Virginia Football: Bronco Mendenhall Monday Press Conference Recap – Abilene Christian Week

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Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall discussed the expectations of playing in the COVID-19 season and more ahead of Saturday’s home matchup with Abilene Christian. ~ Photo courtesy Virginia Athletics Media Relations/Jim Daves

Prior to University of Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall’s latest weekly Monday press conference, UVA Athletics released its latest COVID-19 update. Of the 1,135 COVID-19 tests given to Virginia student-athletes and staff over the last seven days, zero were positive.

The Virginia athletics department announced today (Nov. 16) a total of 1135 COVID-19 tests were administered to UVA student-athletes and staff over the last seven days (Nov. 9-15). Of those, none resulted in a positive test.

Since testing began on UVA student-athletes and staff on July 5, a total of 11,935 tests have been administered with 92 total positives. (0.8 percent).

All positive tests are reported to the Thomas Jefferson Health District of the Virginia Department of Health.

The individuals test positive for COVID-19 were notified according to local health guidelines as a means to trace contacts. Those individuals will self-isolate for at least 10 days, or until symptoms are resolving plus 24-hours fever free (whichever is longer) and be medically evaluated before they will be cleared to resume daily sports participation.

Known close contacts of those who test positive, as determined by the Virginia Department of Health, will also be asked to self-quarantine for at least 14 days and are unable to participate in daily sports activities during that time.

During the competition seasons, Virginia athletics teams follow the Atlantic Coast Conference’s testing protocols.

As he and his staff began the challenging endeavor of playing the 2020 season, Coach Mendenhall said he made a promise to the parents of his players: He would do everything he could to keep his players safe. Without that as the baseline priority, he would not have been able to “make sense of attempting what we’re doing.”

Making it to this point in the season, and the ACC still being on track for an 11-game season and conference championship, is something Mendenhall believes is an “amazing accomplishment.” Once the season began, however, the typical expectations of wins and losses quickly resurfaced. Coach Mendenhall says the goal of the program is to achieve health and on-field success at a high level.

In addition to answering questions regarding COVID-19 policies and expectations, Coach Mendenhall provided the latest on the 3-4 Cavaliers as well as a general look at this Saturday’s opponent, Abilene Christian (1-4).

(Mendenhall’s comments are paraphrased, as always, and a full transcript is posted as the bottom of this feature.)

The Reason For UVA’s Rise

– How have the Hoos, who boast a two-game winning streak heading into Abilene Christian, been able to turn around their 2020 season? Coach Mendenhall has an easy answer: UVA has gotten Brennan Armstrong back at quarterback. There are other factors for the success against UNC and Louisville, but Armstrong’s return and his ability to gain reps in practice and put together consistent performances is the biggest.

– Another simple statement from Mendenhall on the Hoos’ recent success: When they get more takeaways than the opponent, they usually win.

– Outside linebackers Noah Taylor and Charles Snowden have come on strong the past two games. Mendenhall has indicated previously that he has adjusted the practice volume of both players, which has in turn helped their gameday performances.

On Monday, Mendenhall said the coaches have been paying extra close attention to the Catapult monitoring system this season to gauge the appropriate metrics for every player. This has helped the staff manage players and determine what their workload should be so they are fastest and freshest come gameday.

The Catapult system has been used by Mendenhall in previous years, but this year he is using it much more. That was the plan coming into the season without the pandemic, as the coaches wanted to replicate the weeks where the team looked fresher and performed better, but the pandemic has made the increased usage of Catapult a necessity. The data is needed to try and prevent injury as well as to put the best version of each player on the field.

More Virginia Notes

– Quarterback/athlete Keytaon Thompson did not play against Louisville, but Coach Mendenhall expects him to be back and available against Abilene Christian. Mendenhall wouldn’t comment further on why Thompson missed this past Saturday’s game, saying it was a private matter.

Nusi Malani, a 6’6”, 250-pound true freshman defensive lineman, is part of the defensive line’s rotation this season. Coach Mendenhall says the California native’s size is what he wants his future defensive linemen to look like. True freshman Su Agunloye, who is 6’6”, 270 pounds, and redshirt freshman Ben Smiley III, who is 6’4”, 260 pounds, are also indicative size-wise of the future of the Cavalier defensive line. Smiley III is currently out with an injury.

Mandy Alonso, UVA’s most experienced defensive lineman, has 10 tackles with 2.5 tackles for loss and one sack this season. Mendenhall says the standout senior, who was part of his first full recruiting class as Cavalier head coach, is the “landmark of consistency” and the “epitome” of the growth that has happened in the Virginia program. The hustle and effort and ability Alonso demonstrated in camp prompted Mendenhall to recruit him, and at Virginia the Miami (FL) native has “stayed the course.”

– Running back Ronnie Walker Jr. is still working his way into playing shape, so it was good to get him some touches against Louisville. Mendenhall says he and Walker Jr. were both smiling in the locker room postgame, knowing the long road the junior went through to become eligible to play this season.

Noah Taylor (Linebacker) and wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr. (Rookie) earned ACC Player of the Week honors for their performances against Louisville.

Abilene Christian

Mendenhall did not know much about the Wildcats (1-4) when Virginia was looking to add another opponent for the 2020 season. He was just trying to find an out-of-conference opponent to go along with the ACC schedule.

From what he has seen in scouting, Mendenhall says he is impressed with the Wildcats’ scheme, strategy, and the way the program is run. Virginia’s coach notes that often the biggest difference in lower levels of football – Abilene Christian is FCS – is the amount of top players throughout a roster and the amount of depth.

FULL TRANSCRIPT OF BRONCO MENDENHALL’S NOVEMBER 16 PRESS CONFERENCE, COURTESY OF VIRGINIA ATHLETICS MEDIA RELATIONS

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I was really pleased and impressed with how hard our team fought and played versus Louisville. I think it was a complimentary football approach that helped us before that game. Anxious now to take on the next opponent. As we move down the stretch of the season.

Q: You’ve mentioned that for different reasons you’ve reduced the workloads of Noah [Taylor] and Charles [Snowden] in practice. What about the team as a whole? You have four regular season games left on four consecutive weeks. They’ve been at it since July 5. Are you doing things any differently late this regular season than in years past?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: The answer is yes. We’re way higher monitoring our catapult numbers at a closer level than we ever have. Catapulted, you know is the GPS tracking devices on each player. Monitors speed and power and different output in terms of total distance covered. And so, even during practice, I’m getting updates regarding where exactly we are and what levels with clear metrics and markers per day to give us our best chance to get to manage individual players, but also sides of the ball in our team, for the next one. I’ve been doing that for the past three, four or five weeks.

Q: Have practices has been any shorter this season than in years past?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Not significantly. There’s just been much more focus on the number of repetitions rather than time. And I would say that’s been the biggest emphasis.

Q: Talk about the process of scheduling this game. And did you have any connections with Abilene Christian?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I don’t remember much about scheduling this game. We were really trying to find an opponent, not ‘the’ opponent, knowing it was straight through ACC schedule. Someone non- conference-wise that was playing football. That would be available to play. [Deputy Athletics Director] Jim Booz worked really hard and trying to suggest different teams. We went through a number of them. I don’t even remember the different options we had. There weren’t many that could play or would play or had this date available to play. I have no connection with Abilene Christian or their program or their staff. We were really looking for also things that would guarantee that they would be compliant and would test at the level that we needed to besides having the date. So, a lot of filters were in place and there weren’t many options available. From a broader perspective I don’t remember the specifics of how we ended up here, but I don’t remember having really any other choice. Or choices. But it’s been a long time since we went into the process.

Q: What’s the status of Keytaon Thompson? Do you expect for him to be available this weekend and what was going on with him Saturday night?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I expect him to be back and available, I won’t comment further on why he was not available. That’s a private matter between he and I, but we do expect him back and starting to practice with the team this evening. So I would count on him returning.

Q: After the game you’ve talked a bit a little bit about the momentum. What has been the most noticeable difference in this team in the second half the season since the UNC game?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Rather than making it bigger and broader, and other influencers that I think are present, it’s having Brennan [Armstrong] back-to-back-to-back. Just having our quarterback available to play football. I believe the season started strong with Duke and a good performance versus Clemson. Then there were two games where we didn’t have him and did the best we could to innovate and develop and move our team forward. Then really from that moment on, a close loss in Brennan’s comeback versus Miami on the road. A win versus UNC and win versus Louisville. Even though there are plenty of other factors, if you were just to say the biggest difference so we’re not making it more or less than it is, having our quarterback back and healthy and putting some consistent practice reps in games together is a pretty simple, but probably the most impactful answer.

Q: On the defensive side you talked about early in the season, how that unit just wasn’t giving you what you thought it would. It’s 14 sacks in the past three games, and you force five turnovers. What have you liked from them in the past couple of games?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Just influencing the game. Meaning the outcome through significant plays, we call them havoc plays. We’ve learned more about the identity of this particular team, this particular defense. We’re learning to manage specific players in this very unique year. We found out after about three weeks that’s going to require different management, in terms of health and freshness and how they’re prepared. And that’s starting to yield a different return. And it’s not just because the players are trying harder. We had to put some organizational and some preparation things in the place that are giving them a better chance in terms of healing, recovering, becoming faster, fresher as the wear and tear of this particular season has taken on. And it’s starting to show results and at a good time with the stretch run coming down.

Q: Is there a reason why this year you’re looking more at the Catapult numbers, and then also what kind of numbers and data does that stuff provide?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s always been part of our analysis, but we’ve done more of a deeper dive through the successful weeks we’ve had in our tenure here and the not-as-successful and just games we thought we look faster and fresher and we put a more comprehensive approach together collectively. Then when you add in terms of purpose, with COVID and not having our team here in the summer to train, we were very concerned about injury and building into the season. Then having the appropriate workloads to sustain, but also improve and without the data, intuition just simply wasn’t enough. Quite frankly, the pandemic added on to an existing study that we are already on underway on how best to replicate our most successful preparation weeks. Those two things came together for what we just talked about. And now we’ve made it even tighter, in regards to the like Noah Taylor and Charles Snowden, specific-players as we’re getting a better idea of where exactly their sweet spot is to be fresh and fast with enough preparation to actually improve performance weekly. We’re diving deeper and deeper, quite frankly out of necessity, but also out of the desire to keep our program, improving as we move forward.

Q: Given what you have experienced in your own program, and observed elsewhere, are you surprised that as we sit here on November 16 that the ACC has been able to stage 65 football games and that everyone is still tracking to completing an 11-game regular season?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: An amazing accomplishment, so yes I’m surprised. And I’m encouraged of what the commitment level of young people shows. And organizations. I had a long talk with Scott Satterfield before the game and we’ve never seen anything like it and it’s just refreshing to be able to talk to someone else in the same seat. Manny Diaz has been a little bit more outspoken in terms of how it’s game day every day, but the uncertainty swirls around each and every week. But really the commitment to the protocols, is real. It’s exhausting and it takes more discipline. And so, yes I’m surprised, which then led me to be encouraged, which then provides hope and optimism to really what any of us can do when we set our minds to it. And right now, I’m not even talking about outcome, just accomplishing what we have so far as a league I think is pretty impressive.

Q: Given how exhausting protocols can be, how might it affect your thinking, maybe your team’s thinking about postseason and extending those protocols for perhaps several more weeks for the opportunity to play a ball?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think certainly that has to be acknowledged. And in contrast to the additional game being viewed as a reward, or a destination that you hope to achieve, that brings fulfillment, a mission. And that’ll have a lot to do with the players drive and incentive and motivation to really accomplish that. Or that’s important. Then, again, we’re speaking in hypotheticals, are there games? How many bowl games will there be? And whether the financial components to that, which we know where it is at the heart of the season anyway, and the television part and how much sense that makes. So there’s a lot of different variables. You mentioned in the protocols that’s one. The reward, which to me is the most important, if you’d like that as an organization. And then you look at the financial part. So there’ll be multiple parts and really all we’re concerned about is this week. So I’m answering the question, but we’re not focusing on the question.

Q: I know you’re a numbers guy and you guys have created a lot of turnovers over the last three games. Do you know off the top of your head your winning percentage when you win the turnover battle as opposed to when you do not?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: So I’ll share vaguely, since I don’t give away just any information. I keep track of things that reach an over 85 percent threshold. And that’s as close as I’ll tell you. When we have more turnovers than our opponents, we usually win. Meaning, more takeaways not giving away, which I’m sure you got.

Q: I’m guessing that you probably never had to prepare a team to play another team that they didn’t even know existed maybe before this week? What is the challenge that presents?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think it’s a challenge that it presents is framed best by previous principles and how much weight is put on an opponent. My team gets tired of hearing weekly when I stand up and say ‘this is the next nameless and faceless opponent.’ I’m even talking about ACC teams. Meaning that the focus is us. That’s what I mean by that, not in relation to the opponent. Because that’s just the core philosophy that I have kind of extracted from John Wooden. Have the focus entirely be on us. The context is the next game. Where it might be in the booth, but really there’s very little attention that we put on the next opponent. The focus is only on us.

Now, having been someone that coached at New Mexico, and traveling West Texas and Angelo State and Abilene Christian and… I’m certainly aware of the program’s existence. But on the East Coast, there might be many that haven’t traveled the plains of West Texas, seeing the horses and the cows and the farms and all the things out there. But I have. In fact, I used to take my wife in the car recruiting in the spring, driving from Albuquerque, all the way through those areas.

Maybe for anyone that doesn’t love the Western life or being a cowboy, but for me it was basically blissful. And I couldn’t stay out there long enough. I just wish I was on horseback.

Q: You’ve been a program that sets goals for your season wins, things like that. I’m curious this year with COVID, with everything you’re asked to deal with and not saying that, winning isn’t important, but as a coach if you get to the end of this year and you’ve played 11 or 12 games and you’ve kept your program relatively safe and healthy, would you consider a measure of success just in in that accomplishment?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: That has been and started as the primary focus and the very intent and what I promised the parents we would do. I would do everything I could do. And we are and we have. To this point, if a game isn’t to be played it’s not because of us. Our numbers are very low. Our protocols are really strong, and our team is safe. And they have been up to now, from the very, very beginning, and that had to be in place morally for me to even make sense of attempting what we’re doing. But what I also learned, is the minute we started playing games, I wasn’t really asked about that any longer. I was just asked about our score and what the record is. So it didn’t take long for the default measure of how we’re doing to just simply be the record, and so it’s a very unique perspective. To know the primary intent, not saying the other isn’t or wasn’t focused on, but we are doing both. And I would love for the outcome to also reflect that. At the end of this year to show that it was possible to do both at a really high level. And that’s still our goal and that’s our intent.

Q: Over the weekend, we saw a Power Five coach fired essentially for wins and losses. To fire a coach during the pandemic, does that seem reasonable in this current climate?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I’m not sure that any of us as college football coaches ever signed up for reasonable. We’re in a results-oriented profession, regardless of circumstance in terms of our livelihood. Now, each of us then choose how we want to go about that. How we want to mitigate that. And for me, the purpose-driven part, the player development part, the safety of the players, that’s non-negotiable. And I believe you can do that and have success. But if for some reason, there wasn’t enough success, the piece that comes with the first part is longer lasting. But to say that the other meaning the outcome is not relevant, we have clearly learned that. I’ve seen firsthand. From the minute we played our first game to now where coaches (this is the second coach that has been released in the pandemic) that it’s just a reminder of what’s valued, regardless of circumstance in the world of college football. And I think that’s all the stuff there.

Q: I could be drawing a blank, but I don’t remember another defensive lineman with his (Nusi Malani) height to this point in your tenure here. Would you like to get that kind of body type at defensive end in the three-four and what is Nusi’s upside?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: We are looking to increase our length, both at the nose tackle and the defensive end spot, similar to…We got faster success in recruiting outside linebackers with length. So, yes, we would like longer defensive linemen with more height, with more range and more developmental capabilities, meaning we can add not only athleticism and span, but we can add basically size to that over time. We really like Nusi, as he’s playing as a true first year. We are thin at the defensive line, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not contributing at a level that has earned him a chance to play, because he has. Su [Olasunkonmi Agunloye] is another player that we’re really excited about and encouraged by and already in our program, with Ben Smiley, with existing length, even though he’s been out with an injury. Those three players in terms of length, reflect more of the direction we’ll be going over time. I believe there is more upside in potential in terms of growing within our program and developing those type of players.

Q: What did you take away from [Malik] Cunningham’s game on the ground, and what would you attribute sort of their success running the ball? You guys haven’t given up a whole lot of ground in the running game, what would you kind of attribute that to?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: A couple of things. Number one, he had an amazing game. They had a very good plan and he’s an exceptional athlete. They had a couple of changes to their roster late, which means the sheer focus of what we had prepared for, meaning defending more pass and more tailback runs and a plan that reflected that and shifting to lots and lots of quarterback scramble and quarterback runs. That was a challenge, especially with athleticism and even when we did adjust, the number of players of ours that he made miss in open space was pretty remarkable. I give him a lot of credit and their staff for the plan they had and for improvising and making the best use of their resources. Then we countered with making enough plays and taking the ball away to eliminate the points to where even though the yardage was very powerful on their side, it didn’t yield the points necessary to win the game. That was kind of was the bottom line, even though the numbers statistically aren’t what we would have hoped for.

Q: You said you were confused by Ronnie Walker’s situation throughout. Did you have a moment with him after the game or before the game just kind of reflecting on him actually finally being able to put on the pads?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: It was a look and a smile in the locker room, and just the fist bump with kind of a look of acknowledgement like we both kind of we know what this has been like. We saw just a couple touches where you can see his potential and see what might be available as his career here unfolds. He’s still transitioning in to playing again and so it was really good to be able to get him some touches, allow him to have success. But it was a state change, it was a destination to get to this point, so yeah, we were both smiling.

Q: With the rising case counts in the coronavirus nationally, think the fewer fans allowed next week, are you worried at all about finishing the season?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Sure. I’ve learned to take nothing for granted. I mean every morning I wake up, hitting the ground like in an agile position to see like ‘what, where’s, what’s coming’. And I’ve been wrong most mornings as to what our team or personnel or anything might look like in terms of what’s predictable. As we see new leagues that are trying and the numbers that they’re already having and struggling to move forward as we see, basketball start and already coaches and players. We just kind of seem to be chugging along without much drama. But that doesn’t mean that I’m underestimating or saying that this week it couldn’t be different for us. It’s hard every day to keep our team safe, to keep our team healthy and to move forward. So every week is a challenge, every day, quite frankly, we’re at risk. We’re doing the very best we can. I wouldn’t be surprised if anything happened quite frankly at this point. We have four more regular-season games to work through, but more importantly we have Monday to get through. The plan’s in place, but we’re really not thinking more than just one day at a time because it takes so much just to get through the protocols and be disciplined enough to succeed in the day.

Q: None of us are familiar with Abilene Christian and you’ve scouted them a little bit, can you just talk a little bit about what has impressed you about them?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Having coached at the I-AA level and being a junior college coach and working my way through different leagues, I learned really early on the quality of coaching isn’t level specific. I’ve seen amazing high school coaches and I visited some professional facilities where I wasn’t that impressed. Same thing with the different levels of college football, so I think the coaching is very strong. I think the schemes are very sound. Normally, the biggest difference is the depth of players in the roster and the quality of players throughout the entire roster. Then you’ll see players at any given spot where you’d say ‘man, that’s impressive’, and this is no different. I’m impressed with the scheme, with the strategy and with the overall, the way the program is run. Then when you start looking at specific players versus the depth of the roster, that’s usually the biggest difference and this would be no different. We’re anxious for the challenge.

Q: Mandy [Alonso] had a nice sack for you the other night. Can you just talk about how important he’s been to your program?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Mandy’s been the landmark of consistency and the epitome of just all the growth that’s happened in our program and he’s been here for the whole point, or the whole part. I remember him coming to camp and that’s what sold me or convinced me that Mandy needed to be on our team. I liked his mindset. I liked his effort. I liked his hustle. I liked his ability. And I like who he is, he’s really fun to be around. He’s stayed the course, and he’s been one of the reasons this program is transforming and has had the success that we’ve had. Just anything he does on the field where he has success, it makes me feel great. I love anything positive that happens to Mandy.

Q: Javian Hawkins, the Louisville back who didn’t play against you guys, he opted out for the rest of the season. I’m curious whether you’ve had any further opt-outs and whether you see this as an issue for college football down the stretch here of, if you’re not playing for the national championship, are you worried that there could be more of this?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Sure. Yeah, it’s a challenge. There’s nothing easy about what’s happening on any team, on any given week. What we’ve already seen is indicative of, I think deeper thoughts and a larger maybe pool of players that will follow. I think it can happen in any program, to any team, at any time. Listen, it’s unprecedented. There is no data on this. I didn’t know that he had opted out for the season. I didn’t know why he wasn’t playing. I’m not going to judge for any of the players that are making these choices. I’m just doing the best I can to help our players be safe and have a great experience this season. And outcome is part of that. I understand it, so I want it all for them. I’m committed to helping and doing everything I can, for the remainder of the season, for that to happen. I wouldn’t be surprised, quite frankly, by anything at this point. Really, to be honest I don’t have much time to look outside. I usually get information by bits and pieces from the assistants, but my time is based exclusively thinking about our guys and trying to just make sure they’re doing well.

Q: You’ve been through so much with protocols and what you’ve asked these kids to do and all the discipline and all the extra work and all the stress. If, assuming you’re not playing for a national title, do you think coaches and programs are going to want to sign up for a lower level bowl game and extra weeks of protocol and extra week of that stress?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think that’ll be program specific. And I think it’ll be team specific. The teams that have fought so hard and want to keep playing and view that as a chance to be together and celebrate one more chance together, absolutely. There might be others that view whatever game they might have a chance to play in is not what they hope for. And there might be administrators around the country that, on this given year, don’t know how the finances make any sense. So, I think it’s going to be program specific, and I think it’s going to be team specific. Again, that’s weeks away, but that’s I think there’ll be some variability there.

Q: You clearly weren’t pleased when Lavel Davis Jr. got the penalty the other night, but what do you think about his toughness in general as a first-year player?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Really impressed. I thought Lavel played really well. He made eye contact with me after, and then he kind of touched his chest and he acknowledged quickly, that it was his fault. That always helps. He’s improving and to have him back, our team is different. We’re better downfield, we have more speed, length and we have an ability to stretch the field at a higher level. He’s another quality player to help us score points. I’m really impressed as a first-year player, just the trajectory he’s on to this point, which we’re still early, early.

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