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UVA football coach Bronco Mendenhall talks Pitt

bronco mendenhallCOACH MENDENHALL: I thought it was another thorough game from our team. I want to mention that I thought all three phases were in sync and performed in our word complementary, in terms of complementary football.

Time of possession ended up being a deciding factor, which is indicative of our ability to become a more effective running team, which has probably been something I’ve seen growth and progress in the past three weeks.

Plenty and tons of room still to grow, but our ability to rush the football and hold on to the football in terms of time of possession, get off the field on third down defensively, and then have our special teams change field position, that simple formula has I think carried us through the past number of weeks.

The turnover margin is still helpful in addition to that. Yeah, there is just tons of room to grow and learn and keep progressing, which is our focus. That’s what I expect from our team.

Q. How much has all this been player-driven this season in terms of holding each other accountable? Is that what you look for as a coaching staff?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think it’s become more player-driven, starting with Chris Peace kind of defining the new standard. I think it was the leadership on our team claiming the principles that were being presented as theirs and then owning them. I think really sincerely considering the standards that will help the program and believing in them, which then led to accountability. Not necessarily in a punishment way, but a standard that then was expected and embraced as this will work and this is what we will do.

If you’re not the doing it, you’re an outlier. So choose is kind of the message from our players to others that maybe took longer than what was expected to choose.

Q. Teams set goals before the season. Some shared, some not. Everybody says they want to win the championship. When guys after last game were saying we want the Coastal, just announcing it to the ACC this is what we want, is that a good thing? Is that something you’re more comfortable with than a couple weeks ago?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, I’m never really comfortable about promising things in advance, but I don’t have a problem with establishing and framing goals. I think in that moment when they’re saying, We want the Coastal, I think it was just simply some clarity on it is possible. We have a real chance. We’re acknowledging that.

I don’t think it was in any other way, shape, or form presented, other than maybe they just couldn’t help but say it because it’s new and exciting.

So in that context I think it was great. My job then is to say, Okay, if that’s what you really want, let me help you understand what that’s going to take. Then the focus goes right back into what we need to do.

Q. Being ranked, does that present another challenge for you guys? Is today’s practice going to be until they drop like a couple weeks ago just to make sure their attention stays where it needs to be?
COACH MENDENHALL: It might be if it was a Saturday game. There is not time. I think that the rankings are a by-product and maybe outside acknowledgment, and I think that prior to week eight the rankings have zero bearing, other than possible intrigue to make players or fans feel better about themselves and maybe the intrigue of a television matchup.

Nobody can know until the beginning of week eight or the completion of week eight what does this really look like. I think it was indicative this week of the number of teams that lost. The number of teams added is just now starting to become relevant.

I would say it’s just now starting to become relevant. It’s just the beginning of now the home stretch of what will it really look like. Prior to the completion of week eight, I think the rankings are a complete waste of time. So I’m excited for our team that there is increased attention on the program, but we framed actually with Dave Koehn’s help.

He told me one of the things Tony, Coach Bennett talks about, and comparing kind of the accolades and those things to cotton candy. Where it takes a lot of time to eat it; you get all sticky it’s not filling, and you usually feel worse when you’re done.

So any acknowledging that stuff does nothing for us. It’s addicting, right? Praise is addicting and feels really good. However, every second we spend dwelling there is taking us farther away from our objective. That’s my job, is to make sure we’re on point.

Q. It was mind boggling sitting there watching the Pittsburgh film watching them rushing for about 500 yards. With the success you’ve had against the run the last two weeks, how much emphasis is on it this week?
COACH MENDENHALL: Oh, it’s huge because I believe Duke is a good defensive team. In college football, maybe in professional football, not having coached at that level, it just seems like sometimes there are just those games. Other times those games are caused by great preparation on one side and maybe an off day on the other.

Big plays led to all kinds the yardage on both sides of that game. I think that’s atypical for that kind of game to happen, but it did, where both sides were having a significant number of big plays. Pitt is a unique challenge. If I were to speak about their offense for a moment, I think they’re very physical. That comes from the past couple years that we’ve played and just learning about our ACC opponents a little bit better.

So I think they’re a physical and a tough football team. So you have to be really sound in your fundamentals. Offensively, creativity, and miss direction and the type of run. So you have a physical nature that you have to certainly be prepared for in fundamentals and mindset, but then your eye control has to be very good because of the nature of the run game. There is lots and lots of miss direction.

That’s a unique challenge. Defensively they certainly don’t want the opponent to run the ball an inch. They’re very aggressive. They’re not afraid to take chances and rely a lot on players in space and their secondary to make plays. So I think when I look at the matchup, it’s hard to acknowledge anything other than the ACC records. As I was looking at this, we’re 4-1 and Pitt is 3-1. The games outside of that are certainly relevant for possible rankings or what your record looks like, but really this is 4-1 versus 3-1 the way I see it. It will probably be about that kind of matchup in terms of competitiveness as well.

Q. Sticking with that run game theme, what has worked so well run defense for you guys? What’s been the key?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think that starting from the minute our game finished last year against Navy, just the sheer weaknesses that were exposed that we had kind of played around and through as much as possible through two years. But there had to be a completely recommitted effort to size, strength, fundamentals and just simply the mindset to continue to play in your gap over and over and over again and what that looks like and what that feels like and what mindset that requires.

So it’s been a relentless pursuit of run fundamentals the minute the Navy game was over just knowing our program would not nor could not take another step forward until we got that added. It doesn’t mean we have arrived yet. We have plenty of work to do, and this game will certainly be a unique test.

But that’s when it started and it’s ongoing. Nothing has changed, including today.

Q. Do you have an update on Jordan Mack and Malcolm Cook for us?
COACH MENDENHALL: I don’t have an update on Malcolm Cook. Jordan Mack is a getting better every day. So it’s great timing for us. We anticipate him becoming close to full strength, if not this Saturday, by the next one. Certainly well enough and close enough to play this week, so, yeah, that will really help.

In the meantime, Rob Snyder played really well in that last game. We know what Zane [Zandier] has been capable of doing and we’ve seen more of him. Maybe the hidden story in this is Rob is really doing a nice job.

Q. I was going to ask you about the top 25 but obviously you answered it. A little twist on that. It appears that your recruiting has gone better to this point than it has in your previous seasons. What changes have you made, or do you think the success on the field has been the major factor?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think two things are contributing. Certainly time has helped. So there was a strong kind of first class, meaning just because of the reputation of our staff and the previous successes, there were those saying, ‘Man, I want to be part of this; this could work’.

And then when we made it to postseason in our second year, that continued. At the finish of that year Carla [Williams] arrives. I had basically two years of experience here prior to our first meeting. After these two years I understood more clearly we were understaffed in terms of our personnel area. We were about half staffed in relation to what our competitors were, and so the coaches were having to do more work in terms of the legwork and finding, in addition to coaching; while some staffs had the leg work and finding happening while the coaches were coaching, and so we were late. We were still effective, but late frequently.

So after presenting that and then Carla assessing where we were in relation to our competitors, she created positions for us so we have more personnel or more people in our personnel area, as well as a new on-campus recruiting coordinator, which has really helped.

So that organization is just going round the clock now while the coaches are working round the clock with the football part. That is helping us be competitive and finding early, developing relationships early, evaluating effectively, matching our needs and then hosting appropriately which really helps. It helps especially when the games the kids come to or watch us play on we win.

So when you consider the fairly rapid turnaround that’s happening — not happened, but happening at UVA — I don’t know how you could not pay attention. That’s not normal for it to happen in this amount of time, and it’s certainly not normal when the deficit was so large.

So that story is becoming pretty compelling to those that have interest in our program.

Q. Joey Blount was just in here, and he’s a good example of second-year guys you have all over the defense who are playing bigger and bigger roles. How significant of an impact is that class as a whole on defense and the way you’ve been able to integrate them?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, it’s great. We had one year with them we played I think 17 of those guys a year ago, which was our first class; now it’s just year two. They’re really, really close. They like each other a lot. They respect each other as players. That means they think each other are good players. They like the mindset that our coaches bring.

They came for a very specific reason, and to this point I think what they’ve received is exceeding expectations. So they’re just happy and feel good about the decision they made and like the outcome. I think it’s possibly we presented to them it’s not if but when and they would control that, talking about that first class, and they’ve taken that to heart and they are controlling it.

Q. I don’t know if he’ll ever have the stats to get all ACC recognition, but Eli Hanback is a three-year starter on the line and integral part of your team and defense. What’s his value to the line, to the defense, and to the program as a whole?
COACH MENDENHALL: Just you know every single day that he’s going to be there and do his job and he’s going to do it in the rain or the snow, if we’re ahead, if we’re behind, if it’s first down, fourth down, and then he’s going to show up at practice, the weight room. He requires zero maintenance and just does his job every single day at a level that is exemplary.

That simple steadiness with what we just mentioned, all the younger guys, he just is always doing what he’s supposed to do, which is a great example.

Q. Speaking of Eli, and now that he’s at the? Nose, you haven’t had Jordan Redmond on the field I don’t think at all the last few games. Is he still healthy? Does he play a bigger role now that you’re going to play some obviously run-heavy teams here coming up soon?
COACH MENDENHALL: Depends on the team that we’re playing. So Eli and Mandy [Alonoso], those two players, yeah, if we don’t have to take them off the field we don’t intend to. Basically their tongues are hanging out right now, but they’re both capable of that. Aaron Faumui has moved into the third position right now, and then Jordan would be fourth.

So his current skillset, ability level, and his current, I would say the match for his — for what he can bring to our defense is downhill and right at you. Once things start to go lateral and side to side, that’s not currently a strength. He’s working on that, and he’s working really hard in practice. But it’s nice to have, again, Eli setting the tone, Mandy learning from him, and then Aaron learning from him, and then Jordan coming along.

So we have just been able to staff our defense with more linebackers and, yeah, we’ve — Coach [Nick] Howell and the defensive guys have done a really good job. It’s exhausting working hard enough to find the right 11 defensive players with the right skillset to put on the field versus what we’re seeing. That’s why you see so many guys running in and out. We’ve dialed it in pretty well up to this point, but this next week is a challenge.

Q. You had a new look on kickoff return with No. 92 back there. What do you like about Perris Jones? Was that a one-time deal?
COACH MENDENHALL: No, he could be back there. He’s earned it in practice. Again, our practices are very competitive. Yeah, I watch every play of every player every day. What he’s been doing from fall camp all the way to now, it just became the point he was outperforming others in practice. That’s a great way to get on the field.

I’m not happy currently — I’m happy with our special teams collectively. Our kickoff return is underperforming in my mind. Pretty happy with the other three at this point and the progress and some of the steps we’re making.

So, yeah, there is just another message being sent that if you do your job really well in practice and you can help our team in an area that I think needs improvement, then we’re going to try you. That’s what happened. He did a nice job, too.

Q. You have an update on Tim Harris?
COACH MENDENHALL: I don’t. Nope. It’s an accelerated week. Basically no one has talked to me other than you guys right now. I will have to fill you in maybe tomorrow.

Q. Building on Doug’s question, you mentioned when you got here you were understaffed. Was the size of the staff different from what you had at BYU?
COACH MENDENHALL: No. At BYU, we actually had more resources in personnel than we had at BYU. What I also learned really quickly is it does no good to compare any other place to Brigham Young University. That school, institution, is magical and very unique; 98.5% of all the students that attend are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

There is a natural and immediate draw as soon as members of our faith have children and they’re hoping they can play football, there is already a strong push to play at BYU.

So the finding component is filtered much differently than what we currently face in Power 5 football as one of the schools that many of these kids can choose from. Maybe not the school they’ve always grown up wanting to attend.

So those two simple reference points, didn’t take long to figure that out and then reconsider how we best build this program.

Q. Were you coaches kind of playing double-duty there too?
COACH MENDENHALL: Um-hmm, but not nearly the volume, meaning that you might recruit an entire class of anywhere from 35 to 40 total players, players that were Division I football players, who also wanted to live the standards of the church, who also had a desire to, yeah, play at BYU and then have to fit a position of need.

So you can’t have a more constraining set of filters than that. So the existing personnel staff and numbers, we knew where every single LDS player was not only in the United States, but in multiple countries. And then any additional work came to young men of strong Christian values that maybe wanted those standards that weren’t members of the church but wanted a similar lifestyle.

So, again, it’s not comparable, and I learned that quickly when I arrived here.

Q. Coach, I think BYU went independent in 2011. You haven’t been in a title race as a coach in a while. One, are you having fun? Two, did you go back to old binders for title race time of year?
COACH MENDENHALL: No, haven’t needed to go back to title race binders. It’s refreshing to not have to travel all across the country to play games that not many people maybe are interested in later in the year. Early in the year as an independent there is strong interest because people are willing to play. Later in the year when conference races begin, folks don’t line up to play BYU or travel to Provo.

So it’s a neutral playing field. Every game matters. They all have significant influence and importance. I think that’s just good for the players and mindset of the organization. Also it’s just a more meaningful and rich college experience when you’re part of a conference, and especially if you’re performing well enough to be in the hunt going into November, December.

Q. You mentioned after the game that Bryce [Perkins] has exceeded expectations at quarterback. I think I mentioned before the season that it’s kind of unusual to have a quarterback not be one of the captains. It sounds like from what the guys in here earlier said that he’s kind of become a de facto captain, and one who has no history with last year when you guys got cocky after five wins, whatever. How much has that meant to, what your guys have been able to do?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, so I think that it’s mattered a lot simply through his performance. Yeah, captains are voted often at the end of fall camp based on the information that’s in front of us through a winter and a spring and a summer. That’s limited information. Much like a head coach and or leaders, my day is usually full of making decisions that are impactful with partial information given to me by someone that usually has a different agenda than what might be best for the entirety of the organization, and it’s usually under a time frame.

In this case the players did their best to identify players that they absolutely knew and had history with that were trustworthy and could play. It hasn’t taken long for Bryce to be considered as that without necessarily the title. I think everyone is great with that.

I’ve been asked in relation to the second part of your question, and I wouldn’t say our team became arrogant or cocky. Our team just faced a brand new set of circumstances, meaning they were winning. They were winning and still qualified for postseason with still games to play, and that was quite a unique place to be.

So I think as we consider just the simple outcome of bowl eligibility after this last game, and you consider it to fans storming the field after Georgia Tech and — a year ago — and the way our fans reacted. The expectations have already moved.

So that’s just part of the growth and progress, which, again, it’s developing, not developed. We can already sense it and there are some indicators if you just take last week that kind of show just based on the reaction that, Okay, we expect that. Now what else?

That’s more indicative of where this team currently is.

Q. Pittsburgh is 3-1 in the league. When you look at the standings and rankings, Syracuse gets in for the first time since 2001; BC gets in. Three teams join the poll kind of the tale of this week. What does is it say about the ACC that some of these programs that have been carrying the banner for so long are kind of almost taking a back seat to some these rising programs?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think it’s a compliment to [Boston College] Coach [Steve] Addazio and Dino [Babers] at Syracuse and the consistency and work they do.

It’s really easy to default every single year to picking ACC standings how they have been before. It’s really easy to default to national rankings and list the top 10 just by, I don’t know, monetary or history. It’s easy. It takes more diligence to report, but also to support teams that, wait a second, could be something special happening here.

I just think it’s timing. I think it’s just nice for the teams that have earned their way in through eight weeks to be acknowledged. That really is the message that I see. Doesn’t mean any of us will stay for one more week based on the outcome, but I think it’s healthy and I think it’s necessary to see possibly seven teams go out and 11 come in or 11 go out and seven come in as basically an indictment against the current rankings and to what are we doing and why does it even exist prior to this time of year?

I think the playoff ranking timing, they have it right. It no longer to me is relevant for anything before then. That’s probably the greatest compliment to our team and the others you mentioned. At least to this point, yeah, nice job. Then that gets you at least until next Friday or Saturday.

Q. Are you a dramatically better improved football team than the one that went and lost to NC State?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think that just on that particular day there were three to five plays as always that, man, they made and we didn’t. We had a couple scores that — or a fourth down and a score at the end that might have made that a one-touchdown game. There were plenty of opportunities.

NC State played better on that day. That’s what happens in the ACC, you have to make the plays necessary to win the game, and we have done that more since that game. They made more in that game and they deserved to win it.

How that would look now and if they came to Virginia in week nine, I don’t know. I’m not saying that discounts that win because they played better, but, man, week to week it changes pretty rapidly. Man, there is a small handful of plays each week that really determine outcome, including our last one.

Q. Looking at Bryce’s three touchdown passes in the game, two looked like really good throws, routes. The throw to Hasise [Dubois] wasn’t great. Hasise made the play and turned it into something. Are you seeing his receivers making more plays, doing more for him as the season going on?
COACH MENDENHALL: You know, I think it’s just been similar. I think Olamide [Zaccheaus] is always capable, and to this point has not been where there has been these mind boggling number games back-to-back. There has been one, a little less, and then one. It’s kind of been an every other thing. Certainly attributed some to the way some of the defenses are playing him after a big week.

Bryce’s delivery and where he’s putting ball and how has been consistent. Hasise has been consistent. What was good to see, to answer the question, I think Olamide and Hasise have been a very consistent throughout. I think Bryce has been.

In this game, Joe Reed was down field making a nice play, which, man, that was a great thing for all of us.

And then Evan Butts was downfield. Normally he’s just a chain mover. Really the story was Joe Reed down field and Evan Butts down field making significant plays. That’s new and different than what has been happening in relation to the other group we were talking about.

Q. And [Tavares] Kelly, does he add something to that?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, we worked hard to get him the ball. Didn’t have the yield that I think I thought we would with the number of touches we work have to him get. However, I think certainly worth the investment. It’s going to take just a little more time to get that role dialed in as tightly as we want it.

Q. Very early on the other day you praised Lester [Coleman], and his numbers aren’t what they were last year. Hasn’t had a lot of 60 yard punts. Seems like he’s gone to the rugby kick. Why did you make that move?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think Lester is performing really, really well. In fact, the average return against us right now is I think under three yards. So there are no returns against us. Where Lester is putting the ball is exactly where we want it. Really what’s hurt our net or Lester’s statistics more, and we have worked hard on this recently, early in the year we were not downing the pooch punts nearly as effectively as we did a year ago. There were three to five of them that were mind boggling that we weren’t downing the football effectively, and so with increased emphasis. But that’s hurt some of his numbers. But I think he’s performing every bit as well, maybe better than a year ago, in terms of consistency, ball placement and helping our team.

We just haven’t supported him in some of the pooch situations of downing the football effectively. About three or four weeks ago we started addressing that with a different vigor than before.

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