University of Virginia football head coach Bronco Mendenhall held his first Monday press conference of the 2021 season, ahead of the Cavaliers’ regular and home season opener against William & Mary.
Highlighted by the return of 16 fourth and fifth-year players, including eight “super seniors” returning for an extra year of eligibility given by the NCAA because of the coronavirus, UVA football is heavy on experience. In order to take advantage of this experience, Mendenhall did what he could this preseason to make sure his team was as healthy as possible. It appears he accomplished his goal.
“We’re in great shape,” Mendenhall replied when asked about the health of his Cavalier team, which has seventeen seniors in starting roles on offense and defense according to today’s depth chart.
The Cavaliers aren’t “perfectly healthy,” Mendenhall said, but they are as “healthy as any team I’ve coached, probably in my entire career coming out of camp.”
How were the Hoos able to stay healthy? Mendenhall says physicality and contact remained in preseason practice. Gone, however, was the “finishing” aspect. Players would hit, but there was less tackling to the ground. Players would block, but not block to the ground. According to Mendenhall, reactions were “fast and sharp,” conditioning was “fierce,” but there was less risk at the end.
As mentioned, the team isn’t “perfectly healthy.” Graduate transfer Josh Hayes is not listed on the two-deep, perhaps an indication that he has not fully healed from an injury suffered in camp. Mendenhall acknowledged the injury during camp and was hopeful to have the North Dakota State transfer back by the start of the season. In addition, we know that third year wide receiver Nathaniel Beal III is out for the season with a torn ACL.
THRILLED TO BE BACK
The 2020 season was a challenge in many ways, one of which was playing in a largely empty Scott Stadium. This Saturday’s matchup will be more of a return to the way things were prior to the pandemic, with fans back supporting the Hoos in person.
Coach Mendenhall says the players are “just thrilled that there is a possibility that fans will be in Scott Stadium and our 4th Side will be present. I think that might be the thing they’re looking forward to most. As we show film from a year ago and sometimes the camera pans and there is just nothing there, it’s just, wow, what a challenge. I think, right, and we’re hopeful and optimistic, and I know there are still setbacks that could occur with the virus and et cetera, but I think there is a general sense of excitement and feeling fortunate that we get to play with our 4th Side there again and fans present.”
“Man, I hope it is back to normal,” Mendenhall later added, discussing the home atmosphere. “I don’t think any of us know how normal it will be. I hope it is exactly normal, right? I hope that all the protocols necessity for people to have an amazing Game Day experience and be sage are in place, and I hope people can unite and celebrate and enjoy rooting for their team and keep all the same traditions and bring those back. That’s my hope. I don’t think any of us know for sure what that will look like, but that’s what I’m certainly hopeful for.”
The last normal game setting at Scott, fans were whipped into the frenzy as the Hoos defeated Virginia Tech to claim the 2019 Commonwealth Cup. This was one of 17 victories UVA football has captured at home the past three seasons, compared to just two losses.
Keeping a strong home field advantage is important, Mendenhall said. So is playing better on the road. In true road games in the Mendenhall era, the Cavaliers are 6-19.
After opening 2021 with two home games, Virginia plays five of its last 10 games on the road, including back-to-back contests at Miami and Louisville September 30 and October 9.
“For sustained success and next-tier success, you not only have to maintain what we’re doing at home, which is challenging by itself, but then that has to travel,” Mendenhall said.
RUNNING BACK RACE CONTINUES TO BE CLOSE
Senior Wayne Taulapapa is listed as the starting running back. Mike Hollins is listed as the backup, followed by Ronnie Walker Jr. “OR” Devin Darrington. The gap from one through four is razor thin according to Mendenhall.
Taulapapa has the experience and is reliable in all aspects of the position, Mendenhall noted. Hollins brings the dynamic ball carrier presence. Walker Jr. has speed and is dynamic, and the grad-transfer Darrington “been the most effective runner through camp.”
Will there be one player handling most or all of the duties? Will this be a running back by committee? Mendenhall says it’s too early to tell what the plan is for the running back position.
– Running back isn’t the only position with a close competition. The offensive line has one too. The listed starters on the depth chart are as expected: Ryan Nelson and Ryan Swoboda at left and right tackle, Joe Bissinger and Chris Glaser at left and right guard, and Olusegun Oluwatimi at center. Mendenhall says, though, that senior tackle Bobby Haskins is right there in competition for one of the starting spots. He is currently listed as the backup left tackle to Nelson.
– Mendenhall raved about Louisville grad-transfer cornerback Anthony Johnson’s contributions on and off the field throughout the offseason. He did so today as well.
“He just keeps making plays and he works really, really hard and he embraced our culture from the beginning,” Mendenhall said of Johnson, who is listed as the second string cornerback behind Nick Grant. “He’s been the most consistent from the time he arrived until today, and that’s how he ended up there. So I’ve been impressed and so thankful he’s here.”
– Regarding COVID-19 vaccinations, Mendenhall said all but “two or three” players and staff have been vaccinated. Those two or three have received medical or religious waivers.
– As he has said in the past, Mendenhall says the first regular season game is the best barometer for where the team is. This remains the case in 2021, even with an experienced group returning. Certainly he’ll be looking at all details of his team’s performance against William & Mary, but is there is something simple he is interested in learning.
“This is supposed to be something they love to do,” Mendenhall said. “I like to see, especially in the opener, is that real? Are they really enjoying this whole experience and playing the game they have worked so hard to play?”
FULL TRANSCRIPT OF BRONCO MENDENHALL’S AUGUST 30 PRESS CONFERENCE, COURTESY OF VIRGINIA ATHLETICS MEDIA RELATIONS
Q. Because you have so many veteran players, do you have a better idea perhaps of what to expect from your team in this opener and maybe in the whole season than you would in a year where you had a lot of turnover of your roster?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I think, Jeff, that that answer is yes, but it’s all relative. I make the best assessment I can during fall practice. Practicing against yourself always gives you a partial view, never a complete view, of how you’ll match up versus opponents. But it does allow a point the reference for previous teams I’ve coached against, other teams that I’ve coached and kind of where the progress lies.
And so this team, yeah, because of the maturity, the practice formats have been different, the acceleration rate, the install, all these things have been different and accelerated because they’ve been able to handle it, and really we put a lot of emphasis, too, on just managing the health of our team to make sure the players with experience are in the best physical shape and health to start the season.
Q. You’ve spoken a number of times in the week one press conference about how openers can been a little fugly, you know, things get out of whack, and we’ve certainly seen games that go that way. Because of what you were just saying about the veteran team, do you expect to be able to put a cleaner product on the field week one, or am I putting words in your mouth?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I would certainly hope so. I think that’s every coach’s desire, that you start playing clean and continues to improve from there.
We all recognize the week one uncertainties, and no team is ever as I thought prior to playing an opponent that matched my opinion of the team after I played or coached against the first opponent.
And so our hope is with the veteran team there is less of those discrepancies from I thought and what were discovered, and hopefully that applies to clean play as well.
But certainly the amount of ambiguity going into week one is probably the highest level of my part during the year, other than maybe a bowl game against a team you’ve never seen from a conference that you never played, something like that.
But I would say even then probably the opener is still a little on a higher scale.
Q. Curious about, I don’t know what to call them, grinders, guys that aren’t walk-ons but don’t play a lot, guys in that middle area, kind of what they contribute to the team. So maybe like a Tommy Christ that has played on both lines, has a number already, that sort of thing. What do those guys bring to your program?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think it’s not only what they bring to our program, it’s what, I don’t know, maybe the middle children bring to a family. Maybe what certain states and certain demographics bring to our country. They’re the glue, the foundational part that in essence establishes and validates and really the culture of your organization.
So they receive very little notoriety. Not many people know about them. They are just daily showing up and working and working and supporting and encouraging and helping and carrying water and helping teammates, and then they just keep doing it.
That unselfish sacrifice and commitment to team over self, that’s special to witness and watch, as most of us are a little bit more self-oriented. Serving others is an amazing way to live. I admire, respect, and I’m so thankful for that group of players on our team, and had a chance to acknowledge a group of walk-on specific players in one scholarship player in kind of a separate and special jersey ceremony that we’ve never done with that exact thought in mind.
So the players will probably be able to, if they haven’t already, pass that on to you. That was one of the coolest things that happened in my career, seeing the team’s response to that very group that you’re mentioning when they were actually recognized with their jerseys.
Q. I was wondering how you managed this summer to balance. I know coming out of last season you wanted to be more physical on defense, but then this summer you sort of wanted to keep guys healthy, maybe not as much contact this summer. How dis you balance those two ends of the spectrum this summer?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, really a challenge and a great question. It was much more of an NFL model. As you know, right, the NFL, there is 53 that make the team and not all 53 dress for a game. I think the number is 47 now. There are players that are established that they still need fast, physical, and amazing work against good opponents.
But there is less taking players to the ground. The NCAA format and the acclimation format was different this year anyway, which matched very similar to what we were doing already. So it was kind of a blend of those two things, right, following the rules of engagement that are in affect, but also with more experience, leaning a little bit more with some of our players that have, man, four and five years of experience of having the reaction be fast and sharp and conditioning fierce, with a little less risk at the end.
That was probably the best way I could explain how we attempted to do it.
Q. How much have you thought or just have you talked to the team about the unique situation you’re heading into with welcoming fans back and having the Game Day atmosphere back? Is there any concern? I know you got a veteran group, but just with seeing that again and just embracing that.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think I won’t need to do anything. They’re just thrilled that there is a possibility that fans will be in Scott Stadium and our 4th Side will be present. I think that might be the thing they’re looking forward to most. As we show film from a year ago and sometimes the camera pans and there is just nothing there, it’s just, wow, what a challenge.
I think, right, and we’re hopeful and optimistic, and I know there are still setbacks that could occur with the virus and et cetera, but I think there is a general sense of excitement and feeling fortunate that we get to play with our 4th Side there again and fans present.
Q. With a lot of the jersey numbers being handed out, has the conversation about team captains been discussed yet and any decisions on that heading into the first week?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No, it hasn’t, and I’ve prolonged it, and I’m going to as long as possible. Normally it comes out maybe on Saturday or Sunday, and this particular year I’m just going to go a little bit more.
Still trying to identify exactly what this team will benefit most from and whom. It could be as late as Friday. I’m not certain yet. There isn’t any problem or concern. It’s just, yeah, I would like to get the exact right leadership for this specific team and the unique nature of the all the surroundings and circumstances from COVID and fans back and expectations and just what we all want to accomplish and super seniors and everything else.
Just taking me a little longer to sort that out.
Q. Wanted to ask your excitement level to get rid of the taste in the team’s mouth after last season, kind of a sour ending, the opportunity now to have another game to get back in the win column?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I think that’s, man, human nature. You’re always anxious if there has been a performance or setback. We love swift and certain. That means acting quickly and rectifying whatever it is that can be fix, and the sooner the better.
So when your season ends with a loss, a state arrival loss, yeah, I would’ve much preferred personally to play again the very next week. I know the circumstances so I’m not going back and double guessing or questioning that decision, but that’s just the way I operate best.
I love just rectifying and moving forward. We are anxious to play football. My team really hasn’t brought that up or thought about that much. They’re just anxious to play in a new year.
As a coach, and maybe the way I’m wired, I think about that maybe a little bit more than they do.
Q. Going into a season that looks more like a normal season, although the data suggests that in some areas of country the virus is worse than it’s ever been, I know you guys were supposed to be 100% vaccinated, but were there any waivers on the team or staff, and have you kind of set any guidelines for how players interact with fans that you don’t know what their situation is after the game and before the game?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Really good question. So our team, just like the student body here, we followed and were in alignment with the institution, so every player that would be 100% were expected to be vaccinated. And we do have, I believe it’s three, that number might now be two, players that received waivers for either medical or religious exemptions that were granted, and the rest of the team and staff have been vaccinated.
So I believe the number, it was three, but I’m not sure it’s still three. Might be two now. That’s where we stand now.
Regarding fan engagement, wow, so I don’t know yet. And, again, I’m not following things much outside of our building and getting our team ready. But do I know that there are so many administrations across the country trying to consider who gets to come to the games or what is basically proof they have to show, and is it vaccination or proof of a negative test.
And so as I get more clear on that prior to Game Day, then possibly policies, you know, I’ll make it clear to the team what I expect. I just haven’t gotten to that point yet in terms of fan engagement on Game Day, so that’s kind of where I am.
Q. Coach, when bring back a lot of the super seasons, especially looking at offense, having Brennan have an entire spring, fall, knowing the system. But are you excited about what you can do offensively with this group, especially if Coach Anae is a little bit more able to get more creative with Keytaon or Jelani?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I’m excited any time we have a returning quarterback, and especially one of the quality Brennan is. But then if you think about the other players that will have significant touches or have a chance to touch the ball at the skill positions, there are lots and lots of experience as well as in the offensive front.
So that allowed the installation and the amount we could do in fall camp to be accelerated, and early returns or early signs of that look to be really exciting and positive knowing we have averaged over 30 points a year the last two.
And you probably have already seen on the depth chart, because I’m asked so frequently what position does Keytaon play. You’ll notice “football player” is what it will say there, FBP, so that’s the position.
Q. Carla told the board of visitors last week that UVA’s football facilities are the worst in the ACC. Do you agree with that assessment? And no matter where they rank, do you consider them a hindrance?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, and so I believe I was the one that said that. Might have been the first question because I was with her at the board of visitors. Carla gave an amazing presentation and just really was clear with the direction we would like to go as a football program, an athletic department, as an institution, and I believe the question was directed to me.
So that was my opinion, that that’s where we ranked, and a lot of that was based on particular point. I love all the history and I recognize and honor the heritage of the McCue Center, but we’re the only football program that hasn’t renovated or built a new facility in 31 years. So it was really based on that one point. While this isn’t a complete point, it was more based on that.
Now having said that, the people are everything, right? So the alignment between President Ryan, Carla, myself, the coaches, the players, the principles and the people are allowing us to make the very best of everything we possibly have, and that has shown I think strong results to this point.
I’m anxious to be able to be on equal footing facility-wise with our competitors. I think our team would love that. I think those assessing and selecting in the recruiting process would value that as well in terms of the priority placed on football.
Now that we’ve talked about that like you and I are, we don’t ever mention it as a staff, as a program. We have enough. If we have the right people and the right leadership and the right culture, then we thrive and have a blast while doing it.
That’s what’s currently happening.
Q. In your mind, how does a 31-year-old facility impact how you go about your day-to-day job?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, we innovate, and so our meeting room designs and our use of indoor, there is nothing like what we are currently doing in Power 5 college football in the use of the spaces and innovation that we use, because we have simply outgrown so many things and they’re not capable or up-to-date to handle what we would like.
So I really like our organizational and program and technological design. It just doesn’t look like any other program. So we have advanced in so many ways, and maybe in some ways new buildings will be designed in a similar format what we’re using now. I love speed, efficiency, focus on teaching, without going into detail, because it’s our competitive work. Yeah, we’ve made the very best of what we have.
So like anything, right, you can turn challenges into strengths, but it’s harder. That’s what we’re working hard to do.
Q. I know you put an emphasis on talking about changing how you handled fall camp. Talking about how NFL, less contact so you can being healthier. How healthy is the team leading into the season?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, we’re in great shape and really good health. I wouldn’t say less contact. I don’t think that’s accurate. But I would say less finishing, and finishing means tackling to the ground or blocking to the ground.
But certainly not less contact, not less physicality. There is kind of a difference in there in terms of construct, but we are as healthy as any team that I’ve coached probably in my entire career coming out of fall camp.
That doesn’t mean perfectly healthy, but our emphasis shows in the health of our team right now, which I’m so thankful for.
Q. Mike’s whiteboard behind you, you might notice for the first time it doesn’t say, Fix the fence.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: One of my greatest joys in life is doing fence work, Mike. If you ever need a hand, you should have just told me.
Q. I’m going to take you up on that. The dogs dug under what we did. We need some work.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Like with our players, normally the way I handle this is I find out how sincere are you about actually getting it done, and then I assign something to read to make sure you know what you’re doing.
After that, the trust is established, and then we might be able to partner. Might have a little work to do first. If not, just let me know.
Q. I’m totally down for that. Anything beats chasing dogs through the neighborhood. I wanted to ask you about Anthony Johnson, the Louisville transfer. You have him listed on the two-deep at corner. What was the process of determining where in the secondary he best fit for you?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Just time. So his preference and most of his experience was at corner, but he’s big, physical, he tackles well. He has great mindset. He is an absolute joy to be around. He’s good for our team. He is selfless.
But he just keeps making plays and he works really, really hard and he embraced our culture from the beginning. He’s been the most consistent from the time he arrived until today, and that’s how he ended up there.
So I’ve been impressed and so thankful he’s here.
Q. DeVante Cross told us in a good way he is kind of like the class clown, keeps everybody laughing, you can always hear him in the building. Did he come in with a big personality? Did he come in soft and build up? How did that work?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No, there is nothing soft or timid or, let’s see, warming up. I wish I had a better word for that about him. He just is full throttle all the time in a good way, as most great secondary players are. They have big personalities, very, very confident. They think they can do anything, whether they can or they can’t.
They like the center of attention and they like to be that, which is kind of part of being on the island. So his personality matches that in a really positive way, not an egotistical way, and not a way that is divisive. It’s a uniting influence and fun to be around.
Q. Bronco, most of the William & Mary coaches either played at UVA or coached there, and in Matt Johns’ case, he was a player and a GA. There will be a similar dynamic when you guys play at BYU later this season. Does that add anything, affect the game, or just fodder for the fans and the media?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Oh, I don’t know about the second. I just think it’s the best way to build a staff. And so personally, most of my staff, as you know, was coached by me and were graduate assistants under me and with me. Those relationships, man, I’ve seen these guys in every possible scenario, and trust is established, and more deeply friends are established.
My closest friends are all on my staff. When you’re a head coach, to have people like that that you know and trust that are also capable and skilled, it’s just a much more enjoyable experience, and I think a more productive experience.
So I think what Mike, Coach London has done at William & Mary, it makes complete sense to me. It’s exact model that I believe in and use, and will continue to. I love hiring from within and building from within. I think that’s where your culture can remain the strongest.
Q. You anticipate this week feeling any different heading into an opening game now that you have the full fan atmosphere, full game day back to normal?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Man, I hope it is back to normal. I don’t think any of us know how normal it will be. I hope it is exactly normal, right? I hope that all the protocols necessity for people to have an amazing Game Day experience and be sage are in place, and I hope people can unite and celebrate and enjoy rooting for their team and keep all the same traditions and bring those back.
That’s my hope. I don’t think any of us know for sure what that will look like, but that’s what I’m certainly hopeful for.
Q. Two quick depth chart questions. The offensive line, have you a guy like Haskins not even crack that starting five, how encouraging is that from a depth perspective and experience perspective? And then number two, with the four runningbacks, how much do you anticipate getting all four involved? What’s the plan back there?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, so regarding if I start with Haskins first, by the time Game Day arrives he could be in one of the those starting spots. It’s that close, right? So he’s listed at two but really one of the five, but when you have six and there are only five spots…
Currently he’s not listed there. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is starting on Saturday. It’s that’s close between he and the other five, which is a great position to be in as a coach. I’d feel even greater if there were seven rather than six, right?
So I like the depth that is coming up and I love the experience that we have there. The running backs, while they are — it is so close. I mean, it is so close. Wayne’s experience gives him a more every-play role in anything we’re doing because we’ve seen him do ti all.
Mike Hollins adds a dynamic ball carrier emphasis that’s special. And Ronny, there is a speed and dynamic component that comes with that.
And Devin Darrington my been the most effective runner through camp. Really hard to say right now who and how many touches and what roles. I mean, it’s a photo finish as of Monday going into getting to Saturday, so too early to say what the plan is.
Q. Coach, if there is one thing when it comes to a season opener, what is that thing you’re really looking forward to in all your years of coaching? Is there something that you look forward to when it comes to a season opener?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I think the simplest thing is eliminate anything else and it will be surprising maybe because it doesn’t have anything to do with anything other than I love to see the kids really demonstrate they’re enjoying playing the game.
This is supposed to be something they love to do. I like to see, especially in the opener, is that real? Are they really enjoying this whole experience and playing the game they have worked so hard to play?
Man, when you watch college or pro football there is the execution and the assignments and the competitive outcome and all that. I love, especially in the opener, just to see are they really enjoying what they’re doing. That’s what I look for.
Q. Your team was 5-1 at home last year, even without a lot of fans. Curious how much home field advantage, being at home and not having to travel, and how much do you think the fans give you an advantage as well?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, so it’s been part of the design and emphasis of the program. I don’t think you can build championship caliber teams and nationally prominent teams without being exceptional at home.
We are counting, right, in the numbers that I use when we went to Vanderbilt and played Ohio, because that was listed as a home game. So I still count that. But 17-2, right, is our recent record, and 12-1 I think over the last couple years.
That has to be in place for a team to become exceptional. So do fans matter? Absolutely. Does our 4th Side influence the game? Absolutely. With the emphasis we’ve placed on playing at home and all the messaging that’s inside the locker room and how we built the narrative, that also has been intentional, and so we’re counting on it always being an advantage for us.
The next step from what your question is about, is we have been just the opposite traveling and playing. For sustained success and next-tier success, you not only have to maintain what we’re doing at home, which is challenging by itself, but then that has to travel.
In the year that we won the Coastal Division, as you remember, we beat North Carolina and Pitt, and then I think there were two overtime losses in addition. That was almost, right, one of the best — well, it was one of the best seasons ever at UVA. We were very close then to kind of breaking through.
And so it’s been a work in progress, but it starts with the home field and our field in Scott Stadium. I’m not presenting this like that’s done, right? We have to continue that with the same vigor and the same emphasis and now keep expanding. So I just had to give a holistic view besides addressing your question.
Q. I don’t mean to be dense, but does the “or” at tailback indicate that anyone of those four could be the starter? Do you have any tips on winterizing and staining a deck?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: As of today, and, again, that’s as big a disclaimer and as big a letters as you can put, it’s the 1 2 and then the “or” is for 3 and 4. Those are micro-differences between any of those numbers.
So, yeah, that’s how it’s listed, but it certainly could change. I was just fixing my tractor last night. I call it work therapy, which is cheaper than psychiatry. So I could help with you that. I’ll have to start looking at the winterizing and I’ll get back to you maybe next week.
Q. If you have a definitive source I would appreciate it. There is all sorts of stuff on the internet.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I’ve seen it.