As football season in the ACC inches closer on the calendar, Virginia and Virginia Tech continue to prepare for their expected opener against one another on Saturday, Sept. 19. Getting to the starting line during the ongoing pandemic, however, remains a consuming task for coaches, administrators, and other decision makers.
In the case of UVA and VT, that includes how to continue to keep the student-athletes as safe as possible while they migrate back into the student part of their lives. Both institutions have started to welcome the general student body back to school in recent weeks and Virginia is scheduled to begin in-person classes next week on Tuesday, Sept. 8. COVID-19 tracking data is being provided by UVA and Tech, which shows an uptick in positive tests at both schools.
Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente told reporters Wednesday that his team is dealing with some positive tests within the program specifically. VT’s original opening opponent, NC State, already paused workouts for a short time and that game was postponed late last month.
As of Thursday, Virginia has not seen any new positive cases in its program since July when players first reported back to Grounds. The program mitigated some concerns by having the players housed in one location together and having meals delivered on location throughout the preseason practice period, but that so-called bubble is no longer in play.
“Our numbers are absolutely exceptional at this point,” Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “We consider basically what I call Chapter 1 when our whole team was in the same dorm, when we had our meals coming from a tent and taken back to your room to eat – really there weren’t any positive cases tied to players return to Charlottesville all the way til today. There’s nothing, which is extraordinary. Students started coming back, we started seeing them trickling in about three weeks ago, most of them living off Grounds. That hasn’t changed our numbers yet either. Now the on-Grounds students are returning and what the national landscape is showing is that’s causing significant spikes everywhere. We’re viewing that as Chapter 2. If Chapter 1 you were in a fortress – the word is bubble, but we’re no longer in the fortress, we’re outside of that. So the intermingling which happens in class, which happens in dining halls, it happens just in daily interaction, that’s at a much higher level now in terms of possibilities of exposure. Which means then it is the absolute test, much like going from practice to a game, you see if there’s any slippage from your habits at practice to performing in a game, we’ll see how much our habits hold. Now that it’s for real and we’re outside the fortress or outside the bubble, those habits are where our security is. So the masking is essential. They’ve heard that, I don’t know, maybe 5 million times already, social distancing, same 5 millionish – I’m making up numbers right now – and washing their hands. When I start that speech, I can see them kind of get glazed over because it’s been so many times but I’m going to do it anyway.”
In some ways, starting with Virginia Tech and Clemson might be “really helpful” Mendenhall said in getting those habits to hold. Quarterback Brennan Armstrong mentioned in an ACC Network TV interview that the Hoos haven’t won in Blacksburg in 22 years so that’s enough to get the players’ attention. The Cavaliers broke a 15-year losing streak against the Hokies last November and the “Beat Tech” focus remains in place within the program. Clemson also hammered Virginia, 62-17, in the ACC title game.
As the schedule currently sits, the Wahoos would face Virginia Tech and Clemson consecutively with an open date in between. In other words, the same two teams that finished off last season’s conference games are at the front end in 2020. If the end of the 2019 season still feels fresh in the coaches’ minds, there’s a reason for that. Due to the way the offseason unfolded during the pandemic, UVA’s staff basically has been working with the student-athletes and their families continuously throughout 2020.
Mendenhall said that can be mentally challenging and he’s made sure to focus on balancing it all as the leader of the program.
“There wasn’t any vacation this year. That’s normally, the coaches get some time off in July. This has been straight through since the Orange Bowl til now,” Mendenhall said. “The uncertainty and what normal plans look like is out the window. So it’s a constant state of readiness. You have to adapt every single day so the energy expenditure, not necessarily just the physical part but the mental part. Yeah, it feels different and we haven’t even started the season yet. I think that probably resonates with the players and coaches. I’ve just been working really hard on renewal whenever possible. So it stays dark a little bit later. I was out roping and got 15 steers in with my son Raeder last night before he goes off to compete. That hour buys me maybe a day’s worth of solace and then I’ve got to saddle up again. So I’m trying to find any way possible just to have renewal as part of my day. I’m sure others are doing the same thing whatever it is that allows them to recharge. Without that, I don’t know how you sustain and keep going to be at your best self for your team.”
Being prepared for kickoff in 2020 has taken on a different look in terms of logistics too. The Cavaliers didn’t have spring practice and replaced that with video meetings for several months instead. They then returned to Charlottesville in July for what essentially amounts to a two-month build-up to rivalry week. UVA will start specific Virginia Tech preparations toward the middle of next week according to Mendenhall.
In the meantime, the offseason changes have led to different management decisions in terms of strength and conditioning. Virginia has added more acclimation time than required by the NCAA, which provides guidelines on the number of practices in full gear and things of that nature.
“We’re calling it work capacity. I have noticed a difference. It took a long time to get to where I thought baseline would be for a normal return to fall camp,” Mendenhall said. “That was about with three weeks from game day to where it started to look relatively normal for like a normal reporting day. I’ve chosen not to add additional conditioning, but I have chosen to do more acclimation and situational work of actually just playing the game, probably more than we ever have. There’s risk with that because rosters have the potential to be thin anyway, but I think that’s the best way to replicate what we’re going to be doing is to be doing it. So we’re trying to mitigate that risk as much as possible. Luckily, our grass fields are magical. It’s the healthiest we’ve ever been on any team I’ve coached. The grass already has paid huge dividends in terms of keeping our roster healthy.”
Smiley Rejoins Program
Virginia’s potential roster for opening day received a welcome addition when defensive end Ben Smiley III decided to rejoin the program. Smiley did not return in July with the other players, but has since come back into the fold. The redshirt freshman that saw action in two games last season provides immediate depth for a position group that could be a little thin.
“Ben Smiley is back and has some initial quarantine work to do,” Mendenhall said. We’re thrilled and so happy about that.”
Smiley’s return helps offset the loss of junior defensive lineman Aaron Faumui, who is opting out this season Mendenhall confirmed Thursday. Faumui played in all 14 games last season with five starts (nine total starts in his career) and notched 4 sacks on the season. Mendenhall said that four players currently have decided to opt out: Faumui, sophomore defensive back Tenyeh Dixon, sophomore running back Mike Hollins, and redshirt freshman receiver Dorien Goddard. Mendenhall said the coaches “don’t expect” those four to return at this point but that they “expect everyone else to stay and play.”
Mendenhall also updated the injury status of several other players. As first mentioned by Nick Grant earlier, defensive back Antonio Clary returned to practice this week after an ACL injury last fall. Mendenhall is hopeful that senior linebacker Rob Snyder and redshirt freshman receiver Nathaniel Beal III will return this upcoming week. Junior offensive tackle Bobby Haskins, who started 13 games last season, is still working his way back as well and Mendenhall hopes to have him back the week after next.
Walker’s Waiver In Limbo
While Mendenhall is hopeful those players will be available as the season gets underway, the Cavaliers continue to pursue an eligibility waiver for running back Ronnie Walker Jr. The junior transfer from Indiana announced his decision to join the UVA program in the spring, in part to move closer to home in Hopewell, Virginia.
The NCAA denied the request for a transfer waiver and denied an initial appeal as well. The Hoos have up to 30 days to continue to make a case and that’s what’s happening currently.
“To educate everyone on the process, you send in the waiver and then based on that outcome you have a chance to appeal, the appeal can be approved or denied, and then there’s 30 days after that that you still keep working,” Mendenhall said. “So we’re still in the process and we will be for 30 days so I won’t be able to give you a final answer until the end of that. We’re going work hard all the way to the very end and exhaust every chance in that process.”
The Cavaliers currently have just two scholarship running backs available. Wayne Taulapapa, last year’s team leader in rushing touchdowns with 12, is the recognizable name in the group, while Towson graduate transfer Shane Simpson provides much-needed depth. Simpson was a first-team FCS All-American in 2018, but missed most of 2019 with an injury. Walkon Perris Jones, a sophomore, has worked his way into the conversation as well. He picked No. 10 in the first round of the team’s annual jersey draft and has been a scout team contributor previously for the program.
“We all know about Wayne,” Mendenhall said. “Probably not much has been said about Shane Simpson yet, our transfer. I really like him also. Excellent vision and a lot of experience, not only as a running back but a returner. But Perris has kind of been the Ira Armstead at running back. He’s been a victory team player, which is a scout team player, and our defensive players have tons of respect for him because he’s strong and fast and tough and just durable. Now that he’s getting live work against our defense, he’s producing very similarly as anyone else at that position. So he’s really been a bright spot and I’m so encouraged by what I’ve seen from him. He’s made himself a viable option. I’m really proud of him.”
Teammates have been excited about the return of Darrius Bratton, a cornerback that missed last season with an ACL injury. Mendenhall said he likes what he’s seen so far from Bratton:
“Darrius has been back and he’s doing a really, really nice job. I would say he’s just short of 100 percent, but with over two weeks remaining before game day, I really like what I see from him. It’s really gratifying to see him out playing football. I would say just shy of 100 percent as of today, but with two and a little less than a half weeks, I feel really good about where he will be.”
Two more quick things from Coach Mendenhall that tie in to previous news:
- When asked about how cross training for different positions looks, Mendenhall said that it breaks down similar to conditioning with bigs (linemen), big skill (linebackers, tight ends, fullbacks), and skill (receivers, defensive backs, running backs, what type of quarterback could fit in either skill group) in groups. Within those categories, you could have someone training on either side of the ball for extra positions, he said. “We have a pretty limited group that are doing that, but one more player at each of those position groups makes a difference,” Mendenhall said.
- Mendenhall confirmed that UVA is seeking a replacement for VMI as a non-conference opponent because “it’s been made pretty clear to me that the ACC would like us to have a plus one” so there are options being pursued. He reiterated that he would prefer that his team play only 10 conference games because “10 is safer than 11.”