UVA football coach Bronco Mendenhall talks Signing Day
COACH MENDENHALL: We’re really pleased with our efforts and the results of this class, our 2019 class. With Carla’s (Williams) help we have been able to add resources in the personnel department and I think that is reflected part in the quality of this class. I think that was one contributor to improvement that we have shown. The second influencer is that it is year three and we are making progress that is clear, noticeable and transparent for all to see. So the combination of progress with resources is now combining to produce a stronger result.
This class, I think, is very good for the University of Virginia, meaning that of this class I think 14 of the players are strong academically, well over 3.0 grade point average, a couple that have 4.0s. Within that, 12 of the 19 or so are multi-sport athletes which means they do a lot of different things. So when you talk about the quality of people that the versatility they have, the kind of students and Division I football players at the ACC level, they’re perfect fits for us.
There’s no significant changes on signing day which we have an organization or guiding principle which says less drama more work. So this was not one of those days where our coaches were pulling our hair out; we just simply had the players that were committed. They signed because they were committed and we went out to practice.
And so that’s also reflective of the trust that’s been established between player and coach under the guiding principles of the program. And so that also was very positive.
I think the class, again, we’re always looking for greater than, not equal to in everything in our program. And this is in relation to our first class that our staff signed. We played 17 of those players, which was fourth-most in college football. That was the ’17 class.
’18’s class, based on one report, said that we were the sixth youngest roster in college football. And so you’ll have to verify that. That now leads us to this class, which is our third class, which is basically three-fourths of the way done in terms of having four consecutive classes with four consecutive years of improvement and the results that then show that not only on the field but through recruiting.
I think we addressed needs that had to be addressed, certainly with the graduation at running back of Jordan Ellis. We needed a really strong running back. And with both Seneca (Milledge) and Michael (Hollins), we feel very strong there.
We continue to look to expand and build our outside receiving corps, which we think is still at a deficit in terms of numbers. And so we added good players on the outside that I think will really help us in Nathaniel (Beal) and Dorien (Goddard) and Dontayvion (Wicks). I feel really good about that.
We continue to put emphasis on our offensive front, not only size and mindset, but by ability and numbers. We’ve addressed that.
We needed to expand our defensive front in terms of quality play and depth and so two very good young prospects there in Jowon (Briggs) and Ben (Smiley), really like them. Our linebackers are already strong. We added to that, added more speed to our secondary.
In addition to that, the next version of quarterback was also signed in RJ Harvey. So almost all areas at least at the initial stages of the class, as far as we can evaluate, through high school, have been addressed and met and at a high level.
So I’m encouraged and excited and think momentum has been generated for our program, for our team, and for all parties around the program.
Q. I’d like to talk about two of the guys you signed kind of late — Tenyeh Dixon, the cornerback, and Nathaniel Beal you just mentioned. How confident were you that you were going to get those guys coming in today?
COACH MENDENHALL: Two players, Tenyeh Dixon, visited this past weekend and Coach Howell did a nice job recruiting him. He had committed to another institution previously. And as our needs shifted slightly, that became a really strong possibility on the visit I felt really good that we had a great chance. And then early on, after the visit, on Sunday, we received his commitment, which he held. And so that’s pretty typical with us as commitments do hold. So I was confident as of Sunday that that would happen and it did.
Nathaniel’s visit was earlier after having been committed to another institution for quite some time. He visited and it was just a natural fit. And so Nathaniel, in particular, has really nice size. We call players with that size always open, meaning that most corners that are matched up against him, there aren’t many 6’3″ or 6’4″ or 6’5″ corners.
So whether they’re behind him or not, they’re always open. We wanted more size on the outside. We wanted more productivity. And we needed more consistency. And so Nathaniel, that was a really nice addition to this class and we’re really excited about him.
Q. Curious about your two running backs. What specifically do you like about their games?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, really distinct in style. Mike Hollins is the next version of Jordan Ellis with probably more speed and more productivity coming out of high school. I think he was the best running back in the state of Louisiana. He was the MVP of the state championship game. I think he’s powerful. I think he has great vision. I think he’s durable. I think he’s tough. Man, is he productive. I really like him.
When I say comparable to JE, you’ll see his body is similar. He’s physical and he’s compact. But he’s also dynamic.
So probably the next version in terms of big game threat in addition to what JE is. So we really like that as a comparison because that’s the greatest compliment I can give to Mike is to compare him to JE. If you watch what he’s done at the highest level, really of Louisiana football, he’s — I think he’s very good and his numbers say that or show that.
Seneca is extremely fast, quick, explosive, dynamic, hard to find, hard to catch, hard to tackle and he scores a lot of touchdowns. And he can play a bunch of different positions meaning quarterback, meaning receiver, meaning running back, anything where the ball can be in his hands that’s where we want him.
We like him for his size. We also think he’s physical. He’s one of the fastest players in the country as well in the hundred meters.
And so, yeah, lots of big play potential. And so when you put those two together in the backfield, our production and the dynamic nature of what we can do in the run game starts to become, I think, more powerful.
Q. You haven’t always, I guess, let us talk to freshmen. Jowon Briggs seems like the kind of kid that maybe you should reconsult, take that under advisement or something. Have you ever met a kid who was both that talented on the field but that well rounded off of it? And how would you sort of measure him against other guys you’ve recruited?
COACH MENDENHALL: I don’t think it’s measurable for him against someone else. I remember on his visit my wife and I, Holly, were visiting with him, and he told us he played 10 instruments. So that puts him in a pretty elite class, I would say, of all the signees in this year’s class of any level of football, anyone else that plays 10 instruments. And then I just saw a video of his Christmas performance duet. If you haven’t seen that online, I highly recommend that.
My family and I have watched that many, many times now. He’s exceptional. And visiting his high school, which is phenomenal, there’s private rooms where violin and piano and voice is all being practiced.
One of the choir teachers stopped his class and they gave us an impromptu acapella presentation just because we were there. By the way, when Jowon got us — he left his class which was engineering, they were building chairs out of cardboard to see which could be the most weight-bearing. So there was that competition going, which followed a roller coaster competition design that was previous years.
So there was engineering. There were the arts. And then every class was just engaged. So Jowon is — he’s a renaissance man. He’s UVA. And he could probably walk into any field here and have success right from the beginning.
And in terms of the policy, yeah, you’ll still have to wait and we’ll just let the momentum build for that and then unleash him.
Q. I know you’re not very big on star ratings and such, but when you do sign a young man who is as acclaimed as Jowon, does it affect outside perception of your program, and is that something that you welcome?
COACH MENDENHALL: So in all three parts, yes, I’m not big on star ratings as a baseline. It certainly does affect perception, because there’s rankings that happen and it’s reportable. Right? Signing day is reportable. So class rankings and stars, there’s an outcome from that, which then generates momentum. Or sometimes can hurt momentum based on what your class looks like.
So our momentum generated by this class, by outside and objective raters, has this class fairly high, which means that there’s a perception of momentum and positive things happening at UVA. In this particular case it just happens to be right.
We are gaining momentum. The class is strong. And so, yeah, it’s just one of those things that aligns. And I’m excited about that. And I think it has a really nice benefit to our program. But again that’s coinciding partly with the progress that’s been made already, specifically with the two recruiting classes that our staff has brought and the two bowl games that they’ve yielded. And the recruits simply see that this is just the beginning. And they more and more want to be part of it.
Q. What can you say about the wide receivers in this class? Just taking a look at the three of them, all three of them are big guys, guys like Dorien Goddard coming from a good high school like Greenville High School?
COACH MENDENHALL: We love winners and state champions. I believe there were three state champions in this class. Dorien, man, the number of catches alone is really impactful and really impressive.
But we wanted size. We wanted speed. And again we want players that are always open. So Dorien was one of our earliest commits at receiver and we really like his productivity.
Dontayvion is the youngest in the game and maturity, but then when you watch some of the dunks that he has in basketball and some of the dynamic measurables and his upside is tremendous, with really nice size also. And Nathaniel Beal, as I’ve already talked about, the tallest and longest of them all, with not only downfield ability but this matchup that is already problematic for a defense.
So again it was targeted specifically: We need more yield from our outside receivers. And so we targeted that specifically and I like the three players that we landed.
Q. How would you describe your strategy when recruiting — do you want a quarterback in every class to kind of build that hierarchy, or what’s the strategy at that position?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, the succession planning at quarterback has been one of the first things we had to address. And just now am I starting to get comfortable. So we have Bryce (Perkins) and then currently behind Bryce we have Brennan (Armstrong). And then we also have Lindell (Stone).
So there’s three quarterbacks that I think are capable. Lindell is a completely different style than the other two. But what Brennan has already shown is an alignment but not identical to what Bryce can do. So that allowed some consistency.
What I would love is a quarterback in each class. That’s my ideal. So you have a fourth year, second year, third year, first year and then you’re recruiting one. So that’s my ideal. We will have before this class finishes you’ll see five quarterbacks on scholarship by the time this class is finished.
We really liked RJ and there was a game we watched and his team was playing against one of the top 50 running backs in the country and RJ at quarterback, we thought, was a significantly better running back than the running back that that’s all he played.
And Bryce would be similar. And so RJ’s packaging is much more Marques Hagans-ish and we hope the result is Marques Hagans-ish in terms of the type of player he’s not built as Bryce, but wow is he dynamic and effective and will really help this team play well.
My ideal, in answer to the question, is to have one in each class with one being recruited. And that’s for the first time we’re going to be at that point.
Q. First, especially the top half of this class very defense-heavy, was that by design?
COACH MENDENHALL: Not necessarily. Sometimes it just works by when players choose to make up their minds and when they intend to commit.
So we’ve been really clear and really intentional on all of our players and what specifications we want. And Coach So’oto again did a nice job with the defensive line and Coach Poppinga and Coach Hunter, there will be one more player added this evening at probably 6:00. That will close out the signing day for today.
And so Coach Poppinga and Coach Hunter at linebacker and Coach Howell in the secondary, we’ve been together just so long that there’s a different level of momentum and they think as I think. So there’s a little less translation that needs to happen just because we’ve been in the same room so long and we’re clearer, maybe a little bit clearer of what it is on our offensive side.
Q. The overall team speed of this class, (Fentrell) Cypress, (Major) Williams, (Seneca) Milledge, all these guys are state track champions. Was it a goal to improve the team speed with this class?
COACH MENDENHALL: It is. Speed usually leads to scoring. Anytime you have three players that are at all anywhere from 104 to 600 meters, that starts to look very effective. In the secondary it’s ball speed. When you’re a ball carrier it’s hard to catch up to someone that’s running that fast.
Q. You mentioned Nathaniel earlier having been committed elsewhere. How did that relationship start after he decided that he was no longer going to Iowa State and how did it evolve from that?
COACH MENDENHALL: We were looking specifically for long and tall and productive and talented receivers. And that doesn’t exclude us from talking or reaching out to others that are committed elsewhere.
As we reached out and started that relationship, there became a sincere interest from Nathaniel back to us because of the academics, because of the need and then the style of play. But also where we are in the program and the impact he could have.
And so that all started this intrigue which then just blossomed into a recruiting visit not too long ago. So you’re talking basically about a year-long relationship with an institution he was committed to and then a pretty short and fast turnaround, which means the impact that was made and just the clear fit between both parties that has to be like that or it doesn’t override that long of a relationship.
In this case it did. We saw that. They felt that and knew it as well. And so I think he benefited by being able to come to the University of Virginia and we certainly benefited by having him join us.
Q. And you have mentioned previously kind of the jarring transition you found in the recruiting dynamic at Brigham Young where the acceptance rate was nearly half to here where it started like in the 8-to-9-to-1 range. Are you finding your acceptance ratio is now improving or are you still kind of in that range that you had mentioned before?
COACH MENDENHALL: No, significantly improved, partly because we’re more intentional now after we’ve learned and are still learning I guess the point of reference of UVA where we currently are in the market, establishing relationships in our footprint and then knowing exactly who to go after and what are the key predictors and with the success we’re having, that has made the rate of number of recruits to commitment significantly lower.
So it’s still not ideal. I would say probably 5 or 4-to-1 is where it is now. But in relation to where it was, we’ve closed the gap and made significant improvement.
So part of it is relationships. Part of it is knowledge of our current circumstances. But then knowing our existing team, now seeing the Coastal, now seeing the ACC and becoming more clear and more specific on exactly what we need, all of that has combined to make it to where the number of players recruited isn’t having to be as large as it was to get the commitments we need.
Q. I know the offensive line has been something that’s been on your mind since you got here. How do these three guys fit into your vision?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, there’s the size, and ability is part of it. The mindset is also part of it. So it’s not only what we’re going to do, it’s how we’re going to do it. And we think those are equal parts.
To have the size and ability without the mindset, to help us win the Coastal and take over the ACC, that would be a deal-breaker. So we’re really looking for both: Do they have enough ability and do they have the mindset?
Man, we’ve put a lot of time and effort into this group to solidify both those things. And we’re now again having enough success and we’re generating enough momentum where we’re able to choose and select and at a little bit higher level and we’re becoming more desirable.
So the quality is going up not only on the field but it’s also going up mindset-wise. And so again this group has to be better than our last group. And next year has to be better than that. Again, just to continue — that’s nothing against our current players — but just to continue the growth and progress needed for the program to make the kind of strides we continue to need and desire.
And knowing that as you reach a certain number of wins, success in our bowl game would mean eight. Nine wins is a lot harder to get than eight. Those kind of jumps become harder just to get one more.
And so who you bring in has a lot of impact on that. Our current players, their job then is they have to train so fiercely that they don’t get passed. And ultimately then that friction elevates the whole group, which is what we need. We not only need numbers but we need mindset. And I think this class and these additions will be really helpful.
Q. You’ve had some landmark moments the last couple of years, beating — winning at Boise State, beating Miami, going to the second straight bowl. How tangible is the effect of those things during recruiting?
COACH MENDENHALL: It is — I don’t know what percentage to put on it. But it’s tangible. It’s noticeable in everywhere we go no matter what school, the sentiment is man, holy cow, you guys are getting better, and, holy cow, you’re going back to postseason and what’s happening at Virginia? It’s kind of the same narrative wherever we go.
And so many teams then or so many people then, say, jump right to — there’s two overtime games. That could have been nine. You guys could be at nine. And we’re seeing how close it is and there’s this optimism of not only are we going back to postseason back to back, but they’re saying, wait, this realistically could have been even more than that in year three which isn’t a stretch.
All that is generating this excitement as to a couple more plays or a couple more players, and I think folks are thinking we’re closer than maybe what seven wins showed. So momentum is what’s happening. And it’s real and it’s tangible, regardless of state, regardless of the high school we walk into and so totally noticeable, much more so this year than last year, just as I have been out on the road.
Q. I ask this question every year. I’ll ask it again. So as you go forward now, what are some needs that you feel like this class still has; what are some things you wish were different about this group, and now that you have a little bit of time to address that before the more traditional national signing day?
COACH MENDENHALL: So I really feel like our needs have been addressed. So we could stop now and I’m comfortable and confident and happy with our class and really excited about the direction and the future of our program. If you then start to say extra credit, you know, what now is possible, there’s always bridges. And so we could still use another bridge in terms of a graduate transfer or two. Offensive line, still, we need a graduate transfer, if we’re talking extra credit. We don’t need one. But it would be an extra.
Same thing at receiver, outside receiver. A graduate transfer would help give us an additional number there. Those two positions are probably at the biggest deficit still in terms of succession planning, numbers and ability for what I’d like to see.
The next position would be possibly another defensive lineman if we could find an exceptional defensive lineman, similar to Jowon, Ben Smiley, if we could find another player similar to those two, it would be in that order, if I were then saying to finish this, even though right now I’m good, but if to say, okay, if we kept working and there were possibilities where might they be, probably there.
Q. You mentioned when you got here how hard it was to recruit instate. I believe you have three instate guys in this class. I’m curious over the last two years what are your thoughts how you’ve recruited in this state and how do you approach that going forward?
COACH MENDENHALL: I think we’re improving significantly. And most of that has happened because doors are being opened with our progress and it’s so noticeable. And so the intrigue now is opening doors and players are more interested and again relationships are being established with my staff and the high school coaches.
And then so many of them are coming to see us practice. And what they thought and what they see, they usually leave very impressed. And there’s just momentum that’s being generated.
And we have a saying in our program, right, trust is built with time and consistency. So it’s now been three years of time with consistency of behavior, treatment and results. And so trust is starting to be established, which yields results.
Q. You mentioned at the beginning about the additional staff for recruiting that you’ve been able to bring on. How do they help? Just, like, what roles are they in and how much of an impact have they had?
COACH MENDENHALL: Man, in terms of the roles, we were approximately half-staffed in relation to our competitors when I arrived in the personnel area. And so there are what are called — depends on which organization, recruiting specialists, but all they do from the minute they arrive at work to the time they go home is finding, which means, or you can call them regional coordinators, they have areas, responsible for every high school and every player within that footprint or that region, to mine them, find them, put them through the evaluation process.
Before we had those additional people, our coaches, then, after practice were then doing that, which we were just simply late and behind. Some other staffs were finding and mining 24/7. That’s an exaggeration, during the workday while we were then coaching and then doing that. And we couldn’t catch up fast enough.
And so the regional coordinators or recruiting specialists — the volume of players that we’re finding in relation to the specific needs that we have is happening early, faster and more accurate. That is happening while we’re practicing.
And so those two things have just — and then with the momentum of how we’re playing, that also is reflective of the coaches not having to recruit as much.
So the playing product is improving while the finding is happening at the same time and those two things are merging in a way that just is significantly different. Without the resources it would be really difficult.
And so, again, Carla has been really helpful in identifying that need right off, giving us the resources to develop our roster. And so I think the results certainly show that. I can’t say it’s all the organization, but it’s a huge part, the progress we’re making on the field, it’s a combination of both those.
Q. What’s it going to be like going up against a tough South Carolina team that throws the ball a lot but you all have great defensive backs that can really stop this team?
COACH MENDENHALL: The game is a challenge, no question with the growth and progress of our program, that continues to earn us maybe more prestigious bowls on bigger stages against better teams. And that’s where we want to be.
That usually uncovers all the learnings and all the things that need to happen to develop your program. And certainly we’d like to do that with a victory. That is the reason you go to postseason.
We’ve just — we think the SEC is a strong conference. We’ve already seen, obviously, South Carolina on film. And if you were then to say who might you compare them to that we’ve played, talent-wise, at receiver, talent-wise personnel, probably North Carolina State would be the closest team that we’ve played that might resemble. Hard to know until you’ve played but say, okay, what’s the point of reference. It’s probably them.
But we think they’re talented. We think they’re well-coached and every game has been close for them, much like us, the ones they’ve won and the ones they’ve lost.
There’s not much difference in there. So we like the matchup a lot for year three in our program. We like the SEC opponent. And man has it been great to have the extra practices. We just had eight practices which were spring practices, with our travel backups and our first-years and second-years, guys that haven’t been playing much, and we worked really hard.
They basically now, yesterday, received kind of end-of-spring evaluations that happened before the bowl game. So they know exactly where they stand, what they need to work on, what their futures might look like.
And, man, that to develop our program, is priceless. Let alone playing the game, which we started on South Carolina prep today.
Q. Down in Charlotte you used the phrase “fast and furious” to describe South Carolina’s offense. Tempo-wise, according to the analytics, they most resemble, of the teams you played, North Carolina, Duke and Liberty, which play at similar paces. Having had that familiarity with pace, does that help you, especially — you won all three of those —
COACH MENDENHALL: The familiarity does help. And years and years of kind of research on how to practice against it certainly has helped. It doesn’t guarantee us success. But we do have a familiarity with it. When you’ve got really skilled players to the tempo, that leads to usually more points and they’re a little bit more dynamic than sometimes a team of lesser talent that plays at the same speed.
But many times, on tape, you’ll see defenders running to get aligned, and multiple players looking at the sideline and the ball is snapped. And those are all hidden plays and hidden yardage that happen within a game. And many times they’re big plays while the defense just simply breaks mentally or their organization in terms of communication doesn’t happen.
So that pressure is applied in a really unique way. It’s physical but probably more mental than anything else of that constant need to make a play and get lined up again.
And so then the scheme in addition to that I think is effective. So we have points of reference. We feel comfortable and confident that we will be able to get lined up and play.
When you put it all together with their ability, that’s why I think they’re strong on offense.
Q. A lot of your players said today that their first bowl preparation practice was pretty physical. Were you trying to set the tone for this game?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yes. I was trying to set the tone. We have work to do. And so while we’ve talked a lot about progress, I’m very clear also about the amount and the gaps still from where we are now to where we want to be.
And the clock is ticking. Not only for the program, but I want these — I want our team to have success. And yes, we did not ease into it. We charged into it. And we made a statement as to this is what it’s going to require. And, yeah, I would say that there was adapting that was happening to that mindset and what it really takes to be successful in postseason.
The constant challenge, right, is the depth of the roster versus physical practices and how long can you do it to play. And so we’re two weeks out. So it will become less physical as we go. But there’s a great chance all the way through Saturday it will look similar like it did today.
One other point to that, one of the reasons and motives is simply this team, they made it really clear that it wasn’t just okay to go to the game; they want to win the game. That was all the way before the season started.
So I’m trying to help every way possible to facilitate that.
Q. The other thing, last week you mentioned South Carolina’s passing game. They do some unique things. Is it an extremely sophisticated passing game, or just unique in the way they approach things?
COACH MENDENHALL: So sophistication, to me the highest level of sophistication is presented through simplicity, where they take all these concepts that are so difficult and it’s packaged down to where these compliments when you do this you’re vulnerable here and do that you’re vulnerable there. Don’t need all the passes only a couple. When you add players to it. So it’s not the complexity. But it is, I would say, the ingenuity and it’s really well thought out and everything you adjust to there’s a weakness presented and there’s a player then that’s at the weakness point of attack.
So I’ve been impressed. So with the tempo, with the thought that has gone into their scheme and with the talent, I think that they’re very good offensively.
Q. With South Carolina getting so many injured guys back, has that complicated preparations at all? Have you guys had to get creative go back find older game film to study?
COACH MENDENHALL: Our sports information staff and Vince in particular has done a really nice job of predicting for us and kind of did that legwork. And so we’re going off of what he has helped us with. It’s difficult to know who’s back, at what level they’re back and how long they’ll last. And so we’re just doing the best we can and I’m sure they’re similar in trying to project who we have coming back.
Q. SEC teams are known for their defensive front seven. Toughness and physicality you mentioned. Can you compare what you’ve seen on film out of that to anyone you faced this season?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, again I think it’s North Carolina State is the closest comparison in terms of talent and ability. Not only in the front seven, but probably the entire roster when you look at receivers, quarterback, offensive line, defensive skill, defensive front seven. Again, I’m not saying they’re identical. But in terms of a reference point, I think that’s probably the closest.
Q. What is the status of Hasise Dubois, and are there any other situations like that?
COACH MENDENHALL: Hasise is — so he was in really good shape coming into practice and he was hurt in practice today. And so I’m not sure where he stands now as to how significant the injury was.
Q. Is it ironic that you started this year in Charlotte and you’re going to end this year in Charlotte?
COACH MENDENHALL: Haven’t thought about that. Yeah, I guess we’ll call that ironic. I think there’s maybe a more important part to that is we ultimately want to be in Charlotte earlier than this playing in the ACC championship game. And we were close enough for that to be a real possibility this year. And so I like the thought of going to that location, of being in those locker rooms, being on that field in preparation for what we expect to happen in the future.