Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall addressed the media ahead of his program’s first ACC contest of the 2017 season. The 3-1 Cavaliers, winners of two straight prior to last week’s bye, host the 4-1 Duke Blue Devils in Scott Stadium this Saturday at 12:20 p.m. Duke is coming off a 31-6 home loss to the Miami Hurricanes last Friday.
Paraphrased as always, below are notes from Coach Mendenhall’s weekly Monday presser. We will add the full transcript when it becomes available.
Let’s begin with some roster notes …
– Starting outside linebacker Malcolm Cook missed the Boise State game with an undisclosed injury. He’ll also be sidelined for Duke and North Carolina (October 14) before being reassessed. Sophomore Chris Moore is now listed as the starting SLB. As of this writing, his backup is TBA.
– True freshman Lindell Stone remains listed as Virginia starting quarterback Kurt Benkert’s backup. Mendenhall’s preference is to not play Stone this season. The former Woodberry Forest star could end up playing depending on circumstances, but as of now De’Vante Cross is likely to fill in if Benkert has to come out.
Cross, a dual-threat signal caller, rushed three times for 14 yards while playing quarterback late against Boise State.
– True freshman Darious Bratton is now listed as Bryce Hall’s backup at cornerback. Cross, who is listed as a backup X-receiver and again could see time at quarterback, is Juan Thornhill’s backup at field corner.
– Benkert’s leadership development has been fun for Mendenhall to watch. The senior signal caller is coaching more. If he has a miscommunication with a wide receiver, he gets it fixed. If a running back misses a block, he’s there coaching up the back. Benkert is orchestrating much more and leading much more.
– Senior wide receiver Andre Levrone has been as consistent in games as he has been in practice. This is different from previous years, where Levrone would show well in practice but either be inconsistent in games or unable to stay healthy.
– The Virginia offensive line is gaining momentum and Duke will be the next significant test.
– Mendenhall knew last year that center/tackle Dillon Reinkensmeyer and guard Ben Knutson were good players. In practice last year, Reinkensmeyer, who has been Virginia’s starting center the past two games, was getting stronger and more seasoned as the year went on. It’s fun to see his performance translate on the field against other teams.
– Mendenhall is pleased with the progress and depth on the defensive line.
– Sophomore defensive end Steven Wright is playing at 290 this year after seeing action at 255 pounds last season. More important than the added weight and strength, however, is the maturity Wright has gained in the past year. Mendenhall noted Wright’s immaturity in the classroom and socially last season. To the talented sophomore’s credit, he has really improved in those areas.
– Throughout the preseason and into the season Mendenhall has praised the 2017 Class. On Monday, Virginia’s second-year head coach stated that he likes the 2017 defensive linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs. Four true freshmen — inside linebacker Zane Zandier, outside linebacker Elliott Brown, Bratton and free safety Joey Blount — are on the defense’s two-deep.
– Mendenhall reiterated his confidence in field goal kicker A.J. Mejia despite the fact that the true freshman has only made two field goals in three attempts this season. According to Mendenhall, Mejia’s range typically starts around the 25-yard line, so a 42-yard field goal. Based on how pregame warmups go, this mark may move back or forward.
– There is an open competition for kickoffs between Brian Delaney and Andrew King. Both have strong legs. Mendenhall is just looking for consistency in terms of placement. Ball placement and coverage discipline are important on kickoffs and punts.
– Mendenhall has been impressed with how Duke has executed this season. The Blue Devil offense, led by quarterback Daniel Jones, controls the game. Mendenhall said Duke moved the ball against Miami but stalled in the red zone.
– Defending the Duke offense is similar to defending an option team. There are many Run/Pass option plays and the Blue Devils are skilled at reading and deciding which option to go with on a given play. Mendenhall praised the play of running backs Shaun Wilson (No. 29) and Brittain Brown (No. 22). He described Daniel Jones as tough, competitive, and a good decision-maker. Jones is big and not afraid to run over someone. He’s running more this year than last year.
– Duke does a good job on early downs, preventing must-pass situations. When in must-pass situations, their pass protection has struggled.
– Defensively, Duke is strong and aggressive. They run an elaborate, well-designed scheme. They love getting after the quarterback and will send five or six players often. The Blue Devils are averaging 3.6 sacks per game, good for No. 2 in the ACC and No. 8 in the nation. Mendenhall notes that they had a similar reputation when Virginia played them last season.
– Overall, Duke has improved from a year ago. They have a clear identity of what they want to do on offense and defense.
Bye Week, Positive Fan Feedback, Recruiting, & More
– The coaches are always discussing the “brutal facts” with players. This and an intense practice structure (full gear practices every day, no off days, no easy days, etc) have helped keep the players focused throughout the bye. The players embraced this and Mendenhall hasn’t sensed any lulls from the players.
– Mendenhall attended a high school football game last Friday. He was taken aback by the number of people who said they were appreciative of what Virginia football is accomplishing and how exciting the success is. The positive feedback from fans to Mendenhall and his staff has been overwhelming.
– Keep on building. This is what Mendenhall says the program needs to do to fill Scott Stadium again. He mentioned the recent “Concert for Charlottesville.” He envisions a day where home football games will resemble how Scott Stadium looked for the concert. Given the response he and his staff have received with the recent success, he believes fans will return. Just keep building.
– Recruiting-wise, the staff was productive during the bye week. Virginia coaches watched high school football games Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. They put their final evaluations on the 2018 commits and saw other 2018 prospects as well as 2019 prospects. There are only a couple of spots still remaining in the class of 2018.
Full Transcript: Bronco Mendenhall’s October 2 Press Conference (Courtesy of Virginia Athletics)
COACH MENDENHALL: Feels good to be back into game week. I think we accomplished a lot in our week without a game.
A lot of self-analysis done. Some early work on our opponent and a chance to just get a few players a little more healthy and get some more work for some of our younger players in terms of their development.
So I think we’ve used it the best way we can. It’s always a challenge if you have momentum to not have a game and then to rekindle that before the next game.
But all signs at this point seem like the players and the team are still gaining momentum and anxious to play.
Q. With the lack of depth at linebacker, in particular, how much are you trying to get Snowden, Brown, Zandier, those guys — kind of accelerate their learning curve?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, if we’re riding a motorcycle, there’s a term called, it’s pinned, when you have it all the way back. We’re trying to accelerate them as fast as we can.
All three – Zandier, Brown, Snowden. And they will contribute and will have to contribute. As the season goes you saw both Elliott and Snowden kind of team up for a sack against Boise at the end. We had seven first-years out there at one time.
This last week of practice looked similar to that where we had as many practicing and playing as we could, working again on that same process getting them ready as fast as we can.
Q. How did you first become aware of Brenton Nelson?
COACH MENDENHALL: That’s a great question. I don’t know if I can remember exactly how I became aware of him. The first thing I remember was a player coming over from track. And that was the first time that I was aware that Brenton was coming into our program.
The second thing I remember is Jason Beck, when Brenton was part of our victory team defense, just saying that there’s a player on our side that is fast and tracking the ball really well and just keeps making plays week in week out.
And so those are the first two things I can remember regarding Brenton.
Q. Do you have an update on Malcolm Cook?
COACH MENDENHALL: Malcolm is out for at least two weeks. He’s in a cast, currently, and so the damage was more severe than we once thought. There will be a reassessment after that. So it doesn’t mean that this is a long-term or season-ending, but the appropriate course of action was at least that for two weeks.
So he’ll miss Duke and North Carolina for sure. Other than that, we don’t know yet.
Q. It was an ankle or what?
COACH MENDENHALL: I don’t remember the exact injury. Kelly could get with you on that.
Q. What’s your overall impressions of Duke, and can you address their running game? It seems to be a little better than normal.
COACH MENDENHALL: Duke, they’re executing really well. I’ve been impressed. Their system is balanced and is effective and efficient and they control the game.
Against Miami, there were some stops on fourth down. Our turnovers were a blue zone — red zone kind of stalling. But they moved the ball effectively.
Defending Duke or what you see of their system, at least offensively, is similar to them in terms of assignments. They love run-play action or RPOs, and so there’s a run play with the quarterback element that’s part of that and a throw that all come off the same play and they’re very skilled at reading and deciding that.
The scheme is such where it doesn’t have to change much week-to-week, because it’s already comprehensively built regardless of what you do. They prefer to stay ahead of the chains rather than getting into third and obvious throw, which most teams would. And they’ve done a nice job of doing that.
I think the running back, running backs, there’s two, 29 and 22, have done a really nice job. They have a couple of dynamic receivers. The quarterback is more experienced. And I think the run and pass production, but more importantly the points, are helping them win football games. They’re strong on defense. They’re aggressive. They play fast. They love getting after the quarterback.
And they’ve done a really nice job blending those two elements together. And so I think they’re a good football team and certainly much improved from a year ago.
But with a really clear identity. I think that’s what’s probably the most impressive thing when you watch Duke is it’s not hard to tell what they’re trying to do and exactly how they’re trying to do it. And each of the elements has a balance to where you’re going to have to be versatile enough to have options, run and pass, as far as offensively, and defending run and pass, defensively. It’s not one-sided.
Q. You spoke about hating to give up the momentum with the bye week or an off week. How do you make sure the guys kind of get back into focus and don’t spend two weeks feeling really good about themselves so that maybe they’re not as focused as you need them to be?
COACH MENDENHALL: Well, we address brutal facts a lot. And there are areas of our team that have to be developed and then really the practice structure. We’ve been in full gear every day this past week.
There was no off day. There was no easy day. There was no getting ready or getting warmed back up day. It was right back to work and work and work and work.
So the players have embraced that. They really want success. That’s evident. They worked very hard. I haven’t seen or sensed any lulls. The behavior has been really good. Sometimes the college game, especially, on bye weeks players have a tendency to drift a little bit in terms of social conduct. I’ve seen none of that.
And so all early reports say it looks like we’re on track as best you can be during a bye week.
Q. You look at the two deep on the defensive line. You have four sophomores, a redshirt freshman, one senior in Andrew Brown. You also have a couple true freshmen who have gotten time. Are you pleased with the progress and are they ahead of schedule with what you thought they may be?
COACH MENDENHALL: I’m pleased with the progress and it’s nice to have depth. We have more depth there than we did a year ago. Part of that is simply one year of recruiting in our system. Again, if you think about the young linebackers, you just mentioned those were all first year as well. And we like them all.
So the young “D” linemen and the young linebackers, in addition to the young safeties, meaning defensive backs and Blount and Crowell have already played — we’ve done a nice job with our ’17 class. But again it’s just beginning. And they’re first years but they’re our depth. So it’s positive and it’s also a challenge at the same time.
Q. If I read correctly, Reinkensmeyer is coming in here. Talk a little bit about when you came in; he’s a guy who committed. He’s from Colorado. I guess with a lot of those guys you had to keep them in the fold. Just talk about what you’ve seen from him in the beginning?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, I didn’t know hardly anything about the class that was coming in, as I didn’t recruit them.
I remember the night before the press conference, they had made a cut-up for me, the administration, of all the highlight tapes of the existing recruits. So I stayed up that night watching all of them. And off of film it’s difficult to be more than about 60% accurate without seeing any of them in person.
And that’s about what it’s turned out to be in terms of the number of players that will contribute and stay at UVA and those that have moved on and won’t contribute.
But that was the best scenario possible of I just think honoring the commitments was important. Dillon was the center for our victory team a year ago. And so I saw him every day.
And he’s tough and he’s physical. And I was mentioning as Knutson was one of those players as well, to Coach Tujague, that we have two really good young players over there. And there might have been some other names I’m not remembering but Dillon was kind of the epicenter or leader of what the front looked like.
And he wasn’t backing down from our defensive front. He was going against Donte Wilkins almost every day and improving every day. We could just watch it happen.
And he was getting stronger and just more seasoned with every practice. And it’s really been fun to see that now translate so quickly into time on the field against other people.
Q. While we’re talking offensive line, they lead the ACC in sacks. What do you see in that matchup? And is that coming from rushing three and four or do they have a pretty —
COACH MENDENHALL: No, they’re very aggressive. I can’t say it’s not coming from three or four, but it’s coming from all combinations. They’re pretty elaborate, very aggressive — scheme is very well designed.
But they’re sending five every — just slightly under how many — they’re sending four and they’re not afraid to send six or give the appearance of six from multiple fronts and different angles. So they’re very aggressive.
A year ago, before we played Duke, they were leading the ACC in sacks. I don’t remember when we played them in terms of time of year but they had a similar reputation going in and they’re playing well.
Q. What does that do in terms of putting pressure on Dillon for recognizing what they’re —
COACH MENDENHALL: Quite a bit. We practiced against ourselves and we did a lot of work against our blitzes and our different things that we show, and he handled that well.
Our offense, nationally and statistically, in terms of protecting the quarterback and the sacks given up, is doing a really nice job to this point. We still have room to work on and grow in terms of running the football.
But we are protecting at a higher level so it’s not as if we’re having to patch and just put things together for the sake of one week. We’ve been working on that since before the first game, and I think it shows we’ve shown quite a bit of progress.
So we’ve been gaining momentum in that area and this will probably be the next most significant test.
Q. On the flipside, I think they gave up six sacks in the Miami game. What do you see from their protection and what allowed that to happen?
COACH MENDENHALL: They’re a team that prefers not to be in third and long, like most of us. And so again early downs, first and second and third and manageable, they do a really, really nice job. If you happen to be able to get the lead or be able to get them behind the chains where it’s obvious pass, that’s not something they prefer to do. They’re capable. But that’s when protection becomes an issue is third and obvious pass.
And so the more we can get them into that situation, the better for us or any opponent. And that gives you when they have to become traditional throwing, that’s something where they’ve struggled a little bit in terms of protecting the quarterback.
Q. One of your senior leaders was talking about how refreshing your colorful vocabulary was at halftime of the game, have you been getting any feedback about that?
COACH MENDENHALL: Well, yes, I have. So, number one, I didn’t know it would be reported on coming at halftime. But it ended up being reported.
I don’t use profanity very often. In fact, some of the words I used I could count maybe one I’d only used like maybe three times in my whole life. And then it became a story. Yeah, I’m smiling now.
I always try to have a pretty even keel and no matter what circumstances I’m in, the players and others would know who I am. But, yeah, I’m not proud of it. But I’ll own up to it.
Q. What did your wife say?
COACH MENDENHALL: She goes ‘did you say that?’ And I said yes. She said I’d prefer not to hear about it on social media. I said I didn’t know it was in the media. Which I didn’t. Her sister, my sister-in-law, who lives in Montana, said have you seen the articles, and what did your husband say? And she said what did you say? And I go when?
And she said at halftime. I said at halftime? Oh, yeah, I said a couple things I shouldn’t have said. And then she said, well, I’d rather not find out through the media. I said how did I know it was in the media because we don’t read the media? We’re not quite sure how to manage it, just because, yeah, anyway. So glad you brought that up, Doug. Thanks. (Laughter).
Q. Was it the brilliance of your whole message or throwing that word in there that made it —
COACH MENDENHALL: The message lasted about three seconds. It was one sentence. And I guess it had a couple of those words in it. And somehow that brought it to life. Again, the context was we’d given up a touchdown right before half which I thought we were playing beneath our potential. And so I wasn’t happy, even though we had the lead and all that, I wasn’t happy. And, again, usually pretty good. But I wasn’t in that case.
Q. You weren’t here for all of it, but Andre (Levrone)’s had several years that started out with great promise and then were disappointing. What’s it been like for you to kind of see him be healthy, get to do the things that everybody always said he could do? And how would you assess how he’s played so far?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think he’s off to a strong start. A year ago I saw probably what his history had been like here where I saw things in practice. Then I saw discouragement and despair and frustration as he either wasn’t as productive or wasn’t as consistent or as durable as he would have liked to have been.
But from the minute the season ended, through the offseason and through spring and through fall, I’ve seen only durability and consistency and productivity. And those are the three words I used specifically for him as kind of targets and queues to go after.
And he’s been as consistent in the games as he has been in practice. And I anticipate that continuing. And if it does, it helps our team.
Q. A.J. hasn’t attempted a field goal longer than 28 yards since the opener. Do you have a better sense, though, of kind of his range, just from practice or do you need to see it —
COACH MENDENHALL: I have a good idea from where it is in practice and typically we go in to the game before warm-ups with the 25-yard line, 25-yard line and in being kind of the mark, which would be — and then based on wind and how his warm-up goes, we’ll either move it back a little or move it up a little.
We’ve managed the games a little aggressively in terms of fourth down and I think it fits our team. So I’ve been going off not only statistical data but also intuition in that part. That hasn’t really been reflective of whether he’ll kick a field goal or not. Sometimes I just think we’ll be effective on fourth down.
So I have confidence in him and, again, right as you go into every week from the 25 and in is where we start. But that’s been expanded a few games; we just never got to it.
Q. I asked you about the kickoff guys at Boise. Delaney — King kicked the first one, then Delaney later kicked one out of bounds, then you went back to Delaney. Where do you stand on that?
COACH MENDENHALL: Similar. There’s an open competition right now for the kickoff spot. They’re both capable. We’re struggling a little bit with consistency. But the good news is they can both kick it in the end zone and they have the leg strength.
And what we’re mindful of right now we’d like to see a significant jump in both our cover teams, punt cover and kick cover, and where we’re kicking the ball and our discipline in covering. Those are two things we took away from the bye week. It’s kick coverage, punt and kickoff, equal, as to ball placement even though we’re talking about kickoff right now, but ball placement and coverage discipline.
Q. What are you most proud of in Kurt (Benkert)’s improvement this season? What’s really stood out for you?
COACH MENDENHALL: It’s fun to see him healthy. It’s fun to see him leading with confidence. It’s fun to see him smiling. It’s fun to see his poise and experience, but his leadership coming out. He’s in command of our offense. A year ago he was trying to keep up with it.
And this is just an entire year’s worth now of being in the system. When a route isn’t run, he talks with the receiver, gets it corrected. If a running back or protection is missed he fixes that. The coaches are having to coach less and he’s coaching more.
And the best teams are when the quarterback is empowered to do those things or becomes empowered. And he’s earned that and it’s just, he’s orchestrating much more so and leading much more so than a year ago.
So leadership is what I would say is the most fun to watch.
Q. Their quarterback, what have you seen in his development and what challenges does he present?
COACH MENDENHALL: He’s tough. He’s taken a lot of hits. And they’re not afraid to run him. They’re running him a little bit more than a year ago. And he has taken some hits on third down, but he’s big and he’s physical and he can make a lot of the throws. He’s a good decision-maker.
He’s one more year experienced, which makes a huge difference. One year of the quarterback spot, even if the team struggles, is still an advantage for the following year.
And I think both of us, us and Duke are seeing some of that. But I like him. I think he’s tough. He’s competitive. He can use his legs. Down near the goal line, they have another quarterback that comes in some to run, but down near the goal line he’s not afraid to run over you and put the ball in the end zone. He’s big.
So they’ve done a nice job developing him.
Q. Besides hearing about your salty halftime language, 3-1, this program hasn’t been 3-1 in a while. What kind of feedback are you getting just when you’re out and about in town?
COACH MENDENHALL: I went to a high school game on Friday. And I’m pretty selective of where I go and when. And it’s also in season. So that means I don’t have much of another life.
But it was just the number of people that basically said how appreciative they are and how exciting it is and the possibilities. Everyone wants to kind of — they’re not quite positive. But they really want to be believing that this is going to work. And they’re hopeful and optimistic and thankful.
And I was taken aback by kind of the first time this season when I was able to be out in a professional setting as the head coach that there’s a lot of people that are pulling for us. And that became clear. And my coaches were out all over the state and other places.
And that feedback has not been subtle but pretty overwhelming where I think there’s a lot of folks that would like to see UVA have a really good football program, have a really good year.
Q. Are you one of those guys that ever utilizes the phone system where you can send a voice mail to every kid on campus at the same time and do you care about that? Do you do that kind of stuff to try to get them to come out to the games?
COACH MENDENHALL: I haven’t done that. And not familiar with it. But I envision a day where that rather than — and so I love when the community comes together for an event and for a purpose.
So the concert that was held, what a cool thing that was. And all I was considering is there will be a time where the stadium will look like that for football.
And when I came to UVA, that’s the picture I have in my head is there will be a time where it looks just like that for a game and it looks like that each and every week and it will be one morally cool thing for the people of Charlottesville and the state to come to to bond around and to support. And that’s what I love is just a way to serve the community through a really quality event with kids that have high moral character, great academically and play football and also represent them.
And so what that event showed me and what the support that I’ve seen this week has shown is there’s a lot of folks that will come we just have to keep building and doing what the program I think needs but I envision that day with the stadium looking like that and that will be a really cool event.
Q. Steven Wright played at about 255 last year. You said he’s close to 290 now. What do you remember about your first impression or impressions of him when you came here?
COACH MENDENHALL: Steven came and I worked really hard not to be influenced by anyone and not take or listen to anyone’s descriptors. So no one had a label when I came.
It wasn’t long where Steven, the number of things that were coming up from academics, from social conduct, there was just a lot of immaturity and inconsistency. And so we knew right away there was some development things that had to happen with Steven, not only physically, as you mentioned, his weight and size and strength. That was a full-time development job.
But probably even on a bigger scale the development of just being a balanced person in terms of academic conduct, social conduct, being a good teammate, and to his credit he’s grown by leaps and bounds in all of those things.
And we emphasized we needed more size, we needed more strength especially up front and the defensive line, and Steven is probably representative of what we’re hopeful for the kind of gains we can make in an offseason of 30 pounds of muscle, maturity academically and in the social environment and around Charlottesville of exemplifying what I want a UVA football (player) to look like and behave like and he’s growing in those areas, and he needed to.
Q. You mentioned a few minutes ago about being at a high school game on Friday and heard some other coaches talking about how the change of the recruiting calendar has made that bye week such a huge time for evaluation and things like that. Can you just tell us about how that week Wednesday for you?
COACH MENDENHALL: We got a lot done. And there’s a tradeoff. Meaning that at the game there were other coaches there recruiting and they were playing on Saturday. And so I’m not a coach that likes to have my assistants out on Friday night before we play. I want them with my team. But standard practice is most programs have their assistants out Friday recruiting and a couple of coaches preparing their team for the game the next day.
And philosophically and morally I just don’t like that. So for us it’s probably more important than most that we were able to be out. And so we saw games Thursday, Friday and Saturday and got the majority of our 2018 kids that were already committed, we got their final evaluation and solidified all of that.
We had a few others that we’re looking at. We only have a couple of spots remaining for our 2018 class but we were able to see some 2019s as well. So in regards the recruiting calendar, all that’s really happening is there will be no offseason for the assistant coaches, so again I’m not for the calendar change. I’m for an early signing date with no other change to the calendar.
And somehow most of us were for that. And then somewhere along the line it got bundled with this other legislation, I guess, we’ll give you this and there’s these other things that got hooked to it and I’m not for that.
And most all the coaches aren’t. So I think it will hurt the quality of life for our assistant coaches, and I’m not for that. They give enough already.
Q. I asked you about (Lindell) Stone. Obviously he didn’t play. Seems like you’re kind of playing it by ear with him. You put in (De’Vante) Cross. How much of the offense does Cross know? Can he do anything that’s being done now?
COACH MENDENHALL: Our intent right now, we’d love to play Kurt the entire year and not have to play anyone else. And obviously that’s idealistic. De’Vante Cross is our next option. We prefer to have Lindell not play this year, if possible. But that’s not a promise that that won’t happen. That just depends on circumstance.
But that’s what we’d prefer at this point. De’Vante knows the offense. His skill set is different than Kurt’s and so the offense would not look the same if he was the quarterback. But he knows it well enough and pretty tenuous or tumultuous I guess as the second tier as our backup quarterback position goes. We’ll have to gauge if something happened to Kurt, we’d have to assess again what we might do there.
But our hope is to make it through the entire year with Kurt and not have to use Lindell and use De’Vante if we needed to.