Bronco Mendenhall talks at presser about Duke, looks ahead to Louisville
COACH MENDENHALL: I was really pleased and happy with our performance on Saturday, just so much fun to see the players and coaches have success. They worked extremely hard and we asked them to work extremely hard the week leading up to our game against Duke, following the Miami game. We made some progress in areas that were targeted.
And work still remains to be done. We’re, again, right in the middle of the Coastal Division segment of our season with week after week with divisional opponents. And so the urgency and the preparation and the mindset really shifted pretty quickly from the Duke locker room celebration to the next opponent. And that’s kind of just the way it works at this time of year.
Q. Your final two road games of the regular season come up in succession now. Anything you’ve learned to this point about this team playing on the road that affects how you prepare for these games?
COACH MENDENHALL: Not necessarily, other than like most teams, you have to execute at a higher level and be more consistent and more mature to handle road environments. We’ve proved that we are capable of doing that with the season opener against Duke, and that formula for winning that game was very similar to our formula for beating Duke.
There was a special teams play that impacted the game. There were turnovers that impacted the game. Field position was in our favor. And so in terms much your question, it might not be so much about where we’re playing; it’s just how we’re playing and what that formula looks like.
That formula worked very well for the first half against Notre Dame, but not the second half. So I think it’s becoming clearer how we play well and what gives this team its best chance to win. Now, executing consistently regardless of circumstance, home or away that is the next challenge.
I also think that the changes that are happening in Scott Stadium, with the way that we’re supported and how vibrant the fan base is and how exciting it’s becoming, there’s a noticeable difference that our players really they can’t wait to play at home.
So I think that maybe in a unique way is also affecting the other where the difference is becoming so stark of home or away that that’s maybe more noticeable than what it’s been. That’s a guess.
Q. We talked after the game about some of the things that you worked on and then improved. I wanted to go a little more into the offensive line. What did you see that was better? Was it as simple as execution? Were things changed scheme-wise, personnel? What worked?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think there is certainly an amazing amount of work that’s going into the technical emphasis. But there’s also a lot of work going into the schematic emphasis. Again, delivering the ball on time is critical, having some semblance of balance in the run game is certainly critical and then being able to have our quarterback carry the ball more frequently also helps.
So all of those things, against what is a good opponent and remains a good opponent, to me, just simply manifests or I believe it manifests that there was progress made in each of those three areas — technical, schematical, if that’s a word, and defense.
Q. Obviously a very strong defensive game for you, only one sack. Duke gets rid of the ball quick. Did you blitz as much or did you dial it back because of the opponent and Bryce Hall not being in your secondary?
COACH MENDENHALL: Actually the amount of pressure, if anything, increased. Duke was throwing the ball quickly. We wanted to keep them throwing the ball quickly. With a couple new defenders out there we didn’t think double moves and play-action and down-field shots were risks that would be positive for our team.
And so if that did happen we wanted the quarterback to be hit or have errant throws. And so by the increased amount of pressure the ball was delivered frequently on time into coverage matchups that we liked. And it also forced the number of turnovers. So, again, it went just the opposite; we actually brought more pressure rather than less.
Q. Hasise did his best Odell Beckham impression the other day even though the pass interference got in the way, but you needed a lot of receivers to step up this year. What allowed him to make that next step and improve as much as he has?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think first we need to acknowledge that he has improved. The number of contested catches he’s making is — it’s becoming expected that he makes the contested catch. He’s also making critical catches.
It just seems like at the right time he’s becoming so reliable. But Hasise’s career didn’t start like that and it emerge in year two like that. This has been a work in progress.
So just time and maturity with his increased focus on decision-making, work ethic and consistency, that’s allowed him to be durable. And he is tough, consistent, which he wasn’t but has become and productive which is a result of those other two.
Q. What were your original thoughts when you saw the schedule with the three consecutive home games early, three consecutive home games late and then four out of five road games in the middle?
COACH MENDENHALL: Kind of just the way you said it. Holy cow, there’s three and then there’s three and then there’s four. And then you just get to work. So for our given team and for this year’s team, for us to win the Coastal Division, for us to take another step in advancing our program, for us to be a contender on the national scale, for us to remain building and having the unbroken growth that we’re after, you have to play well regardless of where, when and how you’re scheduled.
And so – Ryan Swoboda was in a walking boot and not available. Brennan Armstrong became available late in the week. We had an option to play him, but at the risk of possibly it not quite being ready yet and so chose not to.
Q. Cowley hasn’t had a ton of passes thrown his way, but I think he’s caught every one and he appears to have the ability to run after catch maybe more than Butts did. What about his play this season and that of Misch, who is blocking a lot? Will Misch eventually be a pass catcher?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think the succession from Butts to Cowley where Cowley was in Misch’s role a year ago and no one really knew who he was. But we’ve proved that we are capable of doing that with the season opener at Pitt. And that formula for winning that game was very similar to our formula for beating Duke.
There was a special teams play that impacted the game. There were turnovers that impacted the game. Field position was in our favor. And so in terms of your question, it might not be so much about where we’re playing; it’s just how we’re playing and what that formula looks like.
That formula worked very well for the first [AUDIO BUFFERED] — the same things you said. Misch will then — he has to be the heir apparent. While we’ve targeted and have recruited and do have a commitment at the tight end position, we like the idea of understudies and learning and growing and then earning your way as you’ve learned from someone else how to do it.
So the move of Grant Misch to tight end, I feel, is really good about and how he’s handling that. He’s also contributing on special teams at a high level, so there’s no reason to think that he won’t be the next Butts or Cowley.
Q. Swoboda, is he available going forward?
COACH MENDENHALL: I don’t know yet. I don’t know.
Q. Joey Blount, last time you were in here, I asked you about Joey Blount, you said, makes big plays, needs to be more consistent. Have you seen since then an increase in his consistency? Is he trending in the right direction?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think he is. And volume tends to influence that. I thought he played very well in our last game against Duke and the number of plays he was involved in. It was a physical game for Joey and the impact of the game. And we really need him to now, with the some of the other changes that have happened in the secondary, as he’s one of the consistent pieces there.
And so, in answer to your question, yes, I have seen an improvement in consistency. That really has come through durability and it’s hard to perform more consistently or improve that part unless you’re doing it more. And sometimes if you’re not durable enough or if your injuries are prohibiting that, by the time you kind of get back in the groove then an injury happens and you’re out again. So, yes, he’s more consistent because he’s been more durable.
Q. Got a call from a guy 15 miles from Charlottesville saying, how would Joe Reed look at running back. Could you talk about all the things he does and how much has he improved over the years?
COACH MENDENHALL: Joe Reed’s knowledge of the game and what the NFL personnel will call football IQ is just growing by leaps and bounds. He’s in extra frequently during the week continuing to learn the game.
There are many of the player personnel people that come in from the NFL that think he is a running back. And so when you watch him as a kick returner, it’s not hard to see why you would think that.
When you look at the yards after the catch or once he catches it, it’s not hard to see that. And so we work hard and diligently, not perfectly, at having the right players on the field for the right play at the right time and when Joe was one of the best players at about every position you just try to choose what impact he could have on every play. But certainly he can play that spot.
Q. Sticking with Joe, there’s some discussion about eliminating kickoffs because injuries and concussions. I’m curious, since you study so many things, is that something you happen to look at on injuries on kickoff returns?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yes.
Q. Do you have an opinion whether that play should stay in the game?
COACH MENDENHALL: Research has been done prior to the season. And the impact, the force of impact and the frequency of concussions is higher on that play. If you want simply from a player perspective, you have to say that the play should be eliminated. And I’m for player safety.
It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s a wild play to watch. The game would still be an amazing game even without that one play. So I’d be in favor because of player safety.
Q. In terms of — people say it’s 11 guys running at 11 guys; doesn’t happen with that full head of steam anywhere else. Do you put less — we’ve talked about starters on special teams — is that a concern in terms of what personnel specifically goes on your kickoff and kick coverage?
COACH MENDENHALL: It isn’t, because that play is still valued, legal and is happening and it affects, well, special teams are one play for a large chunk of land. And we actually fight for every blade of grass. If you’re a team that values every blade of grass and you know the implications of that play could be more blades of grass than not, you better have good players on there. So we do.
Q. Following up on some of the stuff about road games. You talk about how program hasn’t arrived yet, we’re still improving, not there yet, all that stuff. How much of a significant step in that direction would it be when you start consistently winning games on the road like this?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think — then you start talking about sustainability, where you’re not arriving but it’s just wherever you play, the quality of play, the consistency of play — and, by the way, this happens in the NFL. It happens at even the most dominant or established programs now, where if it’s on the road that’s always noted.
They’re on the road or they have to go to some place, and there’s a name for places they have to go play and the train’s already gone. And then they look at their book and try to get to the next — and they’re not quite there on time to catch it. Trying to but just haven’t quite caught up with it yet.
Q. How has the transition to American football gone for your first years from Germany?
COACH MENDENHALL: How it has gone for our European players is, it is fast. It is like when you get to the train stop, which is what you ride in Europe, the train is already gone. Luke has been hurt for the majority of the season, which will affect his growth and progress. Kariem is not. He’s been playing on our victory teams and working hard. But just it’s a faster, steeper bigger gap than I think what they thought and what we thought but yes we’ll still go back and I like the possibilities. I really do. Much like — I shouldn’t say that — unique challenge much like when I was the head coach at Brigham Young with missionaries coming home based on where they served kind of influenced how long it took before they became available to play. I’m learning now maybe more realistically if we choose a player from Europe, not that he won’t be a good player for us, but maybe timeframe how they might need to be managed just maybe like a missionary in terms of setting expectations that are realistic.
Q. You moved De’Vante back to corner and plug in Chris Moore, how nice is it they’re veteran and older guys as opposed to the first couple of years maybe you weren’t able to plug in experienced guys in those spots?
COACH MENDENHALL: I remember early going to Pitt and playing De’Vante at corner because we didn’t have anyone. And he had been playing cornerback and receiver we just moved him and put the next best athlete out there with very little training and we didn’t win the game nor was it really fair to him to really expect him to play at a high level other than he was a good athlete and going to compete. Now that we’re gaining some maturity in the program and some depth to have experienced players when one goes down and you can move two and get a similar result, that just is, it gives you a chance to keep competing for your division, which we have as good a chance as anyone through, what, seven weeks, right? A little over halfway. And if you’re a college football coach or a college football player on any team you want a chance as late as possible to be in contention for that and we still are.
Q. You guys a couple weeks ago moved Tommy Christ from defensive line to offensive line. What’s he been like there so far and is there a plan to keep him there for the foreseeable future?
COACH MENDENHALL: The plan is to keep Tommy there. He increased his stock status and place on our roster as soon as he made the move, and naturally he’s done a really nice job, probably farther ahead and performing better than any of us expected and is a viable option based on his development and the players around him on how they’re performing to play. So he’s in our two-deep. He’s working hard and I’ve been really encouraged by the move.
Q. What were your impressions of Louisville and the up and down they’ve had the last couple of weeks, was Clemson that overwhelming defensively or did they just have an off day?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think Clemson is that overwhelming defensively just by personnel. I had a nice talk with David Cutcliffe before the game and we were talking about his game against Alabama early in the year, and there are some programs right now that have amazing talent or more of it. Those are two things that could be players that are better while they’re playing and then it could be the volume of players that are better.
Clemson has both very good players and they have great depth. I was actually impressed with Louisville’s game especially defensively 17-3 going late through the third quarter and they did a nice job taking the ball away and holding Clemson in relative check offensively. And then things kind of slipped away from them as sometimes it does if there’s a talent or execution differential as the game goes on and it wasn’t until late until that happened.
So the score didn’t necessarily reflect how three quarters of that game went. Louisville is certainly not struggling offensively. The Clemson game or barring the Clemson game, if you just looked at points, their quarterback got hurt yet the scheme and what Scott has already done there is, I think, really impressive, how hard they’re playing, their culture. And so they’re certainly capable of scoring on anyone at any time at any quarter at any minute no matter where they play in the country. So very dynamic offensively, and I would certainly capable and active defensively, and right now they’re probably more known for their offense explosion and firepower and that side seems to be performing a little in their first year at a higher level. That doesn’t mean their defense isn’t capable and won’t catch up.
When that happens, whatever week it happens, then they become a powerful football team. They’re already winning and doing a nice job. Again, against Clemson I thought it was their defense was the primary reason they were in the game for so long.
Q. I was going to ask you about Louisville but let me ask you about Bryce Perkins and his running and what is the threshold there as to how much you want him to run during a particular game?
COACH MENDENHALL: I was asked after the game or the point was made of now that Brennan is back does that affect why we made the decision to run Bryce more, and that answer is yes.
So we’ve been — we’ve made and taken a lot of effort not to include our quarterback in the run game while our primary backup has been hurt. Knowing that would not only affect that game but possibly the rest of the season. So we’ve done our best to work around or have offense without Bryce as a running threat. Maybe just as a scramble threat and the game against Duke, that was the reintegration because Brennan is back of having our quarterback be involved more in the run game than what we have used in the past.
I don’t have a certain number of plays but we do have yardage thresholds and point thresholds that we go after and we know kind of what yardage marks and what point marks that traditionally as I’ve been the head coach with this staff and what those take to win and we intend to use every player we have to get to those marks.
And if that means running the quarterback more, we’ll do that. And that can change certainly week-to-week based upon what the opponent does.
Q. I want to ask specifically about Louisville, their wide receivers last week we talked about Duke not having per se a star kind of moving the ball around. Louisville’s got two guys that are that level of production, what challenge do they present?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, play making and space. So speed and ability and there’s big play potential. Louisville is dynamic. They’re dynamic at quarterback. They’re dynamic at running back. They’re dynamic at receiver. So much like Louisville seems to always be, since at least I’ve been in this league, they are exceptional athletes that there’s a big play threat that’s just kind of always hanging over your head of this play could go the whole way. And the amount of points they’re scoring again reflects that they can and they have done that already.
Q. If I’m not wrong, Scott said he wanted to play both quarterbacks going forward from the preparation standpoint, I know we’ve talked about this before, how does that change or challenge a defense when you’re getting ready?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think there’s not enough time to truly prepare for both. You have to look at what they’ve done well, what concepts really work, and then treat both quarterbacks like they are the starter. And if they were they would have been starting. So with pass we basically look at when he was throwing it which quarterback is more likely to have been the thrower and then match those concepts.
If he was running well then which of the two quarterbacks runs and okay and then you try to make two guys one. Otherwise you don’t have enough time and the plan becomes too diluted. I wouldn’t see them altering anything significantly because they’re having so much success offensively anyway. And so I would think both quarterbacks will play and we’ll do our best to say they’re both a single quarterback. One might be a little bit better thrower and one a better runner and try to tilt it slightly that way. But in the extreme measures it just doesn’t allow you to be prepared enough to play or to execute at a high enough level.