Head coach Bronco Mendenhall addressed the media Monday afternoon (September 2), less than 48 hours after his Virginia football team took down Coastal Division rival Pitt on the road in the 2019 season opener. UVA (1-0) hosts its first home game of 2019 this Friday night at 8:00 p.m., when FCS in-state foe William & Mary, which is now led by former Cavalier head coach Mike London, takes on the Hoos in Scott Stadium.
With Mendenhall’s comments paraphrased as always, here is the latest from fourth-year Cavalier head coach as we embark on Week 2 of the regular season.
Injury & Depth Chart Notes: Mack’s Status, Offensive Line Shuffle
– Starting inside linebacker Jordan Mack sat out the second-half of Virginia’s 30-14 win over Pittsburgh with what Coach Mendenhall said was a concussion. On Monday Coach Mendenhall described Mack’s status as “pending,” indicating a final decision on the senior linebacker’s status for William & Mary will be made later in the week.
With Mack’s status in question, Rob Snyder is now listed as the “or” behind Mike linebacker Zane Zandier and Mack, who is the starting Buck linebacker. True freshman Nick Jackson remains the backup Buck linebacker.
– Most of the depth chart remains the same from last week’s first depth chart of the season. The biggest change is on the offensive line, which, as Kris Wright noted in his Quick Thoughts feature following the Pitt game, was shuffled around Saturday evening in Heinz Field.
The projected depth chart ahead of Pitt was as follows (the starter is listed first):
Left Tackle: Ryan Nelson (Soph), Bobby Haskins (Soph)
Left Guard: Chris Glaser (Jr), Joe Bissinger (RS Fr)
Center: Olusegun Oluwatimi (Soph), Tyler Fannin (Soph)
Right Guard: Dillon Reinkensmeyer (Jr), Ja’Quay Hubbard (Fr)
Right Tackle: Ryan Swoboda (Soph), Derek Devine (RS Fr)
While the backups remain the same at all five spots, the projected starters for William & Mary are different at four of the five positions. Virginia now has Swoboda at left tackle, Nelson at left guard, Glaser at right guard and Reinkensmeyer at right tackle. Oluwatimi remains the starting center.
Based on what Coach Mendenhall said at his press conference, the coaches are still searching for the right combination and may continue to change things up.
– The only other change is at punter, where the “or” has been removed and Nash Griffin has established himself as the starting punter following a good performance versus Pitt. Coach Mendenhall singled out Griffin as one player who really impressed him against Pittsburgh. The junior from Indianapolis (IN) averaged 45.5 yards per punt in four tries and pinned the Panthers inside their own 20 three times.
State of the Program
– Coach Mendenhall liked his team’s response to trailing at halftime in a hostile atmosphere. The offensive line had yielded three sacks and was unable to create a push, while the defense surrendered two second quarter touchdowns. Mendenhall says the team displayed a “workmanlike attitude” as they made halftime adjustments, which is reflective of gains the program has made in general.
– Mendenhall has noticed an uptick in fan support of the program, citing fan engagement being “more vibrant” over the past year and mentioning that ticket sales are up about 10%. He likes the direction the student support is trending in, as he said the passion and excitement from the students was noticeably different than the year before. The overall fan support has grown slower than he had hoped, but he feels it is growing.
Offense Notes: Offensive Line Remains Unsettled
– As mentioned above, there is significant change position-wise in this week’s starting offensive line from last week. Ryan Nelson, who started all 13 games at left tackle last season, is now listed as the starting left guard, a move Mendenhall says gives the unit more physicality and movement. That doesn’t mean Nelson will stay there. He could move back to tackle as the coaches try and establish the line.
Mendenhall seems pleased with backup left tackle Bobby Haskins, saying the sophomore is “aggressive, tough, strong,” Haskins has a good mindset and experience is being built. “He brings nice experience to the front,” Mendenhall said.
– Virginia backup quarterback Brennan Armstrong saw time on special teams against Pitt. Moving forward, if he’s not on the field playing quarterback, Armstrong may be on the field playing other positions. Mendenhall mentioned punt returner and wide receiver as some possibilities.
– Seven different receivers caught passes from Bryce Perkins against Pittsburgh. Mendenhall believes this year’s team has more players to get the ball to and will have more this Friday, when Tavares Kelly Jr. and Billy Kemp return. Those players reportedly missed the Pitt game for violating team rules, but they appear to be on track to return.
Grad-transfer Dejon Brissett gives the Hoos another talented receiver. He missed Pitt because of injury. We’ll see if he returns for William & Mary (note that he’s not on the depth chart).
– Bronco Mendenhall continues to compliment the play of sophomore running back Wayne Taulapapa, who had 66 yards rushing and a touchdown against the Panthers. Taulapapa is “always falling forward,” noted Mendenhall, who likes his vision and determination as well. The first tackler rarely gets him down.
Defense Notes: Improved Run Defense?
– Virginia held Pittsburgh to just 78 yards rushing Saturday night. However, it’s too early to say if the run defense is where Mendenhall wants it to be. William & Mary places an emphasis on running, so Mendenhall may have a better idea of where the Cavalier run defense is after this week.
UVA surrendered 147 yards rushing per game in 2018.
– Of outside linebacker crucial third quarter Matt Gahm’s interception, Mendenhall said this was the first time in his time at Virginia that the outside linebacker had dropped correctly into coverage on this defensive call. Current pro Kyle Van Noy executed the coverage best when Mendenhall was at BYU. Thanks to Gahm, Mendenhall has an example at Virginia of how the outside linebacker should play in this coverage.
Gahm does what is asked at a really high level.
– True freshman Jowon Briggs got the start at nose tackle and played in all of the roughly 30 plays the base defense had versus Pitt. Mendenhall called Briggs’ performance a “solid starting point” with plenty of room for growth. The talented freshman did not register a tackle in his first ever college game.
– De’Vante Cross has found a home at free safety. Mendenhall complimented his play against Pittsburgh, saying the junior was good with play recognition and positioning. He tackled well and was assignment sound. With Cross and Chris Moore, Mendenhall likes UVA’s depth at safety, where Brenton Nelson and Joey Blount remain the starters.
– Mendenhall said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the team play four or more inside linebackers this season given what he knows about the ACC. In addition to Mack, Zandier and Snyder, Mendenhall really likes true freshman Nick Jackson.
Thanks to a new NCAA rule allowing 10 assistant coaches, Mendenhall hired Ricky Brumfield as Special Teams Coordinator in December of 2017. Having an assistant dedicated solely to the unit has been huge for Virginia’s special teams, which excelled against Pitt, highlighted by quality kicking and punting as well as a blocked punt. Mendenhall notes that the team also devotes a graduate assistant full-time to special teams.
Full Transcript: Bronco Mendenhall’s September 2 Press Conference (Courtesy of VirginiaSports.com)
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, really pleased with the outcome of our opening game, as I mentioned after we played. I was impressed with Joey Blount’s performance at safety. I thought he did a really nice job. Wayne Taulapapa at running back. I was also impressed with Nash Griffin, our punter. I was impressed with what he did in the opener. Lots of room for improvement in almost every area of our team, but the outcome is certainly what we were hoping for and we’ve been working really hard to achieve.
Not much time to enjoy and celebrate it as we have an early turnaround, so basically one day ahead in terms of our preparation. So, yeah, right back at it, and looking forward to our next challenge and home game.
Q. You mentioned Nash and [Brian] Delaney had a good game kicking. When the NCAA changed the rule on assistants and allowed you to hire a tenth, you went with a special teams coordinator. What has Coach Brumfield brought to the team, if anything, that maybe wasn’t there before?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Time and emphasis I think is what Coach Brum has brought, someone devoted specifically and exclusively to special teams, with any other additional responsibilities being secondary, with recruiting coming as the first of the secondary responsibilities.
But just more time, more attention. We’ve also devoted a graduate assistant full time to special teams as well, so we’re hopeful that that can continue to make a difference as it did in this game in terms of accelerating the growth of our program and outcome.
Yeah, time and attention.
Q. Full disclosure, I did not get to see the game. I was elsewhere. Did you detect a difference in the way Pitt tried to keep eyes on Bryce [Perkins] as opposed to what people did last year because you went into it without a proven running back, and was there more attention paid to containing him?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I don’t think there was more attention paid. Pitt did a nice job a year ago as well keeping Bryce contained. They have a strong front seven. They’re athletic and aggressive, and they good did a nice job not only pressuring us, but when he did scramble, with the exception of a couple of occasions, their plan from the previous year wasn’t much different than this year.
I think they had relative success at least limiting his scramble and the volatile rushes that would really be explosive.
Q. Joe Reed on Saturday, his routes seemed so much more decisive and more confident out there than last season. Is that simply a product of another year in the program, or had you seen an improvement in his route running in the off-season?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think it’s the product of another year in the program, another year of playing Division I football, another year of, yeah, repetition.
But also, he’s received a lot of volume this fall camp in terms of targets, and the role he has offensively is a more increased role at a higher level than a year ago.
So I think all of that is combined to maybe a stronger performance maybe early on, a number of touches and outcome.
Q. You spoke obviously a bunch in the off-season about wanting to improve your run defense. Through one week, I imagine you’re fairly happy. What did you see in that area and is it something you believe is sustainable?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think it’s just the beginning and too early to tell whether we’re on the exact right track. The nature of runs, the quality and quantity of runs, too early to say how much difference and if we’ve made significant gains there.
Our opponent this week runs the ball as a primary focus, and so we’ll have a better idea after this week. Not a perfect idea, but a better idea. Yeah, too early to say where any of the significant changes have happened, other than mindset and expectation. That’s what I’ve noticed most.
Q. I don’t get ACC Network so I didn’t get to see the game. Jowon Briggs, how much did he play, if he did, and how would you evaluate that you saw?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, Jowon started in our base group, and the base group played around 30-ish plays, 25, 30-ish plays in that game. He played all of those plays, and I would say it was a solid starting point with plenty of room to grow.
Q. I don’t have any statistic to say how unusual it is for a coach to be facing his immediate predecessor, but have you spoken to Mike London at all during the time and did you meet with him after he left?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No, I never spoke with Mike after he left and before I came. When Mike became the head coach at William & Mary there was an award banquet where we had a chance to say hello and catch up a little bit.
Then when Mike was hiring Matt Johns, who was a defensive graduate assistant for us a year ago, Mike was just really professional and first class in his communication with me and where Matt stood and what his process was going to be.
Yeah, I was impressed. Those have really been the two communications we’ve had since.
Q. And you played him…
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, played him at BYU. Those conversations were just basically before the kickoff, on the field, and so that’s kind of the extent of what our relationship has been.
Q. Another topic in the offseason was without Olamide [Zaccheaus] theball might move around a little bit more. I think eight or nine different guys caught passes. What did you see from that and is that kind of what you’re envisioning?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, it’s what we’re envisioning. Olamide, as a reminder was the all-time leading receiver, is the all-time leading receiver at UVA. By the way, just made the 53-man roster as a free agent, which is phenomenal, as did Chris Peace. Says a lot to who those young men are to make a 53-man roster coming as free agents, so I’m so proud of them both.
We didn’t think any one player coming into the season could handle the touches and the production that Olamide did. The intention was to spread it around more, but we also have more players to spread it to, as we have added a number of players, more eligible as well for this game.
So I think that’s what you’ll see. Rather than one player replacing Olamide, it’s a fleet of players and skill players replacing him.
Q. You said after the game Saturday night that you thought Jordan Mack’s situation was concussion or concussion related. What’s the status?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I haven’t been told what his status is. I think the latest from our trainers, it’ll be decided later this week. Pending is what I would say now.
Q. Bobby Haskins did not start the game, but I think he was in on all three of the touchdown plays. Where is he in his development and how much did getting in early last year in mid-year kind of accelerate his development?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, no question arriving mid-year accelerated his development knowing that he came in as a tight end and had size and strength that he needed. Again, we’re still looking for our ideal starting five offensive linemen. Collective is probably more important than the individual, not only in the secondary, but in the offensive front.
Bobby is aggressive and he’s tough and he’s strong. He has a really good mindset to play in the offensive front in terms of fundamentals, position mastery, and just experience that’s being built along the way. But he brings a nice presence to the front.
Q. Coach, Matt Gahm’s interception looked like a coverage call that put him in the right spot. Did you see something at halftime that led to that, and talk about him making the play?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: He made a great play where I think I alluded to after the game or I told the team this morning, it’s the first time in our almost three seasons and a game that we’ve had that call and actually had an outside linebacker do it correctly. So it was finally a clip on tape to show that is what it’s supposed to look like.
Matt is diligent and conscientious, and he did exactly what he was supposed to do when he was supposed to it. That’s the outcome. Prior to that, Kyle Van Noy [BYU] was the best at that particular coverage and that technique. Now we have an example at Virginia of how it’s supposed to be done.
Matt does what you ask him to do at a really high level and it matters to him. It wasn’t so much the call even though the call was a good one; it was the execution of his assignment within the call.
Q. What did you like about Ryan Nelson at guard versus tackle?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: We’re looking for the most physical front we can put on the field, and we thought possibly Ryan at guard would give us a combination of players that would give us more physicality and a chance to get more movement from the line of scrimmage.
So, again, that doesn’t mean that’s the only place he’ll play. Certainly could still play tackle as we’re assessing what’s the best thing to do with our front.
Q. The movement you guys have had with the rotation on this offensive line, I know you’re looking for the right mix. What kind of challenge is it from a continuity standpoint with guys coming in and going out?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Just that. There is continuity, but competition is competition and outcome is outcome. We’re in a performance-related business, so we’re trying to build young people and their skillset and a unit and build a team all at the same time.
To say going into game one or after game one everything is fixed and set is not the way I like to do business. I like jobs to be open and competed for on a weekly basis, sometimes on a play-by-play basis. That’s where the offensive front is right now.
Q. And when it comes to Taulapapa, you’ve said he’s the most trustworthy and versatile. What else do you like about his running style and can you address his journey just a little bit?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, what I like about his running style, and I talked to the team about this morning, is he’s always falling forward. Rarely does the first player get him down. Just seems like he is on the verge of getting out of a tackle or falling forward or stumbling ahead and he tries hard. So I think his vision and his will, besides his ability, all contribute.
His journey has been a unique one. We offered Wayne a scholarship when I was at Brigham Young University. He goes on his mission for the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Nicaragua. While in Nicaragua there was civil unrest there. All missionaries are asked — or the church brings them home early to keep them safe.
In the meantime, the new staff at Brigham Young University did not honor his scholarship, but I certainly did and wanted him, so he ended up here at Virginia. So pretty unique story.
Q. Nash Griffin, you mentioned him earlier. He’s also the holder. Is that fairly common for a guy to do both of those? Just talk about how he looked the other day.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I was really impressed with his performance. I think 45 net is where he was, which is a really strong performance. He was a scholarship recipient at the end of this fall camp, and so I’ve been impressed over time.
Lester Coleman was ahead of him at the end of last season, but then from — through a battle with Brian Delaney and then through this fall camp, Nash emerged slightly ahead as our punter, and so Brian is allowed to focus more on kicking.
In terms of holding, I would really prefer a backup quarterback to be in that position. I like the possibility there with more fakes and the threat of fakes with a backup quarterback as a holder.
But in terms of practice time, efficiency, it doesn’t make much sense. This way when our punter and kickers work together they can be snapping and holding while the team is doing other things.
Nash is a good enough athlete and his strength and development numbers are good to where it doesn’t limit the fake possibilities as much as what maybe a traditional punter might look like.
Q. I know this is not one of the controllables, but when you think about the fans in the stands, the turnout, what have you seen in terms of people embracing this program? Is it where you want it to be?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No, it’s not where I want it to be, but I do see progress. It was noticeable last year. The level of fan engagement was more vibrant, passionate, audible. I could hear it and feel it and sense it much more so than years one and two.
I’m hopeful to accelerate that growth as much as possible. I know the ticket sales from what I’ve been told are up about 10%. Really the things I can control is just what kind of product we have on the field, what type of young people we bring, and hopefully the outcomes that are produced are something that overtime builds a strong enough sentiment where the UVA fans and folks in Charlottesville really want to be there and want to support and view it as something they can’t wait to do.
It’s a growth; it’s a work in progress. I think the administration is doing a really nice job of being creative and helping. What is clear is it’s taking time. Time is showing progress. Slower than what I would like in terms of the attendance. However, I believe with sustained success, not only will it be a great place to come support our team, but a great environment and something that will happen over time.
Q. What has been from your point of view the reaction or support level from the students, and do you see growth in that area?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I think it’s growing. Again, I noticed that section maybe more than any other a year ago, and not only the attendance by when I looked at the section, but I could hear them. Just the passion and excitement for our team was noticeably different last year than in the first two.
Hopefully we can have more progress and growth just like the team is showing on a yearly basis. I’m hoping that happens in every area of the program.
Q. I know last year the priority was getting Bryce reps, but even if situations present themselves to get Brennan in the game a little bit more. Does that change this year? How much is it a priority maybe getting Brennan some more snaps?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Brennan is a quality player and he’s capable of playing not only at quarterback, but other positions. Yeah, there are different subgroups that Brennan and Bryce will be in at the same time. I really like not only who Brennan is as a person, but I love him as a player. We see him as a viable resource to not only get reps playing quarterback, but he played on the punt team last week. He could be lined up as punt returner or receiver or running back or other areas.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you see him in some other spots besides quarterback.
Q. You’ve been doing this a little while. What does it tell you about your team and the progress they’re making to go on the road against an ACC opponent that’s beaten you four times in a row, I think trailing at halftime, and win the opener?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I think what I took away more than anything is at the heart of your question. More than anything else I could say is just resolve and maturity. Our team is becoming seasoned. That situation wasn’t too big for them. It wasn’t too fast for them. Trailing at halftime wasn’t devastating to them.
It was just they framed it and they were told what would be helpful to address it and they did in just kind of a workman like and matter of fact manner with expectations they were going to win. That’s a whole different place than we’ve been. It’s been emerging and building each of the last couple years. But there was just kind of a matter of fact; this is what ACC football looks like; this is how hard it is; these are the plays we have to make. It’s going to be a challenge; we are on the road; let’s get to work.
That was just reflective I think more so where we are now than we’ve ever been in my short time here.
Q. Does that maturity and seasoning, does that make it easier to navigate adding results on top of the expectations that you told them to ignore before the year? I mean, it maybe becomes harder to keep your mind off as an individual player where we are right now than it was before the season.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I think it’ll take a number of weeks, a number meaning many more weeks before we’re going to run into — that would be number of weeks with success — before we even run into the thought of expectations or what if. This is so early that it’s — and so much to work on — it really hasn’t even raised its head.
I look for signs, and there is just no evidence that there is anything distracting our team. And quite frankly, that’s how it should be in week two. If it’s week eight or if it’s week seven or week nine and there has been a string of success, yeah, maybe it creeps in then. But that’s so far away and I think my team realized that.
Q. Has De’Vante Cross finally found a home?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think that’s safe to say. He really did a nice job on Saturday. His play recognition, positioning, a couple of the balls that players were open for Pitt, and then he came to the post late, was as well-played as anyone that I’ve seen do that, which wasn’t his primary responsibility.
He tackled well; he was assignment sound. Just really glad that he has finally found a home, and it gives us another quality safety. And knowing both Brenton Nelson and Joey Blount’s history and some of the durability issues they’ve had, it’s comforting knowing we still have Chris Moore as well.
So our safety pool is pretty deep right now, and De’Vante is added to that.
Q. What happened on the 59-yard pass play for Pitt early in the game?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: The swing pass? Yeah, assignment mistake. So we had a rusher that was supposed to come off the edge, and if the running back released, then he was to peel and didn’t.
Q. Coach, especially when he blitzed we saw Rob Snyder’s impact on the game on Saturday. Does he remind you an old school hard nosed linebacker versus the new school guys that can cover a lot of ground?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think Rob and Zane [Zandier], if old school and new school are my two options, I think Zane and Rob are more older school. If speed and athleticism is new school, Jordan is more new school. I like all of them and they add unique strengths.
We’re going to need every one of them. It’s ACC football and it’s early and they play a position that is violent and hard on bodies. So, yeah, we certainly need all three of them. And the fourth in right now, Nick Jackson, we really like as a first year. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see four or more inside backers just now knowing what I know about the league and what it’s going to take to finish.
Q. This is a team in William & Mary that seems like they’ve zeroed in their quarterback, Hollis Mathis. He can run. Having a couple quarterbacks that can run, are you in position where you feel like you can handle that a little bit better than in years gone by, or what’s the challenge in that regard?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: We hope so. So William & Mary does a really nice job. They’re very unique offensively and much like — I think you could say it’s not triple option, but their approach is unique and diverse enough to where the chance to be prepared in one week is difficult.
They have a dynamic player at quarterback, actually two quarterbacks that I think are very good players. So the challenge is in a short week to adjust to their style of play, but that player in particular at that position.
Yeah, I really like what they’re doing not only offensively but defensively. Defensively we’re similar in terms of mindset. They’re 3-4, also. I think they’re coached really well and got off to a really good start.
Q. Regarding the enhancements that the school sent out last week, I assume you were aware of that. How much involvement did you have in it?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I guess enhancements would mean alcohol sales or the beer garden. I was told about that from our administration. I had no involvement in the process whatsoever. I was just notified that it was approved and that it’s going to happen. It appears that college sport is following suit of the NFL and there is — I’m sure there is a revenue component to that.
I really have no control over it, and my hope is just that fans come to support our team.
Q. Just a follow-up on that. Doesn’t sound like you’re in love with the idea personally of alcohol sales at a college event. Am I reading your body language correctly?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think there is always separation you have to have. Yeah, as an nonalcohol drinker myself there is a personal view, and then there is kind of an amateur sport view and then an entertainment view, and also a revenue view.
And so, again, the primary thing I can do is attract young people that will represent the school really well, have them play in a manner that would have folks really want to come and support them. That’s what I can influence.
Q. You said at the beginning that there is still plenty of room for improvement. I don’t know if it’s degree of manageability or fine tuning or how widespread or urgent are those areas of improvement?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Widespread and urgent, but that’s my nature. So I’m a perfectionist at heart and so I’m thrilled about our win and I’m so happy for our team. They accomplished something in terms of this chart of unbroken growth that hadn’t been done here for a while, opening on the road, winning on the road at Pitt, and beating a team we hadn’t had much success with. All those things I won’t diminish one bit.
Now, when I go to my ideal level and standards of football, we have a significant amount of work to do with urgency, not only for the future, but for this game. That’s my message to the team. It’s a delicate balance because I want them to know how thrilled I am for their success, but also I pointed out to them and showed areas that needed attention. It’s not hard for them to see.
We’ll manage both to the best of our ability.