Bronco Mendenhall talks Virginia Tech, preparation for Rivalry Week
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Lots of hard work, not only from fall camp this season to get to this point, but since our arrival at the University of Virginia. I’m really proud of the work our team has put in. I’m pleased with the progress they’re making. I like the maturity and how they’re going about their business. I like the opportunity they’ve earned to compete all the way to the very last game of the season, regular season, for the Coastal championship.
Last year there were a couple overtime losses that ended up affecting our chance to win the Coastal. This year it comes down to the very last game, which is another step and another sign of growth in the program.
Anxious for a great week of practice and working to help our team continue to improve.
With that, I’ll take questions.
Q. For the players who are back from last year’s team who took part in the game, what do you think the effect of that, playing so well, coming so close, falling short at the end?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Hard to say, hard to articulate. I think they feel similar to the game they lost at Pitt, Pitt at home. I think they feel similar to the loss at Georgia Tech. There were close opportunities, close games to move the program forward, which they did a year ago.
With the record and with the bowl victory.
It was clearly some moments we didn’t make quite enough plays or the play to change the game. So I think certainly our game against Virginia Tech last year would be one of those. I think the team also recognizes other moments, as well, that it’s cumulative.
Q. Sticking with the theme of last year’s game. You’ve been part of some tremendous rivalries in your career. To really be part of a rivalry, did last year help kind of indoctrinate you to what this rivalry really is because of how close that game was, everything involved in it?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I can’t say that last year had more or less effect. Man, any time we win or any time we lose, I have a similar response. That does not mean I’m not acknowledging this particular game and its importance. I’ve made it very clear about how I feel about that.
I just went right to the players. I want them to have success. I want them to be fulfilled. I want them to have the accomplishments they’re after. I want to help them. Usually if we don’t, those feelings are what lingers with me the most.
Q. Wayne [Taulapapa], what is his status? Could he have played in that game? Is he in doubt for this weekend?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: He was limited for that game. He wasn’t 100%. We anticipate him being 100% for this week.
Q. We catch you 10 minutes after the game on Saturdays. What have you seen since then on film that sticks out?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: What I saw, and without seeing the film my comments are rarely completely accurate, if at all accurate. So after I see the film, it usually adds more context and accuracy.
Our offensive line continues to improve and play more cohesively, effectively and simply better. That’s helped improve the improvement our offense has shown recently.
We were able to have more balance than what we’ve had this entire season in terms of running and throwing the football, which is our desired intent. That was as close as we’ve come this year to that.
Defensively we had two communication assignment mistakes that led to two touchdowns early. The adjustments in the second half worked and were played effectively and well.
So a unique challenge in that game as the external environment was really pressing the team hard to acknowledge the next game rather than that one. The circumstances of the game, being a noon kickoff, inclement weather, with a basketball game being played at the same time, that was a challenge. So our team handled it really well. I was proud of them for their maturity, consistency, going about their business.
Q. You mentioned this, but everything is earned, not given. Can you envision with that in mind a better scenario of what you can earn on Friday?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I can’t. The players have just done everything I’ve asked them to do to this point. That doesn’t mean we’re perfect. Doesn’t mean there’s not more to do. Doesn’t mean we’ve reached the pinnacle. It just means progress, progress every year, steady and unbroken. Each team is claiming their place to move the program forward.
At this point back-to-back eight-win seasons is something that the ’18 has contributed with the script still to be written. That’s exciting and fun for them. Knowing every single goal they had written or chosen prior to the season is still in play. That’s a remarkable thing for people or for players to have that opportunity to go after that and try to rise to that occasion.
My job is to help them.
Q. I asked you Saturday about Chris Moore. Update on his status?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I don’t. It’s still indefinite. No new information to pass on.
Q. Heskin Smith, how important is his return and his emergence in your eyes?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Heskin coming back from injury was just at the right time. Really in his first full game, which was last Saturday, the number of plays he made, the number of tackles he made, the number of balls he knocked down, then a number of plays he learned and grew from, it was a nice launch point for him and our program.
Essential he came back when he did, helped our team.
Q. As you look at Virginia Tech, back-to-back shutouts for them defensively, good game against Wake, what has been in your eyes the key to what turned things around for them defensively?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think the style of play of their entire team, meaning that the intent to run the football well, the intent to manage the clock, manage the game, have basically the offense, defense and special teams kind of work together. I think Virginia Tech’s brand has become stronger this year as they played, and their identity has become clearer of how their offense, defense and special teams fit together.
I think their defense is gaining momentum, doing a nice job over the last three weeks especially. Again, clarity on who they are, how they’re going to play, and the results are showing that.
Q. They made a quarterback change. How much has he impacted? What do you think of his game?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think the record speaks for itself. As a starter, that’s really how quarterbacks are evaluated, right? Once they lead a team, what’s the record, what’s the outcome, the yield? Very similar for coaches. Once you have the position, what’s happened?
It’s very difficult to argue against the results because they just win when he’s playing quarterback. He’s really doing a nice job, as well as the coaches designing things that fit the capabilities that their quarterback has.
Q. The emergence of [PK] Kier and [Lamont] Atkins, did you see it coming? Had there been anything holding them back? What do you see going forward?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Nothing surprised me about their play in addition to Mike Hollins. The only thing holding them back is Wayne Taulapapa, daily in our practice, a more consistent performer.
The competition has been every single week, every single day. The margin of difference isn’t much, as you saw in terms of yield and result. That just made it clearer how tight it really is. Knowing that Wayne is coming off an injury, you certainly could see them this week more.
Q. Players don’t have classes Wednesday, Thursday is Thanksgiving. How does the unusual schedule this week affect your preparation?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I hope it doesn’t. The design is something that I’ve worked on and tweaked each year that we’ve been here, again, getting used to the University of Virginia, this particular environment, the unique things that are important, and the schedule here, as well as when this game is played.
It’s ironic to me that the Coastal championship game is played at noon on Friday. That’s hard to understand. So you manage Thanksgiving the best way possible. The preparation for the game, which is what the players really are working hard toward, try to give each the correct amount of emphasis and balance, if that’s even possible, to be ready for a short week and a noon kickoff on a short week.
Q. How do you address the psychological component of the way this series has gone in recent years?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Acknowledge it. Just brutal fact-wise, then say it’s 19 versus 19, mean that Virginia Tech’s ’19 team is playing the University of Virginia’s 19 team. Anything beyond that is interference and not relevant to me. It’s this year, this team, this week, after clearly acknowledging what the record has been.
Q. Last game for Bud Foster. What are the challenges of preparing for his defense, especially knowing this is his last UVA?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think Bud’s career has been exemplary. I think his reputation and performance as a defensive coach, a strong defensive mind has been well documented. I’ve always been impressed, have admired the results that his teams have gotten, for the sustainability for being strong for that long.
I think he’s had an exemplary career, remarkable results, and really refreshing to see a coach find a place where he fits and has stayed and become kind of an identity of the institution in this world of free agency. I much prefer that.
Yeah, I feel lucky to be part of the rivalry, acknowledging that component, where so much now it seems mercenary-ish in terms of next job, next place, rather than putting down roots.
Q. There’s lots of great rivalries in college football. There will be a ton of them this weekend. It seemed like when you were at BYU, your rivalry with Utah had a little bit more bitterness to it. What accounts for that? How does this rivalry compare?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I’d rather not compare. The previous rivalry, it’s hard to describe what that is I think because there’s a religious component involved. It spins it much differently.
Bitter would be subtle in relation to, I don’t know, the conduct that I saw. Really don’t think it was good for college football or either team. That was just my take.
This rivalry I think is, my job and the University of Virginia’s job, is to actually perform in a manner where it adds intrigue and balance and suspense to the outcome. We’re going to work hard on that and have been.
Q. This whole rivalry week idea, there are several games that pit the ACC against the SEC. On Saturday you’d much prefer and hope to be preparing an ACC championship game. I don’t think you’re a recreational viewer of other games.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: That would be accurate (smiling).
Q. Surely at some point you give a glance to see how the conference did. What kind pride do you take? What kind of stake do you put into how the ACC fares in those games? People think the SEC is King Vitamin. I hope you’re old enough to know who that is.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I heard the reference last year going into our bowl game, a similar line of questioning.
I think parity exists in college football. I think it exists especially in the power five conferences. I think it exists within conferences. I certainly pay attention to the scores and outcomes.
Free time is hard to get. When I am home, I work to be with my family as much as possible. We’re usually out riding, working, doing something that kind of ties us together different rather than sitting and looking at the screen.
But it does matter to me. I think the ACC is strong. I think our results show that we’re strong. Outcomes show that we’re strong. I think that will manifest again collectively, not only possibly in some of these games you’re mentioning, but through the bowl season.
Q. Since you’ve been here, you’ve really grown the atmosphere of the stadium. It’s become an awesome place to watch college football. For you personally, what is it like to see the growth of the atmosphere from the time you got here to where it is today?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I’m happy for the players. The atmosphere of the games is what you’re describing. Those create memories. It adds to the environment. It adds to, I don’t know, recognition for the work they’ve put in. I think it makes them feel special.
All of us love to feel special or we’re doing something important. So this game is an important game, not only because it’s versus our in-state rival, but it’s for a division title. When you have a chance, your team is playing for that after the entire season, that’s worth supporting.
My hope is the environment is the way you describe it, that the team sees that, has a chance to participate. That’s gratifying for me because I see the effect it has on them. I like seeing them happy.
Q. Bryce [Perkins] was one of the players last year who publicly indicated how frustrating it was to lose against Virginia Tech. Have you talked to him to maybe not put too much on his shoulders on Friday based on what took place last year, a balance of being aggressive but not too aggressive?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I haven’t talked to him about that. I think there’s a misconception, now that it’s this week, all these things become different, we’re really going to practice hard now and really try hard in the game, coaches are really going to work long hours.
I mean, we try every week to do that. So do the players. The rivalry games just make the impact and the outcome of the game so much more tangible and vibrant for the supporters because we’re in the same state, right? That’s the difference. It doesn’t mean that we won’t try as hard as we can, prepare as hard as we can. Just the thought that that’s this giant departure from what has gotten us to the Coastal championship game, seems like that wouldn’t be very smart, you’re going to depart from what’s already working to depart from that to become something you haven’t been yet.
We just want to be the next best version of what we’ve already become.
Q. Except for Bryce and the graduate transfers, the fourth and fifth year guys playing their final game at the stadium will have been for you for all four of your seasons here. How do you think you would characterize the impact of that group, their legacy here in the program?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I consider them, I use the word pioneers. I didn’t choose that recruiting class necessarily. I confirmed it, meaning I chose to honor their scholarships. They didn’t commit or sign with me basically in terms of their initial commitment. Once the coaching change was made, they chose to stay. I’m so grateful and lucky that they did.
Our coaches were mentioning today, there are names that they’re throwing out of the fourth and fifth years, that they’ve developed really strong appreciation for and bonds with, and I think admiration for.
We certainly could not and would not have made the progress without just their consistency, but really the willingness to trust us. You can’t coach someone effectively unless trust is established. They made a decision early on and have maintained that decision. They call it trusting the process. They tell that to the younger players, it works, so trust it. Doesn’t mean they even always understand it. They literally chose to trust before they saw results here.
I’ve been so grateful for that and to them.
Q. For all the remarkable things Bryce Perkins has done here, I’m sure if there was one play in his whole time here, he would take back the fumble play. Is there a value in looking to make amends for that, avenge it or something? Can that become something bigger than preparation that gets in the way?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think it can be a catalyst for the best preparation possible. That takes maturity and perspective to do that, otherwise it can be that, I don’t know, vengeance or overcoming being the primary thing. All the significant either victories or losses, man, they embed within kind of your fiber and they say. You learn from all of those things.
The key is then, in a case like the overtime fumble a year ago, is acknowledging that and using that simply to prepare as diligently as possible from that point to do your best to improve.
It’s the same for the coach, as the play call. It’s the same for me in game management, right? It’s all that. That one play certainly received all the attention, because that’s how the game ended. I think we have to acknowledge that was maybe the most visible of many decisions and things along the way that could have possibly had a similar impact or did.
Q. Taking me through the backstory of the countdown clock in the locker room. Was that here prior to you? Did you have any reservations with one game at the same time?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: The countdown clock wasn’t in place that I know of.
Q. It was.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Oh, okay. So the countdown clock was in place, now that I know (smiling).
Q. Yours is more impressive.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Ours is more impressive (laughter).
I think the reality is to try to pretend the game isn’t important or that it’s not different is not real. It is. It’s important to the university. It’s important to the state. It’s important to the UVA alumni.
It seemed important to me, because I like being transparent with my team, to acknowledge that. It’s counting down the entire year. I’m not saying that we even pay much attention to it other than when we get to this week. But I like the constant presence of it while we just go about our business knowing that that also is something that goes at the same time.
That’s life, right? We go one week at a time, but we still have bigger goals that we’re pursuing. It’s good to keep track of those even while every other bit of attention we have is on our current task.
Q. Does it have any impact postgame after a victory, not that you need humbling, but a reminder there’s still work to do after a victory?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think one of my specialties is reminding the team they have work to do regardless of the countdown clock. I don’t know how much impact, if any, that it has during the season. I just wanted to acknowledge that this particular game, we all feel lucky to be part of it, we all would certainly like to have success and improve our record. It just reflects an opportunity.
Q. Taulapapa was talking preseason about how important it is to get more sacks than your opponent. How satisfied are you with what they’ve accomplished this year in that direction?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: We’ve made significant progress, not only in affecting the quarterback through pressure. We’ve made significant progress in our run defense overall. Statistically really overall we’re still strong.
There just continues to be the right emphasis and the right I think organization and the right teaching going on. It also reflects, as we look at our team, a year ago as we mentioned, man, we got really thin on the defensive line. This year there’s another position that’s kind of been hit. It also just shows, as we continue to grow and develop and build this program, how important the personnel selection and depth and the blueprint for that is sustainability, the more games you play, the better and deeper your roster has to be. We’re still making progress along those lines.
It will be necessary as we expect to be in post-season every year, we expect to be competing for the coastal every year. The trend of the last two years is what we expect as normal, and that has to manifest through our personnel as well decision to the scheme. I went from scheme to personnel, but I think those two things are related.
Q. About the seniors, what is the future of the beard?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s the playoff beard. I love baseball. I framed the finish of our season four weeks ago as the playoffs. This is the fourth week. The beard stays as long as we’re winning. I think Holly has mixed feelings. It’s just fun. There’s no real significance other than just one other thing to celebrate the successes of our team, acknowledge a tangible and visible thing from the head coach, kind of from a baseball perspective of playoff tradition.
But I thought that was the right way to frame the finish of our year. With the chance to get to the Coastal championship, each game became more important than the next. The players have taken it that way. So I’m paying the price with my attempt to grow a beard.
Q. There have been coaches here previously who the night before the last home game have a team dinner that becomes a big, emotional tribute to the seniors. Many of those coaches didn’t have bowl games to look forward to. What is your theory? How do you approach having a moment like that when you could have two more games after this?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: We do have a ritual that way where our coaching staff and our fourth and fifth years, any player that’s not returning, we have an intimate setting. No one else is there. We’ve done that the past two years. Each coach stands and talks about his players one at a time. It’s a remarkable and really fulfilling and authentic night that really no one else is welcome to attend.
Q. Just those players?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Just those players with myself and my staff. It’s one of my favorite nights of the year. We do that at the completion of every season, all games having been played, is when we do that.
Q. You mentioned other plays in last year’s game that was significant. One of them was getting a kick blocked.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Exactly.
Q. Special teams seems to be important in this game. How do you evaluate that side of the ball?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It not only stole a possession for Virginia Tech, it led to a score. In an overtime game, you could argue that was the critical game. There were more plays after it, so it’s easy to lose the impact of that.
That was a giant play, certainly affected the outcome. We’ve worked hard on special teams this year, as we have on every other phase of our program. Still plenty of areas to grow and improve.
I actually, believe it or not, had forgotten about that play until today as we were preparing and still working through film, I saw it. Holy cow, that was last year. I had forgotten. Maybe I did it intentionally or maybe my mind made it go away until I had to think about it again.
Q. De’Vante [Cross], how much better is the defense with that kind of configuration?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s better just because De’Vante, that’s where he spends almost all of his time practicing. Again, we made that change last week just on Friday because of Chris Moore’s status. Two of the early communication or assignment breakdowns were simply because of some uncertainty there.
De’Vante, he’s been remarkable. Seems like we put him in so many places, he just makes the best of it. He’s really helped us in addition to Heskin.
Yeah, I’m appreciative of the coverage and for the way our relationship has gone this year. Look forward to just another great week and am appreciative. Thanks.