Bundoran Farm Presents: Ask The Sabre ~ Penalty Problems?

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Mendenhall wants an aggressive and physical team. ~ Kris Wright

After a penalty-free outing versus Richmond, the Hoos have racked up 20 penalties for 193 yards. Why is this? The Sabre staff addresses this question and more as Virginia gears up to take on Central Michigan.

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.


To see the “Ask The Sabre” articles in the archives, just click here.

Lot of talk about excessive BYU penalties right after Coach Mendenhall was hired, and a quarter of the way through the season it seems that UVA is trending that way as well. Do you think this is a byproduct of players still learning the system, or teaching more aggressive play? Or maybe a bit of both? ~ ScarletandGray Wahoo

Sabre Editor Kris Wright: I think it is mostly a product of teaching more aggressive play. A late hit that is obviously out of bounds is a problem, but if the runner waits to the last second and darts out as you start your motion as a defender? To me that’s OK. It happens. A couple of calls at UConn were facemask penalties as part of the tackle or defense. That’s probably bad luck and maybe a little bit of bad technique. I don’t think anyone is being taught to grab a facemask obviously. Long story short: I think the players are being asked to push their effort and aggressiveness so there’s going to be errors there sometimes. Anything after the whistle like pushing or shoving goes beyond aggressive and into chippy or dirty play. I hope the program steers clear of that personally.

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: Virginia looked really, really tentative against Richmond, and Mendenhall has tried to rectify the problem in the ensuing weeks, simplifying roles and teaching more aggressive play. He addressed the penalty situation further in this week’s press conference.

“Certainly, those penalties would be a direct reflection of how I’ve coached them,” Mendenhall said. “So most likely time now to encourage the type of penalties, whether it’s a selfish penalty or a penalty of aggression, going to make a play, what I will say is the majority of penalties I saw in that game, they were very aggressive and within the context of how they’ve been coached. There were few – I could think of two – that I was not happy with.”

You don’t want another Richmond performance. You don’t want to be the complete opposite of that and become a reckless and dirty team, either. In the middle lies the balance of aggressiveness, physicality, and execution Mendenhall is looking for. As the team grows and figures out that balance, I think Mendenhall would rather be overaggressive than tentative, which is why he seems okay with the past few weeks of penalties.

Has the message changed from training camp to now to keep the players upbeat and focused for the long haul of a season? ~ OURulesU

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: If anything, the “earned, not given” message has come into sharper focus. You have to earn wins through consistent quality play in all areas. Mendenhall, who Andrew Brown referred to as being a “man of numbers,” said he uses numbers to “clarify the picture” of the program. Players can see exactly where they need to improve to be in the best position to win. The players can see they are improving, and although they lost a heartbreaker to UConn, they can see they are getting closer to where they want to be. That’s where the optimism is coming from. It’s about improving and reaching certain metrics, which is exactly what happened this offseason with earning the right to wear the Virginia colors, earning V-Sabres, etc.

What specific improvements did you see from Oregon to UConn other than the obvious ones like Andrew Brown for example? ~ Sabre Rattler

Sabre Editor Kris Wright: I think most of the improvements so far this season have been with small things. Setting the edge on defense, hand placement by defensive linemen so better shedding on blocks, receiver blocking, run blocking execution … all of that stuff has looked better week to week to me. Now, if the players can do it more consistently and handle more robust game plans at the same time, then it might eventually pay off in the one improvement everyone wants to see: wins.

Smoke Mizzell has rebounded from a tough opening game with two solid performances. ~ Kris Wright

How come we aren’t seeing more Smoke? ~ Lucius

Sabre Editor Kris Wright: I think we’re seeing a fair amount of work for him. He’s averaging 13.3 touches per game (carries and receptions) though he’s behind last year’s ACC record pace in terms of catches. Some of what we’re seeing early could be two other factors too. One, Mendenhall has indicated that the coaches are still evaluating where to best use players and how to use them. Two, with this being the first season for this staff, they have decided to treat September’s non-conference slate as a full evaluation period on the program, the players, and so forth. I do think the last two games have shown that the staff is getting a better feel for how to use Mizzell, though. He’s been deployed different in the two road games than he was in the Richmond game.

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: If his current workload continues, Mizzell will finish the season with around 112 carries, 51 less than he had last season. The play of Albert Reid, who is averaging 6.3 yards per carry in 36 carries, is a contributing factor as far as touches in the run game is concerned. Smoke has been and will continue to be a big factor in the passing game.

After a tough season opener in which he lost two fumbles and ran for only seven yards, the Mizzell we saw the latter half of last season reappeared against Oregon and U-Conn. Oregon was a nice bounce back performance for him, as he finished with 10 carries for 48 yards and a touchdown. He was even better last week against the Huskies, rushing 11 times for 66 yards.  If he continues to run like he has the past two games and does not turn the ball over, I expect you’ll see him get some more carries. If Reid continues to produce, though, then he’ll continue to get his share as well.

Are blockers taught to block low or does that result from the defender withdrawing a step to avoid the block? ~ UVAECON

Sabre Editor Kris Wright: Blockers are taught both ways to the best of my knowledge. Certain situations call for different techniques. Plus, different coaches teach different concepts (think of Georgia Tech’s frequent low blocks as an example). On the QB draw late at UConn, both blockers – Jackson Matteo and Albert Reid – went low so I think that’s clear indicator of what was taught for that situation. The idea behind a block like that is to get the defender off balance (and hopefully off his feet) long enough to get your runner the crease needed. You see those a lot from many teams out in the open on screen passes for example. Long-time site guru JHoo thought posted that the blocks taught to go low need to go through the thighs and not the ankles in terms of technique so that’s something to keep in mind in those scenarios.

Considering the significant attrition due to eligibility exhaustion at offensive line after this season and it’s associated ramifications, is there a loss threshold where you think it would make sense to play a young QB? ~ Bladed

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: There are no indications that either of the true freshmen will play this season. Sonny Abramson was injured in preseason camp (torn pectoral muscle). Devante Cross, at least in preseason camp, appeared to need some work from an accuracy standpoint. Besides, Kurt Benkert is only a junior, has played well so far, and has the full backing of Coach Mendenhall. Barring injury and assuming he continues to play well, Benkert’s the starter this year and next. What will be interesting next year is who rises to be the backup. You’ll have Abramson and Cross as redshirt freshmen along with true freshman Lindell Stone, who is beyond his years maturity-wise.

Please give us your overview on Connor Brewer’s strengths and weaknesses. It sounds like he may start, so I’d love to get a scouting report. ~ hawkb

Sabre Editor Kris Wright: Any scouting report anyone has on Brewer must be limited, at least if you are talking about anything drawn from college data. He hasn’t played enough for anyone to really know outside of Texas, Arizona, and a pair of Virginia coaching staffs. He is 6’2″ so several inches shorter than either Kurt Benkert or Matt Johns and 195 pounds so several pounds lighter than either as well. I think he looks much smaller when lined up behind the offensive line. He reminds me of old Georgia Tech QB Joe Hamilton in that sense, though Hamilton was even shorter at 5’10”. The good news is that UVA has gone to wider offensive line splits the last two games so if Brewer has to play, that should create some natural throwing windows for him vs. having to pick one out. Shotgun helps some too.

From my limited views in spring and preseason practices the past two years, Brewer does not have a big arm for deep throws (a theme from the coaches this week has been to stretch the field more vertically) but he can load the ball up (big and low wind-up to my eye) to get a long throw downfield. He does get the ball out much quicker in this offense than in the Steve Fairchild system (watching practices early last year, I thought there was a big gap between Johns and Brewer in that system) and that’s part of the reason he climbed into the backup role as recently as the UConn game I’m guessing. I think he’s pretty decisive when he elects to scramble too so there may be more of that if he hits the field. Lastly, he’s run all kinds of read option in his various career stops so I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of that installed if he is the QB.

Of course, the Brewer may start line of thinking is a lot of speculation based on reading between the lines of Bronco Mendenhall’s comments this week. I’m anticipating seeing Benkert still at the helm this week for what it’s worth.


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