The Virginia football team continues to barrel toward the first kickoff of the season. The Cavaliers completed a scrimmage to end this week of practice after lightning storms moved previous attempts to the indoor facility and shifted those practices to more controlled tackling sessions. They held their first round of jersey number picks as well. The season begins against William & Mary on Saturday, Sept. 4 at 7:30 p.m. at Scott Stadium.
UVA’s preparations and in-season activity have a much bigger surrounding cast in 2021, which has been a somewhat unheralded part of the program rejuvenation project under Bronco Mendenhall. That’s the starting point for the latest “50 Thoughts Before Virginia Football Kickoff” series – “Expanded Support Staff Provides More Resources For Virginia.”
When Mendenhall accepted the Virginia job in December 2015, the program had wandered through the desert of college football for most of the previous decade. That extended into that 2016 season as Mendenhall opened with a 2-10 mark in Charlottesville. From 2006-2016, the Cavaliers produced two winning records, no bowl wins, and slowly dwindling fanfare. That’s something The Sabre labeled as “The Lost Decade” in articles. It’s a long time without sustained success.
Prior to that first season at his introductory press conference, Mendenhall hinted at something that’s quietly grown during his tenure. It’s helped build momentum. Here is a snippet from some of his comments that day in the John Paul Jones Arena:
“When I look at all the other sports and how well they do here, I don’t think it’s a valid argument to say it can’t be done in football. I enjoy challenge, and after meeting with the team it became clear it’s what the team wants. I think they are hungry for success. I think I specialize in accountability, hard work, and effort. I love players who give all their effort. I will help the players with their will. I think playing hard means going as hard as you can. That might be different than the level we’re currently at. But after seeing this team, I’m fiercely committed to improve the infrastructure of this program. A football building is imperative. A facility is a tangible form of announcing our presence and that we don’t intend to take a back seat to anybody.”
The facilities part is well understood. Virginia wanted to build a new building to house football as the McCue Center complex aged. The Master Plan addressed that issue and there are ongoing fundraising efforts to get that project done. That’s a topic for another discussion. It’s the other line in there that is pertinent for this article.
“I’m fiercely committed to improve the infrastructure of this program.”
Exactly what sort of infrastructure did he mean? That’s something that’s easily noticeable now after five-plus years and five seasons.
First, let’s rewind to 2011. That, of course, represents the lone bowl season for former coach Mike London. That fall, there were nine non-coaching positions listed in the football portion of the athletics directory. Remember, back then the Recruiting Coordinator role was handled by a full-time coach and the NCAA had yet to approve a 10th assistant coach position. There was Director of Player Development Steve Atkinson and one video role with Director of Football Video Operations Luke Goldstein. Even given potential role shuffling and placement within the directory, that’s a small support staff. Note that this doesn’t include graduate assistants, which are considered coaching positions.
Fast forward to 2015, London’s last at the helm. There were 11 non-coaching positions listed in the VirginiaSports.com directory. There is no development director, but that’s more of a listing quirk – the Director of Football Training and Player Development Ryan Tedford is listed under the strength and conditioning umbrella so that’s part of the nine listed above. For the two new spots, a second video position was added and a receptionist.
In August 2016, just prior to the start of Mendenhall’s first season, there were 14 non-coaching positions listed in the football office. Among those positions, the Director of Player Development Pat Hickman, the Director of Football Performance Frank Wintrich, and the Director of Player Personnel Justin Anderson. There was one assistant performance coach for Wintrich, two video positions, and no analysts in any capacity. There is a clear splitting of roles in the mix. A coach is not handling a recruiting coordinator role – that’s Anderson. The player development role is no longer just about strength and conditioning training, but a separate position.
In 2017, UVA hired Carla Williams as its Director of Athletics but she began her post that December. If you look at the directory prior to the start of the 2018 season, as early as the spring semester in fact, the number of non-coaching positions jumped again. The four obvious ones: Football Analyst Matt Edwards and three associate strength and conditioning coaches. Those four positions began the true infrastructure growth under Mendenhall. Williams approved those spots heading into her first semester at the top of the department. The NCAA also had added the 10th assistant coach positions by that point.
Prior to the start of the 2019 season, things grew to 27 non-coaching positions listed in the football directory of VirginiaSports.com. That’s three times as many non-coaching positions as 2011 nearly a decade earlier. That included a fourth full-time strength and conditioning assistant (now listed as development and performance). There was also a big expansion within the recruiting footprint around Anderson and long-time recruiting assistant Blanda Wolfe. Wolfe moved into a Director of High School Relations post and was joined by On-Campus Recruiting Coordinator Blaire Hodges. The days of a full-time assistant coach handling recruiting coordinator roles has now expanded to three coordinator type spots.
The Cavaliers also created a scouting department to support the recruiting efforts. This scouting department includes numerous former college players. The Wahoos also created two multimedia roles to help manage social media and recruiting materials among other things, additional operations roles, and a player relations role. Some of the positions ebb and flow as people shift into different roles. Donte Wilkins, for example, started as a regional scout and is now a graduate assistant.
What followed was two back-to-back seasons of on-field gains with eight victories and a Belk Bowl win, the program’s first postseason victory since the Music City Bowl in 2005, in 2018 and then the program’s first ACC Coastal Division Championship in 2019. Yes, Bryce Perkins accelerated the progress, but it’s hard to separate the fact that investing in greater support staff was immediately followed by improved success on the field.
With the 2021 season on the doorstep, there are additional positions in place again. There’s an additional administrative assistant to the coaches. The analytics side added assistants to Edwards. Drew Meyer, who was a graduate assistant at one point in the early Mendenhall years, is now an analyst for special teams. C.J. Stalker is in the same role for defense as another example of someone staying within the program and then moving into different jobs. Not listed in the directory currently are two other analyst type roles that have been added this offseason. Thad Wells is in a quality control type of role after working as a high school head football coach previously. Rod Smith, who held offensive coordinator jobs at Illinois and elsewhere, was reportedly hired in an analyst spot as well.
What happens next on the field? That part remains to be seen. The support staff infrastructure, however, figures to play a key role toward the goal of sustained success once again with Virginia football.