Players Take Ownership, Leadership Reins To Spark Virginia’s Fast Start

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Virginia's "new standard" message is part of player-driven leadership this season.
Micah Kiser and the Hoos have climbed to 4-1 to start the season. ~ Mike Ingalls

When Bronco Mendenhall arrived at Virginia, the message he brought to the players was clear. Hard work and details would be at the center of everything they did as a Cavalier.

The months that followed put that message on display. From seemingly unending will drills in practice to how to line up before taking the field, Mendenhall made sure to send that message again and again and again. The players that stayed by and large bought in fairly quickly, desperate for anything that could produce wins.

Or, perhaps, bought in is the wrong phrase. To buy would mean to own. So while the players accepted and embraced the new philosophy in town, it may be best described like a tuxedo rental. The players liked the fit and feel, but owning it themselves required a greater investment over time.

That process appears to be taking root as Virginia approaches the midway point of its 2017 season with a 4-1 record.

“That message has been pretty consistent, and the expectations have been pretty consistent from day one of our staff’s arrival,” Mendenhall said. “It wasn’t branded. It wasn’t named. It’s just everything we think how you do one thing is how you do everything, and eventually that shows. So maybe it just took enough volume of times hearing it or living it before it became theirs. I think that involvement equals ownership, and there’s no great team that can be coach driven and be sustainable. So it’s great to have upperclassmen or older players recognize that, and now it’s coming from them, not me, which is – that’s a lot more powerful.”

UVA basketball coach Tony Bennett delivered a similar message in recent years. He basically said that coach-led teams can be good, but player-led teams can be better. That appears to be playing out with the football team this season. The team has more ownership of the process and the results than a year ago according to senior quarterback Kurt Benkert.

“Absolutely,” Benkert said. “The coaches tell us what to do and where to be, but it’s on us. It’s on us to take it to that next level and put the extra time in and we’ve been doing it. … People stepping up, more ownership, more leadership – everything is just happening.”

The players have adopted a “new standard” as their rallying cry, something that Mendenhall said was developed entirely by the players. Way back in January, linebacker Micah Kiser, returning for his senior season instead of pursuing the NFL, began to break down huddles with a simple “standard” refrain, a reference to the expectations of the coaches for a certain level of quality in the team’s work.

In the summer, the coaches asked linebacker Chris Peace to share some thoughts with the team one afternoon. He stayed on the same theme, but attached “new” to “standard” as a nod to how things were changing within the Virginia football program. The simple phrase captured what goals the team had: to embrace the hard work and detail demands, but to turn that into wins.

”With the coaches, the amount of work we put in – sled pushes is one thing that always comes to mind; we used to sled push after every single practice on defense no matter whether it was a good day of practice or a bad day,” Peace said. ”The bye week, for example, it was hard work every day still. These coaches make sure we’re always on our toes and working harder and harder every day. As far as the team, a lot of these guys we’ve been together for years now so we know how it feels to be on the down side of the year and losing and losing. After a while, that definitely gets old and that’s just something we definitely want to leave all in the rear view.”

That the genesis of this mantra traces back to Kiser cannot be surprising. While clearly not the only leader on this team, he certainly has emerged as a galvanizing force on this team.

When the August events thrust Charlottesville into the national headlines, Kiser started the conversation among the team that led to a locked arms photo on the Rotunda steps to reclaim the space. When bowl questions started to pop up after this season’s 4-1 start, he quickly reminded reporters that he already had been on a Virginia team that started 4-2 and missed bowl eligibility. When things potentially start to drift, he reminds the team of the hard work put in and the new standard expected.

If UVA fans are getting a little bit of a Chris Long circa 2007 vibe here, that’s not too surprising either. That team pulled tough, hard-fought games into the win column again and again with Long’s presence being a key catalyst. He made so many big plays that season that played a role in the team’s Gator Bowl bid.

A similar storyline has unfolded early this season with Kiser’s presence being a key factor in the team’s play and production. Not to mention, he too has come up with big plays in big moments like recovering a fumble near the goal line and stopping a drive with a sack on fourth down against Connecticut earlier this season.

”Definitely a big influence,” Peace said. ”I’m glad he came back for his senior year. There’s more things I’ve learned from him in just this last year. There’s so many things he’s taught me, from breaking down film, off the field things, how to believe in yourself and confidence, how to attack every single day.”

The message translating from the coaches to the players goes beyond Kiser, though. Fellow senior Quin Blanding has been more vocal than before as well after choosing to return for his senior season instead of pursuing NFL dreams. The “new standard” line has popped up in countless interviews over the past three weeks following the big win at Boise State. Players have made it a thing on social media too.

Behind closed doors, the players say they are holding each other accountable at practices and meetings too. On the sidelines, you can see the players carrying it out on game day.

The results have followed. This team doesn’t want to wait for the long-term process to take full root so they’re leading a fall harvest right here and now.

“I think people have stepped up and realized we can win now,” Benkert said. “It doesn’t have to be a developing thing that takes Coach Mendenhall years to win here. We have the guys to do it now and I think that’s sparked people, once they ralized that, to step up and lead.”

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