[Special to HOOS Place by frequent guest contributor Robert Elder of Guys In Ties Podcast fame. Give his pod a listen! - Ed.]
The message boards have been firing. There’s plenty of hot takes on Twitter. Obviously, there is a reaction to starting 4-0 and then losing the past two games, the second one coming off of a bye. I think we all have some opinions, both people inside the program and those, like us, watching from afar.
Bronco Mendenhall began the bye week by doing a little self-scouting, so we were told. Presumably, he did a deep dive on his offensive line – there was not as much rotating of players against Miami as there was against Notre Dame. He also probably spent some time on the running backs, as Wayne Taulapapa, PK Kier, Lamont Atkins, and Mike Hollins all played in varying capacities against Miami. I’m sure he spent time evaluating other positions, as well.
But the question I am raising here isn’t necessarily as much about football schematics and how to maximize the results of individual play calls. I want to take a bit of step back and, 3.5 seasons into Mendenhall’s tenure, try to evaluate what we are seeing and put it into the broader context of the program, not just an individual game.
First let me state that I like Bronco Mendenhall. Of course he hasn’t been perfect, but does anyone remember how toxic college football Saturdays became over the final years of Mike London’s tenure? The Virginia football program is in its best shape in the past 15 years. That’s a low bar, sure, but it bears mentioning.
Yet clearly the team has shown some flaws, including ones that the bye week did not fix and that likely cannot be corrected this season. The offensive line simply lacks the talent and experience needed to raise its level of play. And I would love for Mike Hollins to come in and seize the running back job, but his fumble was a killer, and who knows how many more chances he will get – there are no more William & Mary-type teams on the schedule.
But what can be fixed are some higher-level decisions held onto by the staff. The program has grown from where it was when Bronco took over almost four years ago, and with that, it might be time to let some of the principles of the program grow with it.
Let’s start with special teams – did we really need our All-America corner Bryce Hall on the punt return team? Does every starter really need to play on one of the special teams units, as Bronco requires? That is a fine rule when you are changing the culture from Mike London’s wishy-washy “let’s win football games” mantra, but that was four years ago. By my count, Virginia has lost four of its top five preseason cornerbacks to injury – Bryce Hall, Darrius Bratton, Germane Crowell, and Heskin Smith. Nick Grant will get picked on the rest of the season both in coverage and out in space (remember those two missed tackles on Miami’s final scoring drive?), and De’Vante Cross has trained at and gained weight for playing safety for the past year – I’m not thrilled about him at cornerback.
It’s one thing to have Bronco’s special teams rule when you are a 2-10 team, but we should be past that at this point. The expectations have changed. That goes for the backup quarterback on punt coverage, too.
In the same vein, I would love for Tony Bennett to have a heart-to-heart with Bronco to discuss his redshirt policy. Like Tony, I am a fan of the redshirt. To me it makes no sense why you would trade a player’s true freshman, need-to-gain-weight-and-learn-the-playbook-season for the production and potential of a fifth-year senior that will be more mature and physically ready.
We have seen Tony use the redshirt with tremendous success, with the most obvious case study being De'Andre Hunter. Take a look at wide receiver and I bet you’ll wish junior Terrell Jana could trade his two-catch true freshman season for a fifth year in 2021. The same goes for sophomores Billy Kemp and Ugo Obasi, neither of whom redshirted last season while not recording a catch.
One of the hardest things to do as a leader is to know when and how to make changes. When you take a play from the business theory book, to which Bronco subscribes, that’s why guys like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are so unique – they have grown and evolved their organizations from small tech start-ups to multibillion dollar behemoths.
For Bronco, while his style was unique, it was pretty clear he needed to implement change in 2016 when he took over. The earned-not-given mindset was exactly what this team needed, and any new coach would have tried to implement changes to ultimately strive for the same result – accountability, discipline, and effort. That worked.
But now it is time to take the next step as a program. Organizations must evolve, and while I like the results through the first three years, a 7-5 regular season is not where I want Virginia’s ceiling to be.
For Bronco, it is time to take a step back and ensure the program’s growth is not stunted by the policies established 3.5 years ago.