UVA football coach Bronco Mendenhall talks with reporters on 2017 signing day.
COACH MENDENHALL: It’s nice to be talking football again. I’ve had a chance to think a lot about what I might share today and kind of give a glimpse of what I’ve been thinking about and the perspective that I’ve gained or garnered over the past year and really it almost feels like from the time that I was doing this a year ago feels like a new job with more education, more knowledge, more clarification on exactly where we are, why we’re there and what we’re going to do about it, and the plan is really clear and it has not changed much from the beginning other than there are some felt need that are clearer based on the timetable that I expect our program to have success in.
So the best way that I might frame and I’m thinking about the right words to share with this, is in looking back at the class that I spoke to you a year ago about, the way that I would frame that class now, is a transitional class. Meaning that while I honored the scholarships of all those players, I wasn’t the coach selecting them. I do think they are a really — and many played as freshmen this year, so I was encouraged by that. But up to a third of them are no longer in our program, which means they didn’t fit perfectly at UVA and/or with our staff.
So I would categorize that as transitional; in contrast to I would say this class would be foundational. I think that’s the word that resonated most with me in how to describe it, meaning that we have great relationships with this class. We found most of them relatively early, from the moment I was hired and they understood and listened and believed in the vision of our program, and with the exception of very, very few, as was the case in my previous job, very few de-commitments.
These kids, once they say they are coming, they are coming and they believe wholeheartedly in the future and the plan that is in place for them. I appreciate that trust, not only from the kids, but there their parents in this day and age of the sensationalism and the signing day drama and however else you describe that.
These kids fit really well at UVA. Meaning their grades are very, very good. Their character is very, very good and they are good players. Here is the needs we have, we need more size, strength, at lit says many and we need more depth. So this class addresses all. We have more size now. We have more strength now. We’ve added more athleticism and we’ve added more depth. This alone will not now propel us to instant gratification.
This now though is a step in the right direction of long term success and planning and short term results, meaning that we are able to add a few graduate transfer in to immediately address a few needs that have to be addressed for us to function and play at the level we all want to, but what that does is it doesn’t take away from the developmental plan of adding young players because those graduate kids are coming in one year, they are strong students, they will get a graduate degree from UVA and address a vital need for us and quite frankly, they didn’t have the college experience that was their ideal and they are seeking another.
And so I think it could be a great thing and probably that will happen for the next couple of years. Offensive line was a huge need for us this year and so we addressed that and again, multi-faceted with grad transfers and young players and even with the young players, there are those that are ready to play and there are those that are a little more developmental, and that’s not by accident. We are looking to tier the success planning as clearly and precisely as we can.
Virginia will still be the first place that we recruit every single year. We want as many players from as many areas in Virginia that qualify to be at UVA and fit at UVA as possible. And that means anywhere within the state, that’s where we’ll go.
And so roughly a third of this class will be represented that way, 12 states I think is what we have recruits from, plus you can call Germany, we went foreign and abroad and through another school. We’re willing to go where there are people that fit.
But what I’m finding and what my staff is finding and what I’m learning and I am still learning, is this footprint, meaning close by, UVA, there are lots and lots and lots of players. You go within four hours driving distance, there’s lots of players. You go within five, there’s even more. If you go within eight hours of driving, the reality that we’ll have to go any farther than that, once we start having the program that I think we’re going to have, is probably pretty exceptional or rare that we would be outside of that footprint, and that’s what I learned, as well.
So I think we’ve addressed our needs, short term and long term. In the next phase foundationally of building, not built, but building, and I expect that with the emphasis of a huge focus on a cultural development of a year ago, as that shifts more and more to playing the game of football and playing that at a higher level, I think we will see a trend upward, not only in the result but also in the vision of what we are going to become in year two. So with that, I think I’ve covered as many things as I can think of just right offhand and so I’ll take questions.
The class includes three running backs, two of whom enrolled in this semester. You lose a lot of yards receiving and rushing with Smoke and Albert. What are your expectations for, as well as a blocking back and Connor, what are your expectations for the if you guys and do you need them to contribute?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think that them arriving mid year reflects our understanding that both Smoke and Albert were very good football players and really helped our team a year ago. We’ve identified them as early as spring practice last year, that being one of the strengths on our team.
Not only did we feel urgency to replace them, but we are also doing it with youth and so how fast we can get these youthful players out of high school now, up to speed and maturing to even have a chance to fill those roles, is vital for us.
So I like the players we’ve signed a lot. I think that gives them a chance to fill those shoes but it would not be realistic to say now with here, upperclassmen that have played so much and broken records and now here come first years that now fill those shoes the same way or to the same level; that will take time, which means there will be other part of the offense that will have to develop besides collectively every part from a year ago, but that’s something that reflects why we’re having mid-years come and they wanted to come, which is great.
Does that answer your question?
Just talk about the three of them individually, what you liked.
COACH MENDENHALL: So all of — I’ll start with all of them collectively. They are all productive and we need production, not only in terms of receiving but rushing and we need players that are capable of making plays at the ACC level and doing it consistently to help us generate more points. That has to happen.
And so we’re measuring these players not only in what our immediate needs are but what will they be in the future and will they be good enough. So we are not only addressing it short term but we are looking long term and staying will they be good enough in five years. We think they are all versatile.
Jamari gives us a big back that can run, much like Albert, except bigger, with probably an ability and a background of carrying the football more. He’s very difficult to tackle and he gives you a big back and in a in a single back offense that could be a unique challenge for people. You have a chance to put him in at the same time as Lamont or PK and there’s two different types of ball areas at the same time. Both capable of catching it out of the backfield well, running for power and running for speed.
So versatility is what I would say collectively about the group. And I’ll let their individual natures speak for themselves as they are here over time.
Woodberry Forest for three kids, you recently had not gotten a lot from, and going forward with a coaching change, how do you want to keep that relationship going?
COACH MENDENHALL: It’s reflective of a type of school and education and a type of football and a type of coaching that interests me. That doesn’t mean exclusively but when you think about young men that month of and travel for the sake of an amazing education, at a pretty significant cost, but then they are being coached really well and play in a league that’s pretty competitive in the number of Division I players that come every year, it didn’t make sense to me how that’s not a UVA profile school, really good education with really good football and really high standards.
It seems like that transition would make complete sense. To I was intrigued by, one of our coaches went to visit Woodberry Forest and came back and said, wait till you see this place. What I found is I’ve seen about 18 or 20 other schools similar to that, and so these kids are getting, again, the parents and the families are education oriented, as are the kids. But they are also football oriented and they love the high level they play at and they are learning autonomy and independence to prepare them for college. So Woodberry Forest just happened to be the first and closest that we targeted.
A really good quarterback in Lindell Stone, which there wasn’t a school I went to, even if I tried to avoid going to schools where the coach wouldn’t say, you’re going to really like him. And that’s unsolicited. Sometimes the coach of the player at the school will tell you what you want to hear. It’s really fun to go place to place to place and have their rival saying, he might be the difference. So those are the words they are using and I’m not putting too much pressure on him but that was fun to here.
Terrell Jana at Woodberry Forest, these kids are serving on their leadership council at the school and he cannot only play receiver but can play on the secondary and return all the kicks and I loved all that, and plus the guy throwing to him likes him and I like that.
Then we had a player come to two of our camps in John Kirven. 6-6 and now 260 and he runs well. And our camp is more like practice than camp. He worked really, really hard he’s tough and he runs well and with that length and with that size and work ethic, even though that needs to be some development polishing, I love that.
Again with, good grades and good students who are good football players so that does not mean I’m interested in those schools at the exclusion of public schools but what I learned is there’s an amazing fit that seems seamless in transition that made sense to me.
You have five linemen coming in, high school linemen, also some older players possibly, developmental position, what do you like about the younger group and what do you look for, physicality or footwork?
COACH MENDENHALL: So much. We are looking for ACC — so when I’m talking fit, we are talking about ACC Championship calibre players, whether that is first year or by their fifth year, some were in there. That has to be something that I checked that box in, so when you see someone like Swoboda who is 6-10 and looks like he weighs 210 but he weighs 270, it’s hard to coach size. It’s hard to coach length. And all of a sudden, you might have an NFL offensive tackle and then when you watch him play basketball and watch him play defense and run the court and then if you now just simply project that as to what could that look like, I love that from a developmental perspective.
When you look at Tyler Fannin who SEC schools would come in furiously hard at the end but couldn’t get him because he had committed to us. If you look at Chris Glaser and the schools that wanted him at the end and he was committed to us. Those are now a couple type of players that most likely will contribute early and will have to contribute early.
A player like Ryan Nelson who is coming all the way from California, we had a great relationship with them early and he just can’t get enough of working with his position coach and so there’s a nice blend of graduate transfers, immediate need, probably instant rotational freshmen but then I like the idea of what about now staging that or stacking that to where now there’s a player that’s in this class but possibly will exceed others but it might take a little more time and so that was all by design and most likely just so that we are clear another year our offensive line — next year will look very similar in terms of building our offensive front. Similar in numbers, similar in who we are after, what we need.
So this program needs — again, I’m using this word a lot, the succession planning idea. It’s heard to be consistent if each year, you’re addressing immediate and almost fatal flaw kind of needs. Eventually we’ll get to the point where, oh, good, look who they have coming, reload. Oh, good, look who they have coming, reload.
And so we are developing while we’re playing rather than reloading as we watch guys go out and so next year’s offensive front, it will be similar in numbers and makeup as it is this year.
How much has recruiting changed over the last ten years from the standpoint of the kind of players you could get? Now you have high school kids entering early, college kids, graduating in three years. Vollmer, for instance, his coach told me, that he was committed to Louisville for the summer till December. How do you find out about those kids and I guess that’s part of the job but it has to be different.
COACH MENDENHALL: It’s so much different. Really just like I share with the prospects, the more intentional and specific you are about what you’re looking for, the easier it is to find it.
So many of these younger kids, they start the recruiting process and everyone looks good because they don’t know yet what they are looking for. Very hard to filter and frame that until they start learning and it becomes clear to them, wait, I actually have to make a decision on how am I going to do that. And the ones that don’t know, they don’t know what they are looking for. The ones that know early, and the staffs that know early, what a fit looks like for their school, easier to eliminate and find.
So what’s happening now, contrary to my belief is everything keeps going faster and faster. So I have a son that’s a ninth grader. I have a son that’s an eighth grader. Kids are getting offered in ninth and eighth grade — and the thought that I would offer one of my sons — I know my sons, and I like them, right. But it’s ludicrous.
And the grown men managing ourselves are not capable yet to put legislation in to stay, stop it, and let’s get back to what will actually benefit these kids, and the idea then that the reality TV nature of signing day is now captivating to the world, you tell me how that now, when a player leaves college, and let’s say he’s not an NFL player, are we expecting a signing day announcement for what firm he chooses to go with? Is that now some — is there a hat with a different company and he’s going to — I mean, it’s doing nothing to prepare kids for reality. And we’re contributing as a football society. And I’m not for that.
And so, but yet I have to operate in that world, and so we have a guiding principle called less drama, more work. I don’t know how many of my players, if you’re watching it, had this mysterious, are they coming or not coming. That’s not by accident. I want players that are intentional about a great education, great football with great people and that’s not something you have to decide on the last day.
And so that might work against me. But at least I’ll be with kids that I like and I want to coach and they want to be coached by us at this place and anyone that’s contributing to the other, I’m not aligned with them, which is most of college football.
And at some point, that’s going to have to change because it’s not preparing kids for the real world and it’s emphasizing running fast and jumping high over skills that they are going to need when they can’t run fast and jump high and that’s not happening at a level that it needs to. I forgot what the question was. But hopefully that answered it, somewhere in there.
You talk about succession planning and looking at the balance you have in this class, how do you like that?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think the numbers that we signed and the quality we signed fit what we were capable of in our current situation. So the numbers are right on. Time will tell if the quality is right on, so again, knowing that some of these players are developmental and some are planning to play right away.
So I think in relation — we need bigger players, we need stronger players, we need athletic players and I love our current team. I’m talking about in addition to them and we need more depth. So we’ve addressed the depth and the size, and I think the athleticism in this class but one class won’t do it. We are going to need now, we are already working on 2018, which contrary to what I just said, if they are not pushing back, then we are moving on.
Meaning, if after hearing what we have to say about UVA, if it’s — no. We are moving on. Because I want kids that want a great education with great people and ACC Championship calibre football, and if they want that, yeah, let’s build a relationship. And if I don’t think they know what they want, then I keep educating, but I’m not here to entertain them and I’m not here to be a reality TV star. I’m here to be a teacher, a mentor and a coach to help people have great lives.
You mentioned in the opening, the importance of in-state recruiting. You didn’t have anyone out of Richmond or the Tidewater area. Wonder if you can expand on, were there players you wanted that it just didn’t work out or just a thin year or what you’re looking for in those areas?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think both. Let me start with the coaches that we have recruiting those areas, Marques Hagans is our recruiter in the 757. He is the 757 and he is UVA. And so anyone that’s in the 757 and wants to know what UVA is, Marques had a unique auto route going through FUMA to get here. Amazing person. Amazing husband. Amazing father. Amazing football player. And a UVA graduate.
And so he knows specifically what it takes, and I trust his opinion. I don’t know that there was even a pebble that was not uncovered to find a player there that would fit with us and there were some that we wanted that didn’t want us.
Same thing with Richmond with Coach Ruff. So the resources, I believe you put the best people in the biggest opportunities. We put great people there and uncovered in my opinion and did a very good job of seeing who might fit and the ones that we wanted didn’t want us. It takes both and some that wanted us, we didn’t want them but we will continue to go anywhere instate with great emphasis and great resources to find players that want our program and that we want them.
So this year, it didn’t pan out but we’ll go back fast and furious and ferociously to find more next year and maybe this next year reflects differently but they will be players that fit with us athletically, academically and socially and that’s — I think we are doing a good job of that and Marques and Coach Ruff, if I had to — I couldn’t pick two better people to just send them out there and say, share our message. And if kids are not coming to them, I’m not sure who they would come to in terms of UVA ambassadorship.
On that same topic, do you find that 2-10 has a bigger impact in-state because it’s closer than maybe across the country?
COACH MENDENHALL: You know, I would say yes and no, it’s interesting, because so many of the kids who chose to come, chose before the season and then kept saying after each game, can’t wait to see us play again; we’re getting better; we, us, as we were struggling. These are guys, now high school kids, they are not switching hats the last day.
That means they were committed a lot of them before the season. We struggled during the year and they are still coming, so there’s a reason for that. Some of them are from instate and some are within our footprint and some are farther away. There’s still momentum that’s been generated because I don’t think there’s a single kid in this class that didn’t believe in state that this is going to be good.
All the first year did was said, we have a lot to do and I want to be part of it. This class, they are farther down than what we thought, but the message we see and the consistency is exactly what we were told, and shoot, we might be able to help earlier than what we thought. So that’s a pretty compelling reason, as well.
He went to school in Connecticut but how does a kid from Germany end up coming to Virginia to play football?
COACH MENDENHALL: I don’t know. So we found a young man, his teammate, Elliott Brown, and Elliott Brown is a very good football player, as good a receiver as what we think is outside linebacker and 6-6, and runs really well. I’ll give you a quick story there on horseback at my place and we’re riding in through the trees and I learn a lot about players that haven’t ridden, going through the trees.
And while that’s happening, Elliot is talking German to Gerrik, and they are saying things that I don’t know if they wanted many he to know or not know, because I was right there, and you would think they would speak English if they wanted me to know but they are speaking German and laughing. I started to learn about his story and was placed in study abroad into West Virginia and his story was that great people there, and I don’t know how to say this, but was still learning and developing learning the game of football, and the coaches at the school in Connecticut saw enough potential in him, to then what they call re-class, which means basically like a prep school, which is the year they are playing, but it’s not counting, the academies do that, so we, in looking for Elliot, then saw Gerrik and then learned his story and then I liked him because I won’t recruit someone I don’t like.
And he was so much fun to be around, but also so driven, and I liked his film that he just kind of captivated us. So that was toward the end that we found him and he just so happened to fit and we could have easily have missed him as not and then we found out about his earlier commitment to Louisville and all that. But we found him through recruiting Elliott and that was more, he would be an example of probably the latest we found someone and signed them and recruited them as anyone in the class.
You said about one third of last year’s class will not be back —
COACH MENDENHALL: Or has already not chosen to come back.
How much of that was their choice and how much of that was your choice?
COACH MENDENHALL: Man, all of it was at the beginning. So I don’t think I’m going to add any new names. I think if you just go back and kind of trace the players that have stayed and not, I love being transparent. And as much as I could, the earlier that I saw them and the earlier that they saw us, with not only the schemes but sometimes the depth and sometimes just whether they liked UVA or not, whether is what they thought it was going to be; about a third of that class, it wasn’t an ideal fit for them, for either one of us.
I’ve been glad to helpfully that wanted to find other places. The good news is about two thirds of that class, we really like, in terms of, their fit at UVA and what they can contribute but they also like being here. So it will be fun to watch over the next year with the class now that we’ve selected from beginning to end.
My hope is there’s no attrition. That’s idealistic, but to build this program the way we need to, we need consistency and we need players to come and stay and be developed and learn our schemes, get experience, be under studies, then be role players, then be starters, so it just is the next year, it’s another good UVA team.
I think it’s been awhile since that has happened. But that’s my ideal.
I know it’s not very sexy but how hard did you push it get a kicker you can rely on?
COACH MENDENHALL: Enough to get a kicker we rely on. We saw our kicker — so Chris Sailer runs these kicking camps throughout the country. I don’t consider myself a kicking specialist other than I look at the yellow poles and it either goes through them or it doesn’t, and when we punt it, it either goes a long way or it doesn’t. And so Chris held a camp on our campus. And it was great because basically all the best kickers in the area and sometimes across the country came to us and they kind of travel on the circuit, the kickers and Chris was in — or Chris Sailer’s opinion, Brian, was the best kicker with the most potential at our camp, starting mostly as a punter, which I love because we are losing great punters and field position swapping is still what we are going to need for awhile. But then the strength of his leg and accuracy improving, you now have weapon that can add three points more frequently, and even one point more frequently and we need that.
And so if a kicker can do both, that saves a scholarship that can actually go somewhere else. And Richard Bernie is our long snapper who plays another position, so now we are able to take those numbers and put them and invest them in offensive and defensive development and depth management that can help us. And so he was not only needed, he was wanted.
And I think he’s proven, and I know he had a chance to play in the Army All-American game, which by today’s recruiting standards was a big thing and he was one of those kickers.
So he might be the most highly-touted, in terms of credentials, of anyone in the class, and might be the most overlooked.
About the recruiting changes, there’s been some suggestions about an early signing period. Are you in favor of that and would that cut down some of the drama that you were speaking of?
COACH MENDENHALL: So I’m in favor of the early signing date that what happened in conjunction with the junior college signing date which in December, because the majority of my class and it’s all been like this, I can’t give you a percentage, would I guess 80 to 85 percent of my classes have always been committed before the season. That would allow them to choose or to make it official in December, which is just a relief for everyone quite frankly by then and what’s happening now is those kids had already chosen.
Others are still trying to persuade them otherwise. We are having to put more time and resources and still visiting them to protect them and treat them like they are wanted, which they are, all the way through February, when it’s really not necessary. Most are ready to just move on with it.
So I think fiscally it makes sense. I think maturity wise it makes sense, and I don’t think it accelerates anything earlier than what’s already in place. That’s why I like that. And I think it would cut down on the drama for some schools. However, there are programs that thrive on the drama and love the reality nature of what happens, and there will still be that element.
But it would make it more efficient for a lot of group of five schools, a lot of FCS schools to go where there are still open and available players and I think it would just clear things up and make it more efficient for all parties, including programs like us where the kids are sticking with their commitments and are going to come no matter what. I don’t think it takes anything away from this February date. The December date would look similar with probably less drama and February would look similar as it does now.
When you bring in a graduate transfer as Colin McGovern, is it with the expectation that he’s somebody who should if not compete for a starting job be in the rotation? Would you bring someone in like that if they were not going to be?
COACH MENDENHALL: I would not bring a graduate transfer in, and I’m not mistake-proof. I might make a mistake. But anyone we bring as a grad transfer can help us fill an immediate need where need — where we need someone to contribute at a high level right away. Ideally it would be a starter, if the lowest level I would like that to be for a grad transfer would be if they are in the rotation.
If they come and are a backup, then I’ve mis-evaluated in terms of what I think they were, and they are coming to us because they see a need. I mean, I’m very transparent; they see a need. They are not promised anything, other than a chance to compete. I want to make that clear. None of them have been said you come in you are the — they are being promised a chance to earn a spot on the team but the need is there for us to have a starter or a rotational player at a minimum.
Is quarterback a little different because there’s a gap?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think that’s a fair point, there absolutely is, because there’s fifth year and first year and while there are first-year quarterbacks that can lead a team to a National Championship, as in Alabama, that supporting class was very, very strong.
In our particular case, while we’re building that supporting cast, I’ve got to have time and for our program to develop players as we go. And so I was not comfortable moving forward without someone, and I’m not going to diminish that, without a very good football player who is capable of leading our team and we went specifically for a player that had two years, because again, I’m looking for consistency and a program that will have a chance every year to be led well.
And so when there was a dual-threat quarterback, if we had a dual-threat quarterback that has two years, then that, or any player that would make more sense than a player even with one year at a position of need.
You’ve talked about addressing specific needs for your program offensive line, kicker, things like that. I don’t know if there’s a knows tackle that jumps out, is that a position you’re still working on?
COACH MENDENHALL: Oh, yeah, it’s one that, man, we’ve looked for everything possible in this particular class that would fit. And I’m glad you brought that up. They are in this class, there is not a, we wanted one. There wasn’t a true nose that I could just now crown and say that, was the nose we were looking for to add to our program. Didn’t happen. And so look from within our roster, we have some really tough D-Linemen coming in that I really, really like and we’ll look from within our existing pool of who we might be able to convert to a nose, but that would be the one need that, yeah, I still lose a little sleep over that.
Coaches always say they love their kids, love their class. Where do you feel like you missed and in this class, I guess nose tackle was one but what were other areas you feel you didn’t get home on?
COACH MENDENHALL: Would have loved one more dynamic receiver for this group. Now we have some pretty cool options because we have a really, really good outside linebacker in snow den who is 6-7 and plays receiver, as well and is a match up nightmare — I don’t know of any corners that are 6-7. But he might be able to. I’m not giving him up, I’m not declaring he’s the receiver — he’s outside linebacker.
So Brown, as well, and then Terrell Jana, there’s three kids that I could say could go either/or but I would have liked one more. We wanted speed at wide out, too and Pratt might be the fastest 200-meter runner in high school this year. According to our track coaches, they think he’ll be 20-point low, 20-point whatever low is in the 20 points.
So we’ve added some speed there. We wanted one more, if it’s our deal and I want to make it clear, I love this class but hopefully I’ve framed it in the context of addressing size, strength, speed, athleticism and depth in relation to our needs and it’s going to take more than one class to do this, and so I do love them.
I love them because they honored their commitments, they are good students, good players and they are good people. Now, how good they play and how good and how fast they help us, let’s be realistic. That will manifest over time. But I think they have great potential.
You mentioned the relationship you’re building with Woodberry Forest. What do you see with Fork Union? Is that doable? I know Bratton was committed before you got here.
COACH MENDENHALL: So yeah, and I had my first visit to Fork Union, so I like that question, as well, because it keeps framing philosophy.
And it’s a great place for us to see if a player will demonstrate the desire and the capability to be developed. Sometimes someone needs development and they don’t want to be developed and grow and learn. And so I’ve used Coach Hagans as example. But Darius Bratton, to hear his coaches and to see him play but also my personal relationship with him, he’s a great fit for UVA in my opinion.
And I didn’t know that for sure as I first arrived but the time that he was there and the time, what I’ve seen from him, that just qualified him to be with us, and not just where I’m taking him, I want him and so I’m anxious for players that might not have had the exact experience they wanted in high school or possibly they have struggled with the tests but have had good grades and are academically capable to go and show that they belong at UVA and so I think that’s a viable option and I’d like to foster that relationship moving forward.