Mendenhall, Cutcliffe discuss preparing teams to play football in 2020

(© Maridav –

Football coaches have had a lot to think through when it comes to even just being able to run practices.

Something as basic to the game as tackling, for instance.

And then: huddling up between plays.

UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall erred on the side of making things as normal as possible.

“We acknowledged the virus, took every protocol possible on the sideline and in between plays, but during the plays, we played it like a normal fall camp,” Mendenhall said this week.

Which translates to: skill development and conditioning early, drills aimed at improving timing and technique, then as the first game week approached, getting a little more physical.

“Because we have been practicing against each other so long, you can’t keep up that kind of intensity against each other for the amount of time we’ve been doing, so there was quite a break in there as opponents were coming and going – as we were getting ready for a game week and then not, and getting ready for a game week and then not, and getting ready for a game week and then not, and getting healthy,” Mendenhall said.

The focus shifted mid-week last week, Mendenhall said, with “more emphasis on tackling and tackling to the ground and finishing blocks than there had been as we now get ready to take on this opener.”

Senior linebacker Charles Snowden said the defense, in particular, has benefited from the approach.

“We’ve had multiple scrimmages where we’ve been full tackle to the ground. And now recently, the when we break up offense, defense, and we’re with the scout team, the defense will go full tackle. We’ll look over, the offense has their helmets off, almost going through a walkthrough, and meanwhile, we’re running full speed hitting and tackling and stuff. That’s been a big point of emphasis. Because we know that tends to be an issue in first game. We put a high emphasis and a high premium on tackling,” Snowden said.

Mendenhall acknowledged one tweak: in huddling.

“In our own contact tracing studies, the center and the guards, with the nose tackle or defensive tackles, that is the group and those are the positions that have the longest duration of contact through the course of the game,” Mendenhall said. “On the offensive side, we have changed the way that we huddle. Coach (Garett) Tujague calls it huddle protocol. So, it separates and puts different players between the center and the guards during each huddle between plays, when we do huddle. That gives us a break in the amount of time that players are exposed to each other to limit contact tracing should that occur.”

Duke coach David Cutcliffe, addressing the challenges from 2020, cited “trying to reinvent the wheel rather than using practice formulas and scripts that we’ve used for 20, 25 years that you know get a team ready to play.”

“We’re having to kind of step by step see what we have, do things differently, and you’re to some degree having to learn on the run as to what’s going to be effective,” Cutcliffe said.

“You really have a difficult time knowing right where we are. We have had one scrimmage in the fall camp, and that was it. We had no scrimmages from spring, which obviously, we didn’t get a spring. Trying to get a team game ready, that’s one of the things I’ve critiqued myself as a play caller, when you see things or you try things you better know what’s game ready and I’m not going to blame a player if it’s not executed just like it should have been. If we haven’t put it in a circumstance where it’s game ready, it kind of goes back to all of those challenges.”

Story by Chris Graham

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