Virginia Football Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s Weekly Monday Press Conference: The 2020 Opener!

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Bronco Mendenhall is coaching his fifth regular season as Virginia football head coach. ~ Photo courtesy Virginia Athletics Media Relations/Jim Daves

It is GAME WEEK, University of Virginia football fans! Fingers crossed, UVA will make its 2020 season debut this Saturday, when the Hoos host the Duke Blue Devils (0-2) at Scott Stadium. Kickoff between the ACC rivals is scheduled for 4 p.m. EST.

Bronco Mendenhall’s first game-week Monday press conference of the 2020 season is in the books, as Virginia’s fifth-year head coach addressed the media at noon. My recap – Mendenhall is paraphrased, as always – is below, and the full transcript will be added as soon as it becomes available. Click here to see the first official depth chart of the 2020 season.

Eligibility/Injury Updates: Gellerstedt Opts Out

– Redshirt senior offensive tackle Alex Gellerstedt has opted out of the 2020 season. The decision came last week. Five Cavaliers in total have opted out of 2020, as Gellerstedt joins running back Mike Hollins, wide receiver Dorien Goddard, defensive lineman Aaron Faumui, and defensive back Tenyeh Dixon. Defensive lineman Ben Smiley III initially elected to opted out before changing his mind and returning to the team late in fall camp.

– Neither junior offensive tackle Bobby Haskins nor redshirt senior inside linebacker Rob Snyder are available to play against Duke due to injury. Coach Mendenhall is hopeful they will be available for the Clemson game on October 3; however, it is a week-to-week situation with both players. They are close but not quite where they need to be.

– Virginia continues to wait for a final decision from the NCAA on running back Ronnie Walker Jr’s appeal to become eligible to play this season. UVA administration is checking in with the NCAA on a daily basis. Walker Jr, who transferred to UVA this summer after spending his first two years at Indiana, had his initial waiver for immediate eligibility denied by the NCAA.

Mendenhall is hoping for a “reasonable and accurate answer this time.”

COVID-19

– Virginia’s players were tested today and will be tested again Wednesday and Friday. The team has had zero positive tests since arriving on Grounds, an accomplishment Mendenhall called “amazing.” He who hopes his players are rewarded with the chance to play Duke on Saturday.

UPDATE: From a press release on the latest round of COVID-19 testing: The Virginia athletics department announced today (Sept. 21) a total of 703 COVID-19 tests were administered to UVA student-athletes and staff over the last seven days (Sept. 14-20). Of those, 22 resulted in a positive test (3.1 percent).

The release, which came after Coach Mendenhall’s press conference, does not provide specifics in terms of sports or persons (staff or athletes) impacted.

Senior outside linebacker Charles Snowden, a team captain, was clear in his desire to play in 2020, Bronco Mendenhall said. ~ Photo by Kris Wright

– Coach Mendenhall recognized seniors Charles Snowden and Terrell Jana for their leadership, clarity, and passion in terms of the team following the COVD-19 protocols, but he adds that having zero positives since arriving is a collective effort. Sustaining and moving forward is the next challenge.

– From a logistical standpoint, like in past years the team will stay in a hotel the night before a game. This year, though, the team will stay in the hotel, go to the game, and then go home. Activities that would have happen in previous years – Mendenhall mentioned going to the stadium before the game, players spending time with their families at the hotel, the team going to a movie the night before – won’t happen. There will be limited to no exposure to anyone other than their travel party.

– Because of all he and his team has gone through in terms of COVID-19 protocols, etc, Coach Mendenhall says it feels like a season has already been played. The time we’re in now feels like the time between the end of the season and a bowl game.

– Bronco wants to see his team play in a celebratory manner. Just have fun. He expects mistakes, just like he would expect in a typical season opener. He expects all the normal uncertainty that occurs in any first game, but then you factor in the other protocol challenges. As always, he’ll have a clearer picture about his team’s strengths/weaknesses following the season opener.

Virginia Notes

– The team practiced this past week with more emphasis on tackling and tackling to ground than previously.

– UVA has more unknowns than Duke has unknowns because the Blue Devils have played two games.

Redshirt sophomore Brennan Armstrong is set to make the first start of his collegiate career against Duke. ~ Photo courtesy Virginia Athletics Media Relations/Jim Daves

– UVA could have an advantage because of lack of film on new starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong. However, Duke’s defense is very clear in its identity while also able to adapt quickly.

– If something happens to Armstrong, you could see multiple quarterbacks playing depending on the defense they are playing against. Virginia has two dual-threat types behind Armstrong in graduate transfer Keytaon Thompson and true freshman Ira Armstead, while redshirt junior Lindell Stone is a pocket passer.

– Coach Mendenhall’s optimism regarding the offensive line has not waned. He’s encouraged about the number of linemen, the depth, and the experience. The unit’s makeup is noticeably different than in past years.

– Will a strong offensive line translate to a better traditional run game from the running backs? Coach wants to see that come to fruition. Junior Wayne Taulapapa is the starter with graduate transfer Shane Simpson and sophomore walk-on Perris Jones listed behind him. There is an “OR” between Simpson and Jones.

How the rotation looks depends on outcome. It could also depend on how each runner matches up against a particular defense, but production is the key. For example, if Taulapapa is running well, he may not come out. If he is not performing, you will see Simpson and/or Jones. Mendenhall described the styles of the three running backs:

Taulapapa – Consistency. A consistent, steady slasher-type runner who gets positive yards.

Simpson – Vision. Has vision and experience and a unique knack for finding the hole with more patience.

Jones – Creating. Has escapability. Can make things out of players where there is not much space and/or blocked effectively. More elusive in the open field and has the ability to create.

– Grad-transfer tight end Tony Poljan is an NFL-caliber tight end according to Mendenhall, who praised the former Central Michigan star’s blocking and catching. Creates matchup issues against safeties because of size, and linebackers because of size and speed. Will create matchup issues against the inside of a defense. Experienced player who came in with a strong football IQ.

– The expectation is for the defense to be better than last year’s unit. Coach Mendenhall said the defense started strong last season before injuries – particularly in the secondary – impacted the performance. The expectation of this year’s defense is to be better and to be better longer than last year. He believes the defense is anxious to show what they can do with a healthy roster.

– Several players are battling for the fourth and fifth cornerback spots.

Impressions of Duke

– You could say Duke has an advantage from having played against two good opponents (Notre Dame and Boston College).

– Head coach David Cutcliffe is a “master teacher” and master football coach who maximizes his resources every year. Duke is always disciplined and always plays hard. Atypical turnovers got in the way against Boston College. The ability to execute with precision, as well as having clear identity on both sides of the ball, stands out to Mendenhall.

FULL TRANSCRIPT: BRONCO MENDENHALL’S SEPTEMBER 21 PRESS CONFERENCE

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I was counting or calculating today. I think my team has been back 12 weeks. We’re anxious to play football. And they’ve done an absolutely remarkable job of managing the virus.

As of today, we’re still zero positive tests within our team. And that’s an amazing accomplishment by them. And I’m looking forward to helping them play football now in a real game and hopefully get a reward for all of their hard work, so far.

Q. It’s not often that a team heading into its first game will face a team that’s already played twice. How big a concern is that for you and what measures can you take to kind of close that experience gap?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s a significant concern. Playing is really the only real feedback and accurate feedback that you get. And after a game, it becomes so much clearer where your team stands, where your position groups are and who’s capable and consistent and finishing plays. Then there’s usually a significant jump between game one and game two, which adds to that narrative and allows identity to be formed and forged at even a higher level.

Where we’ve scrimmaged a number of times, against ourselves, and this fall camp which is extended for a long, long time before making it to game week. So, I would just say that we have more unknowns than Duke has unknowns. But that is just how it is. As much work against each other meaning good on good or one on one, that we’re continuing to do, that stops short of finishing live and tackling to the ground as we get closer and closer to game day. And so, yeah, we just say that we have more unknowns.

Q. I was curious what you’ve seen from Duke so far? What sort of stands out when you watch them through the two games?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: First of all, David Cutcliffe is a master teacher and a master football coach. He maximizes his resources every year. He’s innovative and his teams execute well and are just so disciplined and they play hard. And so Duke has a clear identity. The significant difference in this past game against Boston College was just the turnovers. That got in the way of Duke winning that game, which is not characteristic of a Duke football team.

I would just say their execution, their precision, their effort and their clear identity is what you always see with a team coached by coach Cutcliffe. I think he’s one of the best coaches in college football. The way his teams play, and how close they perform to their potential consistently is what I’m always impressed with.

Q. I didn’t see Ronnie Walker Jr. on the depth chart you just released so I wanted to see what the update was there. Are you still in the 30-day appeals process?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: We are. Our administration is literally checking with the NCAA every day. That will continue until we get a final answer. And hopefully a reasonable and accurate answer this time.

Q. With the constant change, even in the season opener – I think this is your fourth or fifth however you want to count [attempt at a] season opener – how much has that done in preparation but also for the players mentally just having to readjust the target every time.

BRONCO MENDENHALL: [Assistant Director of Athletics for Media Relations] Jim [Daves] just acknowledged that was our fifth opener. It’s been a challenge. The simplest narrative is probably the boy who cried wolf. And the players, I think realize, now that we made it to a Monday of game week, that this one is real.

Now, having said that, we all tested today, and will test again Wednesday for COVID and will test again Friday. And so our team dynamic certainly could change, but to this point, our team will give me no reason to question if they will handle protocols because they’ve handled it to this point.

So, I think there was a relief in our team meeting this morning that we’re actually into the week with an opponent and still capable and ready to play. And we’re hopeful to have that come to fruition.

Q. With so many guys back on defense, can you talk about where they are right now? Does it have the potential to be even better than last year’s defense?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: The expectation is for them to be better than last year’s defense. From game one all the way through game 13, or game 14, or however many…12…whatever the season calls for this year…as many as we can possibly play.

Last year we started very strong and through about game seven really carried our team. Our offense caught up, and then when the defense – especially in the secondary – was depleted our offense kind of took over and became the team’s identity down the stretch.

So I think the defensive players are anxious to reestablish what they can play like with a full and healthy roster, and with the same depth we had at the beginning of last year. That was really the reason we started strong and played so well early in the season. So, I think that’s their expectation except to carry it longer than we did a year ago.

Q. What’s been the balance for you and the team in terms of actual tackling game players to the ground and trying to separate as much as you can to avoid spread. We saw that Navy-BYU game where Navy said they had been playing touch football and saw what happened. What is the balance for you and your program?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s been a challenge. We carried on fall camp as we normally do. And really I wasn’t not tackling, or we weren’t altering our tackling or contact based on the virus, we were just doing that based on our team’s health.

So we acknowledged the virus, took every protocol possible on the sideline and in between plays, but during the plays we played it like a normal fall camp.

But, because we have been practicing against each other so long, you can’t keep up that kind of intensity against each other for the amount of time we’ve been doing, so there was quite a break in there as opponents were coming and going – as we were getting ready for a game week and then not, and getting ready for a game week and then not, and getting ready for a game week and then not, and getting healthy – this past week and a half there has been more emphasis on tackling and tackling to the ground and finishing blocks than there had been as we now get ready to take on this opener.

Q. As you’ve described practice, should we expect to see a lot of plays this year where the offensive linemen are extending their hands to be socially distanced? Or how different is it to then scrunch them together and kind of practice differently than how do you play?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: We have a pretty simple protocol that we started from the beginning and I have an air horn. I blow that twice, all the players arms come out, and we separate in space. I do that about every 10 minutes or so during practice.

Then (in) our offensive huddle, in our own contact tracing studies, the center and the guards with the nose tackle or defensive tackles, that is the group and those are the positions that have the longest duration of contact through the course of the game.

On the offensive side, we have changed the way that we huddle. Coach (Garett) Tujague calls it huddle protocol. So, it separates and puts different players between the center and the guards during each huddle between plays, when we do huddle. That gives us a break in the amount of time that players are exposed to each other to limit contact tracing should that occur.

Q. Who are the guys that have really stood up in terms of an accountability kind of index with other guys on the team to make sure they’re doing everything they’re supposed to do when you’re together or apart?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I don’t think there’s a single player. I think that Charles Snowden and Terrell Jana’s influence as returning leaders before Captain voting. I think that certainly played a role.

What we call our task unit leaders (and) those returning players with experience were very clear how much the season and playing football meant to them. And that kind of spread throughout the team. But you don’t go into a game or the season with zero positive cases attributed to our time in Charlottesville without a collective effort.

So, it’s been way more than one person and certainly those numbers could change, but it’s been a culture that’s been created between coaches and players that’s been embraced that is pretty remarkable. Again, to this point, all this has done has got us through the first game and so sustaining and moving forward to the next challenge.

Q. Bronco following the Orange Bowl you told us one of the offseason tasks was to get more production from the running back position. Looking at the depth chart, is Wayne (Taulapapa) going to be the featured back or might there be some rotation there with Shane (Simpson) and Perris (Jones)?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, it’s a really good point. Wayne will be the starter. Then based on Wayne’s production, and effectiveness, the results will determine how much Shane and Perris play. There isn’t much difference between the three. They’ve all had their days, they’ve all had their moments and they’ve all had their productivity. They’re all very similar in yield, but different in style so I really won’t know, just to be honest, until we play a game if Wayne is the only back or if we’re using multiple backs or how that plays out.

Other than that, we need more effectiveness in the run game that still remains. So on whichever of those three is having the most success, if Wayne is carrying the ball effectively, and for positive yards, and we’re happy with that. He might be the only one that you see. However, if there’s a stall, or the yield isn’t what we think then you could see Shane pretty quickly. And again, if that doesn’t produce the yield that we were hopeful for, then you can see Perris.

Again, they all run differently, and distinct in style so the outcome is really going to determine the rotation. Hopefully that makes sense. Again, if Wayne is successful, then he’ll just keep going. If he’s not, then you’ll most likely see Shane and if he’s not, then you most likely see Perris. But again, you might see Perris next based on the style that the defense plays. It might be more conducive to the way that he runs.

Q. I know that you’d rather have a couple of games under your belt like Duke has, but if you put yourself in (Cutcliffe’s position, is there any kind of tactical advantage to not having played yet because I’m quite sure he’d love to have a little tape on you guys that he doesn’t have?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Sure. I think the tactical advantage comes to us just simply because there isn’t much tape on Brennan Armstrong and what our offense looks like with Brennan, rather than Bryce (Perkins).

If was a defensive coordinator, I want to know as much about the quarterback, how that might change the style of offense, what that might look like and I’d love to have that certainty or more certainty in that regard.

Duke is very clear about their defensive identity though. So really regardless of opponent, that doesn’t mean they don’t have variances, but they’re really clear about their approach which really allows them to adjust and adapt pretty quickly, no matter who they see because their system is well thought out and it kind of takes in all contingencies. Having said that, I would be more comfortable if I was a coordinator. I’d seen some actual game film of what the opponent looks like and what style they’re playing and what changes have been made.

Q. I was just curious, this is our first look at the depth chart, is this something that was pretty standard for you guys, throughout camp and throughout the first few weeks, as you readied it for your opener, or is this something that kind of came together fairly recently?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: It has been pretty consistent. You’ll see four players listed at quarterback. And really, if something were to happen to Brennan, the situation and the style and the need, you can see multiple players there. And so that’s why we’ve listed so many, because there’s a really good collective of those three. It allows us multiplicity to do what we’d like to do.

But the rest of it is really very standard, other than you’ll see at the boundary corner and the field corner, a battle for the fifth corner spot. And sometimes the fourth corner spot. There are quite a few players, and we’re lucky we depth, but there are quite a few players still battling for that. And so that’s, I think what you’re seeing reflected there.

Q. I wanted to ask you just the sort of uncertainty of everything in terms of opening ballgames, we’ve joked with you in the press room about how they can be ugly sometimes. For this one, what do you expect from your guys considering this is the first time out?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: That’s a really good question. I can say what I am hopeful to see. And I hope they play with passion and enjoyment, and enthusiasm and energy in a celebratory manner just to play the game. I hope that mindset comes through. I hope that comes through in their body language and their effort and their interactions with one another.

I’m certainly expecting some mistakes. It always happens in game one. I don’t know where they’re going to come from. There will probably be more penalties than what I would like, there might be special teams things that maybe there’s been a blind spot here or there. There might be a matchup that’s more in our favor or Duke’s that I haven’t counted on.

It’s all the uncertainty of any normal year, the first game of the season, in addition now to all the other protocol challenges we’ve had, which I just hope is reflected in in the enthusiasm to actually play football and to acknowledge and have fun.

I don’t know even how much that word is used in college football now to have fun you know. It seems like its totally outcome driven, and rankings oriented and statistically emphasized. I hope that we play well. We play clean, we play effectively. I really would like to see our players just enjoy playing football. It’s been a long time.

Q. Do you take any comfort in the fact that you have a couple of Duke games from this year on video, they’ve got nothing on you.

BRONCO MENDENHALL: It always helps just like I was saying a minute ago just to see if there’s been changes and what they might be, and again, what their identity could be if it shifted from a year ago. So, it gives just a fresher point of reference. That is certainly our advantage in seeing them but it’s also Duke’s advantage for playing two football games against two good opponents, and we haven’t played yet. So I think that’s Duke’s advantage.

Based on which way you look at it, I think you can make an argument either way.

Q. We talked a lot about the importance of the fourth side. One of the elements of that, the crowd, will be noticeably missing on Saturday. What does that mean for the guys on the sidelines, if anything?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Our emphasis on the fourth side has started years ago and this, it would be remarkable and timely if that ended up being a competitive advantage for us this season.

We have trained for it, it is emphasized, but it is a new team and there are new players on that side. It’s a culture that’s unique to the program. Meaning that it’s been in place, but this year’s team has a new version, and a new challenge to take on.

So, I would expect us to be coaching the fourth side after this game, just like we’re coaching every other spot, and what we can do better to help our team win and to provide the support that really would make a difference to everyone on our team. And it’s brand new.

Most of my colleagues that I’ve talked to, they say the game feels like practice, it feels like a scrimmage. What you can hear from opponents, their coaches, the players and all that, is eerily identifiable. And so not only is it coaching the fourth side but making sure that all the content is appropriate as well in games. There’re things said or done that maybe you’re not always so proud of and so it’s just the next challenge and a higher expectation really in every level.

Q. Previously, you’ve talked about how you’re sort of the virus manager of the team, I think you’ve said. Have you sort of switched that now or are you focused a little more on football? Are you still sort of focused on being the virus manager?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: So I have shifted, but maybe I should put, I’m shifting.

So, it’s gone from the majority of my time, the overwhelming majority of my time to just helping our team get to game one safely, to now spending significantly more amount of time on the schemes, the strategies and preparing to play.

So, they’re not mutually exclusive. But I’m spending a lot more time on football.

Q. Can you talk a little bit about Tony Poljan and what he’s added to your offense and
can he end up being an incredible weapon you think for your offense?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I’ve really been impressed with Tony as a person, from how quickly he made his commitment, how fast the team accepted him, how strong his relationships have already been built, the production he’s already had. In my opinion, Tony is an NFL tight end. I think he’s very talented. He’s a very good blocker. He’s a very good pass catcher. And when you have a tight end, that’s big and fast, matchup issues are present immediately.

Safeties will have a hard time because of his size. Linebackers will have a hard time because of his size and speed. And so, really, he’s always open just because of the physical presence that he has.

He brings lots of experience that he came into our program with, a really strong football IQ and baseline. So, it’s the equivalent of having a two or three-year returning starter it appears at a position that we could really need and use. Matchups now become really challenging inside for defense, which if there’s extra time and energy having to spend on matchups inside then matchups outside become more favorable for us, so we’re really glad he is here.

Q. With the uncertainty of the testing and all that for player, for coaching, I mean how far down you go in terms of backup, play caller backup decision maker, all that kind of stuff for the coaching on game day?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: About three deep is how far we can go and then we start to run out of effective resources or experienced resources or capable resources to effectively manage one side of the ball or the other.

We can basically go three-deep at the coordinator positions, or kind of the head coach management position, and then after that you start to reach a level where if you’d have to consider not playing a game if we got more than that.

Q. You mentioned the distinctive styles of your three tailbacks that you have on the depth chart. Could you describe them a little bit please?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I’ll do my best.

With Wayne you get consistent steady, slashing and positive yards. With Shane, what you get is vision and experience and a unique knack to find the hole, wherever it is, with more patience, so I really like his vision. With Perris, you get escape-ability and the ability to create where he can make things out of space where it doesn’t appear they’ve either been blocked effectively, or there isn’t much space and all of a sudden there’s positive yards and so a little bit more ability to make you miss in the open field. So, with Perris, a little bit more ability to create. Perris, creating if I had to use a word, with Shane more vision and with Wayne consistency.

Q. Seems like coaching and coaching staffs have universally spent less time together during this period. And you’ve talked about calf roping and stuff at night just to kind of get your mind clear. How has there been a benefit to that? Do you think? Or do the 12 weeks kind of mitigate that and have they allowed you to cover everything you might have covered in a more normal preseason?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: We’ve covered more than normal. So, we’ve recruited more, we’ve covered more. The content covered is clearly more than what we would have ever covered. The renewal or the need for renewal on a daily basis for myself and our staff certainly, that’s also been needed at a higher level earlier.

There wasn’t time off to summer. Normally the coaches have time off there. So, there was not that so it’s been straight through since our game against Florida. I’ve done my best to build in renewal time for the staff.

Really what this feels like, to me the best reference, I gave this to my wife, and I’ve given it to a few people today. I really feel like we played the season, and this is the time period between our last game and getting ready to play our bowl game. We just haven’t played any games yet. But that’s, that’s how I feel.

Q. Could you talk about the logistics of going down to Duke is, is it going to be similar to what you’ve done in the past or if it’s different, how different?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Well, Duke is coming here. In relation to our travel, where it’ll basically be hotel and go to the game and go home. We normally have other activities, meaning going to the stadium and speaking in the locker room, right when we come of the plane. Going to a movie the night before, and, and time for players to spend time with their families who come to the hotel.

So, this is really all the same protocols that are in place here with masking, social distancing and limited contact are even heightened when we will be traveling. So there really won’t be much of anything that we’re doing other than the hotel, meetings, players rooms and the game with limited or no exposure to anyone from outside of our travel party.

Q. I didn’t see Rob Snyder or Bobby Haskins on there [depth chart]. I know you were hoping to get them back. What’s their status and any other injury updates?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Both of them are not ready or cleared yet. We’re hopeful that they could be by next week. I can’t promise that yet, that’s what we’re hopeful for. We were hopeful for this game, but certainly I don’t think either will be available for this game otherwise I would have put them on the depth chart.

We’re hopeful for Clemson for both of them. If not, it’ll be the same narrative each week. ‘They’re close but not quite ready’ is the safest way to put that. The rest of the roster is healthy and deep.

Alex Gellerstedt, one of our offensive tackles, chose to opt out this past week, as well. This depth chart still reflected where and how we would have been playing him, but that was a decision that was just made. So, we’re not quite as deep in the offensive tackle spot as we were going into this.

Q. The offensive line, how much that has that been stable for the latter half of preseason with the position we’re seeing on the depth chart. Also, talk about Dillon Reinkensmeyer playing on [Brennan] Armstrong’s blind side now.

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, it’s been consistent for quite some time and for maybe the first time at the University of Virginia since, well since I’ve been the coach.

The number of healthy offensive linemen, we have the depth and experience is…I’m really encouraged about. We haven’t had to alter or limit practice in any regard, if anything, the offensive line has been the area that keeps asking for more contact, more live reps, more and more and more. Normally, as a program is growing, maturing and developing, that’s one of the areas that’s the thinnest.

That’s been noticeably different this year. Experience in terms of positions? Not only will you see Dillon at right tackle, but he can play center and guard spots as well. Even though there’s two-deep, that doesn’t necessarily mean who the sixth player is and who the seventh player is. That might then have players change. So, you’ll probably see Dillon at a number of spots besides just the right tackle.

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