UVA football coach Bronco Mendenhall talks with reporters on Monday ahead of the Cavs’ game this weekend at North Carolina.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s a test of maturity. All these circumstances create teachable moments and new lessons. I think the masterful coaches and the ones that are really intentional are looking for those lessons, not just to help their football team, but to help young men manage their lives. That’s what’s going to happen. There will be successes and failures all along their life.
I like to be not too high and not too low and just consistent so the players know what it’s going to be like every day. There is routine, there is structure, there is accountability, there is discipline. I expect effort, and I like them coming back to a sense of normalcy but with high expectations. I think that’s the best way for them to understand, no matter how many pats they’re getting on the back, wherever they’re getting them, as soon as they walk through the doors, it’s back to a precise and certain level of expectations and accountability. And I think that adds a sense of normalcy to handling it all.
Q: Bryce Hall only had two pass breakups on the season, but it feels like he’s playing extremely well. He was really good in press coverage, it looked like, against Duke. Just what do you think about his play so far?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Bryce is playing well, and our secondary is playing well. The game on Saturday, very few balls are being caught downfield against us. I think Bryce has given up one, and I think maybe Juan has given up one on the season. So any balls that are being caught right now are being contested, and they’re usually underneath.
And the number of breakups is probably just reflective of number of attempts. He’s not defending many passes because his coverage is tight. He’s playing more press than what he did a year ago, which doesn’t encourage throws to his side and he’s performing well. Just like any of the players defensively, a year of experience has really aided their development, and I think that’s in particular and specific to Bryce also.
Q: Micah Kiser was asked after the game about being 4-1 and what the expectations might be going forward. He reminded us he has been on a team that was 4-2 and didn’t go to a Bowl game. What does it mean to you to have one of your leaders look at it that way.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s reasonable because he’s realistic in addressing the brutal facts of what the possibilities are. All this — any momentum can be extinguished, and there’s so much emotional investment put into each week. One game or one win or one loss doesn’t determine the outcome of a season, but yet the teams that are able to focus on the next game, cliche as it is, like it’s the only game, have the best chance.
So it have some players that have been through maybe a strong start and a rocky finish maybe will add an extra sense of urgency and guardianship over the program and preparation to give us our best chance.
Q: Jack English had to sit out the first game. Were you curious how he would respond to the suspension and how has he responded to it?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah. I think any time there’s accountability for behavior, there’s all different kinds of reactions, and it run an entire spectrum. What I like to do and what I believe is appropriate is provide a clear pathway back. It’s usually not just time, it’s a number of checkmarks and tasks and things that have to be completed to qualify to rejoin the team.
But that’s just the beginning. What I like at that point is to create new habits. So then on a weekly basis, there are benchmarks that have to be met. Otherwise, he’s not eligible to play, or a player’s not eligible to play any given week unless the plan and the benchmarks are met.
So it doesn’t surprise me how Jack is playing — and he’s playing well — because he’s doing the things he’s supposed to do to play. And I think that provides a sense of focus and a sense of urgency in keeping the right habits in front of him that will give not only him his best chance to play, but our team, and I think he’s playing well to this point.
Q: Bronco, you guys have been incredibly efficient on third down. Is that something that was a point of emphasis in the off-season and coming into the campaign? And how do you accomplish that?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, it’s been a huge point of emphasis from the minute we arrived at UVA, and it’s taken a while to manifest and a while to show, and time to start to show fruition and come to fruition. But it’s something that we think third down certainly ties the momentum. We certainly think it’s tied to points. We think it’s tied to time of possession. It’s tied to controlling outcome. And third down is really uniquely tied to first down, and we played a lot of football this spring and fall camp with a really unique scoring system that was helping us emphasize what we think we needed to improve from a year ago but also what would help us this year. To this point, I think it’s starting to show.
Q: Given the way North Carolina’s season has gone, what concerns you about this game?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: They’re a capable team. It’s still so early. It’s early for rankings. It’s early for records. It’s early for anything. I think, if you take maybe their game against Duke and our game against Duke, they were very similar. North Carolina was driving to take the lead, and then Duke intercepted it and ran it back for a touchdown. That was in the fourth quarter. The game was very even. It was highly contested and, I think, fairly matched.
So if you look at our game which was very similar to that, this isn’t a matter of capability. They’ve played good teams. They’re relatively young at some of the spots. They’ve had some injuries. But none of that means they’re less capable. So I think, again, when you look for markers and metrics, you look for common opponents. With the common opponent we’ve had, the games were very similar. So I think that’s probably the best benchmark to this point.
Q: On the two deep, you have Chris Moore and Juan Thornhill on your two Sam linebackers. Are any or either of the young guys getting to the point where they could play extensively at that position, or is it still —
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Not yet. We probably ought to list the Sam in small case, small letter s rather than capital. We’re just innovating and putting the best 11 players on the field and designing concepts to make the most of that. Juan is starting at corner as well, so that also reflects depth or lack thereof. But a lot of teams have that circumstance right now.
So we’re doing the best to manage our existing roster personnel. And really one player that can play one, two, or three spots is a great backup for us right now. The chance for a true two deep is not really realistic for our program at this point.
So most positions have a single player that can play both or multiple spots, which is necessary.
Q: Bronco, you might have already answered this when Chris asked you about Bryce Hall, but Chris Peace, you point to him a lot as the best practice guy you have on the team, kind of sets that tone. What’s been the difference in that maybe translating onto the field this year?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: The research on performance is really clear. Repetition has a lot to do with performance. The number of repetitions certainly however, that actually can hurt performance as well if the repetition isn’t at the right level in terms of concentration and intensity.
So Bryce, who we talked about earlier, and Chris Peace — and it’s becoming more common of our entire program — were putting in the quality of repetitions, which is the number or the quantity of repetitions as well as the number. But also our team is learning the quality that’s necessary to have those repetitions start to form and replace existing habits. Because when you do that enough, when you practice hard enough and long enough but also intently enough, that usually starts to translate onto improved player performance, and it usually starts to hold more in the chaotic circumstances in the really stressful moments of the game. And it’s just beginning.
Q: With Chris Moore, this was a guy that you didn’t necessarily know that you were going to have to depend on this year, but at what point did you have a sense that he could handle some of the things you’re asking him to do in terms of that versatility that you’re referencing?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Chris really struggled in spring practice, so we were encouraged from what we saw last fall as a first year and anticipated being very impressed in the spring, which we weren’t. He did not play well in the spring. And did not perform well, and that was the feedback that he received at the end of spring practice.
Through the summer, there were players that, when I would see them, when I’d show up for work and they were on the second floor, they’d be talking positively about different guys they liked at workouts, and Chris’ name started to come up. But really at fall camp, we just saw he was outplaying a lot of our defensive roster, and he was doing it really consistently, and he was doing it at multiple positions. So really, it was fall camp where we started to believe that he was going to continue and maybe pick up from where he had left off at the end of his first year fall, not the spring.
So it took him a while to connect that. He missed some time in between in terms of focus and urgency and preparation, but to his credit, he did stay, he took the feedback really well, listened, and applied what our expectations were for him, and, man, he’s doing a really nice job for us now.
Q: This team, this program hasn’t generally been a good road team for the last several years. Obviously, you won a lopsided game at Boise. What did that do for what you think is your team’s confidence in going on the road?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Well, I’m not sure. We didn’t make any more of the road game than we needed to at Boise and leaving early and whatever their record was. I think that’s what was swirling around, and they get plenty of that. I just — my approach and our approach as a team, it’s just the same game and different location. I’m just not a believer in making more of something, regardless of history, than it needs to be. I like all of our focus to be on our current preparation, our current assignments, our current application of what we’re being taught. There’s just not much more room for anything else to occupy their mind. We think all that is is interference, and anything that’s interference doesn’t help us play well.
So we do our best to present, as coaches and as a program, yeah, it’s a different state and it’s a different stadium, but come on? What else really could impact this? We have — I don’t like the idea of — well, we have a saying that we think there are two types of people, those that act and those that are acted upon. Wherever you go, you can act your way into playing well rather than just waiting for someone to determine outcome.
Q: Heading into Game 6, you have three true freshmen offensive linemen who have their numbers. At this point of the season, if guys stay healthy, would you prefer not to play Chris and Tyler and Ryan?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I’d prefer that, but that really is — man, the roster is — it changes week to week, and it’s happening all across the country. That would be the ideal at this point. Then again, that doesn’t mean those kids are automatically redshirted or gifted this extra year. They have a lot of work to do to continue to demonstrate the competencies and commitment necessary to possibly get an extra year, and this is just the beginning.
So I’d prefer not to, but what I have learned is as soon as the word redshirt comes out or as soon as we’re not going to play you this year, we say those words, motivation drops, performance drops, commitment drops, commitment to team drops, and none of that’s healthy or effective for not only their performance but the team. So we just don’t do it like that.
Q: Coach, on Saturday after the game, you touched a little bit on the new standard thing being player driven. Was there a point over your time here that you started noticing players taking more ownership of it themselves, or has that been just a this season thing?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I can’t point to a single event or a single day. I remember the first time it was mentioned by a player, and that was Chris Peace talking in front of the team during fall camp, but, man, that message has been pretty consistent, and the expectations have been pretty consistent from day one of our staff’s arrival. It wasn’t branded. It wasn’t named. It’s just everything we think how you do one thing is how you do everything, and eventually that shows.
So maybe it just took enough volume of times hearing it or living it before it became theirs. I think that involvement equals ownership, and there’s no great team that can be coach driven and be sustainable. So it’s great to have upperclassmen or older players recognize that, and now it’s coming from them, not me, which is — that’s a lot more powerful.
Q: Bronco, you keep reminding us that it’s still early in this process. From your perspective, what is maybe that next step, that next phase of this process?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Oh, man. There’s — Game 6 is probably the next phase. The next step. And then Game 7, and then game 8, and then however this season turns out, then possibly adding consistency again. Then when that one plays out, probably adding consistency again. That’s when programs become established is not only doing it one week or one game, but then multiple weeks, and regardless of home or away. And as different circumstances arise, the team looks and performs similarly regardless, and then when that starts happening not only day to day, but week to week, eventually that becomes year to year. And that’s what the best programs, that’s what they do.
So we’re a long ways from that, but we are showing progress.
Q: Can you assess your pass rush?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I wasn’t pleased — I wasn’t especially happy with our pass rush on Saturday. For the amount of times that we had pressure called and one-on-one matchups versus the times where we knew the ball was going to be thrown and we’re still playing well on third down. But affecting the quarterback, I wasn’t happy and satisfied with the amount of plays that we affected him versus the calls that we had, and that message is something the players have heard from their position coaches, will hear from me.
We played very well on first and second down, and we still played well on third down, but I wanted us to be even more disruptive than we were. So, yeah, I’m not satisfied yet with how that looks.
Q; If this has been asked, I’ll get it off the transcript. After the game, your players went over to the student section. I’m trying to remember whether that’s something they did last year. Was it spur of the moment? What did you think about that?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I thought it was really cool. I did not advise them to do that. However, I think it’s completely appropriate. I did ask our team after the Boise win to go to our fans in the stands that came and made that trip. So possibly, they just saw that as something that was appropriate, was needed, was wanted from both sides, and I think spontaneously was the phrase used. I think that just happened, but I think the seeds were probably planted at Boise, and I think it’s — if we’re really going to have an amazing program here, it will take a stadium of just amazingly supportive fans as well, and I think our team is starting to realize that as well.
Q: As a head coach, until last year — or this year, you’d never had to go out recruiting after a losing season. How much difference does this winning make with recruits in terms of giving you and your staff and your program credibility?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Oh, it’s — I mean, I’d love to just right away say it’s everything. If it’s not, it’s just right under that. Everyone likes a winner, and when you have a world class education in addition to winning football in a really cool community, then it becomes the whole different commentary.
Many of the players that came for 2017’s class are coming based on the history and the record of myself and our staff and just believed it would — it certainly would happen here. And our first year, I think all that showed was, for those that stayed committed, was they didn’t waver, but there were others on the outside that were wondering, will this really work, and how long will it take, and do I want to be a part of that this early?
All that’s happening now in the second year, to have the start that we’ve had, it’s just linking back to certainly what coach has been saying the team is. It’s not a matter of if, but when, and the when might be sooner than what it looked like a year ago. So those that were kind of up — came up to the line that were peeking over at what UVA might look like are now jogging up to the line and with more energy and excitement as to possibly joining us. That’s been increasingly so the last three weeks, I would say.
Q: Every time you’re asked about the past or the future, you kind of revert to living in the moment. How do you get your 21-year-old players to abide by that philosophy?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think it’s workload. If you work players to the point where they’re so tired that they can’t survive it without giving everything they have to that moment, and then if they don’t do it to standards, they have to keep doing it until they do. Eventually by the time they leave the practice field on Tuesday, they’re back to reset.
It’s just a pretty simple formula, but it’s one that I like. I think it sends the right message that, if anything, the capacity has to increase, and there’s X amount of work that has to be done at a very specific standard, and if it’s not, we just stay till it is. That usually brings everyone right back to, oh, it’s a new week, and it’s as if we haven’t played before.
There’s a lot of people who say you’re only as good as your last performance. In the world that I live in, it’s real. Just the way people say hello.
Q; It seems the first couple years we dealt with Quin, he kind of kept to himself. Maybe I’m mistaken there. He seems much more outgoing, and when you look at him on the field, he’s pumping up the stands, the fans, and whatever. What have you seen from him from a personality perspective?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I love empowering young people that have earned the right to have increased roles. And one of my passions is developing leaders. And that’s regardless of age. That can’t happen without delegation, and that can’t happen without being responsible to talk to the team before — it might be before the game. I do very little of that as a coach. The closer we get to the game, the less that I speak. The farther away, so I do quite a bit of talking on Tuesday, quite a bit on Wednesday in team settings, less on Thursday, hardly any on Friday, and very little on Saturday.
The players are just the opposite. I’m asking them and putting them in position to take more and more ownership the closer we get in building up to the game because they’re the ones playing, and they have to be the ones making realtime decisions there, especially in Quin and Micah’s spot. So I think, as he’s been empowered and has earned the chance to have that responsibility, I think it’s just helping him become a more effective leader and spokesperson, but also a player for our program.
THE MODERATOR: One last thing I’ll put out right after this is over is Mondays are out for the year injury report. We added Ben Hogg to that. He’ll be out for the remainder of the year. I’m not sure if you wanted to mention that.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Ben was hurt in practice, non-contact injury, and just planted it funny. He is eligible for an additional year or two. You’ll have to check with Kelli [Pugh] with that. So nothing has come easy for Ben. He’s resilient. He’s tough. He’ll bounce back. We’ve already had that discussion. This isn’t the last you’ve seen of him.