Wahoowa! Week one of the University of Virginia football program’s 2019 regular season is upon us. After last year’s success that included an 8-5 record and Belk Bowl title as well as many key returning players, UVA suddenly finds itself the media’s pick to win the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division in head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s fourth season with the Cavaliers.
First up for the Hoos is ACC Coastal Division foe Pittsburgh (ACC Network, 7:30 p.m.), which is undefeated in four tries against Virginia with Pat Narduzzi as head coach. This of course includes all three meetings in UVA’s Mendenhall era, the most recent defeat coming 23-13 in Scott Stadium last November. Coach Mendenhall discusses Pitt and much more in his first weekly Monday press conference of the 2019 season.
Virginia Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s Weekly Monday Press Conference: The 2019 Regular Season Opener at Pitt
Before getting to notes from Coach Mendenhall, which are paraphrased as always (the full transcript will be added later), let’s welcome Virginia’s three captains for the 2019 season.
— Virginia Football (@UVAFootball) August 26, 2019
And here is the first depth chart of 2019 …
— Virginia Football (@UVAFootball) August 26, 2019
Now, the notes from Coach Mendenhall’s August 26 press conference …
The Season Opener: Cavaliers Need To Find Consistency In The Trenches Versus Panthers
Virginia enters week one prep relatively healthy according to Mendenhall, who added that enough depth was established in the preseason to get a good idea of where the team stands now. That being said, as much as he would like to know exactly where the team stands, the reality is that Mendenhall won’t know exactly where the strengths and weaknesses lie until the game is played. There is a combustible force that comes with the first game in terms of unknowns of a football team. Factoring in that this is a conference game, it’s more fuel to the fire. There is anxiety and excitement heading into this week one opener at a conference opponent.
The “knowns” include returning a productive quarterback who played in the same style of offense last year, having defensive returners who played in the same style defense, and playing against an opponent UVA has not been able to gain a victory over in Mendenhall’s first three seasons.
Pitt’s offensive and defensive fronts have controlled the previous three games against Virginia. There is an intensity the Cavaliers have to play with from beginning to end, so Coach Mendenhall emphasized being consistent throughout against the Panthers.
An unknown is the Pittsburgh offense under new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. Mendenhall says Whipple’s past offenses have been explosive and tough to stop, but he doesn’t know how the new offense will mix with a previously run-oriented Pitt attack.
Every day of practice has been solid work. Going into game week, the team is anxious to play, they know they need every practice, and they know the challenge ahead and are anxious to take it on.
Offense Notes: Running Back By Committee Versus Pitt
– How much has star quarterback Bryce Perkins improved since last season? It remains to be seen, Mendenhall said. Perkins’ command of the offense appears to be at a higher level. However, great quarterbacks win championships. Perkins’ improvement will be determined in terms of wins and losses, making critical plays at the critical time. (Sounds like a challenge from coach to player to me.)
– They say your team is only as good as your backup quarterback. If that’s true, Mendenhall said, he feels very good about where his team is with Brennan Armstrong as the backup. Mendenhall, a self-proclaimed “Brennan Armstrong fan,” called the redshirt freshman “deliberate” and “decisive,” a quarterback that throws and runs well. If Perkins goes down, Mendenhall said he feels very good about bringing Armstrong in, and certainly he feels good about the future with Armstrong under center.
– If you couldn’t guess by looking at the depth chart, where “or” is marked four times total between the speed back and big back positions, there isn’t much separation at running back. There is uncertainty.
Sophomore Wayne Taulapapa is the listed starter at speed back because he has been the most “trustworthy” and versatile according to Mendenhall, but others are capable and who gets the most opportunities may shift even within the game. PK Kier and then Lamont Atkins are listed as behind Taulapapa at speed back. Jamari Peacock is the listed starter at big back with Chris Sharp and Mike Hollins behind him.
Coach Mendenhall prefers to have one tailback receive the bulk of the carries, but the Hoos are starting out 2019 as running back by committee.
– At wide receiver, junior Chuck Davis is listed as the no. 2 wide receiver behind senior Joe Reed. Davis has earned this spot thanks to consistency in terms of catching the ball and being assignment sound. The 5’10” junior has been consistent last season all the way through this year.
Sophomores Tavares Kelly Jr. and Billy Kemp are listed at the H-back spot previously held by last year’s leading receiver, Olamide Zaccheaus. It’s Kelly or Kemp. Capability is not a question with either player. Being consistent and durable as Zaccheaus was are the biggest hurdles ahead for this talented duo.
Coach Mendenhall says that graduate transfer receiver Dejon Brissett has impressed in camp and they are “hopeful” he’ll be good to play Saturday. Brissett, who Mendenhall said would play “a lot” if he’s ready, is not listed on the depth chart.
– Dillon Reinkensmeyer, who is listed as the starting right guard, can play wherever the team needs him in order to get the best five offensive lineman on the field. Coach Mendenhall really likes the versatility of the Colorado native, who has started at center at left tackle as well in his Cavalier career.
Defense Notes: Defensive Line Is Deep
– A major contrast to the lack of depth Virginia had last season, this year’s defensive line will have a minimum of six players in the rotation according to Mendenhall. The players are so close and comparable performance-wise, but there are slightly different strengths, so you’ll see situational subs but also regular substitutions to keep the line fresh.
True freshman Jowon Briggs, who is listed as the starter at nose tackle, has impressed from the first practice with his strength and quickness and maturity. He’s not entitled after being a highly coveted recruit and earning lots of accolades out of high school. The team likes him, and he’s humble and hard working. He’s exactly what Mendenhall and company thought he would be, which includes being an all-around student athlete.
– The Virginia coaches have studied some of the best team captains in the world look like, regardless of sport. Not many crave the chance to speak to the media. Many do the behind-the-scenes work and what needs to be done, and then they play with fierce intensity. Coach Mendenhall says the quiet Jordan Mack falls into this category. He adds that Mack doesn’t need to say much because he’s the strongest on the team, one of the fastest players, the hardest worker, and he’s capable of making so many plays.
Also at linebacker, Buck linebacker Zane Zandier’s presence is a catalyst to the front seven. He plays with an edge and physicality – that temperament, combined with 25 pounds of muscle he has gained since arriving at UVA, adds a different element to the run defense.
– Nick Grant has earned the job as the starting cornerback opposite preseason All-American Bryce Hall. Coach Mendenhall called Grant a “relentless worker” who “simply wouldn’t relinquish the spot.” Grant is perhaps the most conditioned player on the team, able to run down kicks and punts and still be ready to play cornerback. He’s doing more better than anyone else.
Coach Mendenhall also noted that the cornerback competition could continue throughout the season. Sophomore Heskin Smith is listed behind Nick Grant, while redshirt freshman Jaylon Baker is listed behind Bryce Hall, who obviously will be on the field every down.
Special Teams Notes: Delaney, Griffin Still Battling It Out At Punter
– Coach Mendenhall has not had one player handle field goals, punting, and kickoffs, but there continues to be a very real possibility that junior Brian Delaney will be the first. Delaney continues to test out the best at all three positions. Mendenhall prefers one kicker and one punter, but it’s a tribute to Delaney’s performance that he could handle all three. There is an “or” between junior Nash Griffin and Delaney. Mendenhall complimented Griffin’s performance at punter and revealed that he has awarded the Indianapolis (IN) native a scholarship.
– Redshirt freshman walk-on Perris Jones is the starting kick returner alongside Joe Reed. Jones “just won’t stop” no matter what the staff throws at him, Mendenhall said. “He thrives on doing hard things.”
Full transcript of Bronco Mendenhall’s August 27 Press Conference, Courtesy of Virginia Athletics Media Relations
BRONCO MENDENHALL: We made it through camp relatively injury-free in relation to past years. I think we managed camp appropriately in terms of volume, amount of contact and situational work. We have established enough depth and get a good idea of where we stand prior to our first game, so I think all those things we would view as successful.
Our leadership was determined from a captain’s standpoint in that Bryce Perkins, Bryce Hall and Jordan Mack were elected captains of at the completion of camp, so we have three captains this year.
And so a lot of knowns going into our opener, meaning the returning quarterback in a style of play that we established a year ago; many defenders returning in a style of play that’s been fairly established now going into our fourth year; and against an opponent that we haven’t yet been able to gain a victory over.
So there is a lot of focus, a lot of urgency, and I would say a lot of intensity as to preparation. We know with ACC play right off the bat, again, against an opponent we haven’t beaten yet, there hasn’t been any need for a drop-off or complacency. Every day has been a solid workday to this point.
I’ve been encouraged by that. So going into game week we’re anxious to play. We know we need every practice. We know the challenge that lies ahead and we’re anxious to take that on.
I’ll take questions with that.
Q. So many veterans back, including your quarterback. Do you feel like you’re noticeably further ahead going into this year’s opener than maybe in year one, two or three?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think the thing that we know more is just the capability of our quarterback. The other parts we had anticipated and I think we knew going into our opener last year. What we really didn’t know was how our quarterback would play.
Now, after a year’s worth of experience, we are much clearer what he’s capable of. Hopefully the way we use him, when and how we use him, will be more appropriate even than it was a year ago knowing what he’s capable of.
I think that’s the big difference. We weren’t so sure about our quarterback a year ago. We’re much more sure not only about our starter, but our backup, and that’s a good place to be in.
Q. Last year in the postgame after the Pitt game you told your players in the week prior was how physical the game was going to be. Was the message the same this year? If so, beyond the time in the weight room, how do you prepare your team?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: There is a physicality but also an intensity. Yeah, I don’t back off the statement. Pitt has been the more physical team in the previous three years, especially in the trenches on both sides.
Pitt’s offense and defensive front have controlled the game in each of the past three matchups, so there is a physical component, but then certainly an intensity that has to be played with from the beginning to end. Can’t be bits and pieces and can’t be streaks here or there or series here or there.
I think Pitt has done a nice job in that area in our first three matchups, so my message has been consistent.
Q. Preseason predictions are suspect at best, but you’re now picked to win this division. Everyone knows who you are, who your quarterback is, what you’ll do on defense. It’s not like you’ll surprise anyone. What does that change, do to your coaching and to your players?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It really doesn’t do anything. We believe in eliminating interference, so anything outside of what we can control is interference. And preseason predictions, while I do think are earned over what you did in the past, so it’s nice to be acknowledged, it has nothing to do with what we’ve currently done for this season.
It’s a nice acknowledgment that we’re relevant and in the conversation where we haven’t been. That’s been three years’ worth of work. That’s really where it ends. Any time we carry that further at all, including this week or any minute this week, all that does is interfere. That gets in the way of something we should be doing to help us win this game.
I’m sure it could provide really nice motivation for anyone that plays against us that has beaten us consistently. So if you’re on the other side, wouldn’t be hard to use that as something motivationally if a team needed that.
Q. The new reality is you’re going to play league games in the first two, three, four weeks of the season. I know you respect all your opponents. How different or what is the challenge of having games that are so impactful and meaningful as opposed to games where you have a little bit more of an opportunity to learn about yourself?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Just exactly what you said. The margin for error is limited. As we know, there is a huge entertainment value to college football. Meaningful games early, especially with the network launch, makes a lot of sense in terms of viewership and the unveiling of basically ACC football.
There are a lot of positives that way, which I certainly won’t criticize. The reality now of how it impacts conference races and preparation, that certainly accelerates all the things we have to do in the off-season and through fall camp.
So there is a different level of excitement and urgency right from week one I would say that is quite different than when you don’t play a league game until week four or five.
Q. A lot of people probably watch Miami and Florida and it was very entertaining, but not what you would call crisp football. Do you have any experience in your career that openers are a little sloppy?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Man, I don’t remember any one that is particularly painful, but I did watch the Miami/Florida game with my kids. And it was, man, an amazing finish with a game that just wouldn’t end by pass interference calls or sacks or just fumbles or just different things down the stretch.
Both teams were trying really hard. My guess is that neither coach could have predicted how their team would play going into the opener, and certainly haven’t predicted the finish or possibly had diagnosed that they might be vulnerable in certain areas.
Really in the opening game as much as we would like to say we know where we stand, you really don’t until you play. That’s exactly where we’ll be. There are knowns. That doesn’t mean when you put your knowns versus the opponent’s knowns and that goes together, there is a combustible force in there.
Sometimes that puts out unknowns. I’m sure that’s what happened in Miami and Florida and will happen throughout the country this year in opening games. That’s part of the start of college football. When you put a conference game into that setting, that just is — man, that’s fuel to the fire.
So it adds to the anxiety, adds to the excitement, and adds to the entertainment, which is great for television.
Q. Coach, you talked about early in pre-season that you don’t like committees of running backs. You would like to have a guy. We’re now in a game week and you got a bunch of ORs on this depth chart. What does that say to you and how does that change how you handle that position?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It just really reflects uncertainty. So Wayne Taulapapa is at this point listed as one, and any OR after that you could basically take in sequence if I was forced and my feet were held to the fire.
Wayne is the most trustworthy and the most versatile to this point and has had the most production to this point. Others will be capable and will play and the production might shift in the game to where we’re wondering how did that just happen. It’s very difficult to replicate a game in fall camp.
To this point, what we have listed there is factual, it’s fair, and it’s where we stand.
Q. Zane Zandier weighed I think about 205 when he got here two years ago; he’s 230 now. How has the extra weight and strength changed his game inside?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, so Zane, he’s a personality that brings presence to our defense, meaning that there is an edge and a physicality and a violence that comes with an inside linebacker with his temperament.
When you back up that temperament with 205 it doesn’t quite have the same sting as it does with 230. So the temperament with the physical capability now, that adds a different element to run defense, which I would say that’s characteristic of our entire defensive front where the mindset is developing, but the physicality has also come along because of maturity, depth, time and strength.
But Zane’s presence is really what is the catalyst to our front seven. Now that he has the physical presence to back that up, that’s even more powerful.
Q. As we look at the depth chart, the closest thing to a surprise really is Chuck Davis as No. 2. What have you seen out of him in terms of growth this off-season?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Just consistency. Chuck catches everything. He has from the beginning of camp all the way until today. He also has for a number of years. His consistency has him listed at that spot. While others have flashed and had days or catches and plays, Chuck just, through his total volume of work and consistency and the ability to be assignment-sound, has him listed at that spot now.
Q. Bronco, last year we all know that Bryce Perkins exceeded expectations, including yours. How has he progressed to this point compared to the end of last season?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: You know, it really remains to be seen. The command of the offense certainly appears to be at a higher level. Ultimately though, we all know it’s results-oriented business, and great quarterbacks win championships. So getting to a bowl game and winning is not a championship, but it’s a significant step in the right direction for our program.
The very best quarterbacks lead their teams to championships. Outcome is going to determine where he’s grown. Making the critical play at the critical time in a critical game, that’s what the best guys do at that position. So hopefully Bryce has advanced to that part and that point, and we won’t know until we play.
Q. Have you ever had a kicking specialist do all the duties that Brian Delaney is listed as possible? What concerns you or do you like about that?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No, I haven’t had that. So what you like about it is that through a competition and every kick being charted that he was the demonstrated best regardless of circumstances. What you don’t like about is he as one player is the demonstrated best at all things. In case he gets beat up or roughed or something or has an off day, that means all your kicking has an off day.
I’ve always preferred to have a kicker and a punter, and that doesn’t mean not wanting a specialist for kickoff also that’s different than those.
But it’s a tribute to Brian that he’s had the kind of numbers that he has, and it makes him more valuable. So I’m pleased with what I’ve seen there. Really also liked Nash Griffin at punter. Nash was awarded a scholarship. He was not a scholarship player but was awarded a scholarship on Saturday night by what he’s done in camp, so that kind of let’s you know what I think of him and what I expect from him.
Q. How much do you guys kind of feed off Jordan Mack’s intensity? Doesn’t seem like he has a whole lot to say, at least to us. Seems like he’s definitely a presence.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: He is a presence. He doesn’t say much to anyone. He doesn’t need to when you’re the strongest player on your team, when you’re one of the fastest players, one of the hardest workers on our team and you have the capability to make the number of plays, he doesn’t need to say much.
We have been studying what the best captains look like and what they do over all sports through different countries. Not many of the best captains crave the chance to speak to the media. They do speak to their team but, many are kind of the water carriers and the shed sweepers, behind the scenes are doing what needs to be done, but then playing with this fierce intensity.
I would say Jordan falls into that category of what some of the other bests have already demonstrated have the most effect.
Q. You have not rotated much at defensive line your first few years. Obviously a lot of that was you didn’t have a lot of options. We see a bunch of ORs. Do you feel like you’re in a place you will try to keep fresh bodies in there, or still a guy that’s three guys and that’s it?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No, I think you’ll see a minimum of six. And to play means they’ve earned the chance to play. We didn’t play many before because we didn’t have many to play. Right now it’s so close and there are so many that are comparable and there are slightly different strengths, and so we’ll see some more situational usage and different bodies coming in.
Hopefully that allows us to be fresher, more physical, and play at a higher level up front than we have been able to do. This is new, and that’s something over our previous three years we haven’t been able to do.
Q. With Jowon [Briggs], we spoke during the preseason. Usually harder the closer you line up to the football. Why has he been able to overcome that? When did you really in your mind think, ‘Hey, this kid might help us this year’?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Maybe the first practice. He’s strong and he’s quick and he’s smart and he’s mature and he doesn’t view himself through the entitlement process of recruiting. He’s unaffected by that. I received a text from him talking about a possible conflict when choir tryouts would be with the class. He’s well rounded.
So by the way, I viewed that positively that he’s looking for a lot to do in college besides just starting at nose tackle. Nothing has been too fast for him. The team likes him because he’s humble and hard working. He’s just exactly who we thought he was. That presence at nose tackle gives us a huge advantage over just where run stunts and pressure and pass emphasis can come from. There is a solidifying factor in there that the A gaps are handled.
Q. You don’t have Olamide [Zaccheaus] on this depth chart. (Regarding Tavares Kelly and Billy Kemp.) What have they shown you in camp and how comfortable are you with them going forward at that spot?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: They’re both dynamic, quick, capable. They’re both Olamide-ish in terms of not only build, and athleticism. Olamide was three years worth of hard, hard work to become UVA’s leading receiver. His consistency and durability and maturity is what both Billy and Tavares are working towards.
Capability is the not the issue. Maturity and consistency is what they have to work toward to compare to him.
Q. I see Nick Grant starting at corner with Bryce Hall. Talk about what Nick has done over fall camp and the off season.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, so Nick is a relentless worker. Just simply wouldn’t relinquish the spot. He’s the most conditioned player I would say on our team, he’s the most consistent worker currently on our team, and he’s made the most plays at corner. Whoever we throw in the mix to stack against him, he just seems to outperform them over and over and over again.
Then he’s running down on kicks and running down on punts and he’s not tired and he’s back competing at corner again. So he’s just doing more, better than anyone else. That competition will go on I think probably throughout the entire year.
To this point, he’s earned the chance to be the starter through his relentless work and production.
Q. A lot of people wondered if [Pat] Narduzzi (Pitt head coach) will stick with the physical running attacks that they have now that they have Mark Whipple (Pitt offensive coordinator). What are you expecting from Pitt’s offense?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I don’t know. So this will be I think the third offensive coordinator we’ve faced against Pitt. Pitt had just won the Coastal Division and made a coordinator change.
I never can speak for or speculate accurately what’s going on in another coach’s program, so I’m not sure what we’ll see. What I do know is the offensive coordinator in Whipple that’s coming in, they are certainly capable of points. The system he’s run in the past is explosive and very difficult to stop.
How much of that now is tilted toward Pitt’s past identity of running the football and how much that’s emphasized, we can only speculate. We have to prepare for it all. So their ability to run the ball, we have to be prepared for that. We’ll have to be prepared for all the other things that their coach has done in the past if given the free reign for him to do that. So we don’t know.
Q. [Dejon] Brissett, is he available?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, he’s currently available. He’s coming off an injury, so the reason he wasn’t listed is without certainty, that’s why I didn’t list him. But if he is available, which we’re hopeful he will be, he’ll play and he’ll play a lot. He’s done a really nice job in fall camp.
Q. Sometimes it’s said that the second most important player on your team is your backup quarterback. Can you talk a moment about that?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Wow, if that’s accurate I feel really good. I’m a Brennan Armstrong fan. He’s deliberate, decisive, tough, he moves our team. He throws, he runs well. His presence fits what I would love at quarterback exactly.
So man, if Bryce were to go down, which none of us want, I feel really good about our backup quarterback. Not only for this year, but for the future. So I like him a lot.
Q. Looking at the depth chart I think there are only four or five guys you didn’t recruit. Going into year four, how much does this look like a Bronco Mendenhall team?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think I said and established at the end of the bowl game last year is this is just the beginning. This feels like baseline for me for launching our program. That doesn’t mean the past three years don’t count. We’ve worked really hard and I’m accountable for every result that’s happened, the positives and the negatives and the trajectory. It really feels like a launch point now with players that we’ve selected with an outcome from a year ago that felt normal to us as a staff and a program to really now go from there to wherever we’re going to go. So I’m much more comfortable just because of how the players have been selected, why they’ve been selected in relation to what schemes, and now some consistency that’s been built up to go forward from.
Q. I believe Perris Jones, like Chuck Davis, is a walk-on. Judging from some of your clips of fall scrimmages he’s really grown physically. Is that what makes you feel comfortable putting him there? What is it about him that makes him a natural kick returner?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, Paris has always had the physical capability. He just won’t stop. No matter — and our program is difficult. We do hard, hard things. He thrives on that. So he has earned the team’s trust and my trust. It doesn’t seem like you can do anything hard enough for him not to come out smiling and capable.
So he’s trusted is why he’s there.
Q. I always think of Dillon Reinkensmeyer being kind of like Eli Hanback on the offensive line. What do you like about him at right guard when he can play any of those spots?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I think what I like about him is he can play where we need him to get our best five on the field. He does it without one bit of drama or any kind of attention to self. He just goes where he’s needed to help the best five players get out there to help our team.
Eli and he, I think it’s a fair comparison. They are totally UVA football first rather than self-first. They’re capable, so Eli could play either end or the nose, just like Reinkensmeyer could play center, either guard, or both tackles. And he might by the time the season is over play all of those.
He just gives us depth that you so need in the offensive front through the course of 13 games. So I like him just because of his versatility.