A year ago, Bronco Mendenhall set out to overhaul the practice habits of the Virginia football program when spring practice opened. That meant everything from the way the players stretched to the way they ran on the field to the way they finished plays to the way practice drills allotted reps.
Mendenhall’s goal with the demands: maximize practice reps, increase the effort from each individual, and create a more efficient use of time. That’s a fancy way of saying he wanted players to work harder for longer stretches and ultimately get better results out of it. That all had to happen while the coaches got to know the players and vice versa.
While players bought in and got better at meeting those demands, it did not leave as much time as needed to build much on top of that foundation. That left UVA with a new system that didn’t feature all of its parts. As a result, Mendenhall’s clear directive this offseason has been to increase the amount of football schemes, strategies, and situational reps as possible.
“Last year was more about being in shape and everything,” Cavalier sophomore Juan Thornhill said. “This year is more about knowing what you have to do and knowing your assignment so we can play faster and more fluent.”
”Last year was a lot about getting us in shape, getting used to the way he wants us to practice,” Wahoo linebacker Micah Kiser said. ”Now we hit it running pretty hard today. That’s great and just getting guys used to banging and the fits on run defense. It should benefit us.”
The coaching staff admittedly went through similar growing pains. With almost the entire staff moving across the country to take on a program in a significant rebuilding position, there were a lot of things to address. That meant picking certain areas to focus on initially and then layering in more things as the players progressed.
That, of course, led to some missed assignments and undesirable play. The Hoos came out of the gates with four turnovers in a loss to Richmond and followed that up with double-digit penalties in back-to-back losses on the road at Oregon and UConn. They drew 10 flags in both of those games.
By the end of the season, UVA had 26 turnovers (16 interceptions/10 fumbles lost and 76 penalties (57.9 yards lost per game). Mendenhall said after Tuesday’s first spring practice that they missed the sweet spot on accountability when it came to penalties and the like. That’s why a player got nailed for 25 burpees after a pass interference flag in the first practice of the year.
”There were so many moving parts at the beginning a year ago and really it wasn’t until maybe midseasonish that we were able to fit that kind of accountability and emphasis that we needed,” Mendenhall said. ”I think we were late reacting to that and I think it affected our secondary play. We’re just at a point further along to get the right emphasis and not only [being in] the right position but in finishing the plays we need.”
The learning process extended to personnel as well. Olamide Zaccheaus had some big moments, but didn’t get consistently big outings. He finished with 51 receptions for 584 yards and 7 touchdowns, but added only 3 carries for 24 yards. While that represented an uptick in his receiving production, it was a drop in rushing production from his freshman season. Beyond that, Albert Reid’s usage ebbed and flowed, Jordan Ellis didn’t get many carries, and so on.
Similar things showed up on special teams and defense as well. While there are probably explanations beyond simple underuse or misuse of personnel – injuries for one example – there still seems to be a focus from the coaches to get better at the personnel management part of the equation.
”I don’t think we progressionally used and were using our very best players as frequently or in the right positions enough as a whole team not only Olamide,” Mendenhall said. ”The intent now is that we know our team better to use our best players in the roles where they can thrive. The number of touches and how those touches come hopefully allows us to be more productive. Really, his conditioning will be the only thing that will limit his usage.”
During Tuesday’s practice, Virginia 10-game starter Kurt Benkert took heavy reps at quarterback as the Cavaliers dove in quickly to a variety of competitive drills, including 11 on 11 work. Benkert is in line to become the first returning starter on opening day for UVA since Michael Rocco. In fact, Rocco is the only QB to repeat as the opening day starter in the last 10 years.
Benkert showed the same zip on passes that he had a year ago when he threw for 2,552 yards and 21 touchdowns. The key, of course, will be pocket presence and at least some mobility as the redshirt senior showed some discomfort in those areas late in the season. He lost some weight this offseason with that in mind Mendenhall said.
”Coming off his knee surgery a year ago, I think he found that his escapability wasn’t quite what he wanted,” Mendenhall said. ”He wasn’t quite as elusive at sometimes escaping pressure in the pocket. It wasn’t really directed from us, it was just something he made an intentional effort to address so he could perform at a higher level. The escapability part, he’s very good throwing the football [so] it would be nice to extend the play if there is a free rusher, to be able to make the first guy miss in the pocket and still deliver it and we didn’t do that frequently enough.”
Redshirt freshman De’Vante Cross also picked up a lot of snaps during practice. The Cavaliers worked on a lot of running plays with the QB involved. Cross threw for 2,947 yards with 26 touchdowns and rushed for 1,385 yards with 19 touchdowns as a high school senior.
UVA also will add Marvin Zanders to the fold as a graduate student by the time fall practice arrives. He passed for 1,866 yards with 22 touchdowns and rushed for 705 yards with 15 touchdowns as a high school senior. In 2016 at Mizzou, he passed for 114 yards with 1 touchdown and rushed for 198 yards and 2 touchdowns in reserve work under center.
Mendenhall indicated that the option of using a running quarterback at least in a change-up role this season is on the table for the offense.
”We come from a system and we love dual threat quarterbacks,” Mendenhall said. ”We have an option now with De’Vante and Marvin Zanders coming as a grad transfer to blend that more into what we do. I think it’s very difficult to defend. That doesn’t mean Kurt’s role is anything diminished, but we like the complementary nature of what quarterback running provides.”
- Among the offensive standouts on the first day of practice were running back Jordan Ellis and receiver Olamide Zaccheaus.
- Defensively, James Trucilla and Juwan Moye worked at nose tackle as UVA tries to figure out how to replace Donte Wilkins. Mendenhall said Wilkins was a traditional 2-gap nose tackle for a 3-4 defense, while some teams use more of a 1-gap attacking player at nose. The Cavaliers, Mendenhall said, will have to figure out in the coming months ”where we fall on that continuum” this season.
- Defensive linemen trying to gain weigh like James Trucilla have a “four plate minimum” at the JPJ dining hall he said.
- Junior linebacker C.J. Stalker could figure into the defense this season. Mendenhall said Tuesday that he “would love for him to earn a role, which he has to this point” because in part he helps make players around him better.
- Tim Harris and Malcolm Cook were among the players back in action for the Hoos. Harris saw his season cut short by injury last fall, while Cook missed the entire season with a heart condition.
- Linebacker Micah Kiser said he found out about Quin Blanding’s return when everyone else did. He chuckled as he called their roles sort of like Batman and Robin for the defense.
- Offensive linemen Jake Fieler and Dillon Reinkensmeyer took reps at center.
- Kareem Gibson, Osiris Crutchfield, and Steven Wright worked on the side pushing weights and other physical fitness activities.