CARON: Mendenhall U
“Running Back U”: Miami.
“Tailback U”: USC.
“Linebacker U”: Penn State.
These schools have historically dominated NCAA play in their respective positions, and while they may change on a year-to-year basis, the legacy endures.
Last spring, CBS Sports ran a “Position U” series, analyzing the claims of college programs across the country about which school reigns as the university, or the ‘U,’ for specific position groups. The NFL and ESPN recently ran similar series as well. No matter the source, many of the same teams continue to dominate the lists: Miami, USC, Texas, Ohio State, Alabama, Michigan and nods to schools like Penn State and Florida State are always thrown in the mix.
Although these programs have proven themselves throughout the years, it is the hallmark of a certain coaching era that launched each team to that level of position power. While the Cavalier football program likely won’t arise as a “Position U” anytime soon, there are possibilities for Mendenhall to make his mark nonetheless. As the Mendenhall Era transformations are finally beginning to find their foothold in Virginia football, I’ve pondered the possibilities of what “U” will emerge as part of Mendenhall’s Virginia legacy.
Mendenhall, a man of great faith and conviction, has made discipline a principal tenant of his coaching philosophy. “Earned, not given” has been the mantra of the Mendenhall Era since day one. The team has had to earn everything — from the right to practice, to the right to play, to the right to wear the V-Sabre logo.
Mendenhall’s dedication to discipline has earned him great respect already within the Cavalier community.
“Anything he has ever said, we don’t question,” senior quarterback Matt Johns said. “He says it, we do it. There is no question about it. If you want to question it, you might want to leave this locker room because you’re in the wrong place.”
His no-nonsense mentality and demand for discipline have travelled across the country from Provo, Utah to Charlottesville. They were the basis of every victory at BYU and will, without a doubt, characterize his time at the helm of Virginia’s football program.
When it comes to his team, Mendenhall holds expectations just as high as his father held for him growing up working for his father where work was a lifestyle. Mendenhall was taught to finish the job he started, not to quit until it was done. He carries this mentality with him into coaching. His demand for discipline is not only what makes his team better players, but better men as well. It is a virtue of lifelong value; it is what makes Mendenhall akin to one of Virginia’s other star coaches, Tony Bennett — a molder of men, not just athletes.
Practices often conclude with “will development” sessions created to physically and mentally challenge the players after a non-stop practice, testing their determination and dedication to one another.
The question yet to be answered is whether his values hallmark his Virginia legacy, or his success on the field?
Mendenhall’s specialty: defense. Acting in both the head coach and defensive coordinator roles, Mendenhall will surely leave his mark on Virginia here. After tremendous success at BYU with his 3-4 defensive scheme, Mendenhall has deconstructed Mike London’s 4-3 set up in favor of his own tried and true methods.
BYU finished among the nation’s top 20 in scoring defense in eight of their last 10 seasons. After some early defensive difficulty raised questions about this strategy at Virginia, the Cavalier defense was able to hold the Chippewas to less than 100 yards rushing in Saturday’s game against Central Michigan.
“Coach Mendenhall did a great job of really simplifying the defense for us,” junior linebacker Micah Kiser said. “Just going back to basics after that first game.”
What they lack in experience and depth on defense was overcome by determination to succeed. When starting sophomore safety Juan Thornhill was injured in the opening kickoff, the rest of the defensive team stepped up to the plate. They looked far more organized than in past games, and it paid off. Whether or not this progress will prove to be lasting is a story for time to tell.
The last of my “U” considerations is often overlooked: development. Regardless of the outcome of the rest of the season, one thing is already clear: Mendenhall is capable of development.
At BYU, Mendenhall took a 6-6 program and developed a program that could consistently be counted on for bowl game appearances. In his final season, the Cougars finished 9-3 earning 99 wins for Mendenhall.
For Virginia, the emergence of this team as a more unified front already is huge headway in itself. The team that squandered away their first game under Mendenhall at Scott Stadium against Richmond is nowhere to be found — almost unrecognizable. Transition takes time, as I’ve said, but the promise that these early developments bring is huge for Virginia football’s future.
“I love detail, I love discipline, I love accountability, and I love development,” Mendenhall said, “I love to develop people through football, and that’s what we’re working on.”
Detail, discipline and accountability are the factors that mark the development of Mendenhall’s Virginia. These values alone have the potential to develop incredible players as well as incredible young men off the field. The resilience that is developing in this team will serve them well throughout life and throughout the season.
Development can also be seen in junior quarterback Kurt Benkert as he threw for a school record 421 yards and five touchdowns after starting the season 26-of-34 for 264 yards and three touchdowns against Richmond, with nine sacks and three interceptions in his first two games as Virginia’s starting quarterback.
As each player finds his forte in this new football era, each play brings the Cavaliers one step closer to a consistent, cohesive competitiveness. As Virginia football looks optimistically towards its future, what legacy will hallmark this Cavalier comeback?