When the ACC media picked the Virginia football team as its Coastal Division favorite last month, it marked new territory for the program. The Cavaliers, after all, had never been picked to finish at the top since the league went to divisions in 2005.
While outside expectations obviously shifted with that news, the Hoos mostly have downplayed the media voting. They expect to carry the same mindset into practice, which began Friday night at Lambeth field. UVA kicks off the season on August 31 at Pittsburgh for a 7:30 p.m. game.
“That’s something we expect of ourselves,” linebacker Zane Zandier said. “Now the media throwing that out there doesn’t really affect us that much because we haven’t earned anything yet. It doesn’t really change our mindset about anything.”
“Those expectations kind of come from the media with all that Coastal stuff. We haven’t earned that yet,” senior defensive lineman Eli Hanback said. “Expectations from ourselves, we’re holding ourselves to a higher standard here. Each year with Coach Mendenhall, we’ve improved and gotten better so we expect to be better than last year this year.”
Indeed, the Wahoos took steps forward both in quality of play and the quantity of wins over the past three years. After struggling with consistency, penalties, and the like in year one en route to two wins, the Cavaliers turned things around to 6-6 in the regular season in year two with more consistent outings week to week. They lost that year’s bowl game, but followed it with a 7-5 regular season record and the program’s first bowl victory since 2005 in year three.
So from 2-10 to 6-7 to 8-5, there’s been steady progress. The return of starting quarterback Bryce Perkins, projected early round NFL Draft pick Bryce Hall, special teams star and receiver Joe Reed, growing standout Charles Snowden, and many others led the media to peg Virginia as this year’s Coastal Division favorite.
The Hoos already played in a de facto division title game last year with Pittsburgh, which the Panthers won, but they have more key players back and no coaching turnover unlike Pitt this season. Miami was the media’s second place choice and will be a challenger, particularly with that game on the road. The ongoing streak with Virginia Tech remains an obstacle as well.
All of that is why preseason picks are not much more than chatter to Virginia regardless of how you slice it up. The players insist just because the media made you the favorite doesn’t automatically change you from the hunter to the hunted. UVA has never won the division after all and Clemson remains the run-away favorite to win the Atlantic Division and ACC Championship Game.
The Hoos plan to open practice the same way and to play games the same way as these last three years when they were trying to prove themselves to themselves and outside observers.
“We still want to be the hunter,” defensive lineman Mandy Alonso said. “We’re not predicted to win the National Championship or anything so there’s always going to be another goal in mind.”
Mendenhall addressed the raised exterior expectations with the team before the start of practice Friday. While he said he appreciates the work it took to get to the point of being considered and to be relevant, anything beyond that in the preseason are things that are given and not earned.
“It was the first thing I addressed with our team today,” Mendenhall said. “Anything that we can’t control, we call interference. So I addressed eliminating any interference. … All that does is set the stage for the season and then our play has to take over. We’re treating any expectations in terms of projections as basically interference that gets in the way of what we’re really trying to do.”
Picking Up Where Things Left Off
Speaking with reporters after practice, Coach Mendenhall answered questions about ongoing storylines, including the competition at running back (hopes one player emerges, but won’t rule out committee approach), the kicking situation (Brian Delaney was the leader in all three spots after spring practice, but he hopes the answers become clearer if that’s needed by the end of training camp), the play of both the offensive line and defensive line, and more. He emphasized that there is still much work to do, but he was encouraged with how things looked for the first day.
“The first day of practice was lots of volume for today, but we’ve taken the approach that we expect our players and our schemes to begin right where we left off at the end of spring,” Mendenhall said. “We don’t have the luxury, nor do we intend to go backwards. Our first years will catch up the best they can, but this is accelerating the program as fast as we can from the reference points that are already existing. So we asked a lot of them today. I was encouraged by the retention. We’re certainly not as sharp as we will be in a few days, but the retention and the ability to pick up right with insertion and play football and special teams, I was encouraged . Our team is confident. The attitude is really positive.”
Leading The Way
It wasn’t that long ago that Charles Snowden walked into Virginia football practice as a youngster trying to earn his way to the field. Now a junior, the outside linebacker is no longer just a skinny kid make athletic plays. He’s toned up and added strength, learned how to play the scheme, and grown into one of the leaders of the defense. Snowden started all 13 games last season and led the nation’s linebackers with 11 passes defended.
Being an upperclassmen and one of the standout performers on the team brings added responsibility. Snowden said that part is very different from being a wide-eyed freshman. He believes that part is extremely important to keeping the ‘new standard’ culture intact and growing so that means no days off when it comes to disciplined eating, ice tubs, class work, and more in addition to the attitude and effort you bring in practice.
“One thing I’ll say is that as a younger guy, you can kind of take days off – I’m tired, I’m this or that,” Snowden said. “As an older guy, as a leader, as somebody people kind of look to, you have to bring it every day whether you want to, whether you don’t, whether your head’s hurting, or whatever – you have to bring that every day because if you don’t, then there’s no way the young guys will because they don’t know the standard. So being consistent day in and day out as an older guy is probably the biggest adjustment.”
Mendenhall noticed Snowden among players that took on a big leadership role in the first practice. He said that the leaders were much more clear than at the beginning of the summer. He mentioned Joe Reed, Terrell Jana, Snowden, Jordan Mack, Bryce Hall, and Bryce Perkins as players that stood out in practice with their leadership.
For Perkins, leadership is an area that is critical along with his play to the team’s hopes for success this season, Mendenhall said. Mendenhall said that after leading by example last season as a new player in the program, that the quarterback will have to increase his leadership role this season.
“There’s going to have to be for our team to advance and have a stronger result than we did a year ago,” Mendenhall said. “His leadership will have to advance as well. The expectations coming from him to our team will have to be more assertive and more aggressive and more straight forward than it was a year ago. He did that with his play and his ability and became a de facto captain. Now it’s what he does with that in terms of aggressive leadership. That’s the next step for him.”
Stopping The Run
The Wahoos made steady progress last season in many areas, most notably the win column by reaching eight wins. One key to getting there proved to be a steady and strong defense that caused opponents headaches. The defense allowed 21 points or fewer seven times last season with a 6-1 record in those games.
The offseason build-up to create that defensive success focused heavily on stopping the run, which had been a big problem in 2017. That year, the Cavaliers ranked 102nd nationally out of 130 FBS teams by allowing 199.31 rushing yards per game. That also checked in at 85th nationally (tie) for yards per carry at 4.65. Last fall, the defense improved to 47th in rushing defense (147.54 yards per game) and 70th in yards per carry allowed (4.34).
That means the Cavaliers are just inside the top 50 nationally overall and in the bottom half of the FBS ranks for yards per carry. In other words, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. The goal is to get that number down to 3.5 yards per carry, a number that the coaching staff’s research suggests will lead to winning 85% of the games you do that in (which translates to 10 wins in a season).
“Definitely, that’s been our M.O., our mantra all through spring ball,” Hanback said. “Even last night before practicing today, it’s been all about one of our main goals is to stop the run and improving on that. So that’s definitely something we’ve continued to focus on.”
To help reduce those numbers further, part of the focus for the defense is on creating more plays for lost yards and stopping big gains. That means more tackles for loss and sacks, but fewer plays where someone breaks through the front seven and forces players downfield to make the final tackle. UVA ranked 69th (tie) in sacks with 26 and
106th (tie) in tackles for loss with 62.
In other words, while the Hoos figured out how to slow teams down and to keep them from putting up huge scoring numbers much of the time, but they didn’t disrupt opponents or knock them off schedule very often. If they can do that, it will help reduce the rushing numbers by default because it will put some negative rushing yards on the board for opponents, while also forcing them into unfavorable down-and-distance situations that usually lead to passing.
“Stopping the run is definitely always an emphasis for our defense,” Alonso said. “Their main thing is creating havoc and having big plays so tackles for loss, sacks, and not letting big yards go so just more aggression basically.”