CHARLOTTESVILLE — Bronco Mendenhall was on his introductory tour as Virginia’s football coach in late December 2015 when he stepped on the court and took a microphone during halftime of a men’s basketball game at John Paul Jones Arena.
Amid rousing applause, Mendenhall told the crowd to take note of the winter holidays because that’s also bowl season. He had directed Brigham Young to 11 straight bowl appearances, so, he declared, “Why not start making it 12 this next season?”
These days, grand proclamations have given way to repeated calls for patience following a 2-10 record that left Mendenhall humbled and the Cavaliers out of the bowl picture for a fifth consecutive year.
It’s the longest such stretch for Virginia, which will open Mendenhall’s second season at the helm Saturday afternoon at home against lower-division William & Mary, since reaching its inaugural bowl game in 1984.
“If I’ve learned anything, this will be a process,” Mendenhall said. “This isn’t a polish and reboot and everything’s good. It’s not even a rebuild. If it’s business, it would be more start-up-oriented. Now that I’ve seen it, I know. But that’s lesson learned for me. I know more clearly where I am, where the program is and what we need to do.”
Adding capable reserves at all positions continues to be a priority, and Mendenhall admitted in multiple instances during training camp that the assignment is far from complete. He’s mentioned his fondness for this year’s recruiting class but added that upgrading the roster is a long-term project.
In part because of those personnel limitations, Mendenhall last season moved from a no-huddle attack to a more traditional offense in which the deliberate pace provides more time for communication and decision-making. He also simplified the playbook this past offseason.
“Man, we’ve put in lots and lots of work to this point,” he said. “Assessment: We are making progress, but our roster is thin, so not much depth, but we have capable players. Our chemistry is strong, and we’re building. The focus right now is on the process. Every single day matters, every single repetition matters, every single meeting matters.
“We’re racing against the clock not only to be prepared for the first game but to build the kind of program I think we’d all like to see here.”
At least Mendenhall can take comfort in his quarterback, a luxury often not afforded coaches during their initial years remaking a team in distress.
Senior Kurt Benkert enters his second season as the starter. He’s only one of two starting quarterbacks in the ACC’s Coastal Division back from last year.
The strong-armed transfer from East Carolina became one of the two fastest players in Cavaliers history to reach 2,000 passing yards, matching the record of eight games Matt Schaub set in 2003. Benkert threw for 2,552 yards and 21 touchdowns with 11 interceptions in 11 games last season.
In addition, Benkert established the school’s single-game record with 421 passing yards against Central Michigan. His five passing touchdowns in that 49-35 triumph Sept. 24 at Scott Stadium are tied for second most in a game at Virginia.
Benkert also is completely healthy for the first time since tearing an anterior cruciate ligament during Pirates training camp in August 2015.
“I’m a completely different athlete this year than I was last year,” said Benkert, who won the job late in training camp last season and became the 10th quarterback in 11 seasons to start an opener for the Cavaliers. “I have that extra step back. I can really break away from people now. It’s a lot better. The biggest thing is I know that everyone’s looking to me.”
Mendenhall confirmed as much by indicating he doesn’t recall another time in his coaching career when he has leaned on one player as much as he’s planning to with Benkert this season.
Benkert’s thoughtful leadership off the field was never more valuable than throughout the recent events in Charlottesville that generated national headlines. On Aug. 12, a rally protesting the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in downtown Charlottesville turned violent when demonstrators from both sides clashed. Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old Charlottesville resident, was killed when a car plowed into a group of counterprotesters.
Players had recently wrapped up practice when word began trickling in about the alt-right gathering a few miles from Virginia’s athletic facilities. Benkert participated in a team meeting shortly thereafter, taking fully to heart the concerns of African American players.
“Just to think where we were a year ago with competing and learning and growing, and to have that year of experience back [with Benkert] puts us a big step forward,” Cavaliers quarterbacks coach Jason Beck said. “And also just his ability to take the team, you know, ‘This is my team,’ and lead it and direct it where last year that wasn’t the case. It was still up in the air and juggling.
“For everybody around him, it kind of sets the tone and the direction.”
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