UVA Football: You’ve come a long way, baby

uva footballA year ago, Bronco Mendenhall was getting ready to tell the UVA Board of Visitors that he only had 27 ACC-caliber players, that he wanted to play the weakest possible non-conference schedule.

That his team had coasted after getting its sixth win in 2017, and wasn’t prepared ahead of its 49-7 beatdown by Navy in the Military Bowl.

A few weeks later, the media picked Virginia seventh, and dead last, in the ACC Coastal Division at the 2018 ACC Kickoff in Charlotte.

Mendenhall would be back in Charlotte in December, no, not for that game, not yet – but for a bowl game, the Belk Bowl, that the ‘Hoos would go on to win, in dominant fashion, eating South Carolina’s lunch in a 28-0 blowout.

In the intervening six months, Virginia Football went from afterthought to borderline powerhouse, now getting love from writers as a contender to win the Coastal, which would then involve another trip to Charlotte, this time for an ACC Championship Game.

It feels like it might be worth revisiting an interview that I conducted with Mendenhall in Charlotte last December on the eve of the Belk Bowl.

It was the first time I got one-on-one time with Mendenhall in his tenure.

I’m nowhere near the top of the pecking order for those kinds of opportunities. I take what I can get.

I started the brief interview – about four and a half minutes long; again, I take what I can get! – observing that I thought maybe things were a year ahead of schedule in terms of the results on the field.

He agreed. And I don’t think, from his answer, that he was just indulging me.

“This is what we had envisioned schematically and identity-wise when we arrived. I actually thought it would take one more year to have it start to manifest as clearly as it has this year. I’m not saying we’ve arrived, but we are a little ahead of schedule from what I’d thought in where we were and how we’ve played. But the defense is resembling what we’ve known and are always used to. And the offense has now, with that style of play at quarterback, has really become Year 1 as to what our intent is,” Mendenhall said.

Two keys. First: defense. The UVA D in 2018 was third in the ACC in scoring defense and total defense, after losing its heart and soul, Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding, to graduation.

God love Kiser and Blanding, but neither is known for blazing speed, which is the foundation of the Mendenhall scheme, best exhibited in rising senior cornerback Bryce Hall, a two-star high-school recruit who saw himself listed as a projected first-round pick on 2019 NFL draft boards before deciding to return for his senior season at Virginia.

The offense has as its bellwether Bryce Perkins, a junior-college transfer who stepped in immediately and set a new UVA single-season record for total offense, and in the process set a (catchphrase alert) new standard for future Cavalier quarterbacks.

As was the case with the defense, which got better when it lost its two stalwarts to graduation, the offense scored seven points more per game in 2018 after losing two-year starting quarterback Kurt Benkert to the NFL.

I asked Mendenhall back on the eve of the Belk Bowl if it helps him and his staff sell what they want to do on offense to new recruits to be able to point to how Perkins runs the attack.

“It does, and rather than saying, showing,” Mendenhall said. “And then when they come, and they see Bryce, they stand by him, and they say, ‘Wow, he’s not only a great young man and great leader, but look at his size, look at his speed.’ He’s impressive. There really isn’t a quarterback that we think is dynamic and exceptional that doesn’t come and see Bryce and say, ‘Oh, I thought I was good, but I think he’s better than me, and maybe this is a good place for me to come.’”

So, now you know, for the foreseeable future, what UVA football will look like. It will be fast on defense, it will feature an offense with a quarterback who throws downfield and darts between defenders for first downs.

And now, it expects to not just be able to compete, but to be able to win.

“Getting back to postseason was the first step. That was one of the primary goals of the season, because it had been 14 years. Sometimes that fact has been lost on the process. It has not been easy for Virginia to do, and we have done that,” Mendenhall said.

“That’s not to say that winning doesn’t accelerate it to a different level, and that’s really our only intent in coming. The players have embraced that as the new standard, where postseason is now expected, and winning is expected, so it’s my job to help them do that.”

Story by Chris Graham

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