50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff: Virginia Football On Solid Ground

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Chris Peace (no. 13), who is currently competing for a spot with the San Diego Chargers, was a terrific player, but perhaps most importantly a strong leader who helped Virginia football grow quickly in three years under Bronco Mendenhall.

One of Bronco Mendenhall’s first orders of business in rebuilding the Virginia football program was to establish a foundation, just as Virginia men’s basketball head coach Tony Bennett had done with his Five Pillars when he arrived at UVA from Washington State. Mendenhall, who left BYU after serving 11 years as head coach, was clear about his intentions from the start.

“I’m very stubborn and uncompromising in terms of what it’s going to take, and eventually that will be supported not only within the team but also outside, and the seats will be full,” Mendenhall said during his introductory press conference at UVA, in response to a question about filling up Scott Stadium. “And I can see it. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”

Three seasons later, the Virginia football program has shown clear growth on the field while also establishing a solid foundation and culture for lasting success.

4 – Virginia Football on Solid Ground

Addressing the hiring of Bronco Mendenhall as head football coach, former University of Virginia Director of Athletics Craig Littlepage said, “Best fit. I mean, when you look at everything that we had established, the characteristics, the values, it all is about fit, and we have, I think, a model that we would like to use in terms of any leader in any position in our department, but particularly for a head coach, and it is all about the fit and whether they understand the institution, whether they embrace the assets, the benefits, the resources of the institution to achieve success and achieve success at a very high level.

“Everything that we saw on paper going into the interview and then everything that we heard during the interview affirmed that this was indeed the very best fit for the University of Virginia.”

Coach Mendenhall learned quickly that the student athletes who were already in place were a good match for the culture he hoped to implement. His first Virginia team included Matt Johns, a senior quarterback who was beaten out by newly added grad-transfer Kurt Benkert but handled the backup role with class. Jackson Matteo and Zach Bradshaw, who now work for Coach Mendenhall as graduate assistants, were on that team as well. These and other highly motivated players took to Mendenhall’s no-nonsense, accountability-first approach and “Earned, Not Given” mantra.

“I expected maybe with five losing seasons, maybe they just wouldn’t try hard enough,” Mendenhall said in this USA Today article in February of 2016. “I was jumping to conclusions. The team is much more willing than I anticipated, much more eager than I expected, more unified than I ever imagined. It feels like right now I can’t give them enough challenges. They believe it’s going to work. I believe it’s going to work. And I haven’t had to convince or present that as frequently as I thought I would to capture the hearts and minds.”

A hopeful offseason yielded a disappointing 2-10 record; however, the returning players, led by star defensive players Quin Blanding and Micah Kiser, forged ahead with determination and a hunger to make Virginia football better. With those players and others – linebacker Chris Peace and running back Jordan Ellis come to mind – leading the way, either by voice or example, the Cavaliers won six games in 2017, earning a postseason invite for the first time since 2011.

Peace, who came up with Virginia’s “New Standard” slogan, emerged as one of the leaders of Virginia’s 2018 squad along with Ellis, Olamide Zaccheaus, Juan Thornhill and others. Noah Taylor, a speedy linebacker who is now in line for a starting outside linebacker spot as a redshirt freshman this season, says he learned a lot from Peace last year, including exemplary work ethic and constant pursuit.

On the recruiting trail, Mendenhall has been able to add players who fit what he wants and match what Virginia represents on and off the field. Of the 69 players who have signed with UVA in Mendenhall’s first three full recruiting classes, only four have left the program (one, John Kirven, retired because of injury). Virginia added dynamic dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins in the spring of 2018. Perkins helped take the Cavalier offense to another level while demonstrating a humble attitude and strong work ethic, fitting right in with the rest of the Cavalier team and culture. Virginia went 8-5 in 2018, capping the season off with a convincing win over South Carolina in the Belk Bowl.

UVA’s 2019 captains include linebacker Jordan Mack, Perkins and cornerback Bryce Hall. All three will be counted upon to be major contributors and they embrace the way Mendenhall wants things done. Here is Perkins on the jersey selection process Mendenhall started in his first season.

“I’m glad we do it like that just because it makes it more gratifying when you do receive that number,” he said.

And here is Hall on the general culture within the program.

“We’re going to be even better than we were a year ago, and that’s the mindset we have,” Hall said. “Coach Howell, our defensive coordinator, and Coach Mendenhall, they push us every day. That’s the culture – next man up. That’s been huge. Even though Juan and Chris Peace left, we have guys that have been watching and sitting behind them that are ready to jump in. I think we’ve always been hungry on this defense. Our coaches have done a good job of keeping us hungry, so whoever comes in next, we expect that same production from them. I think that pushes everybody.”

Seeing the stars of the team embrace the “Earned, Not Given” philosophy is huge. Mendenhall and company try and recruit the right players character-wise, but it’s still important for the older players to show the younger ones how things are done. The young players I spoke with in camp are responding well to the Virginia way.

“I love it,” redshirt freshman Jaylon Baker said. “A lot of programs aren’t like UVA. Coach Mendenhall, he’s going to push you. Coach Howell’s going to push you. They’re pushing you to be a better player and to be a better student athlete in general, so, yeah, I love it.”

“It’s the little things that count,” Baker added. “Like running to the ball and total effort on every single play.”

Redshirt freshman quarterback Brennan Armstrong enrolled with Perkins in January of 2018.

“When I got here, I loved my teammates,” Armstrong said. “Honestly, I can’t ask for a better place to be. When you have those things, nothing but success can come from it. I think everybody knows what it is now, so that’s great to have. It’s just a great place to be.”

Credit certainly goes to those players who bought into Coach Mendenhall and his ideals. Credit goes to Coach Mendenhall and his staff, who have implemented the “Earned, Not Given” philosophy on the field while also having a family culture off of it. A literal family feel is in place, with players spending time with coaches families off the field. Junior running back Lamont Atkins recalled he and other running backs calling coach Mark Atuaia’s wife and singing her happy birthday.

Virginia has high expectations in 2019. The Coastal Division is certainly attainable. But even if Virginia falls short of this goal, Cavalier fans should be confident that the program is on the right track, thanks to a coach who matches well with the University and has established strong roots.

50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff
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