Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall spent the first decade of his career on the defensive side of the ball.
He also was the defensive coordinator at BYU during the majority of his tenure as the Cougars’ head coach, and he only recently began experimenting with allowing someone else to call plays at Virginia.
Mendenhall praised defensive coordinator Nick Howell’s play calling in a dominant win over Louisville. That was not the case after a loss the following week at N.C. State.
“We did not play good enough defense today to win the game. That’s just kind of matter of fact,” Mendenhall said after the Cavaliers’ 35-21 loss in Raleigh.
Mendenhall is not one to pull punches when he offers feedback.
“That feedback is brutal,” senior inside linebacker Malcolm Cook said. “You can either let it break you or you can choose to take it, learn from it and move on.”
With that in mind, and because Saturday night’s game against Miami in Scott Stadium marks the official mid-way point of the season, we roll out the second installment of midseason report cards. Yesterday, the offense and special teams were under the microscope. Today, grades come out for the defense and the coaching staff.
Grade: B-. Top of the class, but attention to detail is needed.
Notes: All three regular starters — senior Juan Thornhill and sophomores Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson — have impacted games. All three have an interception, and Blount and Thornhill lead the team in tackles. Thornhill was named ACC defensive back of the week after picking off a pass and blocking a field goal against Indiana, and Nelson was the 2017 ACC Freshman of the Year. Blount’s aggression when he steps down into the box in run support has been especially impressive. He leads the team with 32 tackles, and he leads the safeties with 3.5 tackles for a loss. Thornhill is third on the team with four pass breakups.
The flip side: As impressive as their tackle numbers are, that physicality either hasn’t translated to the passing game or manifested itself in the form of penalties. Blount was called for a pair of costly pass interference penalties in a loss at Indiana, and none of the three have found ways to consistently win contested passes. That was especially apparent last weekend at N.C. State. The Wolfpack’s second touchdown catch of the game was a perfect microcosm of the secondary’s performance. The pass was already in the air and across the goal line when Nelson and N.C. State’s Emeka Emezie collided in the end zone. Nelson bounced off him like a rag doll. Emezie stood his ground and made the catch.
The hard truth: As talented as the Cavaliers’ safeties are, Virginia’s defense will not reach its full potential until they figure out how to consistently make plays when the ball is in the air.
Grade: B+. A blessing to have in class. Wish there were more students like them.
Notes: If the Cavaliers’ defensive MVP was decided today, that title would go to junior cornerback Bryce Hall. Like any corner, he’s lost a few battles and given up some big receptions, but Hall has also proven quite capable in one-on-one situations. He broke up critical passes against Ohio and Louisville, and he isn’t shy about dropping his shoulder to make a tackle. He’s sixth on the team with 23 tackles and has 2.5 tackles for a loss, a sack, a forced fumble and an interception. Hall led UVa last season with 10 pass breakups. Through five games this season, he already has nine. Opposite him, sophomore Darius Bratton has held his own. He hasn’t shown Hall’s nose for the ball, but he’s won his share of the battles and has six pass breakups.
The flip side: Senior Tim Harris is the only other cornerback who has consistently seen the field. He’s in his sixth season at Virginia, so he brings valued experience, but he’s also been the defensive back opposing quarterbacks have picked on the most. When Nelson left last week’s game with a concussion, redshirt freshmen Germane Crowell stepped in at nickel corner. It should be Hall’s and Bratton’s job for at least one more year, but injuries are always a looming concern and live game action is the only way to develop quality depth.
The hard truth: If Hall were to go down, Virginia would likely have to move Thornhill from safety back to his original position at cornerback. There simply isn’t enough proven depth on the roster to replicate Hall’s consistency any other way.
Grade: A. Top of the class. Leaders others want to follow.
Notes: What Virginia’s coaches believed before the season was the Cavaliers’ deepest unit has proved to be exactly that. Six-foot-6 sophomore outside linebacker Charles Snowden has been the most pleasant surprise. He was the ACC Linebacker of the Week after a sack and an interception against Louisville, and he led UVa with 11 tackles at N.C. State. Senior OLB Chris Peace is consistent and explosive. He leads the team with 5.5 tackles for a loss and adds a calming presence to a unit, which suddenly became very young after losing both inside linebackers. Cook, a sixth-year player, was injured before the Ohio game, and junior Jordan Mack will miss at least six weeks after suffering an injury before last week’s trip to N.C. State.
Mack is a tackling machine and Cook may be the best athlete of the bunch. Their replacements have proven capable, though. Sophomore Zane Zandier looks like a star in the making and fellow second-year Rob Snyder’s solid debut at N.C. State was overshadowed by the Wolfpack’s impressive offensive performance.
The flip side: Struggles with gap assignments popped up in losses to Indiana and N.C. State, both of which found plenty of success on the ground. The linebackers don’t have to shoulder all of that blame (we’ll get to the defensive line and the play calling in short order), but they have to own some of it. An outside linebacker’s job against the run is to set the edge to force runners back inside where there’s traffic. An inside linebacker’s job is to read his keys, be it a pulling guard or some other lead blocker, flow to the ball and make a play. Given that they’ve been gashed by a couple of freshmen (Indiana’s Stevie Scott and N.C. State’s Ricky Person Jr.), it’s safe to say those jobs haven’t been done to perfection.
The hard truth: Snowden is the best athlete to line up at linebacker for UVa in the better part of a decade. That’s an impressive list, which includes the likes of Ahmad Brooks, Darryl Blackstock and Eli Harold.
Grade: C- – Shows flashes but attendance and tardiness is an issue.
Virginia’s coaches knew in the offseason that they had to upgrade this unit, so they went out and found a pair of transfers in Dylan Thompson and Cassius Peat. It’s safe to say neither has worked out. Peat is no longer on the roster and, though they snuck him into one of the final drives of last week’s loss at N.C. State, Thompson has barely earned his jersey number, much less made an actual impact on the field. Defensive end Richard Burney looked promising in his first season as a starter before an illness ended his year. Defensive end Mandy Alonso has been slowed by injuries, and while defensive tackle Eli Hanback is the unit’s most consistent run defender, he’s not much of a threat as a pass rusher.
The flip side: If there’s a silver lining to Thompson and Peat not panning out, it’s that true freshmen Jordan Redmond and Aaron Faumui were pressed into action, and they haven’t shied away from the spotlight. Redmond has become a fixture at nose tackle, which may be the most physically demanding position on the line. Faumui has shown a surprisingly quick first step, and he got in on a sack against Louisville. Both freshmen, Hanback, Burney and Alonso are all expected back next season, and the Cavaliers are in the process of trying to secure another year of eligibility for Thompson. Add to that the verbal commitment of 2019 four-star defensive lineman Jowon Briggs, and this unit could eventually evolve into one of the team’s deepest.
The hard truth: There’s promise for the future, but the defensive line has not played well enough to compete in the ACC.
Grade: B-. Bright and intelligent, but need to narrow their focus and stick to their strengths.
Notes: Quarterback Bryce Perkins’ ability to take one to the house when plays break down makes the Cavaliers’ offensive play-callers look really smart. Virginia’s coaches have, for the most part, done a good job of staying out of the way and letting Perkins use his natural athleticism. They do have a tendency to go away from the running game, though. Mendenhall said himself that UVa’s chances of winning improve when running back Jordan Ellis gets more than 20 carries. That has proven true. Ellis carried the ball 20 times in wins over Richmond and Louisville, and 19 times against Ohio. In losses to Indiana and N.C. State, he carried it less than 15 times.
Defensively, many of the same assignment issues that cost the Cavaliers against Indiana came back to haunt them again at N.C. State. Some of that obviously boils down to execution, but it’s also a damning commentary on the coaching staff’s ability to prepare the troops. They’ve also been a bit too conservative when it comes to blitz calls, especially last week against N.C. State quarterback Ryan Finley. Virginia’s only chance was to pressure him and force him out of the pocket, but the coaches were too worried about getting beat by a deep group of receivers to send the extra pass rushers needed to get there.
The flip side: Heading into last Saturday’s loss at N.C. State, Virginia’s defense had given up a total of 16 points in the second half of games. Even in the loss at Indiana, the Cavaliers shut the Hoosiers out after halftime. That’s a credit to the coaching staff’s ability to make in-game adjustments. Mendenhall’s staff, as a whole, is pretty young, and the majority of the coaches have been together for a long time. They all bought in a long time ago, and that is going to trickle down to the roster.
The hard truth: It takes time for any coach to turn a program around, which, make no mistake, is what Mendenhall was tasked with doing. It’s moving in a positive direction. It just still has a way to go.