Sophomore surge: Second-year ACC football coaches look for gains

UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall is one of four ACC football coaches heading into their Year 2 in 2017.

uva acc kickoff bronco mendenhallNo excuses now, right? You know the league, by and large. Florida State and Clemson play for national titles. Georgia Tech runs the option. Everybody has linebackers and safeties flying all over the field, speed at wideout, depth at running back, quarterbacks putting up video-game numbers.

And perhaps most importantly, you know what you have, and your guys know your program.

“For all of us that are taking on new programs, I think we relish the chance where we can from the sideline in practice or a game say where this is going to be good. I think that’s what any great teacher and anyone that cares about young people, that’s what we want,” Mendenhall told reporters at last week’s ACC Kickoff.

Syracuse coach Dino Babers is headed toward his third Year 2. At Eastern Illinois, his second team, in 2013, went 12-2, after a 7-5 year in 2012. His second Bowling Green team was 10-3 in 2015, after an 8-6 Year 1 in 2014.

Babers thinks he has the precise moment that things will click for his team nailed down: Year 2, Game 4.

(Which means: watch out, LSU, which hosts the Orange on Sept. 23.)

“Second year, Game 4, everywhere I’ve been – this is my third stop – that’s when the lightbulbs go on,” Babers said. “I don’t know why. It’s somewhere around there, plus or minus two. But somewhere in the second year, somewhere around the middle of the season, they get it. What it is, I don’t know, but that normally is what happens, and the team and everything starts to change.

“I’m all for that thing happening this year, second year, somewhere around Game 4,” Babers said.

Mendenhall thinks the Year 2, Game 4 pinpoint may be a bit too specific, but he does agree generally with the notion that “there will come a time for every program and every new coach that has a real impact on his players where there is a moment where you recognize it.”

“I think all it does is manifest all the work that kind of comes through, and it appears to be a breakthrough, but that’s the … maybe the culmination of all these small and simple things,” said Mendenhall, whose first Year 2 team, at BYU in 2006, finished 11-2, after a 6-6 campaign in his first year at the school in 2005.

Note: UVA’s fourth game in 2017 is also on the road, at Boise State, on Sept. 22.

Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente, for his part, doesn’t seem to buy into the idea that there is any kind of real timetable for when a new program has taken hold.

“When you take over a situation, there are so many external factors, good and bad, that affect the time that it takes to get to, basically, victories,” Fuente said. “You really have no idea how long it’s going to take. There are just so many things going on. Some things are accelerated, some things slow down.”

Fuente’s eyes are on the long-term mission: “to return Virginia Tech back to the top of the ACC.”

“To me, it’s about the process and it’s about are we going about the process that’s been proven over time that leads to our improvement,” Fuente said. “As far as what we’re trying to obtain, we’re trying to obtain perfection in our preparation, which will give us the opportunity to win the ballgame. It doesn’t guarantee that we will win. It doesn’t guarantee that we’ll win one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, games. It doesn’t guarantee anything. It just guarantees the opportunities if we’re willing to put forth this dedication, this discipline level on a daily basis. That’s how we tend to measure these things. Are we giving ourselves this chance for success on a weekly basis.

“You know, the ultimate number of wins and all that sort of stuff, I understand it’s important and it is a measuring tool, but it’s not the only one,” Fuente said. “My first year at Memphis, we had to use a different measuring tool to determine if we were improving. Each year is different. Each team is different. As we move forward, for us, it’s all about focusing on the process and making sure we’re giving ourselves a chance.”

Fuente’s first Year 2 team, at Memphis in 2013, finished 3-9, after a 4-8 record in 2012.

His third team went 10-3 in 2014 and ended that year ranked 25th in the AP poll.

The Hokies host Old Dominion in Game 4 in 2017 on Sept. 23, for those keeping score at home.

Miami coach Mark Richt had to adjust to a new program and also a new role on the sidelines when he decided to assume play-calling duties on offense after handing those duties over as the head coach in Georgia back in 2006.

This time last year, “I was still memorizing our code names and hand signals, just the verbiage that we presented as a staff to our players,” Richt said.

“We changed the verbiage from Georgia. I didn’t want to have the same code names and hand signals and all that. So I was still getting myself acquainted with that. But now, I don’t need flash cards. I got it. I think I’ll be able to call the game much more quickly, and adjust much more quickly. And I think when you play certain teams a second time around, offenses and defenses a second time around, it’s a lot different than the first time that you’ve done it,” Richt said.

And as Richt explained in detail to reporters at the ACC Kickoff last week, there’s so much more than just what goes on during games and practices.

“You’ve got to look at your strength program. You’ve got to look at your nutrition program. You’ve got to look at your academics. You’ve got to look at your recruiting. You’ve got to look at everything that you do and how you do it and teach everybody how you want things done. The very first practice, you practice the practice without the players. You get the managers and trainers and coaches and you get the clocks running and you get everybody to understand where they’ve got to be and when they’ve got to be there. You’re ground zero in so many areas year one,” Richt said.

“Year two, we understand how to do the little things right, and we understand how we want to go about our business, and the players, like I said, 80, 90 percent of them know exactly what we want to do and how we want to do it, so now it’s a matter of them perfecting their trade. And so it’s a different feel for sure,” Richt said.

Richt’s Year 2 team at Georgia, in 2002, went 13-1 and finished third in the national polls, after an 8-4 campaign in 2001.

Miami’s Week 4: a home game against Toledo, a week after a road trip to Florida State.

Story by Chris Graham

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