Bronco Mendenhall, Dabo Swinney talk ACC Championship Game
UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall
Q. As a connoisseur of defense, I don’t know how much of Clemson you have studied, but a team that hasn’t allowed anyone to get as much as 300 yards this season, what are your impressions of this particular group?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Not only this particular group, but past groups as well. I think first of all the leadership from the coordinator is strong. I think the scheme, strategy, initiatives that are launched each week, which are never quite the same, I think are really well thought out.
The talent base at every position has been crafted at a really strong level that matches the style, system and schematics of the design. You have a really nice blend of leadership with scheme and personnel and experience. That then forms culture and tradition.
This group I think is the next version and probably the strongest version that I’ve seen. I have studied Clemson before defensively and have been impressed with not only the scheme but the innovation and the ideas they have.
Q. Specifically looking at your secondary, the resilience of that group, to lose Bryce, everything that group has gone through, how surprised are you or pleased are you that you’ve been able to patch that thing together and get to where you’ve gotten?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I really am impressed and thankful for the job Nick Howell has done as our coordinator and secondary coach. It has been patched. It’s been resorted and rethought with as much innovation as we can apply to get us in a different style of play to where we are.
That’s what good coaches do. It’s what good staffs do. You innovate, adjust, match up to whatever the opponent is, whatever current resources you have, then you do the best you can. That’s what we’ve done. We’ve done enough to win our side and get to where we are.
Q. Their offense with Trevor (Lawrence), what kind of challenge would that present to your secondary?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: A significant challenge, not only at quarterback, but runningback and wide receiver. When you look at this particular opponent, and it doesn’t matter which side you’re looking at, offense or defense, the talent is certainly the first thing that jumps out. The scheme and strategy and the coaching is certainly strong also from the Clemson offense specifically.
Basically everyone that touches the ball is very skilled, very capable. Clemson’s ranking and their success is not accidental. It’s coming because of the collective the things I just mentioned.
Yeah, significant test for us.
Q. When you don’t play a team like Clemson in the regular season in four years now, do you watch them play?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Every possible comparison and analytic that we can make with our existing staff and resources we are making. There isn’t a true point of reference, not having crossed over, but there are teams that they have played that we have played. One step removed, there is some relevance there.
However, this stage is a different stage. It’s a new step for the program. Our program, there’s a newness to it, an excitement about it, a hungriness that radiates from our team right now and their desire to do really well in this game.
In terms of points of reference, no one on our team has been or experienced anything like it. That doesn’t mean they’re hesitant nor afraid of it. They’re all looking forward to the challenge.
Q. In the first half against Virginia Tech, Bryce looked like he was pushing the ball a little bit, almost as if he had an arm problem. After the game I asked him about that, and he said it was a matter of footwork and placement. Did you see that? Did someone correct him on that?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: That was happening between each series. The footing in the game on Friday, as you watch it, there were multiple players slipping. That just kind of is inherent of where grass fields are this time of year. The footing on the field was effective, but there was some slipping and sliding. That affected him a little bit, which means the top of his drop and balance was slightly off.
Then there was some indecision, even where the ball was going to go. A couple of throws, it looks like he was trying to pull off kind of mid delivery. So it was some indecision as well as footwork early on when saw you a few of those balls that either fluttered short or went wide.
Q. You’ve faced a lot of good running backs in your career. You’re going to be going up against another great one in Travis Etienne. What challenge does he bring to your defense? Does he remind you of anyone else you faced over the years?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Doesn’t really remind me of anyone else. Size, speed, durability, productivity, versatility, really every quality that you can say in terms of positive about a player, the Clemson runningback has. That alone is a challenge enough. When you add a quarterback, personnel in play, receiver personnel in play, offensive line personnel in play to that, that makes it even more challenging.
So it’s difficult to add additional resources simply to the run game knowing what the threats downfield look like, what the quarterback is capable of.
The combination of all those things really make not only Etienne a really strong player in their own right, but when the supporting cast around him is also strong, that even makes it more vibrant in terms of his production.
Q. You talked about Clemson’s defense a little bit earlier. Does that remind you of any defense you’ve faced in the last couple years?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No, it doesn’t. Statistically it’s stronger. Schematically I think it’s better developed. Production-wise it’s yielding at a higher level. I’ve seen a lot of good defenses and been a part of a lot of good defenses. This one, besides the production, the personnel and the execution is just being done at a really high level. That’s bred confidence, which allows young people to carry themselves in a way and work together in a way that is formidable.
I’m impressed. They’ve done a really nice job over time in not only building their program but establishing that component of the program.
Q. Was there any effect you could measure from Virginia’s basketball success last year? Your athletes talk, know some of their athletes. Can that kind of success filter through an entire athletic department, particularly your team?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Oh, sure. At the University of Virginia what I have learned in coming here is the university, as well as the athletic department, expects excellence. Football had been lagging behind, had kind of been supported and viewed as an afterthought for a significant amount of time.
I was hired to influence and correct that, as well as our new administration. That is happening. Just as we spoke, if we were to have spoken a week ago, our men’s soccer team was ranked number one, our women’s soccer team was ranked number one, our field hockey team was in the semifinals, our basketball team just won the national championship, here we are competing for an ACC football championship.
That seems normal and commonplace at the University of Virginia, which is not normal and it’s not commonplace. It’s pretty remarkable.
But the culture you’re mentioning, as players and young people communicate, they certainly can say, If that person or if that team can do this, they don’t seem that much different than us, then maybe this is possible.
I think it certainly helps. I can’t tell you to the degree of influence, but I think it does have an influence.
Q. Back to Clemson’s defense. You mentioned schematically they’re very advanced. What are the things they do defensively schematically that make them so difficult to prepare for?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I would say one of the things I like and admire is that it’s not the same plan each week. A lot of teams, they take the approach that it will be our system with very few changes, we’re just going to do is better and apply it to the next opponent and their style.
I like the approach that Clemson uses more frequently than most. There is a core, there is a standard amount of defenses played, but there’s innovations that happen week-to-week, specific to opponents, specific to situations, specific to personnel groups, that you have to kind of discover as you go. They’re usually disguised. There’s movement associated either pre or post snap that make it more difficult to discern.
All those subtle things take extra work and extra time, are really kind of a next level of coaching that I think that Clemson is doing routinely. That takes time to build and takes really strong and cerebral players to pull off as well as coaches. That’s what they’re doing.
They’re doing a really nice job.
Q. You mentioned this game, you called it a magical opportunity. In the outside perspective it’s a tough challenge. From the inside for you, for your players, how excited are you to have this opportunity?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s off the chart. I came to the University of Virginia because I like hard things, doing hard things. I chose this job because I crave building and developing and growing. The harder the better.
There hasn’t been one easy step or one easy game in the past four years for our program. But the players have earned this chance in the timeframe they’ve earned it. It just seems fitting. It doesn’t guarantee outcome in any different way except that it is directly in alignment with the things we like to do, which we view as hard things together. This will be exactly that.
What else would we rather be doing? If you ask myself or my team, there’s nothing else we’d rather be doing. The bigger, the harder the challenge, the more we like it. This just happens to be one of the biggest and hardest. Yeah, we’re really looking forward to it.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney
Q. In terms of the big picture, you’re a guy who has built a program into national championship levels. A game like this for Virginia, is this a big moment in terms of building their team? Could a lopsided defeat for them in this game be a setback?
DABO SWINNEY: Absolutely it’s a massive moment for what Bronco has done with the program, for them building their program. It’s a huge moment. I mean, they just won the Coastal. They’re playing in a championship game. There’s a progression that you go through when you’re really building something special. I think that’s what they’ve been able to do to this point.
Regardless of what the score is, their focus is to try to go win the game. They’re good enough to win the game. We got to play championship football. Simple as that. As I tell our guys, We’re not entitled to win, we have to earn it every week, have great respect and humility for the process to get ready for every opponent. We do that. It won’t be any different this week.
Heck, we played for our first championship my very first year in ’09, then we got beat. We got back two years later in ’11 and we won. Then we got our first bid to the Orange Bowl, gave up 70 points. Other people tried to let that overshadow what we had accomplished that year in winning 10 games, winning the ACC for the first time in 20 years. I refused to let that happen and so did our team.
We came back in ’11 and beat LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. It’s just all part of the journey. Regardless of who wins the game or what the score is or any of that stuff, this is a huge moment for both teams. You’re in a championship game. You’ve competed on the field for our division. It’s the culmination of an excellent conference season.
Q. When you look at Bronco’s team, especially defensively, even in the early years there at Virginia, they always seemed to play sound, fundamental football, especially on the defensive side. How refreshing is that to see a team that always seems to be well-coached like they are?
DABO SWINNEY: He has done an outstanding job. He did the same thing at BYU. He’s a really good coach. You can just tell that he believes in the fundamentals of the game, and not beating yourself. When you see a team that has those characteristics, that’s the sign of the type of coaching they have.
He’s put a good staff together. They’ve hung in there. He took over a tough situation. In just a very short time, here they are in the ACC Championship Game. Coaching matters. I say that all the time. Players play, but you got to be able to put it all together. I think they’ve just done an awesome job of that, giving their guys the opportunity to win week in and week out, then just to grow. They add some new pieces each year. Again, it’s been fun to watch that take place.
Q. Regarding the defense, given all the talent that left your program following last season, went to the NFL, did you and your staff think these kind of statistical benchmarks, did you think this was possible?
DABO SWINNEY: Well, my answer would be yes. That’s our expectation every single year. That’s kind of part of the deal, is everybody focused on who left. They forget to focus on who is still there.
Yes, we had some great players leave, but we have great players here. That was my big thing coming into the season, was I felt like this was the best back seven that I had had since I’ve been a head coach.
We’re young, but very talented up front. When you’re very disciplined, detailed in the back seven, you cannot necessarily cover up some things up front, because we’re not covering anything up, but we can take some pressure off of those guys. As opposed to when you’re not experienced on the back seven, you can be really, really good up front, it puts a lot of pressure on those guys because if you got guys running wide open, you just don’t have a lot of room for error.
I just think, yes, we lost some great players up front, but we had a great group in our back seven coming back. Again, good, young talent in that D-line that’s developed nicely, really has been able to just go play, have not had to have a lot of pressure put on them when it comes to just having to feel like they got to make a play, this and that, because you’re not great on the back end.
We certainly expected to be a good defense. That’s just the standard that we have. We lose players every single year on offense and defense. We feel like we’ve recruited well and developed well. If you do that, you got a good chance to sustain some consistency.
Q. You called Tony Bennett before the Final Four, spent some time with him over the summer. Do you think you’ll hear from him this week now that you’re playing Virginia?
DABO SWINNEY: I doubt I’ll be getting a good luck call from him. He’s going to be pulling for those Cavaliers. If we’re fortunate enough to win the game, I’m sure he’ll send his well wishes for the post-season.
He I’m sure has kept up, all that. He’s into his season. He’s a great man, a great coach, a friend. As he should be, he’ll be pulling for those Virginia Cavaliers this week.
Q. Have you heard from him at all this season?
DABO SWINNEY: I have not talked to him this season.
Q. You’ll be going up against Virginia’s quarterback, who leads the ACC in total offense. Your impressions of him, how dangerous is he, what you like about him? Does he remind you of any quarterback you’ve seen in recent memory?
DABO SWINNEY: Yeah, I wish I could tell you I’ve seen more tape at this point. Really that’s going to be my night tonight, really diving into these guys a little bit more.
I have seen him a little bit. We’ve had one crossover game early, Florida State, where I got to see him quite a bit. But obviously saw him last year and those things.
He’s a great player. First of all, he’s a great leader. You just see that in him. He plays with an incredible will to win. He has this belief to him. It’s very easy to see that.
He’s one of those guys that makes everybody around him better. You can tell, again, he’s a great young man and a great leader. That doesn’t just happen. He’s got the total respect of everyone. Kind of as he goes, they go.
He’s dangerous. I mean, he’s done a lot of things with his legs. Just in the game the other day, we had a chance to watch it all pretty much the whole game on the bus going down to South Carolina. I mean, he’s a difference maker, just truly a guy that can make plays in a lot of different ways.
He’s very dynamic. Just seems like he comes up with the big play when he needs to have it. They’re passing the ball for 260 plus yards a game. Just a guy that can beat you with his feet and his arm. Going to be a handful for us. Everything is going to go through him. They do a great job schematically to make sure he’s equipped with answers. Just going to be a great competitor to have to find a way to beat.