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What Bronco Mendenhall’s Virginia needs to avoid another year in obscurity

Of this division’s many excellent coaches, UVA’s is still the one with the toughest task.

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Virginia
Bronco Mendenhall
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

As head coaches, David Cutcliffe, Larry Fedora, Justin Fuente, Paul Johnson, Bronco Mendenhall, Pat Narduzzi, and Mark Richt have combined for 654 wins, 62 bowl appearances, 29 ranked finishes, four conference titles, two FCS national titles, and a Broyles Award.

  • Cutcliffe is Duke’s most consistently successful coach in six decades.
  • Fedora engineered UNC’s first 11-win season in nearly two decades.
  • Fuente pulled off a stunning turnaround at Memphis and won the ACC Coastal in his first season at Virginia Tech.
  • Johnson won two FCS titles at Georgia Southern, made Navy viable, and has two top-15 finishes at Georgia Tech.
  • Mendenhall went to 11 bowls in 11 years at BYU, won at least nine games six times, and finished 16th or better three times.
  • Narduzzi pulled off a road upset of national champion Clemson and has won eight games in both of his seasons at Pitt.
  • Richt engineered 10 10-win seasons, six top-10 finishes, and two SEC titles at Georgia.

All seven are now in the ACC Coastal. And every time they face each other, someone has to lose.

In 2016, that was mostly Mendenhall. It wasn’t hard to see that coming.

The 50-year-old Oregon State alum dealt with unique recruiting challenges at BYU and produced top-50-caliber teams. Now he deals with a different challenge: selling a program that doesn't have the history of its rivals.

Virginia was once the most consistently decent program — in the 25 seasons between 1983 and 2007, the Cavaliers won at least six games 21 times but won 10 only once — but has now bowled just twice in 10 years. They are in the right ACC division (the Clemson- and FSU-free Coastal) but have finished within two games of the division crown only once since 2008.

Mendenhall left BYU in search of a new challenge, and boy, did he find one. His first UVA team was poor out of the gates — which resulted in losses to beatable teams like Richmond, Oregon, and UConn — and found a rhythm just in time to face a murderous stretch of conference foes. The offense had no big-play threats, and the defense had only a couple of play-makers and no depth.

Because of returning production and previous coach Mike London’s decent recruiting, UVA was projected 68th in S&P+; the slow start and limp finish meant a year-end ranking of just 88th.

Worse, this was an experienced team. Mendenhall must replace his two leading rushers, four of his top seven receiving targets, three experienced offensive line starters, four members of a nine-man rotation on the front seven, and everybody who kicked a ball last year.

Now, there weren't many difference makers in this group. But if you start slowly and finish 2-10, you’d rather do it with freshmen and sophomores. This was mostly juniors and seniors.

How long will it take Mendenhall to build the depth last year’s team didn’t have? How long until this begins to look like a Mendenhall team?

It’s hard to know what he’s got, heading into year two. He’s got an experienced quarterback and interesting receivers, but his skill-corps security blanket (running back Taquan Mizzell, who combined 187 carries with 52 receptions) is gone. A decent run defense should hold steady, but the pass defense was bad, and there’s no guarantee that returning the DBs from that secondary is a good thing.

S&P+ sees a team capable of rising into the 60s, and there are enough intriguing sophomores and juniors that you can talk yourself into that.

Mendenhall is a unique dude and was the subject of this from ESPN’s David Hale, one of my favorite profiles of the offseason.

"I started reaching out to anyone that I respected or admired or was having success and just started asking, 'Who are your influences?' or, 'What's the best book you read on this?'" Mendenhall said. "That just started building the library step by step."

Recommendations came with ferocity to the point that Mendenhall had to set a standard for what he'd actually consume. He began taking trips to the bookstore with his kids, adding a few books every week to his collection. The time immersed in reading, he found, also rejuvenated him after the stress of coaching wore him down.

"I'm an introverted, deep thinker who is in an extroverted entertainer's job," Mendenhall said.

Every book gets scrutinized for information that can help his team, too.

Thoughtful can play well in Charlottesville. But it might take him another year or two for any sort of breakthrough on the field.

2016 in review

2016 Virginia statistical profile.

Over the first five games, Virginia played five teams that ended up 72nd or lower (in some cases, much lower) in S&P+. In my 2016 preview, I thought a 3-1 start wasn’t out of the question if the Cavaliers found answers offensively.

Instead, they lost by 17 to Richmond, by 18 to Oregon, and, perhaps most damning, by three to UConn.

UVA responded with its best three performances of the year, wins over CMU and Duke and a competitive, 45-31 loss to Pitt. Then, after playing like a top-40 team, they settled into a top-80 cruising altitude ... against top-25 teams.

  • First 3 games (0-3): Avg. percentile performance: 23% (14% offense, 25% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.6, UVA 5.1 (minus-1.5) | Avg. score: Opp 31, UVA 19
  • Next 3 games (2-1): Avg. percentile performance: 71% (62% offense, 55% defense) | Avg. yards per play: UVA 6.3, Opp 5.4 (plus-0.9) | Avg. score: UVA 38, Opp 33
  • Last 6 games (0-6): Avg. percentile performance: 37% (31% offense, 45% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.7, UVA 4.1 (minus-2.6) | Avg. score: Opp 35, UVA 17

UVA was 0-3 in one-possession games, dropping competitive battles to Louisville and Wake Forest along with UConn; it didn’t help that the Cavaliers had some of the worst turnovers luck in the country.

What was the source of UVA’s brief offensive eruption, by the way? At first glance, it appears the answer is “balance.” Mizzell rushed 36 times for 234 yards (6.5 per carry) in that three-game span, but he only had to rush 36 times because the passing game was clicking. Kurt Benkert completed 54 percent of his passes at a whopping 14.8 yards per completion; including sacks, he averaged 7.3 yards per pass attempt. Slot receiver Olamide Zaccheaus caught 15 of 21 passes for 266 yards, 12.7 per target.

The rest of the season, Benkert averaged 4.2 yards per attempt, and Zaccheaus averaged 5.7 yards per target. That seems key, huh?


Virginia offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Robert Anae was Mendenhall’s offensive coordinator for their last three years in Provo, then made the trip with his boss. Anae showed flexibility in adjusting his system for run-happy quarterback Taysom Hill and the more pocket-based Tanner Mangum.

Anae went very pass-first under Mangum and maintained those ways last year. It was the best way to utilize both Benkert and the versatile (but not particularly explosive) Mizzell. But despite pass-heavy tendencies, Virginia managed just 15 passes of 30-plus yards, 94th in the country. Over the second half of the season, against good defenses, there was just nothing downfield.

Virginia offensive efficiency & explosiveness

Mizzell, backup running back Albert Reid, and receiver Keeon Johnson are gone; their production was replaceable (they combined to average five yards per carry and 5.6 yards per target), but it’s not evident who will replace them.

In the backfield, junior Jordan Ellis will likely get the first shot; the first carry of his career, a 39-yard joy ride against William & Mary, flashed a lovely combination of strength and open-field ability. But his 37 carries since then have gained just 96 yards.

The return of Zaccheaus and senior Doni Dowling gives the passing game options; they combined for 7.6 yards per target and a 48 percent success rate last year, which is neither amazing nor awful. But the next three returning receivers — Andre Levrone, Hasise Dubois, Warren Craft — caught just 24 of 56 passes (43 percent).

The best news would be a breakout from Joe Reed. The sophomore was a revelation in the return game last year and caught a 25-yard pass against Pitt and a 28-yarder against Virginia Tech. But those were two of just four receptions. Dubois is exciting, but he caught just eight passes. It’s hard to rely on a pair of receivers with 12 combined catches.

It’s also hard to assume improvement up front. The line must replace three players (Eric Smith, Jackson Matteo, Michael Mooney) who had combined for 97 career starts. Two senior starters return (left tackle Jack English, guard Jack McDonald), and the Hoos have added both Notre Dame transfer John Montelus (a former four-star recruit) and Oklahoma State transfer Brandon Pertile; plus, former four-star recruit Steven Moss still has time to develop into something reliable. Still, the line needs to improve, not just hold steady.

The Hoos still have Benkert, though. The ECU transfer was as inconsistent as his receiving corps last year but added experience and dropped about 15 pounds. At 6’4, 220 (or so) pounds, he looks the part. But he needs more help than he got last year.


Virginia defensive radar

Over his last six seasons at BYU, Mendenhall’s defense graded out better than his offense five times. The Cougar D peaked during the Kyle Van Noy era, ranking sixth in Def. S&P+ in 2012 and 13th in 2013, but it was always steady and aggressive.

One trait translated in Charlottesville. Six members of the starting front seven recorded at least four tackles for loss, led by middle linebacker Micah Kiser and end Andrew Brown. The duo combined for 23 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks, and Kiser alone added eight passes defensed and five forced fumbles. He is a one-man havoc rate, and if he can get help from the edges, he could produce even bigger numbers.

Brown, a former blue-chipper, is a lovely piece, but if some sophomores step forward, the front seven could be excellent. Linebacker Jordan Mack, tackle James Trucilla, and ends Eli Hanback, Steven Wright, and Juwan Moye saw the field last year, and Mack and Hanback were key. Plus, linebacker Jahvoni Simmons is a former four-star recruit, ILB Dominic Sheppard was a mid-three, and OLB Gladimir Paul is athletic. They’re sophomores, too. And if junior Malcolm Cook breaks through after a serious illness, all the better.

NCAA Football: Miami at Virginia
Andrew Brown
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

When the UVA defense was doing well last year, it was usually because of the front seven and run defense. The Cavaliers ranked 55th in Rushing S&P+ but only 89th in Passing S&P+; they allowed a 61 percent completion rate and 13.9 yards per completion with 25 touchdown passes to just nine interceptions. Worse yet: five of those interceptions came in one game. Even against a decent pass rush, opponents were able to look downfield.

NCAA Football: Virginia at Duke
Bryce Hall (34) and Juan Thornhill (21)
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

That was with well-regarded safety Quin Blanding, a former blue-chipper who defensed eight passes. Just imagine the passing stats without him. But he’s back.

However, cornerback was a revolving door. With 2015 starter Tim Harris injured and others unable to stay on the field, converted safety Juan Thornhill and freshman Bryce Hall were the only stalwarts. They did combine for five INTs and 11 breakups, but the breakdowns were constant.

In theory, this will improve. Including Harris’ 2015 stats, five returning DBs recorded at least one TFL, and six recorded at least two passes defensed. Blanding, Thornhill (back at safety), and sophomore safety Chris Moore are an exciting trio, and Mendenhall and defensive coordinator Nick Howell have options. But when you rank 89th in Passing S&P+, you can improve and still be mediocre.

Special Teams

Good news, bad news.

  • Good: Virginia ranked in the top 10 in both kick return and punt return efficiency, and big reasons — Joe Reed on kicks, Daniel Hamm on punts — return. They provided a field position boost for a desperate team.
  • Bad: Four different Cavaliers kicked balls — punter Nicholas Conte, kickoffs guy Dylan Sims, place-kickers Sam Hayward and Alex Furbank — and they’re all gone.
  • Sort of good: Virginia mostly stunk at kicking anyway. Hayward and Furbank were 5-for-8 on field goals under 40 yards and 0-for-2 over it, and kickoffs and coverage were lacking.
  • Still bad: Conte was excellent, combining a 44.3-yard punting average with a propensity for fair catches. He will be missed. Redshirt freshman Nash Griffin was a stud in high school. But he’s a redshirt freshman.

2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep William & Mary NR 23.7 91%
9-Sep Indiana 39 -4.4 40%
16-Sep Connecticut 125 18.6 86%
23-Sep at Boise State 29 -11.7 25%
7-Oct Duke 65 -0.3 49%
14-Oct at North Carolina 38 -9.4 29%
21-Oct Boston College 76 4.6 60%
28-Oct at Pittsburgh 33 -10.7 27%
4-Nov Georgia Tech 31 -6.5 35%
11-Nov at Louisville 14 -21.0 11%
18-Nov at Miami 18 -16.4 17%
24-Nov Virginia Tech 25 -8.9 30%
Projected S&P+ Rk 70
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 82 / 48
Projected wins 5.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -0.9 (72)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 58 / 46
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -9 / 1.0
2016 TO Luck/Game -4.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 74% (64%, 84%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 4.0 (-2.0)

Ellis, Zaccheaus, Peace, Cook, and Thornhill are juniors. Reed, Dubois, Hanback, Mack, and Simmons are sophomores. A lot of Virginia’s most important players will be around in 2018, too, and maybe that gives us an idea of the Cavaliers’ arrival timeline (if, you know, one exists).

There are just too many ifs to expect any massive breakthrough this year, but there are winnable home games.

S&P+ doesn’t give UVA a better than 29 percent chance in any of five road games, but the Cavaliers are at 30 percent or better in all seven home games. The best hope for a nice season comes in winning early games against William & Mary, Indiana, UConn, and Duke, beating Boston College a couple of weeks later, and hoping this generates enough confidence to pull a late-season upset.

That offers no margin for error, but it’s a path. More likely: UVA wins four or five games, a couple of sophomores break through, and 2018’s preview is more optimistic.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.