When Micah Kiser and Andrew Brown became picks in the NFL Draft last week, Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall wasn’t surprised. Both players had received positive feedback in the lead-up to the draft and both landed with teams that had monitored them throughout the process.
Mendenhall just wants his players, drafted and undrafted free agents alike, to get the best opportunity to make it in professional football.
“Neither surprises me,” Mendenhall said. “I had talked to the General Manager of the Rams on opening day and I knew they liked him. Specifically, Andrew did really well on Pro Day and even worked out by the Bengals D-Line coach. … I just hope they have a need and it’s a great place for them to get an opportunity. That matters probably more than where they’re picked.”
The selections of Kiser and Brown, both in the fifth round, ended a one-year hiatus for UVA in the NFL Draft. The Hoos had at least one player selected for 34 consecutive years before that streak ended last year. Each player said they feel like they landed in a good spot.
Kiser is headed to the Los Angeles Rams (147th overall pick) where defensive coordinator Wade Phillips uses a 3-4 scheme. The Cavaliers, of course, migrated to that style under Mendenhall. Kiser has been productive over the past three years, leading the ACC in tackles each season. That included 145 stops last season, which ranked fourth nationally.
“Yeah, he’s always had great defenses,” Kiser said. “What he was able to do, not only here with the Rams, but also, I remember watching him with the Broncos as well. Great defense, great players and I’m just ready to be a part of it.”
Virginia named Kiser its top male athlete at the Hoos Choice Awards on Wednesday, which added to his trophy case. He received the Campbell Trophy known as the Academic Heisman and ended up as first-team All-ACC and a first-team All-American (Sporting News). Like Mendenhall, Kiser realized the Rams liked his potential fit with the club during the draft preparation process.
“I had met with Coach [Chris] Shula, the assistant linebackers coach at the combine and so I got to meet him a little bit,” Kiser said. “Then from the combine, I went out there on a visit and met with [Assistant Head Coach /Linebackers] Coach [Joe] Barry and [Defensive Coordinator] Coach [Wade] Phillips and talked film, talked football. It went pretty well, so I’m glad they thought enough of me to take me and I’m just ready to get to work.”
Brown, meanwhile, was selected by the Cincinnati Bengals (158th overall pick) where new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin reportedly wants to use players’ strengths within the defense. Many analysts peg Brown’s best spot as a 3-technique tackle and Brown himself sees his combination of strength and quickness as his best attributes. Playing tackle could let him put that on display. He wants to pattern himself after another pro that’s had a lot of success in that role.
“I have always modeled myself after [Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle] Aaron Donald,” Brown said. “Just watching him play with his tenacity and aggressiveness on every snap, I just wanted to be like him.”
During his senior year at Virginia, Brown posted 46 tackles with 10.5 tackles for loss. That followed up on the 2016 season where he led the team with 13 tackles for loss, including six quarterback sacks. While those numbers spiked during his final two seasons with new coaches in town, Brown improved his draft chances after his Cavalier career ended.
Brown thought his time at the Senior Bowl helped his draft spot in addition to the pro day showing mentioned by Mendenhall.
“My whole mindset going into that week was to show everybody that the five-star Andrew Brown didn’t go anywhere; I have always been here,” Brown said.
While those former players moved on toward potential pro careers, the Cavaliers finished up spring practices at Scott Stadium. The final session ended with an 11-on-11 scrimmage under modified scoring rules. Either the offense or defense earned points on every snap. On first down, for example, if the offense got more than four yards, they got the point – if not, the defense claimed it. Different metrics applied to each down with touchdowns and turnovers providing the most points.
In the end, the offense claimed a close 75-63 win. Mendenhall indicated that the close score was a good representation of the entire spring. Prior to Saturday’s action, he said that only six points separated the two units over 900 plays.
That last number may have been more important than the score itself, though. By the end of spring practices, the team had piled up close to 1,000 plays in 11-on-11 scrimmage type situations. That’s been Mendenhall’s mantra the past two springs and throughout last season – the team needs more football reps in his estimation. The Cavalier coach said the staff continues to blend that approach with a heavy focus on fundamentals at the same time.
“Besides playing a lot of football, there has been … tons of fundamental work,” Mendenhall said. “That’s exactly what the team needs. We need fundamentals, fundamentals, and fundamentals. We’re still relatively youthful, relatively young, our strength and size is being built. I’m not convinced yet that we’re blocking and tackling at the level we need to so that has to happen at the same time as the competitive work and we’ll be balancing that through fall camp as well. And then trying to stay healthy because we’re still thinner than what I would like.”
With new quarterback Bryce Perkins now named the starter and the team growing depth on offense, some UVA fans may wonder if that will lead to more consistent offensive production. The Cavaliers finished the season without scoring a point on offense in the final two games, both losses.
There will not be a trend toward fewer player-specific packages as they try to build that consistency, though. Offensive coordinator Robert Anae said Saturday that part of UVA’s plan on offense involves shuffling players through varying schemes and roles.
“That’s our brand and you guys can write this down,” Anae said. “That is our brand on offense, multiple personnel groups and I take pride [in that]. I think we may be the top in the country in unique personnel groups – we’ve got 13. We tend to use them. Multiple shifts, multiple formations, guys all over the place. That is our brand. There should be somewhat of a chaotic effect and that’s the design element.”