While Hokies make tweaks, Hoos undergo cultural reboot

Virginia and Virginia Tech have had vastly different results over the last two decades. But this spring, the rival schools have something in common: They both feature new coaching staffs for the first time since 1974.

The similarities end there.

While Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente seeks to build on the foundation Frank Beamer set, Bronco Mendenhall has taken a sledgehammer to the establishment, seeking to reinvent Virginia football.

“It’s a new culture,” defensive tackle Donte Wilkins says. “A new society.”

The cosmetic changes in Charlottesville are obvious: Mendenhall has stripped numbers from jerseys this spring, along with all Virginia logos as a way to make his players earn them all back. The goal is to foster competitiveness, while also making his players focus on details in a way they never had previously.

Every drill must be done correctly, so they earn the right to move on to the next drill. If players mess up, Mendenhall simply says, ‘Again.’ Walking is not allowed. Neither is putting your hands on your hips to try and catch a breath.

Then there are the changes designed to strengthen mental will. That began with tempo runs during offseason conditioning. Cones are set up around the football field, and position groups had to meet specific criteria to be allowed to practice. Linemen, for example, had to run six loops in 35 seconds.

They were done outside, in freezing temperatures, while the indoor facility beckoned from just a few yards away. “It was the first time we had ever done something like that. Guys were panicking,” offensive tackle Eric Smith said.

“My mind was in a place it’s never been before,” quarterback Matt Johns said. “It’s a cold, dark place and all you can really hear is yourself breathing. You’re just drained, physically and mentally.”

The runs brought misery, yes. But they also ended up leading to something unexpected: team camaraderie.

“We had a Saturday where we had almost 90 percent of the team out here cheering on our teammates who hadn’t made it yet,” Johns said. “It’s raining, It’s cold. “They finish and dive through the line. We’re dogpiling, jumping on each other, running around. It was a fun atmosphere that I’ve never seen here before.”

Then there are the strikes assigned to players when they miss class, or are late to anything. Strike one means 250 burpees into box jumps for linemen; 300 for quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends and linebackers; and 350 for receivers and defensive backs.

They are done before practice, must be completed in an allotted time, and each rep must be counted out loud. If a player loses count, he has to start over. If he fails to finish, he needs to try again the next day.

Strike two means the entire position group must also complete the punishment, with an extra 100 reps for the player who earned the strike. Class attendance is now up, and players arrive early for everything.

But what also has changed the mood inside the Virginia football facility are the coaches themselves. They are more energetic, more engaging and more welcoming, a true brotherhood from which the players feed off.

“I would never come back in the coaches' offices,” Wilkins said. “You couldn’t pay me to do that. Now, I can’t wait. I came here earlier and knocked on the staff door during a defensive meeting. I was scared, like, ‘Should I do this?’ They opened the door and said, ‘Oh, it’s Donte! Come in!’ I’d never been inside a staff meeting.”

There is clear organization now, too. Mendenhall has each day plotted out, and statistics showing how and why they are proceeding with the drills they run. Assistants provide players with detailed practice notes.

The locker room is spotless. “If you would have walked into our locker room before, it might look like a little kids’ room, stuff everywhere,” running back Taquan Mizzell said.

Smith chimes in: “We had a pet mouse. Stuart Little was walking around.”

The entire nutrition plan has changed, too. Wilkins is down from 23 percent body fat to 15 percent in four short months. Smith is down 26 percent to 19, with more to go.

Players agree change has been difficult and sometimes miserable. But the buy-in has happened across the board, and much quicker than even Mendenhall expected.

“We have no choice. How many games did we win?” Wilkins asked.

“Eleven games out of 36 since we signed our letter of intent,” Smith says. “Some teams are winning that in one year.”

“Either you buy in or you leave. You can go anywhere you want, but we’re going to win,” Wilkins said. “Honestly, I’m upset we didn’t have these coaches last year. I wish I had these coaches longer. That’s how we all feel.”

At Virginia Tech, Fuente and his staff have changed the offensive philosophy and conditioning drills as well. During winter workouts, players attended “speed school,” where they were taught how to use the right muscles so they had no wasted movements on the field.

There are other changes here and there: Fuente has weekly meetings with the seniors and practice is more fast paced. Quarterbacks now get to use virtual reality technology. Even the facility is undergoing a makeover. Buy-in also has been immediate.

But for the most part, Fuente has a different job than Mendenhall. Virginia Tech has gone to 23 straight bowl games; Virginia has no current players who have ever gone to the postseason.

“I think it would be foolish for me to say we have to change the culture,” Fuente said. “We may need to add to the culture. We may need to tweak some things in what we ask of the guys or how we need to go about things or things like that, but the culture is healthy.”