BLANK: Endless pursuit of better
When coach Bronco Mendenhall arrived in Charlottesville, his goal was to create a consistent winner. One year into his tenure, with a record of 2-10, his goal does not seem to be any closer to fulfillment than it was at the start.
This is frustrating for Cavalier fans, accustomed to seeing programs so successful they border on dynasties. Men’s soccer, tennis and baseball have all won championships in the last few seasons, with tennis winning multiple times. This is without even mentioning coach Tony Bennett’s success on the basketball court, a rise to dominance few expected.
In light of these successes, it’s easy to see where vitriol and panic surrounding the football team come. In a 52-10 loss to rival Virginia Tech, Mendenhall was questioned for his unorthodox quarterback rotation, which resulted in two interceptions, a 36 percent completion percentage and less than four yards per attempt.
While any fan base would’ve questioned those decisions, Mendenhall’s peers at Virginia have set so high a standard that expectations for him may be unjustifiably high. Although the 2016 season didn’t go the way anyone hoped, from the opening loss to Richmond right through the final whistle Saturday, it may not be as disheartening of an indicator of the future as Virginia fans are tempted to make it out to be.
For comparison, take a look at Bennett’s basketball program as the gold standard. While it’s easy to take solace in Bennett also having a losing record his first year, I think there’s more value in using his program as a model for the football team.
The first aspect in which I think football desperately needs to emulate Bennett’s basketball success is in terms of depth. Virginia has had a different leading scorer in five of its six games, and until Saturday’s game against Providence, none of them were starters.
“I think our balance is key,” Bennett said after Saturday’s win.
While he lost his two most prominent players from last season in Anthony Gill and Malcolm Brogdon, and another preseason all-ACC favorite in Austin Nichols, Virginia basketball has the depth and balance to persevere.
Football needs to develop in this area. The reason for their poor play does not come from the talent at the top — junior linebacker Micah Kiser and junior safety Quin Blanding were named to their second straight All-ACC First Team, the first time Cavalier teammates have done so in over fifteen years. The issue is at the bottom of the roster.
“Our roster is not deep,” Mendenhall said last week. “The plan is not in place to have a well-thought out succession plan,”
It’s clear that much of the Cavaliers problem lies in a poorly fleshed out roster, an issue Mendenhall can’t possibly fix in just one season. That he’s recognized it and is trying to address it should be encouraging to football fans regardless of this year’s results.
Depth is not, however, the only hallmark of Bennett’s basketball teams. His squads have had a unique identity, all featuring his hallmark lockdown defense and slow offensive pace. This year’s team is no different, as according to college basketball analytics site KenPom.com, Virginia is first in the country in adjusted defense and 351st (or last) in his measure of offensive tempo.
Football is nowhere near developing an identity, a more troubling phenomenon in some ways than the results alone. Are they a disciplined, defense-first team? Or are they a fast-paced, high-scoring juggernaut, or maybe a bruising, ground and pound team? This season, they appeared to be none of the above, and it’s hard to tell the direction Mendenhall wants to take. If Mendenhall is to build a consistent winner, he needs to find an identity for the program.
That being said, all this will take some time. It’s easy to get impatient given all the other success stories around Grounds, but it’s not a fair expectation for Mendenhall and his program. While his record this season was poor, almost all of Virginia’s key contributors will return if they don’t declare for the draft, particularly on defense. With Mendenhall getting his first full recruiting class, there’s real potential for growth.
Virginia’s slogan of late has called for the “endless pursuit of better.”
In many of our athletic programs, the aim of this pursuit has already been achieved. It’s important to remember, however, that the process is not always an easy one, and to give Mendenhall his chance to try, even if the process hasn’t gone as quickly as we hoped.