99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff

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Bronco Mendenhall enters his third season at Virginia.
Bronco Mendenhall enters his third season at Virginia. ~ Kris Wright

One of the big stories from Memorial Day weekend turned out to be the performance of ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ at the box office. Analysts projected the movie would bring in an estimated $130 million over the four-day weekend, but it ended up at approximately $103 million instead. The show biz world, of course, is in full discussion mode about this development.

Director Ron Howard shook it off with a Tweet noting that it was a personal best debut for him even though it missed projections, surpassing 2006 hit The Da Vinci Code. And, of note, the Solo film did rank as the highest box office debut on Memorial Day weekend in the past four years. Any other discussion – from Star Wars fatigue to anything else, can land on TheSabre.com’s Corner message board.

So why bring all this up on a site that covers Virginia sports? Han Solo is still a fun character and there’s this “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series we’ve got going. So I thought I’d put the two together for this entry. To read the other articles, just click:

No. 99 – The importance of a fast start
No. 98 – The impact of early-ending careers
No. 97 – Jordan Mack’s role
No. 96 – Welcome Back

Now on to the Han Solo inspired entry.

No. 94 – Solo Says

As kickoff for Virginia football moves closer to the summer months, I thought it would be fun to rattle off some quick themes for the program right now. What better way to do that in this daily entry format than with some Han Solo quotes.

“I think my eyes are getting better. Instead of a big dark blur, I see a big bright blur.” ~ Return of The Jedi

When Bronco Mendenhall arrived in Charlottesville ahead of the 2016 season, he inherited a program on the heels of four straight losing seasons and just two bowl appearances since 2006. The roster had some significant numbers issues at critical positions like offensive line and quarterback. The fan base had grown tired of not only losing, but of program management issues from staff turnover under Mike London, to the game day experience, and beyond.

Mendenhall promptly went 2-10 in his first season, losing the final seven games on the schedule. That included a 52-10 eyesore in Blacksburg with a rotating quarterbacks story best not retold. The future for the football program in that moment was equal to a big dark blur.

Fast forward one year. The Cavaliers returned to bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011. They won at home and on the road. They ended an eternal turnover streak. Two Hoos reappeared as NFL Draft picks. UVA hired a new director of athletics from a Power 5 ‘football school’ with Carla Williams from Georgia. Some roster number issues have improved, though some concerns remain at some spots. All in all, though, the blurry future looks a little more bright entering 2018 than it did just 12 months ago.

“Great kid, don’t get cocky.” ~ Star Wars

Yes, Virginia made it to a bowl game last season. The campaign still finished in an all too familiar tailspin, though. The Hoos lost six of their last seven games, including the season’s final four games. That unfortunately extended a pattern against Virginia Tech and the bowl game turned into a debacle. Navy cruised 49-7 in frigid temperatures.

In other words, it’s great that the players bought in and got the ship pointed in the right direction with strong senior leadership from Quin Blanding, Micah Kiser, and Kurt Benkert in particular. Still, UVA fans have seen this momentary blip before in 2007 and 2011. The Cavaliers couldn’t follow those seasons up with another run to the postseason. Sometimes, that was because key seniors departed. Sometimes, that was because the starting quarterback wasn’t back.

Both of those apply to this situation for 2018. UVA must replace the senior trio that occupied the important positions of safety, middle linebacker, and quarterback. All three were highly productive in addition to leadership roles. The Cavaliers must fill that void and younger players must continue to cycle in ready to contribute until the rebuild grows deeper roots. If that leads to a bowl season again, great. But even if it doesn’t, it’s important that development and sustained culture move forward another step.

“Never tell me the odds!” ~ The Empire Strikes Back

Mendenhall is an avid numbers cruncher. This recent story on analytics from the Virginia Engineering school is just one example of that. One thing he has little interest in, however, is outside predictions for his program.

That’s a good thing because the early returns don’t expect UVA to return to the postseason. Athlon projects the Hoos as the last-place finisher in the Coastal Division for 2018. 247 Sports placed Virginia’s over/under at five wins. College Football News put the Cavaliers 14th out of 14 league teams before spring practice. You get the picture.

“[Hokie – (sic?)] religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” ~ A New Hope

The No. 1 goal outside of making a bowl game is, of course, ending the dreadful streak of 14 straight losses to the Hokies.

One thing that seems to give Virginia Tech trouble over the years is a dual threat quarterback that’s accurate enough in the passing game, but fast enough to make yardage against the speed of the Hokies. Enter transfer Bryce Perkins. Perkins joined UVA from Arizona Western where he led his team to the 2017 NJCAA Championship game.

All reports out of Virginia practices this spring indicated that Mendenhall had his preferred dual threat quarterback in Perkins. That opens the door for more run-pass option plays, more spread concepts, and so on. If Perkins can deliver the goods in the running game and passing game, that could be a huge step toward getting past the Hokies finally.

“I’m not really interested in your opinion, 3PO.” ~ The Empire Strikes Back

For the Hokie lurkers reading that last segment and wanting to blather on about the streak. Go away.

“What good is a reward if you ain’t around to use it? Besides, attacking that battle station is not my idea of courage. It’s more like, suicide.” ~ A New Hope

I’ve heard Coach Mendenhall mention the work needed to rebuild the Virginia football team many times, but he’s also said before that he isn’t 100 percent guaranteed to see the fruits of the labor. Patience with coaches making millions isn’t long lasting when it comes to turnaround efforts and that’s something he’s keenly aware of.

Still, it’s quite clear that Mendenhall has a specific plan for rebuilding the UVA football program. It’s methodical. It’s analytical. It’s a little bit quirky with things like earning jersey numbers year after year. Regardless of how you describe it, however, it is a very clear plan. You can see it with offensive line development, recruiting outreach and roster numbers, and graduate tranfers.

I don’t know if Mendenhall truly knew what kind of effort was needed to re-establish the program when he arrived as the Cavaliers’coach. Attacking that battle station so to speak was a tall challenge. As the rebuild enters year three and Mendenhall’s recruits begin to mature through the system, it will be interesting to see if it works out well for Mendenhall and the Hoos.

“Are you sure you’re up for this?” ~ The Force Awakens

As that rebuild effort enters year three, Mendenhall has a new boss in Carla Williams. She took over as director of athletics after leaving a deputy AD post at Georgia. The Bulldogs played for the National Championship last season shortly after Williams began her tenure here at UVA. Part of her duties at Georgia included overseeing the football program.

At Virginia, she quickly raised the bar for the football program and its needs. In a media interview session recently, she clearly stated that UVA is behind the curve with the support structure for football. That includes everything from staffing to facilities to game day attendance and more. Williams addressed those things head on, hiring additional strength and conditioning staff ahead of winter workouts, announced plans to remove University Hall (which will push the plans for a new football operations center forward), and pushed for some more affordable game day ticket packages.

That’s just the beginning, something she outlined in detail with the media. She’s delivered similar messages to donors and football alumni as well. Like Mendenhall, it sounds like Williams has clear plan to revive the football program at Virginia. She understands how important that is to the overall health of the whole department.

In other words, Williams is definitely up for this.

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3 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Nice tie in, Kris – LOL. Will be interested in further actions by Carla to improve things – she seems to get it, though.

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