Year 1 under Bronco Mendenhall at Virginia was eye-opening -- and not necessarily in a good way. For Mendenhall and the fans, it was a realization of just how far the program was from turning a corner, and the team struggled to a 2-10 finish. We talked with Mendenhall about the problems he faced and the road ahead as he looks to get the Cavaliers back into contention in the ACC Coastal.
How would you categorize the growth in your first season?
I just finished the exit interviews with my players, and from what they said and what I think, currently our culture and our work ethic is ahead of our execution. This team has a willing mindset and an expanded work capacity and a really strong chemistry. What we don’t have yet, and what’s lagging behind and needs a lot of attention is the execution and the consistency to have the wins. But there’s been a solid foundation laid there that I’m very encouraged by.
What did you learn through the season?
I really thought that I would have a great idea of what our team was capable of and who we were prior to our first game. What I learned is that I really didn’t have a clear idea where the team and the program really was until we played our first game. At that point, I saw exactly the areas we needed to improve, where we needed to grow and expand and where we needed to make significant progress in.
From the first game all the way up to the last game, there was -- man, absolutely significant improvement in areas, but inconsistently demonstrated. Matching the needs that the team had with the coaches and strategic personnel moves along the way. We reached a starting point for that in Year 1. But the best way I can articulate this is, now after being here one year, I really feel like now I’m the coach at UVA. I know much more clearly what the job is, what challenges we have, what areas we’re deficient in, how to go about addressing it. It was really a first year of discovery.
How did those discoveries change the way you viewed the 2017 recruiting class and how you would handle this offseason?
A couple things that became clear is our roster hasn’t been managed with a comprehensive look to the future. There are holes. We might have a fifth-year player and a first-year player at a position with nothing in between. We might have three second-year players. So not only am I approaching this as rebuilding a team, I’m much more approaching it as building a program with an eye to long-term success and sustainability. So with this upcoming recruiting class, we need to address position needs, but also long-term planning.
Our football team also needs to be stronger, more physical, look more like an ACC team in terms of size and physicality. Last year’s offseason was devoted almost entirely to conditioning and work capacity, just to be able to handle our practice format. We practice unique and fast and hard. We got our team conditioned to that, but that was at the expense of the size and muscle and bulk. This has been designed step by step. We’re ready to add that to the physical conditioning. And what this team needs to do, rather than have ideas and schemes presented and taught, we’re much more where we need the competitive setting, and as many snaps as we can have before we play next fall, that’s what this program needs. We need to move from capability to consistency with increased body sizes and strength to do it.
One of those areas where the depth chart wasn’t well balanced is quarterback. You benched Kurt Benkert late in the season for a senior, too. How do you view that position evolving now?
There became a point where Kurt’s growth had stalled, and I believed the best way for him to learn and grow was to step back and see it rather than do it, and at the same time, Matt Johns was just leading and performing. It seemed like there became a time where those two forces came together. Kurt handled it well. It was not easy on him. And when he came in against Virginia Tech, he came in eager to play, made good decisions and there were no turnovers. I saw signs of what was necessary and needed and showed some short-term benefits. I like who Kurt is and his leadership and his arm. He’s a very good thrower. He just started to struggle along the way with trusting the protection and staying in the pocket long enough to let plays develop.
In going forward, we’d like another grad transfer. I’d prefer another transfer with two years because right now Kurt’s backup is a first-year and I’m not comfortable with a fifth year and a first year. I’d like a grad transfer with two years to compete with Kurt for the job this year, and have another year after that while we’re developing the [young] quarterbacks and have that become a more stable position.
Do you have a transfer possibility in mind?
We have two in particular that fit that who are interested and we think fit what we want to do. My preference in moving forward, at BYU we had a true dual-threat quarterback, and my preference is, we’ll take the best quarterback available, but my preference is dual-threat.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from the fans in your first year?
I don’t read or listen to talk shows or media, but I’m sure there was disappointment that here’s a new staff that knows winning and success, but I think there’s a realization that this program needs more work than anyone thought. This is verification of that. There was that acknowledgement with the disappointment that it’s not going to happen as fast as we want it. And I think there’s a resolve that, we’ll support this, but we’ll probably fill the stands when they start winning. I completely get that.
We have a principle here called "earned, not given." I’m going to do my best to earn each person back in a seat until we fill it. That’ll take time, but I understand. I didn’t take it personally. They wanted more success this year, as did I. But the reality is, this program was probably further down than what anyone thought and will take more work than anyone wanted, and probably the time frame is a little bit longer than what anyone anticipated. But anyone that wants to support that now, man, I’d love to have that. But there will come a time when there’s enough visibility to what we’re doing and it translating to wins that will coincide with the fan support, and I’ve just framed it realistically to myself and our team.