When Bronco Mendenhall watched some of his first offseason sessions with the Virginia football program in 2016, a young player caught his eye and he immediately expected him to contribute even though he didn’t know who he was just yet. Eli Hanback proved him right, starting in 11 of UVA’s 12 games last fall.
“Maybe the second or third day, I asked who that was – I didn’t know his name yet – I just said he’ll be able to play,” Mendenhall said.
Hanback’s movement at approximately 270 pounds along with a willingness to work drew Mendenhall’s attention initially. As spring and fall practice progressed, the Ashland native began to carve out a role and he eventually started the majority of the games. He ended up with 36 tackles, good enough for 10th on the team. That included 4.5 tackles for loss with one sack. The biggest highlight of Hanback’s season came on a fumble recovery for touchdown at Duke.
He continued to progress at defensive end in the spring, but the coaches felt after reviewing some of his strengths and some of the team’s needs that he may be able to help more on the inside at nose tackle. In the 3-4 scheme that Mendenhall prefers, that’s one of, if not the most critical, positions on defense. The Cavaliers lost Donte Wilkins after he produced 47 tackles in his senior season last fall and during the spring, no sure-fire solutions emerged.
Defensive line coach Vic So’oto approached Hanback about the move entering the summer.
”I don’t think I took a rep at nose in the spring time,” Hanback said. ”I was completely OK with it. Coach Vic said we need you there and we think you’ll help. I’m looking forward to it and doing all I can to help the team out. It will be a learning process, but I’m confident I’ll get it.”
Hanback has a couple of things working in his favor in that regard. After checking in at 6’4” and 270 pounds last fall, he’s up to 300 on the official roster now. He told reporters that he had gained almost 40 pounds from last season. Some of his work at defensive end last season could translate well to the interior; he held his line well against big offensive tackles, played well against the run, and knew the scheme well.
After Saturday’s first full football practice (the Hoos are using integrated skills practices on alternating days during the first week of practice), Mendenhall drew some encouragement once again from watching Hanback. While the competition could change multiple times over the course of August according to Mendenhall, he thought the redshirt sophomore could be the top option at nose right now.
”He’s diligent, he’s capable, he’s understated, he kind of is an underpromise overdeliver player,” Mendenhall said. ”Based on what I saw on Saturday, we played him some at the nose spot and he did a really nice job. Again, the more he can do, the more he can do for us. That gives us the equivalent of two players rather than one because he can play nose and end.”
The committee at nose tackle also includes sophomore James Trucilla (6’1”/275) and true freshman Mandy Alonso (6’2”/290). Other possibilities include sophomore Juwan Moye (6’3”/275), true freshman Tommy Christ (6’5”/270), and senior Jack Powers (6’5”/305). Moye spent most of his time at defensive end Saturday and it looks like he and Hanback essentially swapped spots from last fall.
Tim Harris Happy To Be Back
Cornerback Tim Harris first went down last fall early in preseason practice. He toughed it out at first, even appearing in two games last fall with three tackles and two pass breakups. Eventually, however, the shoulder injury cut his season short.
While Harris applied for and received a medical hardship waiver in the end, those first few weeks after the injury shut down his season proved tough. Harris said he started to isolate himself from the team and let his frustration with the situation get the best of him. Conversations with former Cavalier Anthony Harris, who suffered the same injury that ultimately hurt his NFL Draft stock, helped Tim Harris reframe his mindset, though. He started working as a mentor and support system for the younger corners on the team, including true freshman Bryce Hall. That duo could be starting together at corner this fall.
The whole ordeal may have helped strengthen Harris’ resolve. He’s locked in on football this fall.
”It kind of humbled me,” Harris said. ”It was good for me I think too. I wasn’t really familiar with the playbook going into the season. Now, I’m studying the playbook, I’m doing extra drills, just little stuff that will help my game. I’m so glad I got the opportunity to come back, I feel like that will help me in the long run.”
Harris enters his final season with 82 career tackles, 14 passes defended with two interceptions, and a fumble recovery. He’ll be part of an experienced secondary that could be one of the team’s strengths. In addition to Harris, who has appeared in 33 games with more than 20 starts, the Cavaliers also have safety Quin Blanding, the leading tackler at defensive back in program history, Juan Thornhill, a starter at corner in 11 games last season, and Hall, who started seven games a year ago, among the options in the secondary.
With experience and size, the Hoos may allow Harris to take on a bigger challenge in the defense. At 6’2” and 205 pounds, he has been hard at work on playing press coverage this offseason.
”I’m playing a lot of press technique this year and my first three years, I played a lot of off,” Harris said. ”So my whole offseason, I was working on that with me and a couple more guys and my coaches have been helping me with that so I feel like I’m better at that. I feel like that’s going to play a major role in what I do this year.”
Olamide Zaccheaus Ready For Heavier Workload
Junior Olamide Zaccheaus produced strong numbers the past two seasons with 800 receiving yards, 286 rushing yards, and 541 kick return yards. Last season, he contributed mostly in the receiving category with 51 catches for 584 yards and seven touchdowns, though a hamstring injury slowed him at times.
With Taquan Mizzell now in NFL training camp with the Ravens and the UVA coaching staff now entering its second season with a better understanding of its personnel, Zaccheaus’ role could be increasing this fall. That could include a return to the rushing game as well as expanded roles within the receiver concepts.
”There’ll be some expansion and he’s earned some expansion,” Mendenhall said. ”I think there’s been tons of focus in the spring on what he’s capable of and we’re going to need him to be more of what we do offensively and I think the diversity will help.”
The Philadelphia native has no reservations about a growing role this season.
”No, I would hate to be underused than overused,” Zaccheaus said. ”It’s just something I’ve been preparing for.”
Virginia Football Practice Notes
- After going through his first season in the ACC, Mendenhall said he didn’t think the linemen on either side of the ball were big enough, strong enough, or physical enough so adding size and strength became an emphasis in the offseason with each player having target goals. Those players look much bigger than a year ago.
- Mendenhall thought the receivers had a nice day on Saturday, noting what he looks for most out of that group is being durable, consistent, and productive.
- Mendenhall praised the work ethic of linebacker Chris Peace and corner Bryce Hall.
- Worth Quoting: Offensive coordinator Robert Anae on true freshman quarterback Lindell Stone: ”For an incoming freshman, he’s one of the smartest guys I’ve been around and we’re talking 30-something years of fall camps. He’s one of the smartest to catch on and he’s not mentally wrestling. The concepts flow really comfortably with him.”
- Mendenhall said Stone will be the No. 2 quarterback due to need since the program is so thin at that position.
- When asked if he saw a future coach in Vic So’oto while coaching him at BYU, Mendenhall laughed and said “Just the opposite.” Read Aaron McFarling’s profile on So’oto here in The Roanoke Times.
- During Saturday’s 11 on 11 scrimmage sessions, Micah Kiser had at least two sacks, Quin Blanding snared an interception, Olamide Zaccheaus made some big catches, and Doni Dowling had a long touchdown reception.
- When the true freshmen got into action Saturday on the O-Line, Tyler Fannin got center reps and Ryan Nelson got left tackle reps.
- Quin Blanding looked like he was teaching a specific technique to his fellow safeties during a drill Monday.
- During the integrated practice sessions Friday and Monday, UVA spent a lot of time on tackling and all of it included taking the tackle to the ground.