The Virginia football team officially began spring practice last week under second-year coach Bronco Mendenhall. Clearly, the Cavaliers have a lot of work to do.
Following a dreadful 2-10 campaign bookended by embarrassing losses to Richmond and Virginia Tech, Mendenhall’s team certainly didn’t look the part. For all of his hype — including new uniforms and his “I only know winning football,” statement — the results looked about the same, if not worse, than those produced by coach Mike London’s unit the year before.
Sure, the whole “earned not given” mantra was catchy and provided a nice change of pace to the lackadaisical culture left by London, who wasn’t exactly known as a locker-room stickler. But a 2-10 season is bad no matter how you spin it.
The poor results caught most fans and media by surprise. After all, how could you not buy into the offseason hoopla around the McCue Center? At long last, Virginia finally appeared to have a credible coaching staff where accountability reigned supreme.
Players had to pass conditioning tests to earn the right to practice. Later, they had to earn their numbers. Some days the team had to repeat warmups if they didn’t perform up to standard.
Such a large focus on culture was unquestionably strange, but many thought this was the change that would finally produce wins. It didn’t.
Instead of practicing how to hold hands on the field, Virginia probably should have practiced a little more football. That’s Mendenhall’s approach this spring, at least.
“Through our entire first year our culture exceeded and was ahead of our execution,” Mendenhall said in a Virginia Sports TV feature on March 30. “We’re much clearer [this spring] that our focus needs to be on certainly acquiring the talent necessary to compete at U.Va., to build our roster and develop competition, but also to focus on the fundamentals of playing the game more frequently and at a higher level and more consistently.”
This is a wise and necessary step for the Mendenhall regime — a step that might produce better results than at least the year before. When an FBS team with 85 scholarships is manhandled by an FCS one with only 63, talent and depth —- not just culture — are also major issues.
To be fair, Mendenhall inherited a very limited roster, and this season Virginia returns only two of its four All-ACC representatives from a year ago.
Recent transfers aren’t helping Mendenhall’s cause, either. Two promising young linebackers — Landan Word and Matt Terrell — left the program in March. Word — the son of Virginia alumnus and 1985 ACC Player of the Year Barry Word — played in 11 games last season as a freshman, starting two and recording two sacks. He was slated to start alongside senior Micah Kiser at inside linebacker in 2017. Meanwhile, Terrell — Word’s roommate — collected 29 tackles in nine games and would have provided much-needed depth at outside linebacker.
The talent problem is exacerbated by the fact that Mendenhall isn’t bringing in big-name recruits to Charlottesville. Neither the 2017 25-man class nor the 2016 23-man class had any four or five star players. Tre Harbison — the highest rated member of the 2016 haul — transferred out after spring practice last season.
In order to compete in 2017, Virginia must better develop its players. They need to be faster and stronger, but also more aware on the football field.
Some coaching adjustments might help. Virginia seems poised to rotate in the super-athletic redshirt freshman De’Vante Cross at quarterback for running packages. Mendenhall also has stressed the importance of getting playmakers like junior wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus more touches. These conversations alone are a step forward from last season when most talk was about culture, not football.
“A year ago, we were working to establish enough players to be able to complete workouts and even practice in the spring,” Mendenhall said. “Cultural expectations were our focus — what daily behavior looks like for a U.Va. football player [and] establishing all those core behaviors.”
Don’t downplay the importance of creating a vision and establishing a culture. It’s essential, and no team can move forward without some set of shared values and beliefs.
But now it looks like the staff realizes it must change the product on the football field, too. It needs wins as proof, especially this season with a very manageable schedule. Its non-conference slate has dates against William & Mary, Indiana, Connecticut and Boise State, and the Cavaliers avoid both Clemson and Florida State in ACC play.
In 2017, wins will show visible progress and encourage buy-in to the football program. Losses will signal yet another failed Virginia coaching staff.
“Spring is going to be essential to play as much football as we can play,” Mendenhall said.
That’s always a good start. But after a disastrous first season, patience is running thin.
Robert Elder was the 127th Sports Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @R_F_D_E.