Bronco Mendenhall Monday Press Conference Notables: Virginia Turns Attention To VT

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With a chance to maintain control of its own destiny in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the University of Virginia football program led the Pittsburgh Panthers early, was tied at two separate points in the second half, and had possession trailing by three with less than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers had their chances, but Pittsburgh won 48-38, clinching the 2021 ACC Coastal Division crown in the process.

Bronco Mendenhall acknowledged the difficulty of getting over a tough loss like Virginia suffered at Pitt, but having another important game the following week helps. The 2021 Commonwealth Cup certainly falls into that category. ~ Photo by Kris Wright/TheSabre.com

How do the Hoos rebound from such a difficult loss? (As Sabre Editor Kris Wright wrote, one that very much carried with it a “what might have been feeling.”)

“I think college football, it doesn’t — time doesn’t slow for anyone, and when you invest as much as our program has to win the Coastal Division, the thought that now, okay, you just move on, yeah, that’s not realistic,” Virginia football head coach Bronco Mendenhall said during his November 22 press conference. “But knowing here comes the next really meaningful game that has just so much meaning to our program, certainly it will help, and great lesson for us all, right, in terms of setbacks that come.”

The next “really meaningful game” happens to be the 2021 Commonwealth Cup, which takes place on Saturday, November 27, at 3:45 p.m. in Scott Stadium. The last time UVA hosted the game was in 2019, when Bryce Perkins and company snapped Virginia Tech’s 15-game winning streak over the Cavaliers with a 39-30 victory.

Last season in Blacksburg, Virginia Tech used a 24-0 second quarter to dispatch Virginia, 33-15. Brennan Armstrong, concluding his first season as UVA’s full-time starting QB, completed only 25-of-46 passes for 259 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He was sacked four times. This year’s Cavalier offense is a different animal, though, featuring a deep and talented receiving corps and Armstrong, who has set multiple UVA single season passing records in his redshirt junior campaign.

“Yeah, chemistry, camaraderie, a confidence, mindset, and every team creates their own identity, but certainly it’s a completely different team,” Mendenhall replied when asked if this team is different from the one that lost last season in Blacksburg. “I think that that’s one of the things that most — maybe it’s most commonly misunderstood is the influence is maybe a previous year on the next year, and I’ve just really never viewed it that way. Yeah, to me it’s all brand new. This is a one-game approach regardless of anything else. Yeah, I think it’s the best way to handle it with the team and with anyone. You learn from your past and then you move on. I don’t look back, and I don’t think our team does, either.”

As UVA hopes to return the Commonwealth Cup to Charlottesville, playing with poise in a high-energy atmosphere will be paramount.

“It’s a challenge,” Mendenhall said of playing with focus and discipline as well as with energy. “Education is part of it, showing examples of what is acceptable, what’s not, what helps the team, what hurts the team. All those things are the same that happen every week other than when you start playing meaningful games that you’ve earned at the end of seasons like we just did and like we have coming up and like the bowl game will be, that usually means emotions and a chance for — man, even to care more if that’s possible, to be involved. It never helps to go outside of the rules or outside of the play.”

Super senior DL Mandy Alonso was part of Virginia football’s first full recruiting class with Bronco Mendenhall as head coach.

More Monday Notables

– Bronco Mendenhall discussed the significance of Virginia’s “super seniors” and the role they took in building the culture that is currently in Charlottesville.

“The players are everything,” he said. “I do my best to help and mentor and shape and architect and lead and design, but the people, they bring all of it to life, and that’s where all the credit goes. Usually if they don’t have success, it’s because I haven’t designed something right or given them their best chance, but they try too hard and they want to succeed and they want to be successful.”

– What’s the significance of beating Virginia Tech? Coach Mendenhall put this game in a broader perspective, saying, “Well, I think the significance can go a lot of different ways, but it first starts with it’s the Coastal Division and where you finish in the Coastal certainly matters. Winning in the Coastal certainly matters. The conference is regional, and so just like we want to be very good at home, and then you kind of expand from there, the next step, and we’ve played really well at home at least over my time here at UVA, you want to expand that to the next circle out, which would be the state. You want to expand that to the next circle out, which was the Coastal. You want to expand that to the next circle out, which is the ACC, and that’s how programs are built and sustained and move forward. I like to just look at it broad term, with a broad lens, and I think that’s where the relevance is.”

– Allowing 41 points (not including the kickoff return for a touchdown) was not enough to help the team to victory this past Saturday, but Mendenhall was pleased to see the Cavalier defense create some havoc against Kenny Pickett and the Pitt offense. The Hoos picked off Pickett twice and totaled three sacks.

“Yeah, there was some really good things that I saw, and I usually just go to, all right, there’s different metrics that we can all use, and Pitt was averaging I think 42.5 points a game, and it’s always an if, but if they don’t score on a kickoff return and return a punt to our 30-something, that’s 10 points, which makes a difference,” Mendenhall noted. “But man, their quarterback is really good. He had thrown four interceptions on the year going into the year, two against us, and we sacked him a number of times. So certainly execution things in critical moments we could improve, but we did impact the quarterback in terms of passing yards and different things. There was some metrics there that reflected some growth and improvement and also being able to dictate and control when we wanted to, and so yeah, while again, the execution can improve, I saw some things that I really liked.”

Click here for the latest depth chart ahead of the Virginia Tech game.

FULL TRANSCRIPT OF BRONCO MENDENHALL’S NOVEMBER 22 PRESS CONFERENCE, COURTESY OF VIRGINIA ATHLETICS MEDIA RELATIONS

Q. Your team went into last year’s game against Virginia Tech with a lot of momentum and then did not play as it had played in the previous few games. I know you go back and break things down in great detail. Anything stick out to you about maybe your preparation for that game that you wish you had done differently?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Well, haven’t even thought about it or gone back to it or had a chance to revisit it. Did in the off-season, and really there wasn’t anything that I saw then.

In terms of right now and what we’re doing today’s preparation or this year’s team, yeah, I don’t think it’s relevant, so I haven’t seen addressed it.

Q. Brennan (Armstrong) was just on here and he said that he thinks it’s a completely different team. Do you feel the same way?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, chemistry, camaraderie, a confidence, mindset, and every team creates their own identity, but certainly it’s a completely different team. I think that that’s one of the things that most — maybe it’s most commonly misunderstood is the influence is maybe a previous year on the next year, and I’ve just really never viewed it that way. Yeah, to me it’s all brand new. This is a one-game approach regardless of anything else.

Yeah, I think it’s the best way to handle it with the team and with anyone. You learn from your past and then you move on. I don’t look back, and I don’t think our team does, either.

Q. I think I’ve asked you some version of this question every year before the (Virginia) Tech game, and I apologize I’m going to do it again this year. It is such an emotionally supercharged event. How do you get your team to balance playing with emotion, playing hard, caring, but not crossing over that line?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s a challenge. Education is part of it, showing examples of what is acceptable, what’s not, what helps the team, what hurts the team. All those things are the same that happen every week other than when you start playing meaningful games that you’ve earned at the end of seasons like we just did and like we have coming up and like the bowl game will be, that usually means emotions and a chance for — man, even to care more if that’s possible, to be involved. It never helps to go outside of the rules or outside of the play.

Q. If I can follow up, in your time at UVA, how have your teams handled it and specifically the veterans you have, how have they handled those spots?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think we have work to do, and that’s part of growing and maturing as a person. It’s part of developing a program. It’s part of handling life challenges, that you have to balance that.

I would just say we’re a work in progress.

Q. Brennan (Armstrong) was kind of just talking about it, but when you bring guys from all over outside of the state of Virginia, how have you kind of seen this rivalry — how have you seen their eyes open to what this really means?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Well, I think it’s learned over time. I think that’s the same for any person in any culture. You might hear a story or you might have someone talk to you about it. But until you actually see what it’s like playing in an ACC Championship or playing in the Orange Bowl, you can hear it and you can talk about it and you can have a slide slow and you can listen to it on audio book or a podcast, none of that really helps you experience that. Experiences are built with personal involvement. They learn each year that they’re part of our program, and they kind of frame that as they go.

Q. Real quick about the seniors, since it will be their final game at Scott Stadium, I know you have a lot of super seniors. What has this group meant to you, especially the decision they made to come back this year?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I’ll be forever indebted and I’m just so thankful and grateful that they’ve trusted me and our program and they’ve enjoyed it enough to want to come back, to give their hearts to this institution and our team and to each other, and I feel really fortunate and thankful to each of them.

Q. I wanted to ask you about one of those seniors in Keytaon Thompson. What’s impressed you the most as you’ve watched him evolve over the last two seasons from quarterback to doing everything he does for you guys now?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, Keytaon is just an amazing person. Works really hard with a smile. He uplifts others. He’s fiercely competitive but also a genuine sportsman. Just a class act in every possible way. I couldn’t think of someone else that would represent or is UVA football more than him, and so productive in so many ways and is team-first every single day. I’ve learned a lot from him and his example.

Q. Just with this rivalry game, does it make it easier to turn the page on the Pitt loss for you and your team?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I think so. I think college football, it doesn’t — time doesn’t slow for anyone, and when you invest as much as our program has to win the Coastal Division, the thought that now, okay, you just move on, yeah, that’s not realistic. But knowing here comes the next really meaningful game that has just so much meaning to our program, certainly it will help, and great lesson for us all, right, in terms of setbacks that come.

Q. Joey Blount was on here earlier and he said that being disciplined can help overcome emotions in games like this. Do you think you have a disciplined football team?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, that’s a really good question. Man, the metric would be a tough one to agree on probably. I would say at times we do. Probably just like me as a person; at times I’m disciplined. By 9:30 at night the cookies look pretty good, and I’m pretty disciplined in other parts of my life, so yeah, I think we’re working hard at it. Certainly can be more, and we’ll keep working on that.

Q. You talked after the game about this (Virginia) Tech game now is the state championship; that’s the way you framed it. Beyond the bragging rights aspect, what’s the significance of being the state champion, winning that state championship?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Well, I think the significance can go a lot of different ways, but it first starts with it’s the Coastal Division and where you finish in the Coastal certainly matters.

Winning in the Coastal certainly matters. The conference is regional, and so just like we want to be very good at home, and then you kind of expand from there, the next step, and we’ve played really well at home at least over my time here at UVA, you want to expand that to the next circle out, which would be the state. You want to expand that to the next circle out, which was the Coastal. You want to expand that to the next circle out, which is the ACC, and that’s how programs are built and sustained and move forward. I like to just look at it broad term, with a broad lens, and I think that’s where the relevance is.

Q. You already mentioned a little bit of the senior class, but this senior class has been here almost as long as your tenure at UVA, some of these players have been here for that long. How much can you really say that this class really helped you change the culture when you look back at what they kind of contributed?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: The players are everything. I do my best to help and mentor and shape and architect and lead and design, but the people, they bring all of it to life, and that’s where all the credit goes. Usually if they don’t have success, it’s because I haven’t designed something right or given them their best chance, but they try too hard and they want to succeed and they want to be successful.

Yeah, I think that as I look around the country now and you see kind of different things in terms of coaching changes that happen, which is kind of this time of year, ultimately I think all the attention ought to be on the players, and they play the game, and they lead, and they battle and they work so hard.

Yeah, I would love for it to be about them.

Q. In meetings today do you feel like you see a new focus on this team, obviously changing from a loss to Pitt to moving on to Virginia Tech? Do you see these seniors grab a hold of this team and say we have one more shot to leave our legacy at Scott Stadium?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Well, not yet. So Monday morning the meetings are really focused on the previous game and the corrections necessary and all that, and then when that meeting ends, it kind of begins the transition, and then we’ll be with our players again tonight, which then really after they’ve had the day and we’ve had the day in terms of preparation, then it’s kind of ready, set, go on the next opponent.

That’s really all the time we have. Even though I’ll be asked each day from now until the television interviews before the game about the last game, I’m the only one that has to do that. My job is for the players just to be able to move on. Yeah, that starts this evening.

Q. Virginia Tech is one of 14 FBS programs to dismiss a head coach during the season, which is a pretty high number, maybe even unprecedented. As someone who’s active in the coaches’ association does that bother you, and is it perhaps an unintended consequence of the early signing period with administrators wanting to get a head start?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, man, I think you’ve seen it really clearly and perceptively. First, I think that the early signing day does influence. To what extent, I’m not sure, but I think fairly significant. Otherwise there wouldn’t be teams kind of on the edge of bowl eligibility at 5-4 or 5-3 and there’s changes made.

But I also think as college football shifts more professionally and as the revenue and the resources demand results in specific time frames, because that’s what dollar amounts do, right, and the higher the dollar amount, the faster the expectations are expected, and then when you add now an early signing day, yeah, I haven’t seen anything like it, and I can’t say that there’s anything positive about this trend.

If you really think about the significant number of — I don’t know what you would say, profile jobs maybe, and then just think about, where is the list of candidates that are truly qualified, and this idea that an off stretch in the season or an off year seems to be trumping an entire career, sometimes just last year, but that is the world we’re in.

I love the idea of developing young people through championships and through their sport and through teaching and grooming and helping them become, and wow, you don’t hear that much right now in the world of college football. Yeah, there’s reason to be concerned, I think.

Q. Other than the fact that Brennan (Armstrong) is a left-hander and (Braxton) Burmeister is a right-hander, how would you compare the two quarterbacks, and does this come down to a battle of quarterbacks in some sense?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Hmm, I don’t think it’s really ever fair to compare, but I think, yeah, quarterback is the position of kind of disproportion at value. It has more influence on a football team than anything else and its success or not. I really can’t speak to Virginia Tech’s quarterback as I’ve had basically now a day and a half’s worth of evaluation, and I’ve been with Brennan his whole career, but I can speak to Brennan, and I think he’s exceptional, and really my entire focus will just be on helping him and our team do the best they can.

Q. (Braxton) Burmeister, how about him as a runner?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think he’s tough, and I think he’s explosive, and I think Virginia Tech, they have good schemes and good players, and they’ve had just a really strong tradition. I think he’s a very good player.

Q. To follow up on that, against Miami they went with (Connor) Blumrick a lot of the time at quarterback who’s a very different style runner. I know you’ve been through this and we’ve probably asked you three or four times this year, but is it disruptive to your defense to have to prepare for two quarterbacks who are different in their style?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: So really when you’re playing an opponent that it’s fairly typical for them to use two quarterbacks because they run the quarterback frequently, and so really just because of experience now in this particular case it’s probably not as big of an adjustment because there’s some familiarity, right. If you were to take on a new opponent like in a bowl game and the two quarterbacks had drastically different styles and you didn’t have much family, then that would be different.

But the quarterbacks are being used kind of as if other quarterbacks that our opponent has used before kind of in similar roles.

You just kind of make that part of your plan as best you can.

Q. You were asked about this senior class. We talked about the recruits coming here on faith. You hadn’t coached a game yet. Respectfully you had coached a 2-10 team; that’s almost a different sell, what you had put out there wasn’t the vision of what’s coming. What did it take to get them committed, to keep them committed when they saw 2-10? Some of them said their high school buddies were kind of busting on them, like why are you going to a 2-10 team? What was that process like?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Man, I wish I remembered. For real, I’m not being — it seems like another lifetime ago. I do remember, just talking about look at the numbers and look at the history, when people are under pressure it’s just better to look at the data. Even including this year, I’ve been a head coach 16 years, and 15 of the 16 would be bowl eligible seasons, including the pandemic year, and that number, I don’t know what it was at that point, but it just was — it didn’t seem hard for families to say, oh, wait, you just got there, and yeah, you’re coming from where? Yeah, this is what it was.

I kind of remember that. I wish I had more stories or some way to elaborate or illustrate the point more. I just don’t remember it well.

Q. Is there a difference in coaching — it sounds funny to say this, but this group has only known bowl eligibility and competitive teams. Do you give up an edge when you’ve got guys who have only known that level of success?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: No. It actually just makes it that much harder when we didn’t win our last game because our expectations were — like the bowl eligibility is just taken for granted. It’s not the Georgia Tech fans storming the field, however many were there. It’s not that. The team hardly even acknowledged that when there was the sixth win, because the Coastal and the ACC and all the other things that they’ve determined that are the next step in the program. That’s where we want to be and expect to be and have prepared to be.

Yeah, there’s nothing other than — hmm, I would just say motivation and desire to continue on and keep expanding and growing.

Q. If there were not so many other good options in the passing game, I’m sure Jelani Woods might have been targeted twice as many times as he has this season. How has he evolved over the course of the year as a blocker?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Hmm, yeah, I don’t think as much as a blocker as a pass catcher just because of the nature of what we do. That doesn’t mean he’s not capable and it doesn’t mean he’s not skilled, but really he’s being asked to run routes at a much higher level than he ever has, to be conditioned at a much higher level than he ever has, to work on the position mastery of being a really good tight end downfield, and that’s really taken about everything.

If there was more volume and was more circumstances where we had him in position to block, then yeah, the growth and development would have happened there probably at an equal rate as his pass catching and his route running, he just hasn’t been trained as much because that’s really not been our identity this year.

Q. You talked briefly about how he lost some weight and had gotten fitter. How much better do you think he can get as an all-around tight end? How close is he to reaching his potential?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: He’s not close. There’s so much upside. He had full body cramps the first game. He couldn’t make it until halftime based on our pace and what we expect and how we want to use him. So he went from that to where he is now. We’re just literally — most players in our program, the second year, much like Ra’Shaun Henry, the first year you see what’s possible and the second year you see consistency and a production jump that is much different than I would say the same thing would happen with Jelani from what I’ve seen just through season one.

Q. You’ve seen a lot of offenses in your time; how complex and sophisticated is your offense on the grand scale do you think?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Wow. Yeah, very. I would say that the complexity is kind of partnered with innovation with really one root cause or one root goal, and that’s to maximize and give our players the best chance to be successful that are currently on our roster. We go really deeply into what each player can do, what they can do best, and then try to ensure that’s what they do most.

After all that, we’ve taken that, Robert Anae and Jason Beck and the rest of our coaches on offense, have done just a really nice job of, I think, what would the masterpiece be is taking the complex and making it simple. There’s some really good analogies and research done on teaching and methodologies where it’s really you take everything and if you can’t present it to where a 12-year-old would understand it quickly, then you’re not going to have success implementing it at a level where it can be executed.

So I think maybe the bigger question or maybe the more important impactful part is making the complex simple, and that’s really what I think we’ve done the best job with in presenting it to our players.

Q. Just to follow that, could you do that without a Brennan Armstrong and make it as effective?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Oh, man. I think you could, but it wouldn’t be as much fun or as easy. But that’s where sustainability comes. We started down that road, as you saw, with Bryce Perkins. Different but similar, right? That’s kind of where — I’d have to say it started with Kurt Benkert. Started there, adapted and more. This is still all the same system but just different depth and different offshoots, so this is kind of six years in the making. Even though while it might not look identical, yeah, the roots are all from the same place, and we’ve just gotten better at it and more specific but also made it simpler while more complex at the same time.

Q. Defensively we saw y’all be a lot more aggressive on Saturday. I know you talked about it being a big game and that kind of being part of the reason. With more big games coming, did you like that difference in your defense that you saw?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, there was some really good things that I saw, and I usually just go to, all right, there’s different metrics that we can all use, and Pitt was averaging I think 42.5 points a game, and it’s always an if, but if they don’t score on a kickoff return and return a punt to our 30-something, that’s 10 points, which makes a difference.

But man, their quarterback is really good. He had thrown four interceptions on the year going into the year, two against us, and we sacked him a number of times. So certainly execution things in critical moments we could improve, but we did impact the quarterback in terms of passing yards and different things. There was some metrics there that reflected some growth and improvement and also being able to dictate and control when we wanted to, and so yeah, while again, the execution can improve, I saw some things that I really liked.

Q. There were so many times when guys were there to make plays, whether it was sacks, whether it was in the defensive backfield, and it didn’t happen. How do you continue to improve, especially with veteran guys, to make those plays when those opportunities in those key moments are there?

BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, it’s a really good question. Just really work as hard as we can to put them in those positions as much as possible to where they can make the play. If you just go to the very last play with Darrius Bratton versus jersey No. 3, I had my hand up thinking it’s an interception, and I had it down within, I don’t know, microseconds of, and that was the margin and is the margin for difference of winning a coastal championship. It literally is. And now I think the next thing is you have to acknowledge how hard it’s taken and all the work to get to that point.

Yeah, we expected to win the game, and that margin was really thin. Most of the teams that have beaten us this year are top-25 programs, and that one, yeah, we were really disappointed. But if you were just to say, I think to your question, how close, yeah, we have to keep putting our players in that position to win championships and eventually those plays are made.

That difference of that play, I don’t know how thin the margin you paint that, but that’s right about where we are.

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