When the NCAA allowed for Division 1 football programs to add a 10th full-time assistant coach following the 2017 season, the first move Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall made was hiring Ricky Brumfield as Special Teams Coordinator in January of 2018. Coach Mendenhall announced another coaching move that spring, promoting Kelly Poppinga to Co-Defensive Coordinator.
Poppinga served as Virginia’s Special Teams Coordinator and Outside Linebackers coach before Brumfield’s arrival. He remained Outside Linebackers Coach while adding the Co-Defensive Coordinator title on April 5, 2018.
“Nick (Howell) will continue to be our lead on the defensive side and will concentrate on the secondary,” Mendenhall said in this press release. “Kelly will focus on our defensive front. He has a comprehensive understanding of our scheme and approach on defense having matriculated from player to graduate assistant to assistant coach in this system. With coach Brumfield taking over as the lead for our special teams, this provides an excellent chance to realign our coaching resources on the defense.”
Poppinga played for Mendenhall at BYU from 2006-2007, earning All Mountain West Conference honors his senior season. Following a one-year playing stint in the NFL, the former Cougars star linebacker embarked on his coaching career in 2009, returning to his alma mater as a defensive intern under Mendenhall. Howell, who began his collegiate coaching career as a defensive intern at BYU in 2007, was serving as a graduate assistant in Provo when Poppinga returned. The two have worked together as full-time assistants since 2011.
“Coach Howell and I have a really good relationship,” Poppinga said in a videoconference interview with media this week. “I believe that I know my boundaries. I know when to step back. I know when to give him suggestions. We’ve worked together, this is going into our twelfth year. He was actually just starting his coaching career when I was finishing up my playing career, so my senior year at BYU was when he started as a graduate assistant under Coach Mendenhall. He was actually with the inside ‘backers, so he was kind of like the assistant inside linebacker coach my senior year, and so our relationship goes all the way back to then, so we’ve known each other a really long time.”
Poppinga, 38, and the 40-year-old Howell are young, passionate coaches. With that, Poppinga admits there have been some tense moments, particularly on Saturdays in the fall. There are no hard feelings, though, as the talented duo continue to mold the Virginia defense.
“I wish you had a microphone on game-day,” Poppinga said with a big smile. He added: “I think there is times when we have really heated arguments and Coach Mendenhall’s like, ‘Man, are these guys going to show back up to work liking each other the next day?’ But, you’ve got to just brush it off.”
“We have different ideas,” Poppinga continued. “We see things a lot differently. I see things from a front seven perspective. He sees things from a secondary perspective, which is I think really good. You bring those two things together. I think it makes a great relationship. Obviously, we were both trained by Coach Mendenhall, but we’ve also been able to branch off and go do professional development in different places as well. We’ve learned a lot of football, and then we collaborate and we bring all those things together.”
On game-day, Poppinga says, “I sit back and let him do his thing in calling the game. I give my suggestions here and there. At the end of the day he’s going to make the calls that are going to help our defense be successful. I have total confidence in him and I know our whole coaching staff does as well. I know our players do as well.”
The Virginia defense flourished in 2018 under the tutelage of Defensive Coordinator Howell and Co-Defensive Coordinator Poppinga, finishing no. 20 in the nation in total defense (330.5 yards per game) and no. 20 among all FBS programs in scoring defense (20.1 points surrendered per game, an 8-point improvement from 2017). UVA capped off the 2018 campaign by blanking South Carolina in the Belk Bowl.
Virginia’s passing defense was outstanding in 2018, finishing no. 12 in the country in passing efficiency defense and no. 16 in passing yards allowed per game (183). Despite losing defensive backfield stars Juan Thornhill and Tim Harris from the 2018 unit, the UVA defense, much deeper on the defensive line, excelled in the first seven games of 2019. The Hoos allowed just 18.7 points, 174.3 passing yards (10.9 yards per completion), and 96 yards rushing (2.8 yards per carry) per game in those seven contests while accumulating 28 sacks and forcing 10 turnovers. Had the passing yards and rushing yards per game numbers held up, UVA’s defense would have ranked in the top six in the nation in those categories at season’s end.
Injuries, specifically to the defensive backfield, took a toll and the Cavalier defense allowed 34.6 points, 293.1 yards passing, and 180.3 yards rushing per game in the second half of 2019. Despite a successful season in which the Hoos captured the Coastal Division title and played in the Capital One Orange Bowl, Poppinga and Howell are chomping at the bit to get the defense to a consistent high level.
“I’m anxious to get back to work and get us all back in the same room where we can actually get back on track. We have a bitter taste in our mouth right now of how we finished the season,” Poppinga said, echoing sentiments made by Howell earlier this spring. “Props to our offense. They played really well the last half of the season and helped us have the success that we had. But man, we feel like we really need to get back to how we played in 2018 and the first half of 2019. When we do that, we’ll take the next step in this program.”