal route was coming open, but Indiana covered it well enough to make it not work. Nash Griffin handled it as well he could given the way defense played. The play getting stopped wasn’t his fault. Thought it would work better, but it didn’t and that’s my call.

Bronco Mendenhall September 11 Press Conference Transcript (Courtesy of Virginia Sports)

BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s good to be with you. After reviewing the film of our last week’s game versus Indiana, I actually think our team played at a higher level in week two than we did in week one. Both offensively and defensively. I won’t say that regarding our kicking game. I think our punt team in particular, after review, was the area that needed the most improvement and needs the most attention right now going forward. Also our kick placement on kickoff, in addition to the punt, both those things I wasn’t happy with, and I think we can improve significantly knowing that that game, the field position battle turned in and ultimately had a huge influence on the game.

I saw a significant improvement defensively in how we played and the execution that I’ve seen since I’ve been here at UVA. So I saw a significant step forward in that regard. Offensively I actually saw more consistency, but we’re still lacking the run-game efficiency and the connection of big plays through the air. Those two elements right now are not to the level necessary to have the point production that we need.

We did not capitalize on the short fields when we had them, and I think I mentioned that after the game, saying that Indiana was more opportunistic. They used the field position when they had it and they capitalized at a greater level than we did. We had anticipated and we’re expecting the game, and I still think it could have been like that, maybe 27-24, 24-23, a game that was kind of that type of game. We had predicted and thought we’d be able to accomplish that without the punt return and short field management, I think we would have been right on. But that is would have been. We didn’t execute well enough to do that, especially in the kicking game and not capitalizing offensively on short fields.

So that was my assessment. And I’ll take whatever questions — other than I think both corners, we moved Juan Thornhill to corner in that game because of all the down field throws that Indiana had done and the yardage they had accumulated versus Ohio State. He and Bryce hall really did a nice job of limiting their down field throws and their jump balls and their fade attempts. I think that helped limit what they were able to do through the air offensively.

Q. Jordan Mack was credited with 16 tackles. I know tackle totals don’t necessarily tell the whole story of how someone plays. But how did he play and how is he coming along in year two?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: He played really, really well. The best game that he’s played since he’s been at UVA. He’s fast, he’s physical, he’s productive. I was really impressed with him in the game.

I mentioned the two corners, but Jordan Mack, in relation to the production, he’s just really becoming a good football player, and he had an especially strong game. It was by far his best game, and really a good game for wherever I’ve coached and any linebackers I’ve coached he played really well.

Q. You obviously mentioned the special teams. I think you can maybe put — the way I looked at it, maybe 24 points were set up because of special teams or a direct result of special teams. I assume you agree.

BRONCO MENDENHALL: That’s fair.

Q. The kick and punt return coverage wasn’t exceptional last year either. Is that a matter of because of the lack of depth? What do you A credit that to?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think it’s insightful. I didn’t put this together until after the game, but the 15-play drive where we finally stopped them and they got no points out of that, that many of the players on that punt team were defensive players. They went back after three-and-out, I think. It wasn’t lack of effort, but they weren’t fresh. They weren’t fast, and they weren’t effective when they went out.

The program and the roster is at the point where our depth is still limited, our significant back-ups have to emerge at a higher level. We’re accelerating the preparation of our young players and our 2017 class as fast as we can, but there is still a significant drop off. We’re working the development part as fast as we can while we’re playing players that are ready and trusted to play, and there is still a difference and that showed up Saturday. So our special teams right now are having to be the play count is having to be accumulated on top of the offensive and defensive starters, which we presented matter of factually, and no one is viewing it as being a martyr. That’s just currently where we are.

So a mental resilience, physical conditioning, all is going to have to be at even a more profound level than maybe a more stable program would be at this stage.

Q. Just to follow up off that, when you have a game like that, do you make personnel changes on those units?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Sure. We did in the game, and we’ve already made some right now. We’ve had a couple younger players that when we saw them on after reviewing the film, we saw their film Saturday, they might go from two teams now to being all four. We saw others that, man, they were on two, and they probably shouldn’t be on any.

So there is still this balance of the young player development and then integrating them and trying to find the right spread of how many can we put them on? Do they need to be on? And then at what spots are they ready for?

Good news, we’ll get Kirk Garner back, and he was probably our better special teams player – one that is on all four special teams phases, and that will really help us. One player right now makes a difference, so getting him back will be helpful.

Q. Tim Harris, do you know how his surgery went?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I got a report that said it went exactly as planned. And that is a long recovery, so to return to, I would say full action, that’s a six-month recovery, he is planning on coming back for a sixth season, and I’m excited about that. We’re also hopeful to get Myles Robinson back next year as well. So there will be a couple returning faces.

Q. Talk about the passing game. It seemed like you threw long a lot but didn’t complete a lot of those play selections. What was your overall thought?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think the volume of attempts down field is about right on.

What happened in that game is that the safeties continued to tighten to close the horizontal window throws and make sure there weren’t many yards after the catch with underneath throws. Those turn into catch and tackle quite a bit, rather than catch and break a tackle.

When that happens with the safeties included in the underneath coverage, and they start to play that aggressively, the number of shots, which I counted seven, that is the appropriate number, however, there have to be more competitive opportunities for those. Kurt wasn’t especially accurate on those, some were thrown out of bounds, some were over and of bounds. I want at least 50 percent of those caught, which means that when the ball goes up, both the defender and the receiver have a chance to make the play. We need to win 50 percent of those shots down field. Those alone loosen coverage and give us a chance to have bigger windows, not only in the run game, but also in the underneath throw game. Two things, until we run the ball efficiently and make some of those down the field shots, that makes us one-dimensional, and that’s where we currently are.

Q. De’Vante Cross now listed as cornerback, what is the backstory there? Is this relatively new?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, we were really thin. So going into the Indiana game, knowing how much they throw the ball down field, with their tempo and the size of their wide-outs, we didn’t know if we were going to play 100 plays or 70. 70 was about as good as you can do against that opponent, meaning we were really good on third down, but we knew we needed Juan Thornhill at corner, but based on if they could run the ball, we needed him at safety, and then who else? Germane Crowell is battling to get one of those spots, and we had the idea, even from last year, that the length, size, speed, and ball skills of De’Vante might make him able to do that. He has a role offensively, but not a volume role that would prohibit him from playing more plays. He is doing a nice job on special teams as well. We played him in one-on-ones for four plays and everyone just stopped and said, ‘Okay, that looks really good.’ So, there is a great chance he will be playing for us both ways going forward. We don’t know yet what that will completely look like, but every player matters right now, and the more you can do, the more you can do. That helps all three sides, offense, defense, and special teams. We are looking to increase his play count, which hopefully helps our team and makes us deeper.

Q: Germane Crowell had a couple missed opportunities on special teams, one on a kickoff return and one on punt, was that just a young player taking a poor angle?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think so. He was going really fast, but didn’t tackle on either one. On those, it’s about having the right player in the right spot with enough experience to make the play. So he did miss a couple opportunities. That doesn’t mean we’ve given up on him. It just gives us a clear idea where he currently is. So we take that and put it in the bank, and our kind of idea vault and continue to work on what he needs to improve. He’s going to be a good player here for us.

Q. Where is the offensive line right now in terms of how they’re producing?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, a step forward in pass protection. I think a significant step forward. The number of minus-yardage plays in that game versus the volume of plays in relation to the first game, indicate was much more aggressive, a lot more movement. We’re not targeting in the run game as much or as good as I would like, but our protection did take a step forward. So I was encouraged by that. Our run game, again, targeting, especially versus all the things that they did, we weren’t to the point where we could run the ball efficiently enough to where I’m comfortable.

So still a work in progress, but improved in the pass protection is what I would say there.

Q. On those same lines, Reinkensmeyer toward the end of the game was in at center. What was the decision behind that move? Is that something you want to explore going forward, and what would that do with Fieler?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: We are exploring that. Fieler could play guard. Reinkensmeyer had the highest grade of any offensive lineman. He was similar after the first game. Again, kind of going back to Jordan Mack or others, the more you can do, the more you can do. When he can play two spots, maybe that creates the next best player that either plays — maybe it’s Fieler, but maybe that combination allows someone else to come on that might improvement group.

Again, managing the roster right now is a huge — I lose sleep over that part of it. Again, we’re developing young players and trying to find the exact right spot for every current player on our team. Not only the exact right spot, but how many plays can they play effectively? A game that you just — and I think you’re right on. The number of points that contributed — that special teams contributed to our opponent and a few more players makes a difference there. We have the resources. We’re thin, but we’ve got to find the right spots to put them.

Q. What went wrong blocking-wise on the play when Kurt was hit and the play was brought back because of targeting?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Really nothing went wrong blocking-wise. But man that ball was held on to a long, long, long, long time at that point.

Q. I’m the guy that asks the obligatory Evan Butts questions. But is seems there is a connection there with Benkert, you didn’t throw the tight end a lot last year, he had six receptions the other day?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: He’s earned that role. Again, there is a connection between those two, but, man, we like completions and we like first downs, and we like the chains being moved and we like consistency. When you’re a program that’s trying to get consistent and trying to move the chains more frequently, I think it’s just natural where the quarterback starts looking for who he trusts. And Evan right now is producing really well, and he’s playing really well.

So, and I think Coach Anae has him in the right spot, and I think we have enough designed stuff for him that Evan does well. So I like that part. We need other parts to expand and have that clear of identity as to what that tight end role has right now and that’s emerging. But that part I feel good about.

Q. Andrew Brown, UConn game last year was a bit of a breakout for him. This year in the first game, didn’t record a tackle. I don’t know what that means. You’re a better judge of how he played in that. But this last week he had a couple tackles for loss, things like that. Where have you seen his progression to this point maybe stemming from UConn last year going into this year?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I’d like to speak bluntly when I’m talking to you all, and that was his best football game since I’ve been the coach here. He’s learning to play run defense. Until maybe this last game he’s been inconsistent in playing run defense. He loves to get off the ball, loves to rush the passer and go up field and cause disruption. In run game defense, that actually works against you because it creates seams and gaps. He played assignment sound, productive, physical, reliable, consistent football. I only remember one play. I think it was the first quarterback run when their new quarterback came in that he didn’t play appropriately in terms of his run responsibility and that’s giant progress. So it helped him and it helped our team. He did a nice job in the pass game as well, so he became a more complete player in that game. Now that’s the first of many more games this year, but I was encouraged because he became a more total player.

Q. With UConn’s game getting cancelled last week, have you had to rely more on last year’s Maryland tapes and your personal knowledge of playing UConn than anything you’ve been able to see this year?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: What I’ve done at least from my standpoint as more of a defensive-emphasis coach, it’s relying some more on Auburn. That’s where their offensive coordinator has come from. So, what I saw in game one against Holy Cross, and Holy Cross played really well in that game. Did a nice job defensively. But I’ve seen some similarities between what UConn did in week one to what Auburn has done. So I think that’s the genesis of their offensive coordinator. That’s where he learned under Gus Malzahn. So I think that would be probably a safer bet than where the head coach came from in this case. That’s normal for any — unless the head coach is a coordinator on one side, it’s really more tracking where the coordinators are coming from, much like their defensive coordinator at Villanova. If I remember correctly. So, it would be for our offensive staff, it’s probably more looking at that. Again, unless the head coach is a coordinator.

Q. We saw Micah go down and still have one of the most productive, sort of gritty games he’s had, which is saying a lot. Where is he right now with that knee, and how comfortable are you with him playing as much as he’s playing on it?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, he’s tough. I think he’ll be managing it the entire year. That’s just we’re going into week three and he plays middle linebacker. I don’t know how. There is no great way to address that other than do the best we can in practice to help him be ready but not over ready and not overused. Help his knee recover when possible, but that’s just kind of going to be what it is.

Very few people can handle it the way he is, but he can. I trust him with that, and we’ll do everything we can to keep him as healthy as possible to get him to game day. But he loves practice, he loves to play the game. He loves to be out there with the guys, and I love his leadership. So we’re trying, again, to accelerate young players at the inside linebacker spot. Zane Zandier in particular. And we have other depth there. But we’re trying to add another young player to the mix to try to just in case.

Q. On the fake field goal, it looked like Steven Wright was starting to come open when Nash tucked the ball. Is that a play typically? Is the intended target supposed to be wide open or is patience required?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I misspoke after the game, in Nash’s defense. I was just listening to the feedback I got from upstairs was, and that was that the route was open, the route was coming open, you’re right. It was coming. It wasn’t open. If Nash held on to it maybe two more steps on the option fake, he might have been able to float it over the guy’s head because they couldn’t really cover both. But they covered it well enough for it to be gray for Nash. So I misspoke after the game, and sometimes I will after without seeing the film. He handled that probably as good as he could, and they defended it better than we thought. It was my call. I think that fake is hard to defend. It’s worked against us before in the future life — no, past life. Hope it doesn’t work in the future life. So, again, I thought it would work but it didn’t and it wasn’t Nash’s fault.

Q. You work to kind of rebuild this thing and you’re going to have some odd games and some games where you’re mixing and matching certain things. Was last year against UConn maybe the prime example of that considering the kicking situation and how the game ended? Is that one of those that’s a clear example of where you stood?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: It is. And I think we’re a significantly better team and I think we’ve seen that in two games. I’m not asking anyone else to see it, but I see it. And thinking back to that game, wow, that was such a different place. But there are things that I haven’t managed before but I’m managing now, but that’s part of building a program. It’s invigorating and exhausting at the same time. With frustration kind of mixed as a thread within there, but I’m optimistic. The players feel it, they sense it, and they know it’s happening. That just makes it harder when things don’t go our way because we all think we had a nice chance in that game we just played.

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