Virginia Football Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s Weekly Monday Press Conference: Louisville Week

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Bronco Mendenhall very much welcomed the return of starting cornerback Juan Thornhill (no. 21) to the lineup versus Georgia Tech. Thornhill missed Virginia’s previous game against Pittsburgh. ~ Photo by Kris Wright

In his first year with Virginia, head coach Bronco Mendenhall didn’t go to a bowl for the first time in his head coaching career. With UVA picking up its sixth win of the 2017 season this past Saturday, that streak will end at one. Meanwhile, the Cavalier program will go to postseason play for the first time since 2011.

Coach Mendenhall addressed the benefits of postseason play, reflected on last Saturday’s wild win over Georgia Tech, discussed Lamar Jackson and more during his November 6 press conference ahead of an away matchup versus Louisville on November 11. Paraphrased as always, below is our initial recap of Mendenhall’s weekly Monday presser. The full transcript will be added once it becomes available.

Roster Updates/General Notes

– Coach Mendenhall was pleased with the growth his team showed against Georgia Tech. With UVA now bowl-bound, Mendenhall was asked whether or not the extra postseason practice would be a big benefit to the team next year.

Having advanced to postseason play every year as head coach at BYU, Mendenhall said going to a bowl became the expectation. He counted on that in establishing his year-round model. He thinks it did contribute to the consistency of the program.

– Mendenhall isn’t sure what impact missing the postseason last year may have had on the team. The biggest impact was for himself personally, as he was bothered by not playing.

– Following the win over Georgia Tech, the message doesn’t change. It’s more of the same – the players need to focus not only on what they are doing, but how they are doing it. They were invested in each other and each play. All were exhausted after Georgia Tech, but that is what it will take for them to be successful the rest of the way.

– When UVA got down by 15, Mendenhall noticed his players were still positive. Georgia Tech’s 14-point start to the second half could have broken many teams. Mendenhall, though, recalls hearing his players saying they were “good” and that there was a lot of football left. It’s a good sign when this sentiment comes from the players and not the coaches, and coach believes this helped their performance.

– The program is still in its beginning stages. However, some of the progress and returns are starting to show.

– Players thanked Mendenhall for coming to UVA. This meant a lot to the former BYU coach.

– Last year’s seniors practiced hard, tried hard, embraced Coach Mendenhall’s philosophy, and really planted the seeds of this year’s success. Mendenhall believes the current players would tell you they wish those seniors were here to enjoy the success.

Mandy Alonso started at defensive end in place of Juwan Moye against Georgia Tech. The true freshman out of Miami (FL) now officially tops the depth chart at one of the defensive end spots opposite Andrew Brown, with Eli Hanback remaining the starting nose tackle.

Alonso only had three tackles against the Yellow Jackets but turned in a rock-solid performance in by far the biggest role he had played all season.

– True freshman Chris Glaser was called upon to play against Georgia Tech. Seeing action at both right and left tackle, Saturday was the first playing time Glaser had seen this season, meaning his redshirt is now gone. There was a plan to play Glaser going into the game, as Mendenhall spoke with his parents to get the okay so late in the season.

There is currently an ACC-led proposed rule change that would allow teams to play a true freshman a maximum of four games and still keep a redshirt. The reasoning is the injury-prone nature of football. This legislation will be voted on in January. If it passes, there is a possibility the rule could apply retroactively to true freshmen that played four games or less this season.

Offense Notes

– Having Glaser and redshirt freshman Ben Knutson (guard) get significant minutes in the offensive line rotation made a noticeable difference in the Cavalier offense. Those players were fresher, played with more energy, and played harder according to Mendenhall. There were no sacks allowed by the unit.

Knutson was the starting left guard against the Yellow Jackets.

– The contributions of graduate transfer offensive linemen John Montelus and Brandon Pertile have been significant. There is obviously the fact that Pertile has started every game and Montelus has started eight games. Overall they have enjoyed a positive experience and appreciate the opportunity they have, something other players see and then feel “luckier” to be at the University of Virginia.

Defense Notes

– Playing against an option team helps sharpen defensive fundamentals, which Coach Mendehall believes will help moving forward. His preference would be to play against the option earlier in the year. Other carry over is having to defend against an athletic playmaker at quarterback. GT had that in TaQuon Marshall. Louisville, this week’s opponent, obviously has that in Lamar Jackson.

– The plan of the UL coaches this year is to make Jackson be more intentional in terms of staying in the pocket and delivering the football. As a result, Jackson has been more poised and patient as a passer. He remains a big-time threat as a runner … the difference this year is that he isn’t as quick to run.

– Mendenhall doesn’t remember having to defend a player with the same skill set as Jackson. He coached against USC when the Trojans featured running back Reggie Bush. Bush was dynamic but didn’t touch the ball every play like Jackson.

– It will take a collective effort on defense to slow Jackson’s running ability.

Juan Thornhill returning to the lineup was essential in Virginia’s win over GT. Without him, Mendenhall doesn’t believe his team wins. Mendenhall describes Thornhill as “confident” and a “fierce competitor.” Virginia could not have run the same scheme against GT if another player was in there.

– As seniors depart, Mendenhall expects Thornhill to emerge as a team leader.

– Back to Mandy Alonso’s play, Mendenhall cited him as doing a “nice job” in his first career start. Mendenhall also cited Eli Hanback for playing 75 snaps – and playing well — at nose tackle.

Special Teams Notes

– Watching Joe Reed in practice, the coaches feel he could score a touchdown any time he touches the ball. On Reed’s 92-yard kick return touchdown against GT, Reed made the run but the play wouldn’t have happened without a key backside block from true freshman receiver Terrell Jana. Mendenhall cited Jana and true freshman Joey Blount as being really good on special teams this year.

Full Transcript of Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s November 6 Transcript, Courtesy of Virginia Athletics

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Really happy for my team. They played hard from beginning to end. They played with emotion. They were unified, they supported one another, made critical plays when they had to, really, in all three phases, and competed to the very end. I was really encouraged and excited about the growth they showed in that game. So, yeah, I’ll take questions.

Q. In addition to all the bowl experiences your players got when you were at BYU, how beneficial were the extra bowl practices for the team the following year?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s hard to say how beneficial other than it just became the expectation. We always went. There was never a year we didn’t go. So we just counted on that, on our year round development model. So we had exactly what our first years would be doing. We know exactly what the practice model looks like. We know what that then leads to in terms of the next semester and the different gains and growth we can count on. Who knows if that contributes to the consistency of what happens the next year. I think it does. Certainly the mindset of the team is there is the balance of the excitement and the reward, but they find out pretty soon that there’s a lot of work that goes into it as well, so you balance that the best way you can.

Q. The flip side of that, the absence of those practices, can that be a negative though?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think so. I mean, I’ve only done it once, so I’m not positive. Other than I think mentally it just made me more angry than being able to say where I’m sure the lack of practice hurt our program. What was the biggest bother to me was just that we weren’t playing. Each time I watched a game or heard of a game, that was frustrating.

Q. Last week you made no secret of the fact that you were addressing the elephant in the room, the sixth win. Going forward, what is your kind of mantra this week?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: More of the same. We focused really hard on one play at a time with not only what we were doing, but how we were doing it, and I think that manifest from the very beginning of the game till the end. And it took — we were really invested in each other and our program and the players that were out there and each play. I think we were all exhausted after, which is exactly what it’s going to take for us to have success down the stretch. So now that we have seen what that looks like and begun to experience that, we need exactly that and then more. So that’s what the players will be asked for.

Q. One of the interesting things you talked to us about was the idea of habits holding under pressure. You can teach something, but when your team goes down by two scores, did you see a difference in habits holding as opposed to pressing going outside?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: The biggest difference I sensed, and it’s been — I can’t say all year but most of this year, and I could sense it just the presence of the team behind was there was a lot of still positive commentary, and the body language was still positive. The two scores right after halftime were just, man, that could break many teams. Just a, what just happened. But all I kept hearing from our team is there is a lot of football left and we’re good. That’s really a positive sign when it’s not having to come from the coach. It’s coming from the players.

So I was encouraged by that. I think that led to and helped the performance after.

Q. I understand obviously being all about the players and that kind of stuff, but you talked about last year an adjustment to go through a season like that. But for you personally to see the plan working, how rewarding is that?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s really rewarding. I’m responsible for a lot of people. Not only the staff that came, but the players’ welfare and their happiness and their performance. I don’t take any of that lightly.

I came to Virginia to help this program become a consistent winner and a sustainable program that people can be proud of and that want to come see, and that benefits the community, and the university, and the State. That there are folks that wouldn’t consider not coming to a UVA game. It’s like, if they’re playing, you’ve got to go.

If there’s great players in the State, of course you’re going to UVA. Haven’t you seen their program and the kind of young men they build and how they prepare them for life? So, again, we’re still at the beginning stages, but some of the progress and returns are starting to show, and that’s gratifying. I think probably the most special thing to me as players coming off the field, they were just saying thank you for coming to UVA. That made me feel really good, and I’ll remember that for a long time.

I don’t want to present this like our season’s over and we’re finished, but for that moment, at this time, those were all really neat things.

Q. So much of the talk in here last week was about prepare for that triple option. Does any of that carry over into this next game, or is there a difficulty flipping that switch back defensively?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: The fundamentals carry over. If I had my preference playing an option team earlier in the year, even though it’s more difficult to defend, and you don’t have much experience under your belt, and they’re normally faster and their bodies are fresher, and I’m talking about the option personnel, it really, really helps defensive fundamentals. There are so many spread teams now and so much throwing that some of those basic and core fundamentals, it’s difficult to simulate in practice against each other. So I like that part.

The carryover will be Georgia Tech’s quarterback scrambling and the type of athlete that he was, and trying to keep him corralled. That focus and that intensity, and that purpose. Even though the scheme is significantly different, it’s kind of jumping from the frying pan into the fire with Lamar Jackson. But there is some carry over of focus and purpose there.

Q. Just to follow up, from your perspective, how do you think you guys did against Jackson last year?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: To be honest, I don’t remember much of the game other than the last play. I haven’t watched it. We’ve been focusing as a staff mostly on this year’s material. So I remember watching the game after, and I remember we were really close to knocking down a fourth down pass, and they caught one at the end. I don’t remember much about the game plan or anything else. So we had a chance to win. That’s what I remember.

Q. Similar question to that, Paul Johnson took over at Georgia Tech in 2008. Virginia’s beaten Georgia Tech a couple times, but they’ve never won the week after. Is there anything you’ve learned from playing against the option over the years that you can apply this week? Whether that’s physical rest or just anything?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No (laughing). I don’t know what my history is about games after winning an option or beating an option team.

Q. You were 2-0 the week after playing Georgia Tech when you were at BYU.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Oh, okay. We’ll just keep doing that. Whatever that was, I’ll try to find those notes and just keep doing that.

Q. What was the importance of last year’s team in this year’s success? Does this happen with what they went through, particularly the seniors from last year’s team who are gone?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No, it doesn’t happen because — I think I shared a lot of times a year ago, I liked my team last year. It was frustrating we couldn’t accelerate the process fast enough for them to see some of the reward. But at the tried hard and they practiced hard, and they were willing from beginning to end. That began this culture of belief that this could and would potentially work and have success. So there wasn’t any significant resistance. I think that embracing of what we were doing and how we were doing it preceded it. As I said, the culture precedes performance, and the culture, they did a great job embracing what we were doing and kind of setting the groundwork or planting the seeds for this group.

I think this team would acknowledge and recognize those guys as they’re sad they’re not here to have some of the fun that’s happening now in the wins.

Q. I think most people seem to agree that Jackson’s a better passer this year. He’s taken a step. What do you see specifically in that part of his game?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think certainly experience, but there is an intentional difference certainly when he chooses to run. Any play can go the whole distance. One player to get him down is difficult. He can make anybody miss, and any play can score. But it’s clear that their plan this year is for him to be more intentional about staying in the pocket, to deliver the ball on a pass play, to read it through, and to be more poised and patient. But that doesn’t mean if there’s not an opening, he’s not going to take it. He was just quicker to run a year ago. He’s more poised and patient than he was a year ago.

Q. I’m guessing you’re not hiding a Lamar Jackson on your scout team, so who do you use to simulate him as the scout quarterback?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Not sure. At the same time last week we weren’t sure who our option quarterback was going to be. So it may take all wait through discussions today and maybe even into tomorrow morning, since we practice really early, to decide that. But it will be important whoever we choose.

Q. Who ended up being last week’s?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, our quarterback last week was high school receiver Hayden Mitchell, and he did a really nice job. He was gritty and tough, and smart.

Credit to Jackson Matteo who runs our victory team. There is a huge benefit of having offensive players and Jackson Matteo and Albert Reid running our offensive victory team for the defense, because their offensive minded coaches. It was, in all the years we’ve defended the option, it was the cleanest blocking and seeing the plays as what they might look like, even though the speed wasn’t the same earlier in the week, which really matters. So Jackson Matteo had a lot to do with that. But in terms of the offensive line, has so much to do with our preparation, and he was really helpful.

Q. How much did it help to have Juan Thornhill back? And going forward, do you see him stepping into the leadership void after the Blanding years?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I think it was essential. I don’t think we win the game without Juan. They went after him eight, nine, ten times, and just to see how healthy he was, and while he was slightly under full health, he made a lot of plays and knocked a lot of passes down and competed hard right to the end. There is a significant drop off in experience when Juan’s not there, and we couldn’t have played our plan and the way we had hoped to play schematically against Georgia Tech unless he’s there. So huge influence. He’s really confident. He’s also a fierce competitor.

Q. And his leadership?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think that’s what’s going to happen as some of the seniors depart. I think Juan will be one of those players that our other guys will look to. Another name that really was a surprise, Mandy Alonso, a first year defensive lineman ended up earning the start this week and played almost every snap and played really well. So the combination of Eli (Hanback) with Andrew Brown who played — watching him against the option a year ago to this year, he wasn’t even the same guy. Andrew played really well. Eli at the nose tackle spot played 75 plays. For example, like Clemson played maybe half those plays, and I think they played three different nose tackles. So Eli played 75 plays at that spot and there’s all kinds of stuff happening in there.

Then Mandy really did a nice job as a first year. So hopefully that is a stepping stone for the remainder of this year because those spots are something that are hard to come by, good defensive linemen.

Q. Is Lamar maybe the most dangerous player you’ve ever faced? And how do you plan to stop a guy like that? Do you put a spotter on him or what do you have to do?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I don’t remember ever defending a player with the same athleticism or skill set? Early in my career we defended Reggie Bush and USC. He was a dynamic player, but didn’t touch the ball every down. That’s the difference with Lamar. Not only can he throw it, but he can scramble and keep plays alive and pull it down and run. A spy is effective if he’s as good an athlete as the guy he’s spying. So you’ve got to run out of spies. If you use two, then something else has to go. So really, the collective is the only way you have a chance against a really good player. Your collective 11 have to play more assignment sound and have to play better and longer, and more coordinated to stop a great player. Unless you have someone that’s equal. If you do, then, okay, you have him, there aren’t many people in the country that have someone like that.

Q. On the offensive line, a couple players played more than they ever had in college. Ben Knutson and Glaser, how did they do? I know it’s not ideal, necessarily, to put them in, but do you like the fact that you have a little bit more depth across the line now?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It was noticeable. We played with more energy. We played harder than running the sacks allowed. And they were assignment sound. Not only assignment sound, their mindset was more aggressive, they were fresher, and they were capable. It made a difference. It was noticeable to me on film as soon as I turned it on, oh, that looks better. So, sometimes the wear and the tear of a season, especially on O-linemen, can take its toll, which happened to a couple of ours. To have some players now have some depth that are really capable, and it’s a hard trade. In Chris’ case, especially, because he’s going to be and already is such a good player as a first year. It’s just where the program is, and we needed him. It was such a big decision. We talked to his folks as well and just spelled it all out. I don’t think many college football programs consult the player’s parents, but I thought it was the right thing to do. And Coach Tujague worked with him, and to his credit, played really well.

Q. It seemed like other times maybe you give more thought to it now than you originally would have thought?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think what’s happening is just as we’re in year two, players still have to earn that opportunity. But, man, when they’re trying as hard as they are in Chris’ case, and are that capable, and there is kind of an emergency need that comes up, it’s just exactly where I’m finding our program is. So it’s more of an issue than what I expected when I first got here.

Q. Do you like having the option?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I like having the option. I do like having the option. I’d still like to hold it as long as possible, and I’d still — the policy is at the end of their career and they have to earn that through sustainability and playing. Sometimes we need to play players. And there is legislation, and the coaches have all supported it. You get to this point. It’s exactly this exact point with four games remaining that you could play a first-year player four games without having it cost him his red-shirt year, because many other teams are having the exact same issue that we’re having. When you get to this point with four games remaining, we’re not the only program that is faced with that. So I would be for that.

MODERATOR. That’s actually an ACC proposed rule change that will be voted on, where the four games; correct me if I’m wrong, could come at any point during the season?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: That’s right.

MODERATOR. That’s a proposal that will be voted on in January. Talking to our compliance people, it is possible that they could retroactively apply it to this season, because they’ve done that recently with some other eligibility rulings.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Most of us, the situation, and the one we’re talking about with Chris, that is the situation. You get to this point in the year, and man, with 85 players on scholarship and now the extra game, that’s 12 games rather than 11 and bowl games as well, it starts to get thin.

Q. You brought in two grad transfers to play the offensive line. You just talked about the depth. But what have Brandon and John meant to you both on the field and off the field?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s nice to have players come to your program that are needed, which they both were and immediately started, which was great. That means they picked the right school and we selected the right young men, because that is the ideal for a player that’s coming as a grad transfer is that they can contribute. But it’s also really nice in what they’ve — I think had a huge impact on is even though we work our guys really hard, they’re so appreciative. They really like and have had a positive experience being in our program and being treated the way they have been. I think it’s been a rebirth or reenergizing experience for them. I think our other team members see how I think fortunate they feel, and I think that kind of boosts them a little bit and helps them feel luckier to be here.

Q. Did you feel like it was just a matter of time before Joe Reed broke one like that?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Man, watching Joe in practice, we kind of think any time he touches the ball that could happen. So what better time. The biggest honor for kick returners when they start kicking away from them, which they did. The key block on that return, most of the attention was play side, Terrell Jana, a first year player on the back side, he and Joey Blount have been really good on special teams for us this year. And because of Terrell, that was the block, and it was a backside block when it kind of got bottled up and came out. All Joe needed — all he needs, really is for you to stay between your man and the ball, and he can do the rest. Terrell in that case was the real story. Joe did the work. Terrell, without him, that play doesn’t happen.

Q. Does Evan Butts, who is here, get some credit for Reed bouncing off of his body on that return?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: He gets some, yeah, he gets some. Is that good?

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