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Bronco Mendenhall talks about the kicking situation, alumni, and Virginia high schools closing their football programs

How does UVA’s coach perceive the recent shuttering of three Virginia high school football teams?

Duke v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images
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Bronco Mendenhall had his first press conference of the season on Monday ahead of the Virginia Cavaliers’ season opener on Saturday against the Richmond Spiders.

Mendenhall confirmed that Dylan Thompson has indeed arrived on Grounds after graduating from Ohio State. After finishing “acclimation days” and learning the system, Thompson will fill what Mendenhall described as “a position of need” with minimal depth available to the Cavaliers at that spot. Thompson wasn’t listed on Virginia’s first depth chart of the season, and their lack of depth on the defensive line is a point of emphasis late in the preseason.

When asked about the attendance problem at UVA — the team has averaged 39,643 fans over 13 home games under Mendenhall at a stadium that seats 61,500 — he said, “We know exactly what has to happen. We need to win and we need to win the right way at UVA ... there’s a sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with being a UVA alum, someone that lives in this state, that, ‘man, there’s something cool happening in Charlottesville.’

“We’re a work in progress. That is the direction. Whatever the attendance will be, will be a direct reflection on how much our philosophy and our success has been embraced to this point ... I don’t get my feelings hurt, it gives clear feedback as to room to grow and ways to continue to expand and claim those spaces and connect with our fans through the ‘earned not given philosophy.

“Our stadium will be full when we’re playing football in a manner that allows it to be full.”

On the longstanding lack of depth at the kicker spot, Mendenhall highlighted the progress of A.J. Mejia: “The sound of the ball coming off his foot, it made our whole coaching staff and team stop.” While Mejia is more consistent than before, he said, Hunter Pearson’s range has increased and that might open the door to more strategic play-calling on fourth down depending on the game situation and percentages, but there’s been no decision yet.

Mendenhall was asked about the program’s recent embracing of football alumni returning to Charlottesville and the juxtaposition because they weren’t coached by him. “I think the players might take offense to saying they’re not my guys, I would say they’re our guys,” he said, adding that new athletic director Carla Williams has been instrumental in that effort, and that “there’s been a significant uptick [in alumni] because there’s been a significant emphasis uptick.”

Finally, he touched on the recent suspending of three high school football programs in the Commonwealth due to a lack of interest. “It concerns me in this perspective: My opinion is that football is an amazing vehicle and platform to develop young people. Other than that, it’s just a game, and I’m not interested in it being just a game. It saddens me that a platform or a vehicle to develop people is not being supported,” he said.

“And I think what has to happen from my standpoint, as well as other college coaches, is to make a clear emphasis that that matters. Yes, winning’s important, there’s a strong business element and entertainment element. Viewership is driving college football. I stand on a very different side of that, acknowledging the reality of that. My primary purpose is to develop people so they can have amazing lives. When football goes away anywhere, that saddens me and if it goes away I would like the community or possibly the administration to have to acknowledge by what they see in other coaches and programs that ‘are we really going to let this happen at the expense of development?’ I think possibly the perspective is results-only, and I certainly think that some of the safety issues are contributing or have contributed ... effective coaching and quality coach is the development of people, looking after the welfare and safety of student-athletes and getting results.

“I don’t see enough emphasis on all of that being presented. And I think you probably don’t either just if you look at what’s written about our business. I would love this program to be one that clearly shows that development, safety, welfare, and results can happen at the same time.”

And finally, when asked about how he reacts when new quarterback Bryce Perkins is shredding up the defense for a big gain, the ever-reserved coach engaged in a bit of self-deprecation.

“Well, you know I’m an excitable guy,” he said laughing. “So there might be a corner of my mouth that comes up. It’s just fun to watch an amazing athlete. There will be comparisons made, but the athleticism, the change of direction, and how dynamic [he is], it’s pretty special to be able to see especially in the packaging [of] a good player and a good person. That makes it better.

That’s what makes maybe both corners of my mouth go up. The long run might make one corner go up, but then when I think about who he is, it might be both corners.”

Virginia fans will get their chance to see Perkins in action as the Hoos welcome Richmond to Charlottesville on Saturday night at 6pm.