CHARLOTTE — In each of the last five years, the Virginia football team has not had a winning record or won more than three games in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Last season the Cavaliers lost their opener to lower-division Richmond, dropped their final seven games consecutively and finished with a 2-10 record.
Still, despite those taxing results, Bronco Mendenhall indicated he’s in no particular hurry to reboot. There aren’t any quick fixes, the second-year coach said during the ACC’s football media day for the Coastal Division, and patience continues to be a highly valued commodity in the locker room.
“My passion is building, and my passion is doing hard things and building people, and so invigorating is the word that I use,” Mendenhall said Friday morning. “I think there’s nothing that brings me more fulfillment, and so I’m working as hard as I can every single day with players that I love and are starting to grasp what that’s going to take in year two, and that’s fulfilling.
“There is no time frame that I’m imposing.”
Mendenhall’s message resonated especially with senior Quin Blanding. The first-team all-ACC selection at safety last year had considered entering the NFL draft, going as far as submitting his name to the league’s college advisory committee, before announcing the day after Christmas that he would be coming back to Charlottesville.
Blanding enters this season ranked ninth in program history in tackles and needs 78 to become Virginia’s career leader. A starter in every game since arriving at the school, Blanding averaged more than 119 tackles in each of his three years, including setting the school’s freshman record with 123 in 2014.
“I believe in the system,” said Blanding, one of nine defensive starters back this year. “I trust the system. I trust the process. You know, why not go one more year and go out with a bang and increase the status of Virginia?”
The Cavaliers finished 12th out of 14 teams in the ACC last season in total defense. Only two teams in the conference allowed more rushing yards per game than Virginia, but Mendenhall, regarded as a defensive specialist, has been giving plenty of attention to correcting that flaw.
There were signs of defensive progress down the stretch last season. In its eighth game, Virginia limited Lamar Jackson, Louisville’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, to 88 rushing yards on 17 carries. That total was the second fewest for Jackson in an ACC game in 2016.
Then in the penultimate game of the year, the Cavaliers held Georgia Tech to 199 rushing yards, nearly 60 below the Yellow Jackets’ season average. Georgia Tech finished ninth in major college football last year in rushing behind its triple-option attack.
Virginia led both of those games at halftime.
“I think great things are built very simply, very methodically and really detail-oriented,” said Mendenhall, who never had a losing season in 11 years at BYU before taking over at Virginia. “And so as it has been yet to show in terms of wins and losses, and I don’t know when that’ll happen. I’m certainly not going to let the small improvements that I see are leading to that go without acknowledging those. I crave those simple successes, as do our players.”
By Mendenhall’s admission, there was too much clutter with regard to concepts last year. So in spring practice, the former Brigham Young coach streamlined the playbook, allowing his players to focus on executing what they knew rather than trying to absorb additional schemes.
The difference has been stark on offense too, according to quarterback Kurt Benkert, one of just two starters back at the position in the Coastal Division.
The graduate transfer came to Virginia from East Carolina and won the starting job, reaching 2,000 passing yards in eight games to match Matt Schaub as the fastest quarterback to do so. His 421 yards against Central Michigan are the most in a game in school history. He also threw five touchdowns during that 49-35 victory at Scott Stadium.
“That is the most important thing to me right now,” Benkert said of changing the culture. “This is my last collegiate football season. We’ve already with our class put a stamp on this program and set a standard. We all want to be a part of that. It’s going to happen. We see how we work. We see how the coaches work. We know it’s going to happen and good days are going to happen for this program.”