Virginia Football Coach Bronco Mendenhall Weekly Press Conference Notes: Georgia Tech Week

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Virginia football (6-3) picked up a critical win at North Carolina this past Saturday to secure bowl eligibility and move into sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal at 4-2. With both remaining ACC games – Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech – coming at home, the Cavaliers are well-positioned to accomplish their goal of a Coastal Division title.

During his latest weekly Monday press conference, Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall says his team wanted to demonstrate that they are capable of winning on the road, for this season’s success but also for the program to move forward. The Cavaliers came through in Chapel Hill and now face the challenge of closing out a Coastal race.

Paraphrased as always, below is the latest news and notes from Virginia’s head coach, who is preparing his team for Saturday’s 12:30 p.m. matchup with Georgia Tech in Scott Stadium.

Perkins threw for 378 yards and three scores versus UNC. For continued success for the Virginia offense, Bronco Mendenhall says Perkins is going to need to produce in the run as well as the pass, just as he did against UNC (112 yards rushing). ~ Photo courtesy of Matt Riley of Virginia Sports

Mendenhall Pleased with the Virginia Offense

Led by a school single game record 490 yards of offense and five touchdowns from quarterback Bryce Perkins, who was named the ACC Quarterback of the Week for his performance, the Virginia offense racked up over 500 yards and 38 points in the win at North Carolina last Saturday. Perkins, who threw for 378 yards and three scores and rushed for 112 yards and two scores, received quality protection from his offensive line and looked confident in the pocket as a result.

Moving forward, Mendenhall believes the offense needs Perkins to continue to produce as a passer and as a runner the way he did against UNC. The 65-yard touchdown run the senior had to open the third quarter is the type of explosive run play that has been missing this season.

Mendenhall likes exactly where the offense is following the North Carolina game, saying the consistency and production were “right on point” with what he wants. He likes how Perkins and company answered the call when needed, outscoring a potent Carolina offense in Chapel Hill.

As for the offensive line, this unit has been trending in the right direction since Notre Dame. Mendenhall praised the line with its protection of Perkins, saying the senior captain had an appropriate amount of time to throw the football.

Asked about the offensive game plan that was so effective against the Tar Heels, Mendenhall said there were tendency breakers on Virginia’s part that needed to happen as well as areas the coaches felt UNC was susceptible in. Those two things were key parts of the game plan.

– Senior tight end Tanner Cowley has played well this season. Against UNC the New Jersey native had three catches for 53 yards and a touchdown to boost his 2019 season total to 17 receptions for 202 yards and a touchdown. The performance included a season-high 39-yard reception that set up a score for his tight end counterpart, redshirt freshman Grant Misch.

Mendenhall says the Hoos need Cowley in pass protection but adds that they are always monitoring how closely the defense is covering him. Virginia’s coaches trust the senior and are willing to throw to him in critical situations, as Cowley has proven that moments aren’t too big for him.

Starting safety Brenton Nelson is the latest Virginia rotation defensive back out for the season. ~ Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

Defensive Backfield Injury Hits Keep Coming

– Coach Mendenhall reported following the UNC game that starting safety Brenton Nelson is out for the season. The standout junior is just the latest in a rash of defensive back injuries that have hit the Cavaliers this season. In addition to Nelson, UVA has lost the following defensive backs for the year:

– All-American senior cornerback and team captain Bryce Hall
– Probable starting cornerback Darrius Bratton (preseason injury)
– Backup cornerback Heskin Smith
– Backup cornerback Germane Crowell
– Backup safety Antonio Clary who moved into the two-deep after Hall’s injury forced De’Vante Cross to cornerback.

Nelson’s absence meant redshirt freshman cornerback Jaylon Baker saw the most extensive playing time of his career. Coach Mendenhall says Baker got quality experience and wasn’t intimidated going against a North Carolina passing attack that likes to go downfield. Baker, whose tackling skills are “improving” according to Mendenhall, was defending UNC receiver Beau Corrales on 4th-and-4 at the Virginia 6 on the Tar Heels second-to-last drive of the game. Sam Howell’s pass was incomplete, resulting in a turnover on downs.

Mendenhall isn’t sure what the defensive back rotation will look like moving forward. It could depend on the opponent.

The staff learned that Nelson was out on Thursday of last week. With a full week to prepare for the next opponent, it’ll be interesting to see who plays in the Cavalier defensive backfield. In addition to Baker, true freshman Tenyeh Dixon saw some time on defense last week. Co-Defensive Coordinator and defensive backs coach Nick Howell will be working overtime this week to find more solutions, Mendenhall said.

– Mendenhall likes the future of the inside linebacker position with true freshmen Nick Jackson and Josh Ahern. Both players played against UNC, with Jackson, who replaced star Jordan Mack in the first half, seeing most of the action. Jackson had three tackles (all solo), earning praise from Mendenhall, who said he did a “really nice job.”

More News & Notes

– The UVA players placed a lot of emphasis on the North Carolina game. It certainly seemed to help their mindset, as Mendenhall noted postgame on Saturday that the players seemed loose and excited to play. Mendenhall does not anticipate there being any issues in terms of a mental letdown versus Georgia Tech, which he rightly said is now even more important than UNC following Saturday’s victory.

– Virginia is framing the final month as a “Coastal Playoff Race.” Mendenhall said the Hoos have homefield advantage in this race.

– Regarding Georgia Tech, Mendenhall describes the Yellow Jackets (2-6) as still a run-first football team. The Yellow Jackets are transitioning from the triple-option rushing attack by head coach Paul Johnson to a new scheme by new head coach Geoff Collins, who came to Atlanta after serving as Temple head coach.

Mendenhall said he likes Georgia Tech’s running game (158.5 YPG, 4.16 YPC), which he called “creative” and “effective” and still has option elements incorporated. He really likes the running backs, who he described as physical and tough. The running backs play hard, the defense is aggressive and resilient, and the team in general plays hard.

– In just under four weeks the Hoos close out the 2019 regular season with a home matchup with Virginia Tech on Friday, November 29. “Beat Tech” is a mantra of this Cavalier program under Mendenhall. UVA had a golden opportunity to win in Blacksburg last season but fell short, losing its 15th consecutive game to the Hokies.

Asked if UVA has prepared for its arch-rival during the season, Mendenhall answered that he hasn’t. There is not the time to prepare for Virginia Tech at this point.

It is worth noting that the Hoos have a bye week after Georgia Tech before facing Liberty on November 23.

Full Transcript of Virginia Football Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s November 4 Press Conference, Courtesy of Virginia Athletics Media Relations

BRONCO MENDENHALL: In regard to the North Carolina game, really gratifying to finish our road stretch with an ACC victory after having started that way. Really proud of our team, the preparation they put in and the coaching staff. It was a great win and exciting and hard-fought. In relation to the game, a few things that contributed. No turnovers for our team was, was a step in the right direction in terms of that setting. We also did not take the ball away. However we stopped North Carolina on three fourth down attempts which I consider takeaways. And really that could have been the primary difference in the game is our ability to stop them on fourth down.

In blue zone scoring, they had three opportunities and came away with three points and we had 31 points. So our blue zone emphasis is starting to show tracing back to some of the Miami issues that we had. The consistency of our receiver play with Hasise [Dubois], with Terrell Janna, with Joe Reed, those three players have been just contributing at a really high level throughout the year. And then Bryce’s, Bryce’s game, Bryce Perkins, was I think reflective of what he’s capable of, what we certainly would love to see down the stretch and most likely what we’ll need to see down the stretch to help us finish out the Coastal playoff race, as we’re calling it.

So glad to be at home now for closing it out. And if you consider it or if you frame it basically as a playoff race, home field advantage is something that we have for the remainder of the way, which is, gives us as good a shot as anyone to finish the way we would like to. So we’re looking forward to getting back to work. And I’ll take questions.

Q. The team was in a similar position this time last year. I can’t remember if you were in first or not, but you were near the top of the standings. Did you learn anything from the pursuit of the Coastal title last year that will help this year as you kind of hit the stretch run again?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I hope so. Feedback is always a gift. If applied correctly then you can move forward. I think what we learned from the race a year ago in this setting was that ACC road games are hard to win. They come down to last drives, they come down to overtime, they come down to critical stops, they come down to critical scores, which is just what we saw last week. So we haven’t applied those lessons perfectly but we certainly have framed it correctly where we know what it’s going to take. And I would expect each of our ACC games remaining to be just like that.

Q. Talk about the Jordan Mack situation and how this substitute played and how much did he play, did Jordan play in the second half?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: So Jordan played the entire second half and gave our entire team a huge boost at halftime. So not only coming off the score that we had right before half, but as the team walked in, Jordan was there to welcome every player and it was almost as if we had just won the game already when they realized that he was back and would be able to contribute. He played very well, graded well, and performed at a high level. Prior to that, Nick Jackson did a really nice job as a first year player assignment-wise and effort-wise and the stage didn’t seem too big for him. Doesn’t mean that he played perfectly but I was really proud of him. And then Josh Ahern also played some as well in a similar capacity to Nick Jackson. So we really like our future at inside linebacker. Hard to replace experience, hard to replace playmaking, hard to replace three years’ worth of ACC play, but both those young players are off to a good start and I was proud of them.

Q. Offensive line-wise I saw Bryce gave a lot of credit to those guys for his big game. What did you see and was it a sign that they’re still moving the right direction?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I think each week it’s been a sign since whenever we spotlighted him or I spotlighted him last in terms of the expectations that were and still need to be met. I think they have been trending the correct direction ever since then and this was another step. Bryce had a lot of time and appropriate time to throw and deliver the ball effectively. He was not under duress consistently. When he was, he scrambled effectively and delivered the ball more appropriately on time or eluded pressure. And so, it was just a nice step in the right direction, kind of not concluding, but along the way of developing our offense and it was really nice to win a football game that way. North Carolina’s offense had a really strong day against our defense, as we look to kind of reshape our identity with a few of the injuries there. I was impressed with them, North Carolina’s skill, their quarterback, their running backs. But really impressed with Bryce and our offense, and our offensive line answering the call over and over again to score enough points to win the game.

Q. And in watching, we were sort of keeping track of Bryce’s stats and their quarterback’s stats and putting up so many points. But Bryce needed a lot more completions to get his yards. I understand part of that was some defensive mistakes on your part but in general are you happy with what your receivers are getting after they catch the pass right now?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I like exactly where we are. And if we could replicate that game three more times I would take it today and not play the game. I really was encouraged by what I saw. And North Carolina, their identity is different, they came in leading the league in plays over 20 yards and we can certainly see why. We struggled to play the ball down field, and they’re fast and dynamic. We did not pressure their quarterback as effectively as what we had been. But our consistency and our production in that game was, I thought it was right on point.

Q. After the game you were talking about how excited your team was to play Carolina and how they had labeled it a must-win game. And said you hadn’t seen them as optimistic, as joyful and as anticipatory as they were for that game. So you’ve got Georgia Tech coming up, I think they’re 2-6, and then you’ve got Liberty, which is not quite at your level. Is it on, is it your responsibility, the coaching responsibility, or the players’ responsibility to keep that type of attitude going into the next three games?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: The responsibility is shared, and I don’t anticipate any issues. Every win matters. And all the North Carolina game did was make this one more important than even that one. The players, the reason they labeled it that way is they want to win the Coastal division, they want a chance to compete for the ACC championship, they want to move the program forward, they want this team to do something the previous three teams haven’t done. They’re anxious to grow and expand the program and they realize the timeframe and the margin for error that they have. So I would be very surprised if they don’t label this game the very same way they just did the last one and rightly so.

Q. Last week at this time there was a lot of focus on the three-game road losing streak and all that and the disappointment of it. Did you guys do something different in practice this week to address that and how much of it was just the resolve of the players, which I guess you would consider a huge sign of growth.

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think both. We did some things within the practice format, based on time of year maybe more so than even what you’re addressing in terms of that road stretch and we knew before the season we labeled that stretch and we knew it was going to be hard. I think another way to look at the road games is if you look and divide it by Coastal games as well, and so we were, we won two of the three Coastal road games. But then when you frame it and go to Notre Dame and Louisville, we didn’t win those two. It just so happens, man, we had that stretch all in a row and it’s another lesson for me of what it’s going to take if you have a stretch like that to get your team, our team ready to perform with the resilience that we finally saw that matched the execution. So the other games we were resilient and played hard, but the execution didn’t necessarily match the resilience. This one, finally at the end of that stretch the resilience and execution came together for enough to win, which as we already know, those are last-possession type of situations on, in the Coastal or on the road in the ACC, with where our program currently is. And so I think the resilience and execution would be the answer with a hint of program design influencing it along the way in the last week.

Q. Your recruiting staff is much bigger now than when you got here. What made Charles Mack a good candidate for the staff? And how alike are he and Jordan?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Wow, well what made Charles a good candidate was his length and his character. Those two things, when you have a 6′-7″ player that can run and change direction with character that’s exemplary in a system, and I would say that fit for our system and 3-4, outside linebackers, are pivotal and crucial for the production that we need. And so we thought he could be or would potentially become one of those players. And to our staff’s credit we evaluated him correctly. But to his credit he’s exactly who we thought he was and that’s pretty special, especially the character part and the identity part besides how hard he’s worked to become that player. And Jordan, referring to Jordan Mack?

Q. I meant Charles Mack.

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Oh, Charles.

Q. What makes Charles and Jordan similar?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: The second. The character. That family is an amazing family, both parents. And just simply the focus on education, intelligence, big-picture thinking, but also just kindness and decency and humanity. And they’re an amazing family, the Mack family. And if you’ve met Charles, you’ve met Jordan and vice versa. And so I’m sorry that I was talking about Charles Snowden. Charles Mack is, man, is he a, kind of a rising star in the either personnel or coaching profession, whichever direction he takes. Sorry, I misunderstood your question.

Q. You had some offensive tendency breakers this past week. Throwing with more targets, tight ends in the end zone, you went tempo some. We asked you a lot about self-scouting in here. How much of that was opponent specific, North Carolina, how much of it was, we need more points or was it a combination of those things?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Certainly a combination. The self-scout since the bye week, it happens weekly, and there are tendency breakers that had to happen. There are other measures that had to be implemented to address where we currently are and where we wanted to go. And there were things that we thought North Carolina was susceptible to that we took advantage of and that’s, so that entire picture is how we came to the plan.

Q. Other side of the ball Jaylon Baker, how did he look on Saturday and what kind of foundation can that be for him now going down the stretch?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: He’s got a bright future. He’s long and he’s fast and he plays the ball really well. His tackling skills are being improved. His experience, he got his feet wet and his eyes didn’t get too big. I mean, he just matter-of-factly expected a lot of himself. He made a critical fourth down stop. I was really proud of him for that. And I was appreciative of the way he just went into the game and went about his business this week. So he answered well when called on. It’s not to the level of Bryce Hall, and it certainly wasn’t to the same level as how De’Vante Cross had been playing that position, but he did a really nice job for his first game and his first opportunity against a throw-oriented down field attacking opponent.

Q. If my math is right you’ve seen Bryce play in 22 games now. Certainly, Saturday might have been his most productive. Is he still doing things that amaze you, surprise you?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think the things that are most surprising to me in relation to what I originally thought is his accuracy. I didn’t think Bryce would be able to throw the ball as accurately and as consistently for as high a completion percentage as he has. And this year has been a little bit different because until the North Carolina game we really hadn’t seen the dynamic nature of some of the runs that we were expecting, maybe based on a year ago and I think that’s, I think it has to be both for us to have the success we need down the stretch. I think he has to remain accurate and effective throwing, but we need him to be dynamic on the ground as well for us to reach our potential.

Q. Why is he so accurate with his passing do you think?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: That’s a great question. I think a lot of it is design, our offensive staff works really hard to and communicating with Bryce and vice versa what throws he’s most comfortable with and to whom. So we design it and design the plays that are relative to that. We also have to take into account the amount of protection that he has and then the opponent. So I think the entire design has helped as we certainly are more of a horizontal stretch and possession throw team rather than the down field dynamic taking shots team.

Q. Normally at this point we have asked you 15 minutes of questions about the triple option you’re maybe one of the few guys who might miss it?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I do miss it. For the record.

Q. When you look at what they’re doing now, obviously they had the personnel of a triple option team, are they still best at the power run as they transition to what Geoff [Collins]’s trying to do down there?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, so George Tech is still a run-first football team and creative in their application as they’re transitioning. They have athletes obviously at the quarterback position and I like the running game it’s creative and effective. So they’re doing a really nice job of again both being creative and transition from the triple option, there are still option elements, but how they’re running the ball I think they’re doing a nice job, I like their running back, I think they’re physical, I think they’re tough, I think they run hard. I think their team plays hard. Defensively they’re aggressive and they’re resilient and they’re tough and offensive just the nature of what they do, yeah, it kind of represents a gritty program and so I think they’re doing a nice job.

Q. What have you done with the video library of triple option offenses that the guys talk about?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s under lock and key with lasers guarding it and, yeah anxious to get into it again at some point.

Q. You guys have become really difficult to beat at home the last couple years. How comforting is it to know that you’re finishing the season with three home games and just talk about the team’s attitude in sort of protecting your house.

BRONCO MENDENHALL: It was the last thing they said this morning at the end of the team meeting. Where we’re certainly all glad to be home, but we wanted to demonstrate that we were capable and could win again on the road before we came home. And that became really important not only for the team but our program. Those are two different things, it was a challenge for this team, but it’s also something the program had to do and so again in framing the Coastal, two of the three Coastal games were wins, but now when you put the volume of five of those things together that becomes something we haven’t kind of yet turned the table with. But we’ll keep working on. Now closing out a Coastal race is another challenge for this program. And that’s something we’re, we know what that will look like, we know the work that it will take and how hard that will be, so now all of that framing it just goes right back to only Georgia Tech and how important that game is, but it’s Monday and in this setting I think it’s appropriate to frame it and then dive into only our opponent from this point on.

Q. I think Chris Moore is coming in here. Could you talk about the secondary and the challenges you now face with two primary players out for the year?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, it’s quite a challenge, the other thing I think to mention besides the two primary players in Brenton Nelson and Bryce Hall is that we lost Darrius Bratton early on we lost Sean Smith not long after that and then we lost Nelson’s back up in Antonio Clary for the season also. So it’s the deepest position on team at the beginning has now become not only what we have to do creatively to manage the remainder of this season versus the opponents and what looks they might give us, but also our depth now basically at every position as become a first year player. And so we’re pretty thin. And Chris Moore is, yeah, he gives us an experienced productive quality football player and thank goodness we have him. Early on in the program I just, I became impressed with Chris’s ability to tackle, diagnose plays, and be where he was supposed to be when he was supposed to be there and he continues to do that. And I’m glad he does, because we need him.

Q. Tanner Cowley seems like a guy in limited opportunities who is pretty sure handed, really hard to bring down the line. You guys have not utilized the tight end a ton this year, although you did this weekend, is that more like a max protect kind of thing where they’re staying in or is it just kind of that’s not the nature of the offense generally?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, it’s both. So I think if you consider Tanner’s effectiveness, part of it is there is an element of surprise where he might be forgotten and we pay attention, how are they covering him, are they aware of him and so when we do throw it and he catches it that he’s usually open and he usually has a significant gain on the play. And so that’s something we’re monitoring the entire game. We need him in protection at times, but we know he’s capable, we know he’s effective and we know he’s a — situations aren’t too big for him and so a lot of times when we throw it to him it’s critical and he just continues to make plays and his under study, Grant Misch now is learning that same thing and so I’m really encouraged by the direction in the performance of our tight ends and how we’re using them and how we need to use them this year.

Q. You’ve had Jordan Ellis and Joey Blount and Jordan Mack, Rob Snyder, others I’m probably forgetting from the Atlanta area. Is that a recruiting priority for you Atlanta?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: We like Atlanta, not only from the quality of football perspective but proximity and just the sheer number of players. And within, if you think about driving distance, it is possible, but we also like areas that are just one flight, because we love families to be able to attend and watch our games and vice versa. So it’s been a really a good area in terms of the quality of player but also the type of people and the number of profile schools that we have a chance to recruit and proximity. So, yeah, I would say it’s important.

Q. In terms of you mentioned all the guys you lost and Clary being Nelson’s back up. When you go to three safeties in the game who are you playing and do guys move around in terms of their spot?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, it’s still to be determined. This pass game we played Tenyeh Dixon and so Coach Howell’s working over time and looking to staff the back end appropriately and the best way possible for each opponent that we’re going to play and, yeah, I guess as you go into week 10 that’s different positions on each team probably get hit. The secondary has just been hit by us disproportionately as we have gone on this year.

Q. You’ve been very honest with us about the Virginia Tech game, the importance of it. Obviously in-season you try to still be a week to week focus. In the preseason I know you work three games ahead has there been anybody on the staff assigned to kind of a head start in that record on Georgia Tech?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Not three games ahead, it’s really just the beginning of the season and there isn’t any time once you’re to this point. We have a bye week after Georgia Tech which there will be another self-scout and even then there’s just plenty to work on and so really you rely on any of your summer work and anything you’ve done to that point and then validate it when you get to a game maybe that has required extra attention, but there’s not time at this point.

Q. Do you focus on Virginia Tech in the summer?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s a game that we always do extra work on, even though it’s late in the season, just for ideas and things we might be able to do more effectively and then we haven’t revisited it since.

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