CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall has brought a new way of doing things to Virginia, using his theories of “earned, not given” and “there are two ways of doing things: right, or again” in trying to steer the Cavaliers to the success that has been elusive for so long.
The Cavaliers did not have a typical spring game, but instead a typical practice with fans watching. They did not have a starting quarterback when that was over, even with incumbent and team leader Matt Johns returning. Instead, Johns, Connor Brewer and transfer Kurt Benkert have been battling for the job ever since.
The coach, who serves as his own defensive coordinator and typically runs a 3-4 scheme, has been pleased with the results so far.
“I love our team because of how willing they are to work and how hard they’ve worked,” he said as preseason camp began. “That’s something they’ve chosen to do, and my responsibility, as long as they keep that up, is to put them in the very best positions … to have success.”
The biggest question is behind center. Johns threw 20 touchdown passes last season, but also threw 17 interceptions, and began the spring as the least familiar with the offense among the three contenders.
“Hopefully my experience will give me a little bit of an advantage,” Johns said, “but at the same time, it’s about earning the coaches’ trust and playing simple and decisive and really competing every single day.”
The winner will have plenty of playmaking options to look to, starting with tailback Taquan Mizzell and multipurpose speedster Olamide Zaccheaus and including receivers Andrew Levrone and Doni Dowling, both back from injuries. Virginia is deep at running back, and moving the ball doesn’t seem to be a concern of the coaches.
On defense, nose tackle Donte Wilkins, linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding give them stalwarts and signal callers at all three levels, and Blanding is comfortable that Mendenhall will have the unit ready.
“We love him, and we’re thankful for him to be here,” he said. “We’re just ready to win games.”
Some things to watch with Virginia this season:
The Mendenhall era starts with a game against very talented Richmond of the Championship Subdivision, and rarely has an opener meant more. Sure, the Spiders are a lower-level opponent, but the Cavaliers have had their hands full with Richmond a few times in recent seasons, and they travel in Week Two to high-powered Oregon. Getting off to a good start and some positive initial reinforcement could set a tone for the early going.
Johns has the respect of his teammates, but neither the arm strength nor the ability to keep plays alive with his feet that Benkert has shown. Benkert also arrived after spring practice already more familiar with the team’s offense, having run it at East Carolina.
The Cavaliers would love for games later in the season to become more important because of bowl ramifications, but until that happens, games at Connecticut on Sept. 17, at recent nemesis Duke on Oct. 1 and the regular-season finale at Virginia Tech are the one fans will most hope show a new day is dawning for Virginia. The Hokies have won the last 12 meetings in the series.
Mendenhall was pleasantly surprised with the talent available when he got to Virginia, and the players have universally professed total belief in the coach and his staff. That kind of mindset goes a long way, especially in crunch time of tight games, and with a non-league schedule not nearly as daunting as in recent years, the Cavaliers should expect to get six wins and their first bowl game in five seasons.
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