What does it take to be competitive with the No. 1 Clemson Tigers? Virginia football Co-Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Backs Coach Nick Howell expressed some thoughts.
“The extra stuff has got to be there,” Howell said. “You gotta be sound. You gotta disrupt. I think culture’s a big deal. I think mindset’s a big deal. Being prepared to play your very best game with really good mindset I think is what you gotta do.”
Earned, Not Given. The New Standard. And now, The Standard. These slogans represent the foundations established as well as the growth the Virginia football program has undergone since Bronco Mendenhall took over as head coach in December of 2015.
As UVA as established a strong culture, the program has simultaneously won more and more, increasing its victory total every year under Coach Mendenhall. The Hoos turned in a historic 2019 campaign, going 9-5 and capturing the ACC Coastal Division title. The result of established success and a strong foundation? Confident players who have a winning mindset.
UVA’s culture is “real,” Bronco Mendenhall said on his radio show on Tuesday. “And it’s real when the leader (head coach) isn’t the one promoting it.”
Indeed, Virginia’s players are leading the way. It was evident off the field this offseason in terms of following COVID-19 protocols, and it was evident on the field in last Saturday’s 38-20 season-opening victory over Duke.
“Even when we were down, they were so confident and expecting to win, knowing that they would make enough plays to win. Even though we were having some miscues along the way, there was just no other option that was going to work for them other than winning,” Mendenhall said. “That’s what they expect to do. It’s what they always expect to do in Scott Stadium. It’s more of what they expect regardless of where we go. You can just sense that the standard has risen to, ‘That’s just what we do.’ We not only play football, we play winning football, and that was just kind of matter-of-factly accepted. The leaders held that standard by the way they stood, the way they spoke, the comments. It wasn’t ever like a panic or ‘I’m wondering if,’ it was just, ‘This is totally going to happen. We don’t know how yet, but it’s totally going to happen.’”
Winning has “shifted from hope to belief, and that’s a significant step,” Mendenhall added.
The Hoos have their share of talent too, but not many can match the talent-level of Clemson, a national powerhouse program that has captured two national titles under head coach Dabo Swinney. Virginia does have established culture and a winning mindset, and for those reasons as well as the experience of playing the Tigers in the 2019 ACC Championship the Hoos could surprise and make Saturday’s contest a competitive one.
Limiting Big Plays A Focus For The Cavalier Defense Against Clemson
In Clemson’s 62-17 victory over UVA in last year’s ACC title contest, the Tigers gouged the Cavalier defense with 14 plays of 15 yards or more. Ten of those big plays, including three of over 50 yards, came in the passing game, while Clemson also had rushes of 19, 26 (touchdown), 24, and 23 yards (touchdown).
“Last year, our secondary didn’t hold up our end of what we needed to do defending their receivers and their deep routes, so they were basically doing what they wanted to do,” Virginia senior starting cornerback Nick Grant said. “I feel like we fixed a lot of that when we went up against Florida and we kind of got used to playing those caliber of people – NFL talent at receiver, NFL talent at quarterback and running backs. We’ve been working all offseason, just placing a huge emphasis on defending deep routes, and we believe that that itself can keep the points down.”
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne, two of the top players in all of college football, can win many games by themselves, Grant said. The Tigers lost several starting offensive linemen and two starting wide receivers (Tee Higgins to the NFL and Justyn Ross to injury) from last year’s team, but high-caliber players have filled in at those respective positions. Once again, Clemson is stacked with talent across the board offensively and defensively.
“They return a lot of guys,” Howell said, comparing this year’s Tiger team to the one Virginia faced last December. “Obviously, the running back and the quarterback are the same. Their O-line I feel is really good. I think I think they’re probably improved at tight end than they were a year ago. I like the guy that’s back for them. They lost those two receivers, so I think there’s youth there at receiver that’s different. I’m not saying they’re less than or greater than. I think they’re just different. They look very similar-type bodies and they’ve had some explosive plays. I think they’re very much the same, just different receivers.”
“You have to keep #9 (Etienne) in front of you and tackle him, which we didn’t do, and you have to not let [Lawrence] launch the ball down the field, which is what they want to do,” Howell said. “They’re built on explosion. We gave up a ton of explosive plays and we can’t allow that to happen, so that is the area of emphasis with us.”
Notes & Quotes: Howell Happy With JMU Transfers
– Safety D’Angelo Amos and defensive lineman Adeeb Atariwa contributed in Virginia’s win over Duke. Amos made a splash in the first half with an interception, while Atariwa provided depth on the defensive line. Coach Howell is pleased with both players in terms of talent and fit in the program.
“I thought they both did really, really well,” Howell said. “Obviously, D’Angelo had an interception. He has an edge to him that I really like, which I think we need. It’s just a little bit of toughness and nastiness that he’s showed in his body language and how he was physical and played, so I like that. Adeeb really plays hard, so I’m really pleased with him. He’s a guy that, down in and down out, while he’s been out there has played extremely hard. He’s been really coachable. Those two guys have been a great addition and we’re extremely happy to have them.”
– On the injury front, starting free safety Joey Blount has been “full-go” since Monday according to Howell. Blount, who enjoyed a strong first game of his senior season, had to be helped off the field with a leg injury in the final minutes of the win over Duke.
“He’s good,” Howell said of Blount.
Howell also commented on cornerback Darrius Bratton, who is working his way back from a torn ACL suffered in 2019 fall camp. Bratton, a redshirt junior, played against Duke.
“He’s still in progress right now. I wouldn’t say he’s up to full speed, but he’s getting close. He’s working hard,” Howell said.
– Offensive Coordinator Robert Anae was asked about Virginia’s offense being more up-tempo in 2020 as compared to previous years. He indicated the Duke game could just be the beginning in terms of faster tempo.
“Every year is new and we are working on our new identity, and this is part of our new identity and we’re just starting this, so hang on to your hats boys. Hopefully we go faster,” Anae said.
– Anae was complimentary of the effort of the Virginia offensive line, which paved the way for 188 yards rushing against Duke on Saturday.
“Coach Tujague and the veteran group we got up front, we’re really excited of the guys that are back,” Anae said. “Those guys have opted in in the COVID year. There’s a couple that have opted out, but we’re going to focus on the guys that have opted in, the work they’re doing, and the sacrifices and the team effort that that group has shown. It’s really a pleasure for me to be a part of.”
– Grant is high on the talents of wide receiver Lavel Davis Jr., but he is also excited to see the 6’7” freshman continue the culture the upperclassmen helped instill in Charlottesville.
“He’s a very talented kid,” Grant said of Davis Jr., who had four receptions for 101 yards and two touchdowns against Duke. “He works hard. He’s really humble. I always see him after taking notes. I can really see the hunger in his eyes – he really wants to be great. It’s just really inspiring to see someone in my fifth year and he’s a first year just really taking up on where we left off with people like Joe Reed, Hasise Dubois – someone like him come in and try to fill those shoes because he knows that’s big shoes to fill, and he’s stepping right in and taking the challenge head on.”
Recruiting: Commitment Coming?
Brentwood Academy (Brentwood, TN) senior offensive line prospect Noah Josey plans to make a “big” announcement at 7 p.m. Thursday (October 1).
Big Announcement tomorrow @7
— Noah Josey (@NoahJosey) September 30, 2020
Though the 6’5”, 300-pound prospect did not say specifically that he is committing, a hint that a decision may be coming is that three 247Sports experts made Crystal Ball picks on Tuesday. All were in favor of the Hoos.
Josey, who attends Brentwood Academy in Brentwood, Tennessee, claims numerous Power 5 offers, including Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Vanderbilt, Virginia and Virginia Tech. The Under Armour All-American is rated as a 4-star prospect by Rivals.com and a 3-star recruit by 247Sports and ESPN.