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UVA Football: Bronco Mendenhall talks 2019 recruiting class

bronco mendenhallBRONCO MENDENHALL: I don’t view this as signing day. Signing day already happened. The early signing day is now where — I think the latest statistics said over 80 percent of student-athletes signed for football in the first signing date, so there’s 20 percent that are being announced today. With the exception of a graduate transfer that’s chosen to join us, our commitments have been in place, and we’ve known about them even at the early signing date and because of either academics or some paperwork, things they weren’t able to do.

So we had a need for an offensive lineman as a grad transfer like we have every year. We filled that with Alex from Penn State. He has two years of eligibility remaining and is a very strong student, which is a perfect fit for UVA. We’ve chosen to continue to explore every option for players that fit at UVA.

This summer we had a group come from Europe, around 30 players. Out of that group we had offered five. Three had committed, one did not qualify academically, but Luke, our quarterback, who in camp we also experimented with at wide receiver and defensive back, approximately 6’4″, over 200 pounds, runs really well, is a really good athlete, and when I saw the kids from Europe, they had just driven through the night to get to our camp, and they competed ferociously, and they worked really hard, and they were so thankful and hungry for an opportunity, and I was just very impressed with not only the group but with Luke in particular, and so we’re really excited about him.

He’s kind of blazing a trail now for that position, and where better than for a great person and a strong student and a good player to be than UVA. So I think that’s a really strong fit, as well.

And then Jairus is a player that we were aware of when I was the coach at Brigham Young. He was just young at that time. However, we had paid attention to him then. He spent last year at Fork Union, or last semester at Fork Union. We really liked how he performed there. He’s been working academically to ensure that he could meet UVA’s admissions standards for our program, and he’ll be a linebacker for us, so another really good player, position of need and really good fit.

So again, nothing necessarily earth shattering by volume, but certainly appropriate and effective in terms of needs being met.

And so anxious to be with our team now. It’s been really good to be off the road and to see our players, and I’ve been anxious to do that for quite some time now. It’ll be interesting to see how this process continues to go in the future, if this percentage continues to shrink after the first signing date, and if so, if we even need a second signing date. It’ll be interesting as my coaches and colleagues kind of short through all that. It’ll be also entering to see what the transfer portal, how that looks. Lots and lots of players now are leaving institutions, forfeiting grant and aid and amazing educational opportunity, and we’ve seen this a little bit in the NFL where sometimes they might have listened to the wrong people and think they’ll leave early to go to the NFL and they remain undrafted. It’ll be interesting to see the number of players left in the portal prior to the start of next season who have forfeited educational opportunities and see if that really worked out for them.

So I’m hopeful that it is and that it does, but there’s some uncharted territory going on right now with what this second signing date really is and what it looks like and if it’s necessary and if the portal really is serving the purpose that it’s intended to. So those are things I think that are contributing to the timing and the signing period in college football right now, also.

I’ll take questions if there are some.

Q. Are there additional spots open in this class, and if so, are there any circumstances under which you would fill them?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Sure. It’s policy right now, especially for positions of need and roster management, grad transfer market is different, the timing is different than the signing day. And so that happens not only through spring practice. There could be additional players available after spring if their role isn’t what they had hoped, and sometimes even into summer.

So we strategically in the past couple years have kept spots open, and sometimes we fill them with existing walk-ons on our team if it doesn’t sort out appropriately, and sometimes transfers become available that are at positions of need because our needs might change a little bit after spring practice manifests. We still reserve the right to do so. Don’t leave ourselves much margin for error, but just enough to hopefully address maybe a need or two after this period is over.

Q. With Gellerstad, how valuable is his experience at right tackle even though it’s limited? Will that allow you to keep him inside with Victor and Fannin and Glaser and all those guys?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Man, I’m not sure yet. We want just the best five players out there at a time, and we already know Dylan has some flexibility. We already know that Nelson has some flexibility, and so we wanted just another long and athletic and capable player to be able to sort out the best five. We felt really strongly, especially with two years of eligibility and being a strong student that it was just — that combination of player, student and ability and number of years, that made a lot of sense to us.

Q. What kind of quarterback is Wentz? Is there anybody that you’ve had since you’ve been here that we would know that you could compare him to?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No, not since I’ve arrived here. But he is an athlete. His dad was an athlete — I think there’s only one Taysom. So what Taysom is in terms of throwing it back, right, when you think about Bryson, our current quarterback, he’s more — if you had to say superhero, more like the Flash Gordon kind. Yeah, Luke is somewhere in between, but a really skilled athlete.

Again, when he came to camp we put him at defensive back and at wide receiver and at quarterback, which we could have done with either of the other two players we just mentioned, and so he’s fast and he’s big, and he’s a fierce competitor and a really hard worker, a live arm, and so it’ll be fun to see where and how and what his production really looks like here at UVA and how long it takes, coming from Europe playing that position.

Q. Sometimes with a new rule there can be unintended consequences. The early signing period, has that created any more maybe a feeding frenzy in January because there are fewer players available, and then schools are losing players to the transfer portal and suddenly everybody wants what’s out there?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: So it was different a year ago because the transfer portal wasn’t in effect. But what was happening that was clear and acknowledged by the coaches a year ago is players of need became disproportionately more valuable than they were in the early signing day. So a player that might have been ranked, I don’t know, 12th on your board at the early signing date and then let’s say things didn’t go according to plan on the early signing date and you had to have a defensive end or a safety and that player was still available, he then and his value if it was the star ranking sometimes would jump one, two or three more stars, and the competition that you’re facing to recruit that player jumped one, two or three more levels, and so I’m not sure that’s good for the player or the programs, but the need is propelling that.

Now that the transfer portal is part of it, as well, intrigue possibly on current teams and players then — man, it might be just a really hard off-season workout between the first one and the second signing, and they just say, okay, I’ve had enough of this, and they go in the portal, with no really governor on it. There used to be the ability to have — the release had to be granted by the head coach, and that wasn’t always done perfectly, either, by college football. But at least there was a step that said slow down just for a second. Now that step is gone.

So the excitement of attention and the drama that comes with being signed and wanted versus an off-season program, and now we’re going to labor and compete to get on the field in your own program, sometimes that I think might be leading to maybe choices that aren’t the wisest.

Q. The whole process with grad transfers, what is it like when you’re looking at them trying to evaluate them, figure out how they fit, and then when you do hit on one and you’re able to plug and play like that, how valuable is that?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Well, for us it’s been essential in building this program, and I think it’s been fantastic for the kids we’ve recruited because they’ve all started. So they’re getting experience they hadn’t had prior to transferring, and I’m talking grad transfer, which I am for.

Again, my primary goal is the development of young people, and academics is a huge part of that in terms of their life goals, and so I love the idea of qualify and get your degree, and then, okay, now let’s talk about football again. And for the kids that have done that in three years — which is totally doable now with as much summer school that the schools pay for. It sounds like three years, but when you add summer school to it, it’s really the equivalent of four, maybe even four and a half if you look at the number of semesters being paid for, and if a player hasn’t yet played a significant role but they feel capable and they’ve shown enough film and they believe in themselves enough that they are, and then there’s a team with a need, those kids that are leaving our program after starting for us and experiencing UVA education, man, they’re finally getting the experience they wanted when they signed the first time, and I think that’s really positive because they’re adding to their education and they’re adding to their holistic development, and they get to play football, which at a higher role, and it’s a heck of a lot more fun to play than watch, and that’s what they’re leaving.

So in terms of — if you just say Marcus Applefield, his experience and seeing him in the off-season as I was out recruiting and he was training for one of the combines at a facility, and that was his first winning season. It was his first bowl season. It was his first bowl win, and he was — he had an amazing and magical experience because of the grad transfer opportunity. Anything short of that I have a hard time endorsing at this point.

Q. Do you find that with the success you’ve had more of them are looking at this as maybe a destination?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: That’s what’s happened through word of mouth, meaning the players that have had the experience, if they were tied to other players and other friends, that’s really where our referrals are coming from, and it’s — and that will be effective as long as we find the right player for the right need so they can keep having that experience.

And I really don’t want to consider anyone as a grad transfer unless I’m certain they’ll start for us, and that makes sure they’re happy, they get a great education in addition to what they have, and they are more fulfilled. If it’s not that, it doesn’t seem like that’s necessarily the right thing to do. At least not to me.

Q. On the topic of early signing day versus this late signing day period, what do you like most about this idea of kind of having this be pushed down a little bit the second period versus the first one?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Well, I think it eliminates so much more of the drama while there still is some and players flipping and some of the announcements and how they’re being made. In reality, when the first signing period happens in our program is less drama and more work, we’re preparing for a bowl game, we’re recruiting, school is happening, finals are going on, and the class is being added at that time. That’s much more realistic for these kids as a point of reference for what life really looks like. Very seldom is there a press conference just because you choose a place to go to work. And that sets a precedent that’s really hard for them to exceed for the rest of their life.

I just like it because it’s a more realistic entry point into life, and so now maybe 20 percent are having more of the entertainment and more of the drama and more of the things that come with that, and it doesn’t mean bad kids or anything else. But the first one fits our profile, and my philosophy at a higher level, and it doesn’t mean that we won’t ever sign someone the second because there’s always outliers for whatever reason, ours just happened to be through transcript evaluation or handling the foreign admission process, which took a little longer than what — we’re still learning how to do that. Some of those things were kind of unique.

But I really like players that know what they want really early, honor their commitment after they’ve made their commitment, and we’ve identified them, and everything is in by like 8:00 and we’re on back to preparing for South Carolina and a bowl game and managing finals and they go about their lives, and then we can’t wait until they get here. I like that better as a point of reference for life preparation for young people.

Q. This class was basically recruited after a 6-7 season, kids committed during the summer and early fall. Now you’ve gone 8-5. How much do you think it will help particularly in state? I think you had three or four in state signees this year.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Man, just — what’s interesting, as well, is so after the first signing date, really what’s happening out on the road is spring recruiting. Most teams are recruiting 2020 and 2021. What’s different is the head coach is out, and the head coach can’t engage with prospects at that age and at that time. You can say hello and that’s basically all you can say. But the feedback I got back by being out is the bowl win versus South Carolina, the perception of the program and now two back to back bowl appearances, and then it’s holy cow, your quarterback is back? The UVA football brand is becoming more powerful. It’s becoming very intriguing, and there’s momentum being generated at a really fast rate, and so that was tangible, noticeable, and is having effect on perception by not only in-state players but in-state coaches, but I would say in our footprint at large.

So the yield that that will produce, we’ll see, but it certainly is tangible, even if you go out not looking for it. Just the dialogue and the presence when you’re in the schools is quite a bit different.

Q. Bronco, I know that the German kids came to your camp and all, but how did all that process begin in the first place, and do you see that as a trend going forward for not just you but a lot of colleges in the U.S.?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I think it is a trend. That same group that stopped at UVA had stopped at other places, and they basically just camped and camped — meaning they went to different camps. Their primary intent was to get exposure and hopefully earn scholarships through their performances in camp, as well as become educated as to what football or college football in America looks like.

And I was really taken back by how appreciative and how hungry and how hard these kids worked. They were just so — it was very refreshing that they wanted this opportunity so bad in regards to how hard we worked them. They were just appreciative and thankful to be coached.

So we learned about the kids coming ovary think when some messages might have been posted from another camp they were at, and it was in our area, so at that point we were trying to find out if their agenda was already set, how were they deciding, but we did very little work on the front end, nor have we been there, to Europe, yet.

So I think we’re still at the early stages of that, much like maybe when Brigham Young university was recruiting the south Pacific. It might have been like that. This might be a little farther along. But from what I’ve seen, if this group is representative of a larger population, that’s what is pretty intriguing.

I could see us potentially going once we get enough contacts and enough work done that will be cost effective to where we can make a number of stops and enough days with enough volume to possibly see what else is there. Until then, we’ll probably continue on the route we are, if there’s groups coming over, hopefully they’ll choose because you can’t really influence them other than that. Hopefully they’ll choose to make a stop here.

Q. As you sort of look forward now, you’ve mentioned before that the early signing period is for all intents and purposes your signing period, so you’ve had a lot — maybe a jump start on 2020. As you look at the next class, what do you see as the sort of goal post for that group? What are your needs in that group?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Well, our needs are really clear and kind of in framing that, I believe this class that we just signed is similar to our ’17 class in terms of capability of players, how fast they might play and the impact they might have, and so I’m really excited about this class from top to bottom and the needs being addressed but also just the quality of players. So I think we’ve done a really nice job in this class.

Our next class we don’t have the same numbers, so the numbers will be fewer, anywhere between 12 and 15, and so the selective nature — this will be our fourth class basically that we’ve chosen, and so that’s about right. By the time you hit class 4, the numbers should have come down and the emphasis on quality and specificity has a chance to go up, and that will really determine the outcome for this class. But there aren’t many needs. There might be one linebacker total. There might be one defensive lineman total. It won’t be hard to look at our roster and say, okay, there the needs are, but we already have our formula completely dialed in. I’ve been recruiting to it. Got another commitment yesterday already.

You think about that, that commitment could have been to a position, that that would be that commitment to that position for that class, and we’re talking about a day before the second signing of the year before. So anyway, when we take a commitment going forward, as our numbers shrink, the certainty of that player and us that that will fill the need we have at a high enough level to then continue to improve the program, that now starts to shift the paradigm that we’re operating within.

Q. You had said that if the right player was available, you were interested in adding maybe a grad transfer receiver, a high school defensive lineman. I realize that could possibly still happen. If it doesn’t happen and this is what you have, do you have enough bodies and enough at each of those two positions for the coming season?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I’m really comfortable today if it just stopped that we could play and play effectively. If I were to say, what’s the next biggest need, there are still two needs that are preeminent in our program. I would love another wide receiver, and I would prefer one with two years of eligibility who’s a great student. I think that fits really well at UVA. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t consider one in terms of one-year player, but if you’re saying for the University of Virginia, a graduate transfer that has two years, is a great student and a really good player, and we have a need at receiver.

And I still would not eliminate the chance of even another possible grad transfer at offensive line. The way we practice, how physical we want to play, and now here’s the next part, the injuries that we still have on our team going into spring, our season just became longer. So our roster is still not completely developed. We just played a longer season, and we’ve done it now — it’s becoming habit, and so the volume of players and the wear on them is taking a toll, and so we’re still — especially in the offensive line category, more is better if they’re the fits I’ve already talked about.

Q. You have three freshmen here as early enrollees, Goddard, Chalmers and Clary. Do those three really stick out to you physically during the recruiting process, and how valuable is this early time for them?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Well, the time is very valuable, and there’s no question it’s an advantage for their ability to participate early for our team. There are down sides in terms of how much you consider leaving high school early and some of the quality of life things that happen as you navigate that pretty special time in your life. But in our workouts, they are doing really well and are exceeding the entry point of those and many that have come into our program in our first two classes. So they’ve already started at a higher level in terms of physical maturity, strength, speed and size, and as well as just the University of Virginia really focuses on students coming in in the summer and this long orientation process and the care they need, these three have basically dropped in, and as a credit to them, we’ve hardly noticed they’re there other than we see them at workouts because they’re doing all the things right in class and off the field, so pretty mature. But we recognized that early. They’re filling needs that will help our team, and they’re going to get an early jump start, which it’s harder for them because the University of Virginia is not set up ideally for mid-season orientation and for these kids to come in, so they have to be more mature, and also really hungry and willing to do it. But so far, so good on the three that we’ve chosen.

Q. You mentioned this group maybe being similar to 2017 and being able to get here and push. What kind of opportunities are there when they do get here, and what’s that going to do in camp competition?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Well, on every coach’s door was posted a year ago, you’ll see a couple symbols. There’s a greater than symbol and then an equals sign with a line through it, so greater than, not equal to. So every person we add to the team, every team which is the next team, which is now our 2019 team, we expect it to be better than what was just here. That means that anyone currently in the program through our developmental process better be working like crazy to become better than they just were, so as we select players that we’re hopeful are better than, not equal to what we already have that there’s this constant friction so we can improve the program on a consistent basis. We’re looking for unbroken growth, so if you think about companies and you think about organizations, sometimes there’s an ascent and then a flattening and then a drop down and then another ascent. What we’re hopeful for is unbroken growth.

So it’s this bowl game, but we didn’t win, now it’s this bowl game and we did win, and it was this number of wins, now it’s this. So if you look at — we want more. We want better, and we want greater than, not equal to. So we’re hopeful that ’19’s class was better than ’18 and better than ’17. Now at ’17 and ’18’s class have to say about that is they’ve had one and two years in our program being trained and developed, and they really choose if they allow this group now to take their place or not, and so — but the world is full of competition, right? We just happen to have a great culture of support and camaraderie and teamwork that ends up kind of bringing out the best in everyone, so it’ll be fun to see how it plays out.

Q. What was the situation with R.J. proctor, and was there a common thread with the guys who are looking at the portal?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Uh-uh. So we had three younger players that basically did not see themselves earning a role that was going to be one of significance, and as we’ve said earlier, playing is more fun than watching. I’m talking just from a football perspective. So the three younger players that chose to enter the portal were hopeful for increased roles. While they loved the program and they — man, amazing kids. Their role on the field, it was clear to them and all three which came to me, it wasn’t one of those things where I called them in and said, hey, you’re not going to play here. All three of them realized, hey, this doesn’t look like my role is going to be what I wanted, so they would like to look elsewhere.

And then in R.J.’s case, really interesting to me, my philosophy is a little bit different, meaning I consider a fifth year as earned, so at UVA, UVA expects every student to graduate in four years, as do I, on our football team. And so I consider awarding the fifth year on the back end if I think that all things then have been qualified for. In R.J.’s case, my simple belief was that his growth and his development and him taking another jump was going to best be facilitated through some of the hard things of going to another place and then being a new guy, reestablishing yourself, and that urgency and that hunger to then take your game to a different level, and in relation just to our staff and our fit, I really didn’t think we were going to be able to help him, nor within that relationship have him take this next jump. So that’s what we advised him to do, and my guess is he’ll have a — based on the interest that is in him, man, there’s going to be a really cool place that he lands, and I bet he’ll take another jump. I really do.

My job is to develop people, and I think that’s what really helped him, and so he was advised that way.

Q. Forgive me if you touched on this. With the skill players over there, I don’t know how much football they play, you were a big advocate of playing a lot of football, are there skill players, do they need to be developed even further than just their regular linemen and guys like that? What kind of level do you see him being?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It’s a really good question, and I don’t know for sure yet. It’s too early to tell. I know when you watch the film, it’s really unique because there’s no — the yard lines are every 10 yards, and there’s no single markers — there’s no single yard markers in between. You know it’s in Europe just by looking at the field. There’s not many players on either team.

However, you can see talented, hungry and driven kids out there playing the game in this kind of really unique setting in terms of rosters, and I don’t know exactly what the level of play will look like or what it will translate to. I’m not certain, other than I saw these kids right in front of my eyes at camp, and man, I worked them hard, and we had them at different positions, and it was just like — they were just smiling and eager, and Luke in particular, he was throwing it, then he was catching it, then he was covering guys, then he was lined up over here, and so I was intrigued enough based on potential and our staff’s history of development that if someone could develop them, I think we can.

Now, how much he’s going to need, I don’t know yet.

Q. Kind of sticking with those European kids, Al Soufi, 6’3″, 340, 350 can move pretty well. Is he a guy that maybe if he doesn’t understand the game very well can get early playing time just on physicality alone?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I hope so. Kariem was really an interesting prospect, so he got my attention just in running, and so he’s this giant body, and anywhere between 320 and 350 I would say. But then I watched him run, and as soon as I watched him run, I just told our staff, we’re going to offer him a scholarship. So he moves really well for someone that size.

I was even considering him as a nose tackle when I saw him run. And then he worked and he worked and he worked. He had a great rest of the drill work and the camp, so who knows, other than we identified him really early even in the process of our camp and the structure that maybe in the first 10 minutes, and I made a decision then, which doesn’t happen very often.

Q. (Inaudible.)
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think so, based on body type, and we’ll probably find out if he can snap it, too. Who knows.

Q. Of your returning players, are there any ones who are particularly projects for Shawn Griswold right now in terms of gaining significant amount of weight before the start of spring ball or start of the season?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Man, if they’re — as you know, my passion is the development process. That’s my favorite part. Not only physically but just holistically. Charles Snowden is driven to continue playing and moving like he is but adding about 25 more pounds. Another young player, Grant Misch, as he was kind of between outside backer and defensive line, he’s going after that. Others are working fiercely to actually trim down and become leaner. So it’s really hard to name individuals as much. But what I can tell you maybe as a more relevant answer is that what longer seasons and more games, as we are adding players and developing our rosters, our roster then with the injuries that are prolonging and then possibly having them miss components of this developmental process lends them to be likely to be in a similar place they were a year ago when they did get hurt, and so it’s hard to get ahead of the curve.

And so we’re working ferociously in every way possible to get all stages of injury and players developed, either trimming, strengthening, gaining, as specific as we can within a team culture to try to accelerate the program. So that’s probably the bigger issue going on.

Q. Speaking of Coach Gris, you’ve now had a full year. You guys look like a much stronger team. You mentioned that throughout the season. With one year under your belt with him, how happy are you with the program he’s implemented?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Oh, Coach Gris is the exact right coach for us at this time and within this program for all the things we’re doing. He’s a perfect fit for us, and the results are already showing. It’s also showing just how much more work we have to do, especially in the late season to maintain a physical presence and dominance and taking over a game that we want to, and man, with just a little bit of a break, it shows some recovery, and then our bowl performance versus just kind of not quite finishing a couple of the overtime games, there’s one or two more players and one or two more spots. That’s not the only reason, but it will make a difference, and Coach Gris is helping us do that.

Q. Jeff and I put our heads together and we could come up with one player from Louisiana that we’ve seen play here. You signed two players. Is that the Rick Brumfield effect?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: There’s two parts to it. It’s the Coach Brumfield effect, and also we have a young go-getter in our personnel office, Jordan Arsamont, and he has roots in Louisiana, as well. And so those two have tag-teamed to help us with an inroad into Louisiana, and Texas, too.

Our third year at the University of Virginia, I’m talking collectively now as a personnel department, we are much further along in terms of the areas that we are going to mine, our footprint, how specific we are, what schools that we think fit UVA the best, what states and why and what connections we have. And so I really like where we currently are after two years of really discovery. I feel like we’re in a much different place and a much more appropriate place now to help the program move forward from a personnel standpoint. So I really liked what I saw this year, while the first two years I liked parts of it, but not as comprehensively in terms of our approach, strategy and process.

Q. There was another recruiting link to Louisiana, coaching link to Louisiana —
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Louisiana Tech, Coach Mendenhall, nine months. I was young back then. That was just a flash. That was just a nine-month spot. Holly agreed to marry me while I didn’t have a job, and I was offered at job at Louisiana Tech, so our honeymoon was driving a Ryder truck from Missoula, Montana, to Reston, Louisiana. Fond memories, and to say in a hotel in Kansas where the carpet had just been shampooed and was still wet in the middle of winter.

What were we talking about?

Q. I was out at winter conditioning last week, and Griswold mentioned that Bernie and Alonso have been out working with the guys. Can you give me updates on their status, and Germane Crowell, I know he was dealing with some concussion stuff at the end of the year.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Bernie will be held out of spring, but it looks probable that he’ll be with us and in full health next season. Mandy is continuing to gain progress and just had a favorable report from the doctor, and I would say he would be participating limitedly in spring, but participating, and G-Crowell has recently passed his concussion protocol.

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