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Virginia Football looks forward to a return to spring

armstrong mendenhall
UVA quarterback Brennan Armstrong and head coach Bronco Mendenhall. Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall wants to think it’s a return to normalcy with the start of spring practice on the horizon.

He actually used that word, “normalcy,” in the opening of his Zoom chat with reporters on Monday.

The part about the chat being on Zoom, and not in person on Grounds, was your first sign that we’re not quite back to normal yet.

Mendenhall had already been clued in on that.

“Normally we have the team meeting chairs already set out for the players, and today as we shifted to a different format getting ready for spring practice, they had to bring their own chairs and set them up in the indoor facility. They put it right back to where it was non-COVID,” Mendenhall said.

“I mean, that was the clearest feedback I could have ever gotten. We’ve been going now, since they returned, six feet, and it looked like this square takes up almost 50 yards, they were so far apart. And the minute the chairs weren’t set up, they’re there shoulder to shoulder.”

So, normal, not yet.

Not that none of us have trouble understanding what was going on there.

“They’re so anxious to be back together, they’re so anxious for normal. It’s just this magnetic thing, for lack of a better word, that just is sucking them back together. So yeah, I have to be the gatekeeper, I guess, is the is the word I’ll use,” Mendenhall said.

In his chat with reporters, Mendenhall conceded that last year’s 5-5 final record wasn’t what he expected, that the .500 season may have been the result, at least in part, of him prioritizing health and safety, which, seriously, you can’t be upset about that, considering that the season was played in a pandemic.

Honestly, it was bound to be a rebuilding year, after the Coastal Division championship and Orange Bowl appearance in 2019, led by record-setting quarterback Bryce Perkins, now in the NFL.

The 2020 ‘Hoos had to replace Perkins, fill holes at linebacker and in the secondary, and do it with the team scattered to the winds during what should have been spring practice.

“We couldn’t make it mandatory to have them lift. Some guys had resources to gyms, some guys had weights, some guys didn’t. Everything was closed down, so everybody was at a different level,” wide receivers coach Marques Hagans said in an interview on Sunday with “The Jerry Ratcliffe Show” with Chris Graham.

“It was hard to set a standard for everyone to adhere to, because everyone was in different situations. Certain guys in certain different geographic parts of the country were on different restrictions than others. Some were in total lockdown, some were not. So it was just hard,” Hagans said.

“To have everybody here for the full offseason, we’re excited to go into spring ball on Tuesday. It’s a huge accomplishment steppingstone so far. And hopefully we get to complete spring ball and give us a chance to reestablish the culture that we really didn’t get a chance to do last year.”

That was the thing was lost most last year – the strength and conditioning, the practice time, sure, but most noticeably, the chance to build on the culture that Mendenhall is trying to build at UVA.

“You know, the way we ended the season was not how we envisioned, and I don’t think the players were satisfied with that,” Hagans said. And the best way you correct, I guess, the retaliation from the previous season is how hard you work in the offseason. I think the guys have kind of set that foundation.

“I think our strength staff, Coach Grizz (Shawn Griswold), and those guys and his staff, have done an amazing job putting together an offseason that really has reflected guys working hard, growing as leaders, and just coming together, doing hard things together, as you know, as Coach Mendenhall believes.

“I think it’s been a really good offseason, I’m really excited to get going for spring ball, and just to see not only how much stronger and faster and bigger guys have gotten, but how much better football players they can become over spring ball. I’m really excited about that,” Hagans said.

X’s and O’s

The excitement extends with the return of last year’s starting quarterback, Brennan Armstrong, football Swiss army knife Keytaon Thompson, depth at running back and on the offensive line, and six seniors on defense who decided to return for an extra year – defensive ends Mandy Alonso and Adeeb Atariwa, free safety Joey Blount, outside linebacker Elliott Brown, and cornerbacks De’Vante Cross and Nick Grant.

Those six, plus linemen Chris Glaser and Ryan Nelson and wideout Ra’Shaun Henry, took advantage of a waiver by the NCAA allowing athletes an extra season of eligibility to compensate for the odd pandemic year.

Mendenhall made it clear that it wasn’t an automatic that he’d just let anybody who wanted to come back to use that extra year.

“When I presented that option for those players, it was a blunt conversation, but they weren’t to come back unless they were passionate about becoming more than they already were, and helping the team become more than it already was. Otherwise, it wasn’t OK for them to come back,” said Mendenhall, who has liked what he has seen from the returning seniors.

“When I watch Mandy Alonso, it is the best I’ve ever seen him train and work. De’Vante Cross would be another in that same category with just, it’s just fierce, how hard that he’s trying. Joey Blunt, this was Joey Blunt’s first offseason being healthy, and his numbers have gone just through the roof in terms of his strength and his size and his speed,” Mendenhall said.

“Every player that has chosen to come back under those circumstances, they are driving this team. And to their credit, that’s what they said they would do. And so I appreciate them keeping their word, but the team notices, and they see it.”

The return of Armstrong, a redshirt junior who threw for 2,118 yards and 18 TDs with a 138.9 passer rating in his first year as a starter in 2020, kind of feels like 2019, in terms of how that team had Perkins returning for a second year as the starting QB, running the creative scheme of offensive coordinator Robert Anae.

Mendenhall thinks Armstrong did a nice job handling the pressure of stepping in as a new starter without a spring and summer to develop rapport with his skill guys and line.

“I liked the way we started, and then Brennan got hurt right in there for about a game and a half. And then we kind of restarted, and then we looked like we could play football for a while. And then we didn’t finish the way I was hoping in our last game,” Mendenhall said. “But all that together with Brennan, my point is having Brennan go through all of what I just described, that might be almost like two seasons worth of experience. Because the depth of different things and different leadership opportunities and different self-discovery and understanding, well, that in terms of his progression, that might have been a blessing in disguise. Now looking back on it, and so I’m so glad he’s back, and it absolutely puts our team in a different place.”

The running game has been a work-in-progress for the entirety of the five-year Mendenhall era. Mendenhall thinks this might be the year we finally see the breakthrough.

“Mike Hollins is back. Ronnie Walker is also back. Wayne Taulapapa has been almost unbeatable in every drill in the offseason. So this is the deepest our running backs have been since I’ve been the coach. We also have added Amaad Foston as a mid-year first year,” Mendenhall said.

“The traditional runs from our running backs haven’t been our strength. But our quarterback runs have been very good, to where that when we put those two things together, that’s kind of become our running game,” Mendenhall said, massive understatement there.

Armstrong, Thompson and Ira Armstead – the latter two taking snaps at QB, but largely in wildcat situations – accounted for 52.5 percent of the team’s rushing yards a year ago.

“We would love to see some more production from traditional runs while we keep the creativity of our quarterback runs. Knowing that Keytaon is also part of that, so you have Brennan as a possibility, Ira as a possibility, you have Keytaon as a possibility, and then you have the traditional tailback runs, single back runs that we would love to get more out of,” Mendenhall said.

“There’s a physical presence that it could be where this then is the year where UVA’s run game finally breaks through,” Mendenhall said. “We’ve had to be pretty creative. I’ve liked the production through Bryce and Brennan a year ago. It’s just taken some pretty creative options. So I’d like to get more traditional, without losing the creativity.”

The fun part of the creativity is seeing how Anae uses Thompson, who reminds Mendenhall of a player that he and Anae coached when they were together at BYU.

“The best way I would describe Keytaon is I saw a commercial regarding Taysom Hill in New Orleans, and he came on screen, and they said, what position do you play? He said football. That is exactly how we intend to use Keytaon,” Mendenhall said of Thompson, who ran for 234 yards and three TDs, and caught seven passes for 98 yards and scored three TDs through the air.

Thompson was limited in terms of throwing the ball due to a shoulder injury suffered in training camp, but Mendenhall said he expects Thompson to be used in passing situations this season.

“Will he play quarterback? Yes. Will he play tight end? Yes. Will he play running back? Yes. Will he play slot receiver? Yes. Will he play x receiver? Yes. Will he play z receiver? Yes. Will he will he be on the punt team? Certainly. Will he be on punt return? Yes. So he gets whatever ever many boxes. We’re on a mission to have as many boxes checked for positions ever played. And he’s so smart and so capable. So yeah, yes to everything,” Mendenhall said.

Bottom line

Don’t let the 5-5 finish in 2020 tamp down your expectations for 2021.

“Last year was a real challenge when all the different circumstances came together, and I didn’t see us truly get better in terms of record, right? And I understand how important that is. But I do see a program that continues to add the right players in the right positions, to have as good a chance as anyone to win the Coastal Division. And we expect to win, we expect to be in the postseason, we expect to compete for the Coastal championship,” Mendenhall said.

Story by Chris Graham

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