After missing spring practice last season in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall said he is excited for football this spring following what he called a “successful offseason.” There are protocols still to navigate, of course, but now that he’s seen what program development looked like without a spring, he’s eager for something closer to normal this time around.
The Cavaliers open spring practice on Tuesday, March 30 and will go through May 1 on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays for the allotted 15 sessions. The start of spring practice is a little later this year than normal for UVA, which generally has wrapped up in mid-April in the past, but Mendenhall altered the schedule to allow for this offseason’s first full cycle of the strength and conditioning program. The players lost that piece late spring and summer last season as players improvised workouts while at home.
“I like a strong, fiercely competitive, and ready team to really go very hard in spring practice,” Mendenhall said. “Very physical, really competitive, and therein I think you really forge the identity and develop your culture. … If I were to trace the thread back to watching our team play and it just never felt like, and it was my fault, it never felt like they were developed like a normal team that I coached. Quite frankly without spring practice, I underestimated that value and I underestimated the summer value of training together. Those things really led to some deficiencies, just in terms of will development is what I’ll call it and grit that normally are our strength.”
The first target on the board for Mendenhall this spring is to strike a better balance between player safety within coronavirus protocols and restrictions, while also creating the more competitive and will-building offseason structure that he prefers. In working through the unknown nature of guiding the program through the pandemic last summer and fall, Mendenhall said that there was a lot of learning as things happened.
The Cavaliers were successful with safety protocols in the sense that no games were cancelled due to issues within the UVA program. Still, Mendenhall sensed during the season that a certain element that he believes strengthens the program’s foundation wasn’t the same as in most years of his head coaching career. Virginia finished 5-5 on the season and declined to participate in a bowl game.
Mendenhall shouldered the blame for that dynamic, but with more information on how to outline offseason plans and practices, he is prepared to address it in the coming weeks. There will still need to be a focus on maintaining protocols – something Mendenhall said he inadvertently learned when chairs weren’t set up before a recent meeting and players placed them really close together on their own – but that it’s a more manageable balance with a year’s worth of experience navigating the pandemic now vs. in 2020.
“My No. 1 concern as I told the players and the parents was their health and safety,” Mendenhall said. “We had almost zero COVID issues during the season because of how far and how well we designed that part of it. I spent so much time on that, that I spent not nearly as much time, which most of my time is normally on how tough can we be, how hard can we try, how physical can we be, where’s the competitive settings – man, that didn’t even manifest until about 1-4. And then it was, oh there’s another part here. So I think they’re completely tied together. My job, though, was to see them both and be able to pull both of those off and I missed – it’s hard to say it’s a miss when your team is healthy and safe and we navigated playing football in the pandemic with no games being effected by us, but I believe we could have played better in addition to that. But I was learning as we went and I could have done better.”
As Virginia re-enters spring practice, it will have some familiar faces to set the tone. That starts at quarterback as last season’s starter Brennan Armstrong returns. Armstrong tied for the FBS lead with four games of 200+ yards passing, 45+ yards rushing, 1+ passing touchdown, and 1+ rushing touchdown. The Hoos were 4-0 in those games. Armstrong finished with 2,117 passing yards (58.6% completion percentage), 18 passing touchdowns, and 11 interceptions plus 552 yards and 5 touchdowns rushing. Mendenhall said having an experienced quarterback in spring practice can determine how fast things can move for the team.
Armstrong’s not the only known commodity, though. Seniors that took advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to the pandemic include Mandy Alonso, Adeeb Atariwa, Joey Blount, Elliott Brown, De’Vante Cross, Chris Glaser, Nick Grant, and Ra’Shaun Henry. Many of those players were among the first recruits for Mendenhall when he accepted the Virginia job and the rebuilding effort that came with it.
Mendenhall said he only welcomed players back for the bonus year if they were focused on it leading to something better individually and team wise. Now, he’s watching those returning players live up to the challenge and lead the way.
“When I presented that option for those players, it was a blunt conversation,” Mendenhall said. “They weren’t to come back unless they were passionate about becoming more than they already were and helping the team become more than it already was. Otherwise, it wasn’t OK for them to come back. … And not just kind of passionate, I mean I had to be convinced that they wanted the team to be more than it was. Those players this offseason have been so impressive. … Every player that has chosen to come back under those circumstances, they are driving this team and to their credit that’s what they said they would do. The team notices and they see it.”