50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff: Beginning Believers

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Virginia won eight games last year.
Joey Blount and many of Virginia’s other juniors are in line to be big contributors this season. ~ Mike Ingalls

When Bronco Mendenhall and his coaching staff arrived ahead of the 2016 season, he inherited a Virginia football program slogging through hard times. The Cavaliers had managed just two winning records in the previous 10 years. It’s a period of time The Sabre dubbed the ‘lost decade.’

To turn it all around, Mendenhall and company needed future players to buy into the vision on the recruiting trail. Many of those beginning believers are now in key roles as upperclassmen. The “50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series continues.

33 – Beginning Believers

Things were not going well for the UVA football program for the ‘lost decade’ prior to Bronco Mendenhall’s arrival. Things were so glum that even proverbially rose-colored glasses had trouble brightening up the outlook.

Through the 10 years from 2006 to 2015, the Wahoos produced a record of 49 wins and 73 losses. That’s an average of 4.9 wins per year. In the four-year window immediately prior to Mendenhall’s arrival, the Hoos were 15-33, an even more difficult 3.75 wins per year. The program last had a postseason victory all the way back in 2005.

Mendenhall himself described talking to a dejected room of players when he first arrived. The coaches had to turn that part around to establish the foundation for the program’s culture. That work began immediately.

Beyond that, however, they had to recruit against a backdrop of the ‘lost decade’ after moving across the country and uprooting everything around them. That meant becoming familiar with new recruiting areas and identifying schools that could produce kids within the Virginia academic and athletic profile. They’d need to establish new contacts and build relationships too.

Then they had to craft a vision and create a message to describe that vision. While they inherited the majority of the 2016 recruiting class after being hired in December of 2015, the coaches needed players from 2017 to buy into it. That first group was accepting the possibilities with blind faith that the success while at BYU would translate 2,000 miles away in a totally different situation.

“Those were the true believers right there honestly,” UVA Co-Defensive Coordinator Kelly Poppinga said. “That first class in ’16 was a lot of guys that had committed to Coach London and Coach Mendenhall came in and honored their commitment. But that ’17 class was the class that really and truly believed in Coach Mendenhall and what our program is all about. Those suckers took a leap of faith.”

Fast forward to 2019. The Hoos got off to a rocky start with a 2-10 record while the coaches reset the culture and expectations. (And the 2017 class had to stay committed through that disastrous record!) They’ve since put together back-to-back bowl seasons with 14 wins in two years, which included the program’s first winning record since 2011 and first bowl victory since 2005.

Members of the 2017 class contributed to the turnaround and now they’ve risen to the upperclassmen side of the board. Many of the juniors from that first full class will be on the depth chart this season and many will be in starting roles. And not just at one position or two mind you – it’s across the board.

On offense, linemen Ryan Nelson, Tyler Fannin, Chris Glaser, and Ryan Swoboda could all be starters along with 2016 redshirt Dillon Reinkensmeyer, who has been brought along with the 2017 class. Receiver Terrell Jana is considered one of the team’s top leadership voices now and has made big strides this offseason to get into the conversation as a starter. Big back Jamari Peacock is at the top of the depth chart at his position. Running backs PK Kier and Lamont Atkins will be featured in the offensive schemes, while Kier could be the starter depending on how the preseason competition to replace Jordan Ellis goes.

On defense, defensive lineman Mandy Alonso, linebacker Charles Snowden, safety Joey Blount, linebacker Matt Gahm, linebacker Zane Zandier, and corner Darrius Bratton could all be starters. Even if they’re not, however, all are in line for increased snaps as upperclassmen. Then there are players like defensive lineman Tommy Christ, linebacker Elliott Brown, defensive lineman Isaac Buell, corner Heskin Smith, and corner Germane Crowell that are potentially pushing for starter consideration or a spot on the two deep.

On special teams, Brian Delaney is trying to win all three kicking jobs for field goals, kickoffs, and punts. He’ll hold down at least one of those roles barring a blitz from competitors across the board in the preseason. He’s been the kickoff specialist for two years and handled field goals for the second half of the season in 2018.

If you throw in some 2016 players that pledged to the program after Mendenhall’s arrival and then redshirted, you can include safety Devante Cross and running back Wayne Taulapapa as well.

In other words, that’s at least 20 possible contributors from the recruits that first signed on to revive the Virginia football program. That’s quite a list. They’ll be central figures in the Cavaliers’ quest for back-to-back bowl wins for the first time since 2004 and 2005 as well as the program’s first Coastal Division crown that would earn a spot in the ACC Championship Game.

“Those are the leaders of our defense right now and leaders of our team,” Poppinga said. “Those are the guys that have been in it from the beginning. They bought in from there. We’ll see what steps they can take for this season.”

50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff
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