UVA football coach Bronco Mendenhall talks Louisville
COACH MENDENHALL: Really valuable experience that we had this past week to go play another game and manage kind of a pseudo road game, pseudo bowl game in unique circumstances not only leading up to the game, but managing a lot of unique twists and turns in the game.
I think it was essential and necessary for our growth and development; really valuable in getting ready now to go into ACC play. Anxious to practice.
I’ll take questions.
Q. As a defensive coordinator, what was it like preparing for Lamar Jackson? And now that he’s gone, how much of what they’re trying to do offensively has changed, if at all?
COACH MENDENHALL: Wow. Difficult to describe for Lamar Jackson, because normal defense really isn’t something that was effective. You always had to have at least one number accounting for him, preferably two, which then means you can’t play normal defense.
They have very good receivers, they have good running backs, they have good skill and a good scheme. It simply became a numbers game when Lamar was there. Their approach is similar now, they have two quarterbacks or have played two quarterbacks so there are elements of the scheme that is the same. Neither is preforming yet to the level that Lamar did, obviously, but still a challenge.
Q: I noticed Derek [Devine] is on the depth chart this week, what has he done to get there? He doesn’t have a number yet I noticed too.
COACH MENDENHALL: Two things, he has done a nice job against our defense, but simply also depth at our offensive line. Both of those things have contributed to considering him.
So what’s the number situation?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, he’s got to earn one, otherwise the depth is just pretend. You can’t play without a number.
Q. And RJ, he played a little bit. How is he doing health-wise?
COACH MENDENHALL: I would say progressing, but still I would say significantly away from being 100% from what I’ve seen.
Q. You mentioned the two quarterbacks, Pass and Cunningham. Can you talk about how his athleticism is similar to Lamar Jackson’s?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, any time you compare someone to Lamar Jackson — I don’t really know how you do that. He’s a dynamic athlete for sure. Doesn’t yet possess the ability to throw the ball or the complete set of skills that Lamar has, but if you’re talking just about athleticism, that’s the closest where he might compare.
Q. In the past you guys used Devonte Cross to kind of mirror Lamar’s athleticism a little bit. Have you chosen that guy on the practice squad yet?
COACH MENDENHALL: Brennan Armstrong has been doing a really nice job. And while that’s not an exact comparison, I think he does really, really well. Even though he’s preparing to play on our offense and in our offense also, most likely it will be him.
Q. Joey was in her earlier and talked about when Ohio scored the three quick touchdowns it was kind of a shock to them. You’ve seen this team react to that before. He was talking about the stop that Bryce made on that fourth down play. How did the defense respond this time compared to previous times, and how much of an advance in the program is that?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think it was a demonstration of resiliency in some really unique circumstances. Leading back, if I can remember, we attempted a pass, got sacked and the ball came out. There was one sudden change opportunity right there.
What was frustrating is the receiver that caught the ball on that play was actually double covered, and so we blew a coverage. That was frustrating. Then they blast the kickoff right off one of our front line guys, and so get the ball back again and a player gets beat in man coverage.
Then the first drive of the second half there’s a score, and so I think what was happening is not only were there execution — all in different areas — but there were execution mistakes leading more to anger and frustration than hope or despair.
They knew they were capable; frustrated because they knew the game was clearly out of hand; and then miscues had allowed it to be contested again.
And then the response from that point on, including after the punt return or after the faked — or the muffed punt that we had, then the stand there.
So I think from the first score in the second half there became kind of a line in the sand of enough already, and then a regrouping that happened.
Q. I think it was Joey who mentioned Zane Zandier and his performance the other day, nine tackles I believe. Just talk about what you’ve seen in him.
COACH MENDENHALL: When Zane came in as a first year, he was tabbed by us — he came in not as an inside linebacker. Was a receiver and a safety and an athlete, and we originally thought he was going to be an outside linebacker. His leadership skills immediately with our first years in that group — it took less than a week — I thought that it was kind of Micah’s heir apparent.
So we moved him early on with basically that sentiment. I said that to him in my office, that we would like him to be Micah’s understudy for a year.
That’s a unique position to be in, so he’s learning a lot from Micah but knowing he’d probably never see the field. So that was a unique transition for Zane, who then really had a good spring, a fantastic summer, and then each of the opportunities he’s had to play in the first two games prior to this one his grades were exceptional, between like 12 and 18 plays. So it was limit duty.
And then with Malcolm getting hurt, Zane kind of got his debut at UVA and played well and really played hard and was very effective.
So what was Malcolm and the team’s loss going in ended up gaining us another qualified linebacker, which now our depth and our experience has increased.
Zane also did a nice job on kickoff cover, so not only was he starting defensively, he’s learning what that’s like and also playing on special teams, and he did well.
Q. When you think about big picture and the goals you’ve talked about for this year, ACC home games, how important is it to win those?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, every home game, whether it’s ACC or not, is critical. Every time you can get an advantage in this league, at any level, no matter how miniscule or how significant, you have to leverage it because they don’t come very often.
Everyone has good coaches; everyone has good players. It’s a challenge every single week. So if you have a chance to be at home or any advantage you can possibly get, to squander is, it’s very difficult to get it back if you do.
So we think home games for us are an advantage. We’re looking forward to being home and playing. I like the resiliency of our team. We’ve demonstrated that we’re capable but inconsistent is what I think we’ve shown so far.
That’s been my message to the team in driving home the areas we have to improve knowing the clock is ticking, and having Louisville come in as a nice additional incentive just to say, ‘Let’s go’.
Q. With that question about consistency, when you think about your offense, do you have a sense of what is the real deal? The offense that was so explosive last week, the one that struggled against Indiana. Was Indiana a better opponent? Do you have a sense of where that unit is at?
COACH MENDENHALL: I would like to say I have a better sense, but I don’t have a complete sense. You saw a similar performance by our offense from Richmond and Ohio. I would say those two performances were similar.
Indiana was clearly better defensively than either of the other two opponents, and then you have the weather. So some level in there was our offensive performance, but I don’t think that was the perfect reflection.
Neither do I think was Richmond and Ohio the perfect reflection on terms of caliber of defense. Somewhere in there. So I have a better idea, but I wish I could say I had a perfect idea. We are becoming clearer of where the ball needs to go and to whom, how frequently, the balance necessary, where potential weak spots are, what’s been uncovered that way at least through the competition we’ve played, and we think we can project that now into ACC play at least in formulating game plans.
Q. I think through two games people obviously saw what Bryce could do running, but there was a question about his passing ability. Olamide inflated his stats hugely, but 25 out of 30 kind of shows a different Bryce than people had seen the first two games. How much does that expanded Bryce make it more difficult for defenses, and how much does the explosiveness of Bryce and Olamide and Jordan kind of put the onus on some of the other guys to kind of fill in some of the big plays.
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, what’s been clear if you look just to the Indiana game, and I’ll try to address this in a roundabout way. Olamide did not have much production versus Indiana, and it reflected on the scoreboard.
Any one of those pieces that does not play well will reflect on the score. This past week, Hasise — and he’s done a nice job I would say through three games. I was really impressed with how he played.
So we got solid performance from Bryce and Jordan and Olamide and Hasise. When that all happens, that’s our best chance week in and week out. So what I’m pressing our offensive staff and our players for is that core group, that has to be every week, and then we’re trying to add additional members to that. Possibly Tavares Kelly; possibly Terrell Jana; possibly Devonte Cross; possibly PK Kier. And the more the better.
When a team chooses to play off coverage, when they choose to play mainly zone, those possession throws allow us to keep moving the chains in those yards after the catch. When it chooses to play man-defense then, there is a chance for the quarterback run game and other areas to be exploited if that core group of players, as I said, are all performing well.
And we need them to, because that really is the stress and the balance that we need for the defenses to struggle.
Q. Coach, you’ve been honest in a number of times coming in here about the lack of depth on the defensive line. Seemed like there were a lot of times the pressure on Rourke in that previous game, how did you and Coach So’to feel they graded out in preparing for a bigger line this week?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, the grading is still not to the level we want, but the development is becoming more effective. Our run fits, the run game really was a non-factor for Ohio, excluding the quarterback scramble, which I’m still mad about.
But the normal run game has zero bearing with almost the same plays that we defended from Indiana in a very similar system. So I think our fits and our consistency and our pad level and our mindset improved there.
And the defensive line had a lot to do with that in terms of consistency. Jordan Redmond improved his game. Richard Burney continues to improve. Eli is just kind of the same no matter where you put him, what planet, what condition. He just plays; it’s just the same. Mandy is becoming healthier. Aaron Faumui.
So really those five are developing and growing, and it can’t be fast enough. But there was a significant change from week two to three by that group. As they not only fit the run, but with four-man pressure were able to affect the quarterback at a higher level than they did the week before.
Q. Kind of following up on that, but the defense as a whole, what kind of improvement have you seen from one, two, to three?
COACH MENDENHALL: I’ve seen about the same performance actually. There are relative inconsistencies that show up. Richmond I think we got off to a very strong start, but showed as we’re becoming even more aggressive in man coverage and press man and really forcing opponents to be one dimensional, that was the beginning.
There were a few balls caught on us there that surprised me. In Indiana, some balls down field, some 50/50 balls and few inconsistencies in the run. It was still a strong output by points. Kind of a mixed bag, but still pretty pleased.
This past game, the run game I really liked, but then now sudden change in reacting that and keeping points off the board, they were 14 points by sudden change. I guess you could call it 17 really.
I expect field goals, and so our expectations just keep going up for that group. So that gave us a great challenge and test of multiple emotional swings and sudden changes that we now have to respond and get better at, which hadn’t been present the first two weeks.
So there was a whole new situation that came up. Oh, we have to tighten that up a little bit. I was glad that happened because it exposed some things we need to do better.
Q. After the Richmond game you mentioned you were going to take a harder look at the place kicking situation. You thought you might be in a situation where AJ was the closer guy and Hunter was the further-away guy. After the past week, any thoughts on changes?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, that competition is open, and Hunter will have every chance to earn the job. That has been in place, that exact scenario; however, it’s basically ground zero and start again. Now that I’ve seen three games and I’m willing to take into account this week’s performance, that will probably drive who’s the field goal kicker regardless of range going into this week.
Q. Bronco, you played 17 true freshmen last year; you’re at 8 so far. I realize that number may well grow. Does that speak to improved depth across the board, or are there players you hoped or expected to contribute right away who are not able to?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, I was expecting more, and actually the quality of play by some of our existing players has been a really nice surprise. There are two parts to our program. The recruiting and the on-boarding, and also the development within.
With Coach Gris, some of our players have made jumps beyond what I expected them to and separated themselves from where I thought maybe a first year would come in and challenge and they’re just not letting it happen.
There is still a number — as we mentioned Derek Devine. There is still a number of possibilities, but originally I thought it would be close to the 17 number. Doesn’t look like that’s going to happen at this time. Might be closer to 12-ish. Hard to say. That’s if I’m projecting.
Q. Talking about Snowden, how has he developed as a pass rusher?
COACH MENDENHALL: That is his natural strength. A year ago we predominantly used him in nickel as he was still kind of underdeveloped from size. I’m talking maybe mass and physical strength, but certainly capable by agility and presence and length.
He was one dimensional in terms of pass rush, so he still has maintained that part. But the pressure he got on the first play of the game defensively he wasn’t going around, he was going through, which surprised the opponent and was very effective.
So he’s able now with an increased physical capacity to now add a physical element to his pass rush game, which is a whole different set for the offensive line. Normally when they set, against him they can set a little softer and anticipate edge rush and pushing him by the quarterback.
Now when they set soft he’s able to push the pocket more, and that led to our first turnover.
Q. When you were recruiting him, did that length jump off the film? Did you always see him as an outside linebacker?
COACH MENDENHALL: I didn’t know what he was other than he was a really good basketball player. Watched him play hoops and run the floor kind of as a power forward looking player dunking and jumping. Most of his film was at wide receiver in high school and wasn’t highly recruited.
But in 3-4 we like size, we like length, and we like athleticism, and so one of our projections has worked out really well and he’s been a great fit.
Q. Chris Sharp had the touchdown catch against Indiana. He had a nice block on Jordan’s third touchdown. Where would you assess him in his development, and what could he mean to the offense?
COACH MENDENHALL: What’s happening with Chris is he is — so we think you have to earn trust, and then you have to verify trust once you’re given a role. Chris’ grades in week one and two were exceptional in how he was blocking. His blocking then allowed us to say, ‘Wait, what else can he do where they might think he’s blocking but he’s not?’
We were able to slip him by a defender who thought he was blocking and throw the ball to him, and so that role wasn’t expected but was earned. He would be similar to maybe the question we were talking about of maybe first years playing. Chris has been one of those guys that he kind of has developed past where we thought he might be able to produce.
That’s been helpful to us, and we need to continue, and we also need it to continue on special teams.
Q. By my count, two touchdowns of 25 yards or more that you allowed on Saturday. I think that’s 34 in the first 28 games here. You had 34 in your last five years at BYU. Is the scheme more aggressive here or it is just more of the inconsistencies and experience?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, it is the biggest difference. The inconsistencies either through maturity, position mastery, and simply resiliency and experience. So building a threshold and expectation of how to play and at what level regardless of circumstance for the length of time necessary, we haven’t yet been able to sustain that to where regardless of where they were, what situation, or who we’re playing, big plays don’t happen. Huge emphasis this year that Coach Howell and Coach Poppinga and the guys are making.
We know the exact metric of how many big plays usually equal wins versus loss and what that number is. They are working on it and we’re working on it every single day. To this point, that code has not been cracked. After five yards of, what, 34, and then — it’s just one of our biggest challenges and we’re still working on it.
Q. You mentioned Snowden being a high school receiver. Zane was…
COACH MENDENHALL: He was.
Q. That’s an unusual pairing, isn’t it, receiver to college linebacker? What’s worked in his case for Zane?
COACH MENDENHALL: For Zane it wasn’t only the receiver standpoint. I watched him play basketball as well and he played basketball like a linebacker. I’ve told him that so he’s not going to be mad at me.
Clearly in watching him play basketball he wasn’t a receiver and I didn’t think he was a defensive back. He might have fouled out in the game, which I saw as a good thing from a mindset perspective as a defensive coach. I thought he would be a safety, a Sam or a Mike, but that was after I saw him play basketball.
I even forgot what the question was. Yeah, I like him as a linebacker now.
Q. One of Louisville’s guys, Mekhi Becton, was kind of one of the early in-state guys you were involved with. I think you were in the final five for his selection. What do you remember about his recruitment and what have you seen from kind of how he’s developed?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, we put more time and energy into Mekhi Becton than probably any recruit we had up to that point, and I was certain he was coming to Virginia. Just shows I’m not always right, which you guys know.
So, yeah, I was surprised, and it was just one more reality check as to what it will take to get the very best players in our own state to come to play at Virginia, at least under current circumstances.
That perception is becoming better and easier, but still a challenge. I think he’s a very good player. Our evaluation was certainly correct, and he would’ve helped our team a great deal.
Q. Bryce said earlier today that he wasn’t familiar with hurricanes and that he had never seen much rain either. After three years, what’s your take on the weather here?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, there’s a conversation we just had. So my son, Cutter, is on his mission in Uruguay, and Holly creates a newsletter — she calls it the Ivy Connection — each week that she shares with him that updates him on family and different things happening.
There seems to be a weather update every week, so it’s a topic in our house more than I’ve ever — our marriage, we’ve talked about weather more in the past three years than we have in our entire marriage and my entire life probably.
The first three games of a rain delay and then the Indiana game and having to change locations, it just didn’t stop. What I would say about the weather is it just doesn’t stop.
So similar experience, not identical, but related. When I chose Oregon State University out of junior college, I remember choosing to live in the dorms, which was a mistake, my first semester.
My window overlooked a roof of another dorm. Anyway, sometimes kids were throwing garbage out of their windows and stuff. It rained for 31 days straight. 31 straight days.
I remember thinking, This can’t happen. I would look out my window every day and see the stuff they’d throw out the window just drenched and it was gray.
Yeah, I realized then you just have to be who you’re going to be and do what you’re going to do, because it is going to rain. It’s not the same here, but there is going to be some kind of weather issues, and you got to just do what you’re going to do how you’re going to do it regardless.
Yeah, reliving some of my college days, but in a different way.
Q. You told us a couple weeks ago that Bryce’s biggest gains have been in the passing game. 25 for 30 is almost hard to do. What did he do specifically to have that great percentage against Ohio?
COACH MENDENHALL: Well, it’s been the target. He already was a natural runner and a natural athlete, but Coach Beck and Robert, and I, they’ve worked really hard to find what throws he currently is comfortable with and to whom and in what situations and then against what looks.
So those designs, the pass play plan for that game matched perfectly his current ability level versus the looks they gave us. So he was comfortable, he was rhythmical, and he was successful based on his preparation within the design he was given. He was given a good design.
His emphasis based on knowing he needed to improve that part he’s been relentless in developing that.
As my role kind of keeps expanding as a head coach and as I work to accelerate our program, I have to chance to meet with our offense early each week to basically describe what the defenses are doing what why. That’s accelerated the looks, the planning and the implementation of what might work as well.
So our planning I think is becoming more effective as a program, specific to UVA, but also specific to Bryce.
Q. Bryce said that Olamide was really ticked off after the Indiana game that he didn’t have more of an impact.
COACH MENDENHALL: Makes two of us.
Q. He said that for the two days after that when they got back they spent an awful lot of time working together with a football that was soaked in water and stuff like that. How gratifying is that when your best players are doing things like that on their own? How much can you hold this up to the other guys on the team to say, Okay, he’s the best player on the team and this is what he’s doing?
COACH MENDENHALL: The best teams I’ve coached and the best programs that I’ve been with are reflected by the best players being the hardest workers and carrying the most. Carrying meaning it shows in the extra things they do.
I’ve used the example before coaching when I was coaching at New Mexico and Urlacher was there. We won three games our first year, then four, then five. Anyway, he never had a winning season with us, but what he did is teach the younger players. So his legacy was actually stronger when he left.
We won, five, six, seven, eight over time because of his example. He kind of taught our program how to, and that’s what’s happening with Chris Peace, that’s what happened with Quinn, with Micah, Smoke. Some of the players that have been here. Andre Levrone was a great example of who he became.
So it’s becoming more of what UVA football is and the habits that it takes, which is one of the beginning signs of what sustainability can look like.
Q. You had talked about Chuck Davis as a punt returner. You said he catches everything and you love that. Tavares is explosive. Is that competition open?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yes.
Q. With the kickers and all that kind of stuff?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, and there is a clear trade, as we all the saw. I will err on the side of catching the ball going forward as Tavares is being developed. We already saw even with safe punt, the defense out there, when he did get the one opportunity to return it. He’s dynamic.
Part of being dynamic is also being immature and unseasoned. That really was reflected on the last opportunity he had to return the ball. So, yeah, I’ve got to do a really nice job of deciding when and where — Chuck is baseline so we start there — and then when and where and if Tavares is able to contribute in that role.
Q. You mentioned Snowden’s basketball career. Are there examples from your past of other guys that have been basketball guys that have gone on to be great linebackers?
COACH MENDENHALL: It started with Bronson Kaufusi. Our defensive line coach at BYU, Steve Kaufusi, his son Bronson who was a second-round pick for the Ravens. We really liked him as an athlete and a basketball player. He then played both at BYU.
And then his younger brother Corbin was clearly a better basketball player than a football player, but I thought he would end up playing great football. He then played both at BYU. They started as long, tall outside backers and both became linemen.
I like the athleticism of the power forward type basketball player who might be a tight end, might be a defensive end, might be an offensive tackle, might be an outside backer.
Q. Have you ever had an outside backer with Snowden’s wingspan?
COACH MENDENHALL: Man, not that I remember, no.