Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall held his weekly press conference with the media on Monday. He revisited the loss to Pittsburgh and looked ahead to the rivalry showdown with North Carolina.
The Cavaliers enter this week with a 2-4 record overall and at 1-1 in the ACC. After back-to-back wins before the bye week, Saturday’s loss to the Panthers snapped some momentum for the Hoos. UVA led by a touchdown four different times in the first half, but when Pitt posted a pick-six just before intermission, the hosts never regained the lead.
The Wahoos must regroup from the disappointing loss as it faces a North Carolina team that owns an eight-game road winning streak. The Tar Heels enter this game at 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the ACC. They will be without receiver Mack Hollins, who suffered a broken collar bone in Saturday’s win against Miami and will miss the remainder of the season. Hollins had two touchdown catches in UNC’s last trip to Charlottesville.
Here’s an initial look – paraphrased as always – at some of the comments from Mendenhall’s Monday press conference. Check back later for the full transcript when it is added to the article.
Disappointed in our loss to Pitt. Feel like some missed opportunities. I believe there are three to five critical plays per game, a great study that shows that, and this game was no exception. Three to five plays were critical. I like my team. I like how they’ve embraced the culture. Moving up the scale on execution. We’re becoming better. Execution is not holding long enough beginning to end in all three phases to have the outcome we would like, but more plays are looking like we want them to look.
In a question about the pick-six that ended the half, Mendenhall said team has not practiced tackling to the ground or worked specifically on when a turnover happens and the offense needs to become the defense. Been more awareness coaching than physical coaching in that aspect.
Mendenhall said touches for Taquan Mizzell could have been more against Pitt, but it’s been pretty good through the course of the season. Once got behind before halftime, I don’t think we found our rhythm and that was a bigger blow than it needed to be. Pitt was much more aggressive with six man pressures after halftime. As soon as they got a lead, their plan changed. Balance could have helped us more. Touches for Mizzell could have helped some, but not sure how much.
Mendenhall said he’s glad Kurt Benkert is here. I think he’s helped our team. I think he’s a very good quarterback that’s growing and improving every game like our team. He did get impatient against Pitt, who got more aggressive with the lead and pressure, pressure, pressure.
Mendenhall said using Olamide Zaccheaus as a runner is possible. I’m getting a much clearer feel for our depth now and what players can handle through the GPS Catapult season. The intent would be to expand his touches as much as possible, but we’re right at his threshold. Had a hamstring cramp Saturday after a hamstring injury in preseason. Team would like to push the envelope a little more with him, but not at expense of not having him long term.
Mendenhall said the more you rely on long plays, the less consistent you can appear. A mix of those longer chances with more horizontal throws and runs with better balance overall will help consistency. The more it becomes just throw deep, the less consistent it becomes.
Mendenhall said he doesn’t think team is tackling exceptionally well in space right now. When you play a dominant 3-4, the edges become a strength because outside linebackers are recruited to be and coached to be playmakers. Chris Peace and Jordan Mack are showing capability and ability, but working on consistency. Still missing more plays in open field than I would like. So it’s a work in progress.
Mendenhall said college football is heading that way toward more offensive shootouts. I haven’t gotten used to it and don’t like it from a defensive perspective. Atypical to what I’m used to, but invigorating for the challenge it brings. I don’t know what the score will be, but want to keep improving.
Mendenhall said the interior size on defense as the program is built, looking for more size, more length, and more depth. In the meantime, I like coaching the team I have and helping them reach their potential. Encouraged by what saw. Most of their numbers for Pitt were lower than season average. We had some consistency issues. I still saw some progress in how they did against that team.
Mendenhall said Sam Hayward is an option on kickoffs because he can place the ball exactly where we want it. That will be considered. If we can have someone put it where they’re not, then that would be an option. He’s showing capability in practice on field goals. Becoming someone our team is counting on.
Mendenhall said using right players in right position at the right time includes special teams. It’s becoming clearer, especially in kick coverage, need more players in right spots at the right time. That might mean trading some players from one special team unit to another. At halftime Saturday, moved three defensive players to kickoff coverage. There’s only so much work capacity a player can do so they’re going to be some trades within special teams units to try to maximize the play on those units.
Mendenhall On Overall State Of Team/UNC
Mendenhall said when he discusses a breakthrough, he doesn’t mean a specific game but a state of the program. Winning consistently is the goal. The breakthrough to me isn’t an event, it’s a state change. Almost water going from a solid to a liquid. It takes time. It’s noticeable when it happens.
Mendenhall said North Carolina winning eight straight road games won’t get any attention with the team. It does show they’re a consistent winner now and that’s all I’ll present the team with. Then it goes to plays, jersey numbers, and our own focus. We spend every ounce of time on our performance. We address the schemes of the opponent, but working hard on what we can control.
Mendenhall said used to use bye week to self scout, but now they do that weekly. Sometimes it feels like a different team that he’s coaching since beginning of the season. The road is still steep and difficult. We have a lot of work ahead. There’s a difference between being disappointed and defeated. Our team is disappointed they didn’t win last week, but not defeated. Our record is not what we had hoped, but so focused on the process and to look past that can get in the way. So many things need to be cleaned up with execution.
Pushing the aggressive mindset is part of changing the program’s culture. On the interception, Pitt blitzed and brought six in pressure so that left two defenders under and three over so it could have been a big play. It wasn’t. Try to keep team educated on the ‘why’ behind risk taking and aware that it can go both ways.
I think we’re an explosive offense, but not a consistent offense. Capable of scoring anywhere at any time, but haven’t demonstrated that can do it from beginning to end of game. Defense is similar. Still some inconsistencies with third downs and penalties. In reviewing the film, only two penalties to take back – Andrew Brown’s and one other – the others were aggressive plays. Special teams, directional placement on kickoff and punt from that game need to improve.
Bronco Mendenhall Press Transcript
Bronco Mendenhall: Disappointed in our loss to Pitt, and put a lot of hard work into really every game, but in that particular game, there was a lot of optimism and confidence and anticipating a really hard-fought game, but one that we believe we had a great chance to win, and still feel that way afterwards with some missed opportunities. I present to my team that I believe there’s three to five critical plays per game, and there’s a great study that’s been done regarding that. And this game was no exception. There were three to five plays that if you look back at it and kind of encapsulated it, that shifted momentum and ended up determining and influencing outcome.
I like my team. I like how hard they try and how they’ve embraced the culture. And we’re moving up the scale of the effort and intent to position mastery and execution. That’s basically where our team is right now. So we’re becoming better in terms of our position mastery and playing our spots. Execution is not holding yet long enough from beginning to end in all three phases to have the outcomes that we would like. But more and more plays are looking how we would like them to be. So we’ll continue to expedite and accelerate that process the very best way that we can. And I think that we’re an explosive offense, but we’re not a consistent offense at this point. So if you’re looking at what I see as our current state of affairs, we’re capable of scoring kind of anywhere at any time. We have some explosive players to do so. But we haven’t demonstrated yet that we can do it from beginning to end of a game. And defensively I would say similar. While the big plays are reducing as the season is going on, there are still some inconsistencies either through third downs or penalties that are coming up. However, in he are viewing the film of the pass interference, besides Andrew Brown’s obvious penalty, the other ones, there was one that I would take back. The others I would encourage my players to play the same way.
Then special teams, our punt game has been very, very strong through this point of the season, and there’s actually two strong in this game giving the returner more space and a little more room to catch it before he caught up to him and covered him than we would have liked. So directional placement of the ball, both on kickoff and punt in that game as well as our coverage units need to be improved.
So hopefully that gives you kind of a summary of what I thought, and I’ll take specific questions.
Q. It seems as if we went over that final play of the first half from every angle, but it seems as if your offensive players had done a better job of tracking the guy down, that maybe the time runs out or they have to kick a field goal. Do you work on that where your offensive players have to become tacklers?
Bronco Mendenhall: I would say we’ve made them more aware of than working on. I couldn’t in good conscience say we practice it when our defense has a turn way and takeover in practice or turnover in practice. The offensive players are encouraged to square up and get in front of them. But to say that we’ve tackled to the ground or anything like that or worked it specifically, it’s been more awareness oriented than preparation for. I think it’s a valid point.
Q. For a lot of teams, the aggression you showed with 40 seconds left in the half is unusual. You showed us at the bowl game last year, when you guys were getting your butt handed to you, how you were responding. Is there a way you have to teach the players to embrace that aggressive attitude so that if something bad does happen they still have that we don’t care kind of thing? Does that go against the historical kind of thing that you’re battling over?
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah, so I can’t speak to the historical as much other than I know that we have overcome a more than five-point deficit only one time since 2012 and playing from behind. And I was just made aware of that today. My only point by substantiating with that data is that, man, I like to win, and I like to be aggressive in doing so in terms of game management. I’m pushing every boundary that I possibly can to help the program and the young men that I’m coaching and our team to have that mindset.
Again, just to go over it again, based on how we performed on the first down was kind of going to determine what we did, and once, maybe if you use the shark analogy or you see an opportunity and you kind of wanted to capture the momentum and move forward. On that particular play, Pitt actually rushed six. They pressured, and only had two underneath in coverage, and three on top. So, holy cow, it could have been a giant play, but it wasn’t, and we all know how that played out. So I have expressed my philosophy to the players of how aggressive I’d like to be, in not only play calling, but also how they play, and with that, comes risk, and I am accountable for that. And I always share that with them. I take accountability in front of them whenever things that I am responsible for. And usually if they understand the why, they’re okay. So I try to keep them educated as much as I can.
Q. I think you might have just answered it, but keeping with the theme of everything that happened in that first half, you look back and the quarterback draw late against UCONN, the fake field Bowl against Oregon, the fake punt against Duke, those are just four instances that that aggressive play calling didn’t work. Does that hinder how you continue to call a game or do you stick to what you know best and kind of your roots there?
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah, I think what it shows is just the continued — and I think it’s kind of verified of where our program is, where we’re a play or two away from critical plays being able to be made. So execution is driving that. I don’t think necessarily the choices are driving it. I think the execution of the choices is driving that, and that’s happening really all over the field right now. So while we are battling hard and closing the gap, and man, just working our guts out to get to those moments, now pulling those moments off. And I think I shared this when I was hired, there is a Giant difference between losing close games and winning close games. First of all, the mindset has to be in place. And second of all, the execution to match the mindset has to be there. So we’re still working on both parts. Again, I’m not sure how long, but I’m positive it will happen. But I think what you’re seeing is just a work in progress.
Q. Do you feel like you’re due?
Bronco Mendenhall: The due, the payment of the dues will happen, I think, when our execution and our habits get deeper.
Q. So much of what North Carolina does with its passing game is horizontal in getting guys in space. How would you evaluate to date how your defense has done tackling in open space? In other words, how prepared do you feel like you are to defend that offense?
Bronco Mendenhall: So I don’t think we’re tackling exceptionally well in space right now. When you play dominant defense, especially dominant 3-4 defense, the edges really become a strength, because those outside backers really become and really are recruited to be a couple of the featured players on the entire team. In fact, coach pa ping a, our outside backer coach, I think every player that he’s coached while we’ve been together has gotten a chance to go on to the NFL, with the exception of Juan who got hurt. So what we’re finding now between Chris Peace and Jordan Mack, and we used Mark Hall a little bit in the game against Pitt, just to add a little bit more size because of what they did. But really, Chris Peace and Jordan Mack are showing capability and showing ability, but still working on consistency, just like the rest of our team. So we’re still missing more plays in open field than what I would like. But we’re starting to make more than what we had before. So a work in progress.
Q. Sam Hayward made his first field goal attempt the other day. What have you seen from him in practice as he becomes more acclimated to being a football player? Is he an option on kickoffs?
Bronco Mendenhall: He is an option on kickoffs because he can place the ball exactly where we want it. And that, absolutely, is something that will be considered, especially as the quality of opponent in conference play continues to increase and climb and the volatility of who is returning it against us and their explosive nature. If we can have someone put it where they’re not and do it consistently, yeah, that would be an option. I’m glad the ball went through the up rights. It was great.
In pregame, after the warm-ups, there’s a field goal — there is a punt and a field goal, and our field goal hit the cross bar and I think came out. So I’m glad we made the one in real-time and missed the one in warm-ups. He’s showing capability in practice though, and he’s becoming someone our team is counting on, which is good.
Q. Some players have talked about the concept of a breakthrough maybe in a rival. Is that something you have to sort of guard against that, hey, all of a sudden we’re going to arrive? It’s more of a process?
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah, and I think I’m responsibility for that. When I arrived I was talking about how long and how what I said is before a breakthrough I didn’t know how long it would take or with whom, but at some point there would be a breakthrough. So I think they’re using the same words that I used. The intent breakthrough wasn’t a game. It was basically a program state. Meaning that winning consistently is the expectation. No matter where you play, who you play, that is just what is expected and what we’re used to, and that’s the Norm.
So I find when I speak to the team, sometimes I talk to them like I’ve coached them for 11 years rather than almost one. So I have to backtrack sometimes and add context to some of the points of reference that I’m using.
So, yeah, the breakthrough to me isn’t an event. It’s a State change, meaning almost like water going from a solid to a liquid or vice versa. It takes time and it’s noticeable, and then there’s a whole different place and a whole different thing that you’ve created.
Q. The players that were here earlier were talking about how playing a team that’s won eight straight road games is just another game and all that stuff?
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah, I didn’t know.
Q. As a guy who has been coaching for a long time, and now that you’ve had a little taste of what the ACC is like, what does it say to you about North Carolina that they’ve won eight straight road games? And how much attention does that get?
Bronco Mendenhall: It won’t get any, other than North Carolina is a consistent winner now. When Coach Fedora took over, I don’t know what it was like or how long that took, but they are a consistent winner now. So once we’ve addressed that, that’s really all I’ll present to the team as we’re playing a consistent winner that’s an ACC opponent. Then it just goes to plays and jersey numbers and our own focus. Man, we spend every ounce of time we have right now just on our own performance, and we acknowledge the opponent and what they do in the schematics. But anything beyond that is nothing we can control nor we can influence.
We’re working hard enough right now just zeroing in on what we can control, and that’s a full-time job right now for our team and myself.
Q. Kurt was in here earlier and talked about how it was mentioned in a meeting this morning that Smoke specifically probably he was hot on Saturday and then maybe didn’t get as many touches and then he looks to get him more involved. How do you think you’ve involved him to this point? He’s around 15 touches a game.
Bronco Mendenhall: So in the last game probably could have been expanded some. But I’ve been pretty happy through the course of the year, especially the last few weeks as the use of Olamide, and Keeon and Albert Reid and Doni Dowling, so I think we’ve done a pretty nice job of establishing that.
But once, I think once we got behind, right before halftime that there was — I don’t think we found our rhythm, and I think there was a bigger blow than that needed to be in terms of consistency and some of the things that we had been doing prior. And there was a significant change on Pitt’s part. Some of you asked me that after the game, did they do anything different. And much more aggressive in terms of six-man pressures, much more aggressive. So as soon as they got us a slight lead, their plan changed. So balance could have helped us more and Smoke’s touches, I’m not sure how many more, but that could have helped some.
Q. Talk about touches and such. Olamide was a big part of the rushing game last season, I think he had 30-some carries this year, just a couple. Is there thought of getting him more touches that way?
Bronco Mendenhall: Possibly. So one of the things that we’re looking at is and is pretty unique, so I’m having a much clearer idea of what our depth actually is now. So also we monitor GPS and what we call the catapult system, which is how much volume players are getting and what they can actually handle. With Olamide, and you saw him cramp up, a hamstring even in the game and coming back from a hamstring early in fall camp. So the intent and the hope would be to expand as many of his touches in ways as possible, but we’re right at his threshold of if much more happens, that very well could relapse, and then we’re without him. So looking to push the boundaries a little more, but volume right now is contributing to him.
Q. You mentioned using Mark Hall some to get more size. Pitt had a lot of really big guys, both sides, fullback. Down the road as you kind of work toward your recruiting model, do you envision having a bigger front seven in terms of weight or height or both?
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah, both. So our interiors right now collectively, and again, I love the players that I have, and I’m really happy they’re here and I’m really enjoying coaching them. As we look to build the program, absolutely more size. And absolutely more depth. Absolutely more depth. Absolutely more ability and just more of everything. But that’s where the program is. So I keep that in the back of my head and what I know and what I see for the future. In the meantime, I love coaching the team that I have and helping them reach their true potential.
I was really encouraged by a lot of the things that I saw defensively and most of Pitt’s numbers were below what they had coming in. And I thought there are some consistency issues, but really a few field position things here and there and maybe one drive in the third our fourth quarter. But I still saw progress in what they did and how they did it against that team in reference to the numbers.
Q. How deep you are into North Carolina tape study, but they announced today that Matt Collins is done for the season?
Bronco Mendenhall: I just watched the play actually.
Q. Two years ago he had catches of 53 and 57 yards. How do you think that might effect what North Carolina tries to do?
Bronco Mendenhall: I don’t think it will affect it much based on what I’ve seen this year. I think he had 13 catches total going into our game. You’ll have to verify that. But what I did see on the ball that he caught where he hurt his shoulder is, man it looked like a 50-ish yard deep pass he could run, and run really well with size and length. So I’m sorry for him, and I don’t know how long that injury will go out. I don’t know their personnel well enough yet. But I do know their ability to move the football is more, again, horizontal than vertical, and if a vertical threat is taken away, that helps at least in terms to limit the number of options we have to defend.
Q. You played eight true freshmen, I know you’ve always played a lot of freshmen. As a new coach in a new system, any advantage to those guys not having habits to break maybe like the upperclassmen?
Bronco Mendenhall: It’s interesting. And I think we have to be careful. The literature on habits talks about replacing. Because it’s not really possible to eliminate a habit you have, but you can build a stronger one on top of. So that takes a little bit more work. But in one of our meetings today it was interesting. One of our coaches made a comment about Joe Reed and how the look in his eye from beginning to end and his presence was one of capability and optimism and he simply had a can-do attitude because he doesn’t know anything else other than get things done. So to your point, there is that because environment does have an influence on us. And it’s fun to be around all of our players to add new habits to the older ones, but also to enrich the younger players that have had success to help them develop. So, yeah, there is a freshness and a newness to that. And we’re not playing any first years for the sake of that. But certainly there is a difference right now because their experiences are different.
Q. Outside of the UCONN game, you guys have been in a lot of shootouts. This game could Poe continually set up as another shootout game because you guys run high-tempo games. Is it weird as a defensive guy to be playing in so many kind of shootouts? Or is that kind of the way that the college football landscape is starting to change maybe?
Bronco Mendenhall: I think college football is heading that way. That doesn’t mean I have to get used to it or like it. And haven’t really gotten used to it, and don’t like it from a defensive perspective. So this is atypical in terms of what I’m used to. But, again, invigorating for the challenge that it brings. So I think as a coach you take the team on where they are on any given day and week and stage, and then you kind of meet them there and work from that point and try to help improve everything about what we’re doing. So, yeah, I don’t know what the score will be other than I’d like to keep improving. The more, the better. And each challenge is different. While some of the points of reference when we name this game or that game, yeah, that might have been Game 3 or Game 4, but the nature of the opponent, each of those games takes on an identity itself and the style of offense that we’re playing. So this will be more like playing our own offense. Not identical, but there will be some point of reference there that might give some advantage just in terms of a place to start from.
Q. You mentioned earlier that your offense is not consistent. What specifically needs to be improved for the offense to be consistent the rest of the way?
Bronco Mendenhall: I think if you look at the start of the game of just this last week, and if you think about looking at where the ball was going, how it was going, and then simply the ability to connect on some of those bigger plays, it wasn’t really methodical drives that were putting us in the end zone, they were giant plays that were happening. So we’re explosive right now. But the more explosive, and the more you rely on long plays, really the less consistent you can appear. So there is a balance in there between the number of times we throw intermediate and long, and the number of times the ball is delivered horizontally or running it mixed in with that. So that mix is usually what adds to consistency. And easy to, if you’re not really right on in terms of the awareness and communication with players and our quarterbacks and managing the game, easy for that to get tilted a little bit one way or the other. So the consistency will come with the right balance from beginning to end, versus the game management of deep, intermediate, horizontal and run game, and that will add to the consistency. The more it becomes throw deep, the less consistent it will be. Maybe the more entertaining to watch, but not so much consistent.
Q. Six games down and six to go in the regular season. Do you traditionally kind of self-scout, look back at halfway point? Do you do that with this team and look back at what you’ve done right and moving forward what needs to happen? Obviously you have a goal to get to a Bowl game. But big challenge ahead these next six weeks.
Bronco Mendenhall: No question. What’s changed over the number of years in my coaching is there used to be a Giant event that happened during the bye week of self scout and self analysis. In the role that I have as head coach and defensive coordinator, that now is weekly. So, man, hard to remember the teams we’ve played and in what order. Sometimes it feels like it’s even a different team I’m coaching from some of the things and some of the maturity I’ve seen and some of the injuries that have happened and different experiences. But I know where we are now and the road is still steep. It’s still difficult. We have a lot of work ahead. There is a difference between being disappointed and defeated, and our players are disappointed that they didn’t win last week, but certainly not defeated. And anxious to play and continue to improve and grow. Everyone realizes, myself included, the record isn’t what we would have hoped. But I am focusing so much on the process right now, it really is so much to do in relation to the process that to look past that at all to the outcome, even though that’s normal and human, really gets in the way because so many little things need to be cleaned up in terms of, again, execution and becoming consistent.
Q. Kurt looked kind of out of sorts early in the second half after he got whacked so many times early. He said today he got kind of impatient with the ball and ran out of the pocket too fast and all that stuff. But he started six games in his college career. Where would you assess where he is in that development?
Bronco Mendenhall: Man, I’m glad he’s here. I think he’s helped our team. I think he has great potential, and I think he’s a very good quarterback who is learning and growing every game just like our entire team is. Yeah, he did get impatient. He got hit a couple times early, and he hit hard. And Pitt’s, again, once Pitt got the lead, their approach was pressure, pressure, pressure, pressure. And it’s normal for, especially a quarterback that likes to be in space, step out of the pocket and extend plays. So I think that speeded him up a little bit. But holy cow, tons to learn from for him and us, and it became where we were a little bit more reactionary in terms of offensively than making him pay for some of the pressures and slowing him down and just becoming methodical, because we had tons of time.
Q. I think you said Saturday that you made some special teams adjustments or changes during the game?
Bronco Mendenhall: We did.
Q. What kind of action have you taken since then?
Bronco Mendenhall: Really no more action other than staffing discussions and conversations. I really think that our continued progress, besides schematic emphasis and the execution there of becomes on using the right players in the right positions at the right time. So that includes special teams. We’ve worked really hard in all phases to do that, but it’s becoming clearer that in our coverage unit, especially kick coverage, that we need a few more of the right players in the right positions at the right time. And that might mean their workload off other special teams we might take a player off punt return, so to speak, to manage that volume and put him on kick return and have some of our best tacklers. And I think we moved possibly three defensive starters at halftime to the kick coverage unit. So possibly moved like that could happen. But, again, we’re managing a very thin roster, not much depth and only so much work capacity. So there will be trades made, basically, to have the right players in the right position at the right time.
Q. You mentioned earlier that Olamide’s cramping was evidence that he pretty much reached his limit. We also saw on the sideline, Taquan for lack of a better word, puking. Was that an example of him reaching his limit or was it something completely unrelated?
Bronco Mendenhall: I’m not sure. I can’t speak to that and I wasn’t aware of it. I really like the conditioning of our players, physically conditioned. What they’re learning now is, man, what it takes to really concentrate to play high-quality football from beginning to end. And that’s a new habit as well. To be able to maintain the mental concentration and determination and confidence through ups and downs as well as the physical part. So I can’t speak to Smoke specifically on that, because I wasn’t aware of it. But that is something that related just the mindset of a champion, and that conditioning is taking some work also.