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Virginia Cavaliers Football Primer: The Coaching Staff

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UVA, Explained: Everything you need to know about Virginia football’s coaching staff.

Duke v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

There’s less than a month until the Virginia Cavaliers’ home opener against the Richmond Spiders, and plenty to learn about the team before they take the field at Scott Stadium. This week we’ll tackle (ha) the team’s coaching staff. The old adage “it takes a village” rings all too true when it comes to football. With every unit requiring specialized coaching, there are plenty of people to know on Mendenhall’s staff.

Bronco Mendenhall: Head coach

Mendenhall is in his third season as the Cavaliers’ head coach after coming to Charlottesville from BYU. The Oregon State alum led Virginia to its first bowl game appearance since 2011 last season, finishing the regular season at an even .500 before suffering a devastating loss to Navy in the Military Bowl.

Virginia brought Mendenhall on board in 2016 because they wanted a winning program, but they wanted it done the right way. That statement alone just about sums up Bronco Mendenhall: he knows how to build a program and knows how to do it with integrity.

He’s as straight of a shooter as they come, he knows his vision and his purpose, and he takes no nonsense from his players. He likes statistics and uses behavioral organization to implement his systems. A devout Mormon, his religious practices influence the way he runs his program. As the Washington Post once wrote, with Mendenhall, “the answer to every question comes with an earnest message or a declaration of values.”

As he continues his tenure at Virginia, his goal is to continue to build “conference-champion level football teams that ‘directly and specifically and completely align’ with the goals and values of the University, AND a generation of leaders who have developed fortitude and a sense of purpose beyond themselves,” as STL’s Paul Wiley wrote.

After a 2-10 first season and a 6-7 second, Mendenhall is now looking forward to a winning season—one that includes a victory over Virginia Tech (please).

A defensive mind by trade, Mendenhall’s No. 2 is his complementary coach, offensive coordinator Robert Anae.

Robert Anae: Offensive coordinator & inside receivers coach

Anae is also in his third season with the Cavaliers, coming to Charlottesville after serving as Mendenhall’s offensive coordinator and inside receivers coach in nine of his 11 seasons at BYU. He constructed a Cavalier offense that averaged 342.2 offensive yards per game in 2017.

Things to know: Anae has caught some heat before for his somewhat unorthodox play calling (see: Virginia’s 2016 loss to VT where quarterbacks Matt Johns and Kurt Benkert switched on almost every play) and a few dramatically disappointing showings (cough *the Military Bowl* cough) where Anae had over a month to prepare his offense for Navy’s defense and failed miserably.

He plays fast, and likes to innovate. Well, he did at BYU. That part is still a work in progress at Virginia. That said, Virginia’s offense has made serious improvements each season under Anae. The offense he built around former QB Kurt Benkert was definitely pass-heavy, but we’ll see what a new QB at the helm means for 2018.

The rest of Mendenhall’s offensive squad:

  • Mark Atuaia, running backs: also a season-three-er, Atuaia has been with Mendenhall since 2013 when he joined the BYU staff as the running backs coach. He was key in developing former Cavalier and current Chicago Bears running back Taquan Mizzell.
  • Jason Beck, quarterbacks: surprise, Beck is also in his third season with Mendenhall’s staff at Virginia. The QB guy, Beck’s role is essential to the team’s offense. His success with former QB Kurt Benkert led to a record-breaking 2017 for Benkert, who become the first player in program history to throw for over 3,000 yards in a season.
  • Marques Hagans, wide receivers: Hagans is actually in his sixth (wow!) season as a full-time assistant coach Virginia. Mendenhall kept Hagans on after the departure of former head coach Mike London. The Virginia alum started as a graduate assistant with the program in 2011 and has been in Charlottesville since. As wide receivers coach, Hagans was responsible for keeping the air game going in Virginia’s pass-heavy offense.
  • Garett Tujague, offensive line: Tujague also came with Mendenhall from BYU. The 25-year coaching veteran coached an offensive line that blocked for quarterback Kurt Benkert’s record-breaking season in 2017. Tujague has struggled to build a solid O-Line in his first two seasons, allowing 36 sacks in his first season as part of the ACC’s weakest rushing unit. Last year saw some improvement but Mendenhall will definitely be looking for more from Tujague in 2018.

Nick Howell: Defensive coordinator & secondary (defensive backs) coach

Howell is another third-season-BYU-to-Charlottesville guy on Mendenhall’s staff. Last season, he oversaw a secondary that ranked No. 7 in the nation and No. 2 in the ACC against the pass (165.8).

At only 38-years old, Howell already managed to land himself on the Broyles Award candidate list in 2013, given annually to the nation’s top assistant coach. Meaning: he’s pretty good at this defense stuff. But without defensive stars Quin Blanding and Micah Kiser to carry his line, Howell’s job will definitely get harder this fall.

The rest of Mendenhall’s defensive coaches:

  • Kelly Poppinga, co-defensive coordinator & outside linebackers: the recently-promoted co-defensive coordinator focuses on the team’s outside linebackers. In his 2016 and 2017 seasons with Virginia, he also served as the special teams coordinator. TBD on what else Poppinga will bring to the table in his new co-defensive coordinator role, but they say that two-minds are better than one so we’ll see what he and Howell can create together.
  • Shane Hunter, inside linebackers: A former BYU linebacker himself, Hunter oversaw superstar Micah Kiser’s stellar senior season at Virginia. He came to Charlottesville with Mendenhall after three years as a defensive graduate assistant at his alma mater.
  • Vic So’oto, defensive line: So’oto is entering his second season as a full-time assistant coach. In 2017 he formed a defensive front that helped UVA notch the seventh-best pass defense in the nation. The loss of all-star Andrew Brown will be something So’oto’s D-Line will have to grapple with this fall.

Ricky Brumfield: Special teams coordinator

Brumfield is the newest addition to Mendenhall’s staff, joining the team in January of 2018. He came to the Cavaliers from the University of Texas San Antonio, where he successfully coordinated the Roadrunners’ special teams and coached the team’s tight ends. He’s got a solid track record and top-notch kick return specialist Joe Reed on his roster so expect improvements there.

Graduate assistants: Kirk Garner, former Virginia cornerback; Matt Johns, former Virginia quarterback; Jackson Matteo, former Virginia center; and former Wisconsin punter Andrew Meyer.

Boom. Basically, Bronco has a lot of help. Hopefully season three will see even better schemes, lines, and scores (!!) from Mendenhall’s team.