Bronco Mendenhall talks bye, looks ahead to Liberty on Saturday

uva footballBRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s the final stretch of the regular season, and November always determines conference championships. It really determines whether goals are met, what metrics are hit, and really the final identity of a team for a year prior to the postseason.

I’ve always shared with Holly that I thought the rankings and relation to the top 25, et cetera, usually became relevant after eight weeks, so going into week 9. So really about now is when the world of college football starts to take shape, not only conference-wise but nationally. So it’s an exciting time.

I’m so glad that we’ve had a bye to help our team recover. Really fortunate that our next two games are at home, and I’m proud of the season we’ve had to this point and looking forward to continuing to improve our team and our program. So I’ll take questions.

Q. When you look back at the last two games, in particular, has it been a common thread with some of the defensive breakdowns?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Not necessarily. Just more big plays than what happened throughout the majority of the season. So a few assignment mistakes, a little less coordination between some new players, and that’s led to a couple big plays a game, which were scoring plays, and that’s really the main difference.

Q. Where does the secondary stand right now? Who’s in? Who can’t play? That kind of stuff.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: The secondary is — will remain very similar to what it has been. No new players are returning. No new players are injured. So knowing that we got Shawn [Heskin] Smith back for our last game, so he remains back, and in addition to our four other players that have been playing, that makes up the top five.

Q. [Chris] Moore is —
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Moore is back.

Q. Your team has obviously embraced the one week at a time, one game at a time mantra, while also being aware of Tech looming and how big a goal that is. Is it harder this week with that game that you’ve put so much into being a week away? Is it harder to get them to focus on Liberty?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think it’s hard when there’s a game of that significance with the implications that it has, meaning that it is a rivalry game and it is potentially for the Coastal Division championship, until you watch Liberty on film, and that’s just a quick reality check. Much like a year ago, when they could score at such an efficient and effective level, and I would say that’s continued to even an improved standard with an improved football team.

So once that happens and you get into the Liberty work specifically, the rest, there’s no time for it, and it’s just interference because of the quality of opponent. So I think Hugh Freeze is doing a really nice job there.

Q. I asked you this a week ago, but I’m curious. With the open date, I know in the preseason you’re able to work games ahead, is there any work done on Virginia Tech because you had the open date? If so, what are examples of things that can get done in advance?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s really difficult, just from a mindset standpoint. So typically and traditionally, all I’ve ever done is just focus on the present and the game that looms ahead, and that usually has given us the best chance to be consistent, the best chance to build momentum, the best chance to continue to improve our program. As a baseline, that just is much more comfortable. I’m much more comfortable there as is our staff and our program. So that’s what our approach has always been.

Q. What makes Liberty’s passing attack so difficult to stop?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Well, there’s always — it always goes through the quarterback, so I think I was really impressed with their quarterback a year ago. Personnel at receiver is strong. Personnel at running back is strong. Now the scheme, which I thought was effective a year ago, is certainly every bit as effective, if not more now. So there’s the drop-back component, and then there’s the majority of the plays are run and play action, so run/pass options.

So Liberty does a really nice job with that component of the game, so the runs are effective. The passes off the run are effective. Really, if forced to just be a drop-back team, that’s probably the least effective thing they do, but they’re really not in that situation very much.

Q. Not only has Shawn [Heskin] Smith not played a lot from scrimmage before this year, he missed a fair amount of time with an injury this year. How do you accelerate the development of a player in that situation?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Well, fortunately, we had a bye, and we were able to practice a number of days with a specific focus on development of players just like that. Depth is really important down the stretch. One player makes a huge impact on our roster as well as it does on most rosters, especially for us in our secondary. So we were able to target that position, work on specific things to address it, improve it, make it more cohesive. So he was right in the middle of that effort.

Q. What are his strengths?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: He tackles really well. He plays the ball really well with his background at receiver, and he has good speed.

Q. Does it feel strange at all looking back at Liberty’s game at BYU? And have you talked to anybody who was at the game and has been able to share any insights with you?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: In reverse order, I haven’t talked to anybody about the game, and it was the first game in, this is now four years, that I’ve watched BYU play. So I haven’t tuned into any of the live broadcasts, haven’t watched any that are on TV.

So if it wouldn’t have — if it hadn’t have been Liberty’s most recent opponent, I wouldn’t have as well. There’s an emotional toll on that, but the number of players that have cycled through the program now, time provides a buffer. So after the first series or two, I found myself, not viewing them as just any other opponent, but being able to have some distance and some separation and just have it more objective.

When you spend 13 years with anyone or at any specific place, there’s a lot of memories and a lot of investment, and so for the sake of the University of Virginia and our team, I know myself well enough where I’ve just made that off limits, but now for this week it has been appropriate. I talked to my wife about it when I got home, just how strange it was, but I think it’s required at this stage of where I am in my life, where we are as a football program, and the aid and preparation for this opponent, I think it’s necessary.

Q. One on Liberty, that receiver Antonio — I won’t botch his last name. I think he’s 11. What in particular makes him effective?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Oh, man, really, really strong ball skills. So he catches the ball with great range, meaning outside of his body, high, to the side, low. So his hands and his range — there’s a lot of receivers that are strong within the framework. He has really nice range of wherever the ball is, he reaches, extends. Then the position mastery of his position and how he’s being used in the scheme, all those things combine to help him be really effective.

Q. All of your focus is on winning this game. When you look at Joe Reed and where he’s at health-wise, do you plan on him returning kicks, or are there guys you’re going to try to take it easy on, again, knowing that you have —
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No, we’ll play every single player that’s available to us in this game. That’s what I believe is necessary. It sounds like I view the quality of this opponent at a higher level than maybe what the outside world does, and we want to improve our football team. We want to try as hard as we can. We certainly want to win, and that’s going to require everything.

Q. I was just curious, in past weeks — off of past bye weeks, we’ve talked about self-scouting and evaluation. Just was curious what you guys came up with coming out of the previous game against Georgia Tech and what you sort of worked on last week.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Not much different from our first bye week other than the identification of the most effective personnel groups, which you all have seen the last two or three weeks in a row, especially offensively and the yield in the scoring that that’s produced. You’ve seen some tempo changes, which has also helped us. You’ve seen consistency in the kicking game, I think pretty much throughout the entire year.

Then defensively, we’re just simply working on the coordination, again, of a couple new players and limiting — which hadn’t happened, again, for the majority of the year until injuries  — giving up a couple big plays per game, and that’s affecting some of the margins and the scoring.

Q. I think I saw last week that Matt Gahm has lost the brace on his knee.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: He did.

Q. What kind of season has he had, and what did that say about him playing through that injury? Because it seemed like it was fairly significant.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It was significant. Matt’s really tough. He’s really resilient. He’s — gritty would be an understatement. He’s zero drama, and he loves this team, and he loves the program. You can’t keep him off the field.

Many other players wouldn’t have played, period, with the injury he had. Not only did he play, he has played really well, almost to where I think everyone just thought it was normal that he was in a brace. So it was a good day when he came out of it.

Q. How pleased are you with your passing game, where it is right now, and with the emergence of [Tavares] Kelly and [Billy] Kemp in the last game, how does that help you in that aspect going forward?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s really adding a depth and an urgency to practice with some competition and a next tier forming. So when you consider Hasise [Dubois] and then Joe Reed, as well as Terrell Jana and the productivity we’re getting from them, and then right behind them, but not far, if you think about [Dejon] Brissett and Kelly and Kemp, and I would say Dontayvion Wicks, there’s a next tier right there that is — who would have thought that that position would be one of our deepest when we got to week 11? I would have thought that would be the secondary we’d be talking about, but it’s flipped.

Q. Speaking of Jana, what is it that has contributed to sort of his emergence? Was it just him and developing, or did it have more to do with Hasise and Joe establishing themselves and some opportunities maybe opening up?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s more of the first. When we came back from our Bowl victory over South Carolina last year, there were two players. I’ve talked a lot about Noah Taylor and his conditioning and mindset after the break. Terrell Jana has actually been stronger and more consistent probably than anyone on our team. From that moment while he trailed Noah Taylor, Terrell through the summer and fall camp was elevating his game at a level that he would have probably been the player that everyone would have looked at and said, man, he’s had the best off-season or prior to the upcoming year.

So his work ethic, his commitment, his stability, his maturity, his leadership, his work ethic — all those things have just manifested now on the field, which takes time.

Q. What do you view his strengths as a receiver on field as?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Just completely trustworthy. If there’s a critical time, a critical moment, or somewhere the ball has to go, yeah, that would be — it would probably be my first look.

Q. You had a run of night games earlier in the season. Now you’re going to end the season with three straight noon games. Do you have a personal preference as a coach?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I do. Earlier means less anxiety for the head coach.

(Laughter)

Those waiting around all day games, those are tough. You’d think at 53 I would have possibly mastered that. I haven’t. So it’s much easier for a program and a staff and players to manage an earlier game with anxiety and just things to do.

Yeah, but what I have noticed is that the support that we get, which has been so great this year, but it appears that the fans at UVA and our alums and the folks that attend Scott Stadium, it appears they prefer night games based on the attendance. So we’re in a really good place to have strong attendance because of our record and what’s at stake, but I always look and consider what time of games match certain places.

So my take right now is the night games are a little bit better fit at UVA. That doesn’t mean we can’t have a great attendance or great support at noon, but just in the time I’ve been here, it seems like the night games match a little bit better.

Q. Getting back to your passing game, Bryce [Perkins] put up some really nice numbers the last few games. Just rate him as a passer, where he is right now. Is this where you had hoped he would be?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, the last couple of games, much, much more consistent, accurate, poised — and probably the biggest thing is we’re not turning the ball over. So the decision-making, I think, is the back story of the things I just shared. Then you add the running and the ability to create at the level he is now in addition to that, that’s certainly helping how we’re playing offensively.

Q. And just an update on Jowon Briggs? Where is he? Are you pleased with where he is right now?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Probably the greatest news is it’s been really no story. That just means he’s consistent. He’s doing what he’s supposed to do. He’s doing it really well. That position is hard to get a ton of recognition, but the ball’s not being run where he is, and he continues to improve the pressure he’s getting. So he’s just consistent, reliable, productive in his role. As a first year, that’s pretty uncommon, at that position especially, really at any position.

Q. I can’t remember if anybody here has asked you about the punting this season. You had two pretty good punters to start off your career here. Has [Nash] Griffin been a blessing in that sense?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: He’s been, I’d say, a pleasant surprise, knowing that the standard, just as you mentioned, was really strong and had been well established my first couple of years, and knowing that Nash, we didn’t have a scholarship punter, so to speak, that had earned the job, and Nash has really done — I think won 11th. We talk about that a lot. He doesn’t have to do more or less, but he’s performing his job at a level that’s helped us, yeah, right exactly where we are on the verge of competing for a Coastal Division championship.

Q. I know no one has asked you this in here. With where you are now this many seasons in, you, your family, your staff, how entrenched in Virginia are you, and have you fully adjusted from being a West Coast guy?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s funny you mentioned that. We were just talking. My son Cutter has just returned from his mission. To think we’ve been here that long, even though it’s two years, that was a significant life event for us, and I was visiting with our new track and field coach, and my comment to him was it was right at the three-year mark where we felt integrated, and as comfortable and — I don’t know, like this was home.

So three years is what it took of adjusting, but it’s been really, really an amazing and kind of an epiphany that all these families that came as well, we were close before, but our relationships have galvanized in a way and at such a depth that, if there were no other reason to come to Virginia than just those relationships and how they’ve changed and who my staff has become in terms of people and raising kids, it’s just exemplary. It’s really fun to see that maturation and so many of them I had coached.

I’m grateful to be here. I’m thankful that I made the choice to come. I appreciate everything that’s happened. I recognize that we’re not perfect and there’s plenty more work to do, but I would do it again based on what has happened to this point, and I’d feel lucky to have chosen it again.

Q. Do you miss the RV at all?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: So I love the RV. I’m the only one.

(Laughter)

Holly was not a fan, and the boys were not a fan. However, in some of the exit interviews that happened with my son Cutter that happened with ecclesiastical leaders as he finished his mission, and one of the comments — my son Raeder was asked some questions, and he’s the youngest, and he talked about the impact of his older brother on him when we were in the hotel for about four months, between four and five months. Being that close living together, he started to model and see and learn things that I don’t think he would have seen and learned and understood at the same level just by how close we were.

Then you move us from there to an RV, and that’s arguably less space. So the impact on I’d say the best of our qualities, I think what have been transferred amongst my family, more than the irritation maybe we have with one another living on top of each other, the fun and the memories and the impact has far outweighed that. It was fun to hear that from my kids.

Q. I never heard the fate of the RV. Whatever happened to the RV?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Holly sold it. Didn’t ask.

(Laughter)

Just, yeah, sold it.

Q. There one day, gone the next?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Pretty much. I really wasn’t asked about price, you know. She celebrated wildly as it pulled away.

(Laughter)

That’s a true story.

Q. There’s obviously been a lot of focus on the offensive line through the season. It seems like in the last few weeks that’s been an integral part of the offense as you guys move forward. As you guys look at the last two games, where would you say the offensive line is right now?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think much improved and performing at a level that I’m really excited for that group. And as you just watch them, the confidence that they carry themselves with and the success that they’re having, it’s been a lot of work in the making, and it’s fun to see the gradual steps, and now kind of the point where it’s, hey, that group is performing well, and that’s what I can say. They’re performing well, and that’s what’s happened the last two weeks.

I give that group a lot of credit and their coaches for it’s been a long, hard, difficult, and slow climb, but, again, resilience, and a lot of work has just won the day. I should say winning the day. Won would be past tense. It’s winning the day, and we’re still improving.

 

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