Mendenhall era begins Saturday

New-look Cavaliers gear up for season opener against Richmond

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Junior linebacker Micah Kiser and the Cavaliers look to open the Mendenhall era with a strong showing Saturday against Richmond

Lauren Hornsby | Cavalier Daily

Virginia football fans have long awaited the first Saturday in September, and rightly so, as head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s new, streamlined product will finally be on full display against Richmond in his team’s opener at Scott Stadium.

But in the stands, those wired-up wearers of orange and blue better temper their expectations early on, because instilling a winning culture usually takes time.

“We're not going to launch right to the top of the ACC or the polls in game one,” Mendenhall said. “We've hardly practiced how to come out of the tunnel for heaven's sakes. … The preparation we put in so far will emerge at some point, but I don't know when.”

Mendenhall may still be learning the area and the history of these Virginia-Richmond installments on the gridiron, but he does have a good sense of the Spider program.

During what would be his 11th and final season as head coach at Brigham Young University, Mendenhall got to know Richmond head coach Danny Rocco, as the two served on the Board of the American Football Coaches Association and serve in that same capacity this year.

According to Mendenhall, it hadn’t struck him that Rocco’s team would collide with his in the first game of the 2016 season until well after his hiring, when he reconnected with Rocco poolside in Arizona at the Fiesta Frolic event for college coaches. Since then, Mendenhall has become an admirer of the way Rocco runs things.

“It's been fun to learn about [Rocco’s] career, then also watch his team play, because I think they are well-taught,” Mendenhall said. “I don't think they win by accident. I think he's recruited well. I think he's coached well. I think his strategies are sound.”

Dating back to 2012, Rocco has posted a superb 33-18 record while at Richmond. The Spiders are coming off one of their strongest seasons in program history, in which they reached 10 wins — for the first time since making the FCS playoffs in 2009, under Mike London — and advanced to the playoff semifinals.

Overlooking their lower-division opponent’s talent would be a foolish move by the Cavaliers — just ask that ’07 Michigan bunch, or the football historian Mendenhall.

“We're really not acknowledging FBS or FCS,” Mendenhall said. “I think [Richmond] is a football team that is really well-coached, and they know how to win. … Certainly a team that we have to take really seriously with the amount of unknowns we currently have.”

Thanks to a special ceremony last Saturday in the locker room that saw each of Mendenhall’s qualified players earn his symbolic identity on the field, the Cavaliers now proudly boast their numbers. But other question marks remain.

One of those unknowns is how this revamped Cavalier offense, with its no-huddle tempo and spread design, will execute under real game pressure.

Exposed in the preseason and practice to Mendenhall’s chaotic game-like situations and unpredictable drills, which he likes to call “the fog of war,” a capable Virginia offense occasionally lost its focus and committed careless mistakes.

Junior transfer Kurt Benkert evidently has all the tools — the arm strength, the accuracy, the decision-making and the scramble ability — required of a modern quarterback to drive his offense down the field and convert in the redzone.

Benkert benefits from plenty of weapons surrounding him, including a dynamic tailback in senior Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell and a strong, sure-handed wideout in junior Doni Dowling. Again though, the execution level Mendenhall expects out of his offense isn’t there yet, at least consistently.

“Going against our defense over the spring and over this fall camp, it's been like ups and downs,” Mizzell said. “When we’re clicking, we’re really clicking … I feel like we've got playmakers all over the field.”

Most wouldn’t put senior center Jackson Matteo in the playmaker category. Ball carriers in the open field overshadow him, as he goes about his subtle, yet imperative, business of detecting blitzes, orchestrating snap counts and protecting his quarterback.

Yet when asked about their 6-foot-5, 290-pound co-captain, Cavalier teammates label Matteo both as a catalyst for the entire offense and a leader through adversity.

“We had a scrimmage, and they held Jackson out, [and] the whole offense was out of sync,” junior linebacker Micah Kiser said. “They couldn’t get snap counts right. It was rough. But when he’s in there, he’s the glue. He gets them running.”

On the other side of the ball for Virginia, Kiser is that steady voice — the unit’s driving force. The co-captain, who was named on the Butkus Award Watch List and is arguably the team’s most pro-ready player, will be in the middle directing a new 3-4 defense.

“Man, Kiser can really play,” Matteo said. “When he just lets it loose, he’s hard to stop. It’s been fun to watch him mature as a player, just over the past couple years. … Because like I said, when he starts playing, when he really lets it loose, coach Mendenhall lets ’em go.”

Mendenhall will assist defensive coordinator Nick Howell in calling the shots Saturday. He will also pace the home sidelines, stopping at each position group when there’s a teaching moment or a strategic change to be made.

When his unit is on the field, rest assured it will be fast-paced and angry with incredible athletes like junior defensive end Andrew Brown, senior nose tackle Donte Wilkins, junior safety Quin Blanding and Kiser slashing through the turf, shedding blockers and hitting hard.

Mendenhall won’t need to motivate his players. After all, Virginia ticketholders aren’t the only ones who wanted the first Saturday in September to roll around.

"We want to show the fans just how much hard work has really gone into what we've been doing, and that we're trying to flip the culture here,” Kiser said. “That's probably the biggest word — culture — from the entrance, to what we wear, to how we play.”

Witness the start of a new era. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. at Scott Stadium.

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