The Bronco Mendenhall era is off to an 0-2 start for Virginia football team, but Mendenhall has sounded nothing but encouraged since the cross country trip to Oregon. He says he sees progress out there. What about our Sabre staff?
It’s time to dive into TheSabre.com’s weekly football feature called “Ask The Sabre” where our staff responds to fan questions. This feature is brought to you by our newest sponsor Bundoran Farm, where you can Create Your Virginia Legacy.
This installment takes on the improvement question and a lot more this week. To see the “Ask The Sabre” articles in the archives, just click here.
Casual observers saw improvement from Richmond to Oregon. How much overall improvement do you think there was, and what specific areas improved the most? ~ HOOserName
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: There was improvement – I even posted on the EDGE board during the game when the score was 44-13 that there were signs of progress. The key here is the quantifier being used. Some? Significant? Substantial? I’ll say some. I thought a few hidden areas (meaning not shown in the stats) were better. Some examples: finishing blocks, no fumbles, and playbook expansion on offense – setting the edge, the goal line defense at the end of the first half, and tackling (to a degree). Make no mistake, there are some big issues still – first half offense, deep completions/drops, run fits, and misdirection defense to name a few. Coach Mendenhall said he is encouraged by what’s happening between the breakdowns, though. I’m in that boat too. More consistency in just a few areas could close the gap in a big way.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: How the team responded to a devastating home loss to Richmond was what I was eager to see. Against Oregon, I thought the players were more decisive and aggressive in their approach, particularly as the game went on. Down 44-6, this team could have easily packed it in. They didn’t. As a result, I think they even gained some confidence with the way they finished the game. Confidence is key, especially with a team depending on young players to step up. Virginia got better in this regard.
The running game was a huge improvement and will be crucial to opening things up in the passing game. Albert Reid and Jordan Ellis looked very good, and it was nice to see Taquan Mizzell bounce back and run like he did in the latter half of last year. Defensively, Virginia gave up some huge plays and really needs to improve on third down, but again it was nice to see some of the inexperienced players make plays and gain confidence. Andrew Brown, Chris Peace, Jordan Mack, and Steven Wright all looked more comfortable and aggressive. Virginia was always going to go through growing pains. The key is gaining confidence, and I think some of the younger players should have some growing confidence after this game.
Sabre Analyst Ahmad Hawkins: Overall I think the effort improved the most. I thought UVA played faster and showed a sense of urgency during the game that wasn’t on full display vs. Richmond. The ability to win the line of scrimmage on offense was so much better. UVA ran for 193 yards as a team and the holes were there to choose from. Albert Reid did a tremendous job being decisive with his cuts and running behind his pads. All three of the running backs seemed like they had a chip on their shoulders while running the football and they delivered blows to tacklers. The offensive line can really make a huge difference if it consistently controls the line of scrimmage and opens holes for the talented running backs.
Sabre Analyst Greg Waters: Obviously the run game both in terms of blocking and execution by the backs improved and that’s probably the most notable area. Clearly there was an improvement in attitude and confidence. Some may say those factors don’t win football games but as I noted in the Grades and Trends following the Richmond game, there is a difference in hoping you can win and expecting to win.
At this point in the Mendenhall program development I want to see two things. First, a coaching staff that can quickly recognize issues and adjust. Whether that means simplifying schemes or scrapping them altogether, changing personnel, or coaching up specific areas, execution issues must be rapidly identified and addressed. Second, I want to see players that are willing and capable of taking those modifications and immediately being able to apply them to their roles. Against Oregon, I saw execution problems from the previous week addressed and saw players obviously applying the coaching they had received. So coaches recognized the issues and addressed them, while the players implemented the changes. What Virginia fans need to be mindful of is that for the next few weeks (and maybe the rest of the season) as we witness improvement, other opponents will expose additional execution issues. I’m not concerned about that as long as there is a process in place to identify problems, introduce solutions, and the solutions are implemented on the field.
Does Benkert have the arm to succeed? In addition to throwing into double coverage, most of his INTs have been badly underthrown floaters. Do you think he has the arm and accuracy to be a deep threat and keep the D honest? ~ NVHoo
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: Benkert’s arm strength is not a concern of mine. I watched him complete a few deep balls in preseason camp, and so far this season I think he has shown nice zip on midrange throws down the seams and to the sidelines. If Virginia can continue to run the ball effectively like it did last week, that will open up more opportunities for Benkert and the Cavaliers to go downfield.
Sabre analyst Greg Waters: Yes. He has a live arm, seems to be good at putting the right amount of juice on passes, and throws a nice intermediate ball both between the seams and on passes to the edge. Benkert appears to keep his feet moving in the pocket but the mechanics get a little inconsistent on the run especially when he goes to the left. He seemed really accurate against Richmond but less so in the Oregon game, in part because he sailed several passes over receivers heads and was victimized by numerous dropped passes.
I like how he goes through his progressions and he’s already completed passes to nine different receivers. What I really like is that he seems to be a pretty football savvy quarterback. Yes I think he has the arm to be a legitimate deep thrower and a consistently accurate shallow and medium-range passer. But while arm strength and accuracy will take a player a long way, ultimately what will determine if he is a solid ACC quarterback will be his ability to read defenses and his decision making ability to adapt to what he’s seeing.
Deception on offense: I’m far from an Xs and Os guy, but it seemed to me that Oregon’s offense used at lot more deception than ours did in terms of fakes, etc. Are we just not yet at that level of sophistication with the new offense? ~ SixerHoo
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: Yes and no. Virginia added some layers to its complexity this week, including some pre-snap motion, play fakes, and so forth. In the red zone, UVA has used a lot of deception tactics with great success – 6 touchdowns in 7 trips. Read The Sampler for one example of it, but at least three of the four touchdowns at Oregon had some deception built into the concept. Compared to Oregon and its use of read option, however, the Cavaliers aren’t up to that level of sophistication yet and I’m not sure they’re willing to risk the QB for those types of runs too often anyway.
Are wider OL splits inherently more difficult when it comes to combating the pass rush? ~ Deja Hoo
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: Yes! Eric Smith said this week that the linemen were joking about everybody being a tackle with the wider splits. It’s tougher on the interior three linemen because they can’t just wash somebody into traffic on some downs and there’s less opportunity for combo blocks in some cases. In UVA’s case, it started three tackles – Smith, Jack English, and Michael Mooney (at left guard) so 60% of the line was used to playing in that space at least.
Seemed a lot of dropped passes. Concerned? ~ cathoofever
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: Too early to tell. The Hoos didn’t have that problem in the opener and one of the main culprits at Oregon, Doni Dowling, wasn’t even cleared to play until Thursday with a shoulder injury. Quarterback Kurt Benkert did say he could put a little more touch on the shorter throws to help out, though.
It would be great to hear thoughts on the breakdown(s) that allowed the first down on 3rd and 36 in the second quarter. How did Oregon get single coverage that far down the field? ~ HOOpsfan
Sabre analyst Ahmad Hawkins: Oregon came out in a trips formation tight, meaning the the tight end was lined up on the same exact side as the trip formation. With that being said, the tight end isn’t an eligible receiver due to the slot receiver being on the line of scrimmage. The running back was also lined up on the formation side in the gun beside the QB. The UVA defense sent out three defensive backs to match the trips formation to the field, one deep safety, and a corner on the weak side stacked as an extra linebacker. Oregon ran a short post with the No. 2 receiver that was on the ball, while the No. 3 receiver that was closest to the ball ran a “wheel route” and the No. 1 receiver that was farthest from the ball ran a deep post route.
For some reason, UVA stayed in man free coverage, instead of making a combo call (I don’t know if that check is available but that’s what I saw as the best option as a defender), which would have zoned up the three receivers and the defensive backs would have passed each receiver off and just covered their designated area. The free safety, which was Quin Blanding, took the “bait” and jumped the short quick post, even though it was well in front of the first down marker, thus leaving Thornhill on an island vs. the fastest man in the state of Oregon.
Two things that bothered me about this play were Myles Robinson didn’t have a passing threat on his side and should have backed up to make himself available to take away that short post route and secondly Quin Blanding has to be a football player and not a robot on that play. I know he was taught to take the first crosser, but he has to understand the down and distance. If he maintained his backpedal, he could take away the deep post by alignment and then rally up late to tackle the short post route in front of the first down marker. Bad football IQ on that play. In a perfect world, the defense should have sent Blanding to the far hash over top of the three-receiver set and placed Myles Robinson on the near hash as a short safety to take away the first crosser. You have to understand formation and passing threats as a defender.
Is the kicking game difficulty an issue of distance or accuracy? Or both? ~ hawkb
What is concern of kicking game and what is being done to address it? ~ HooDatLG
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: Both distance and accuracy. The Hoos are addressing it in practice (and I imagine with competition, but there aren’t a lot of options there) and with the game plan. Four down territory is expanded on that side of the 50 and a fake field goal was put in place for the first opportunity that a certain look provided against Oregon. It didn’t work, but that fake was put in to address the kicking concerns by not kicking.