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What Will Carla Do at Virginia?

It had been a while since Virginia played in a post-season bowl game. In the excitement generated by Virginia’s invitation to the Military Bowl, Virginia fans might have forgotten that sometimes post season bowl experiences go awry.

Some might argue that things started to go downhill with the weather forecast which was for daytime temperatures in the mid-20s with steady winds throughout the day. The good news for the Virginia program is that its fans turned out in force. Virginia fans filled the vast majority of the seats in Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium eagerly anticipating the next step in Bronco’s resurrection of Virginia football. Kudos to the Virginia faithful for a strong showing in Annapolis. That’s our primary role supporting the program and it was a job well done.

Unfortunately, Virginia’s on-field performance in the Military Bowl against a middling Navy team was 12 seconds of glory and 59 minutes and 48 seconds of agony.  After running back the opening kickoff for a score, Virginia played like they took the month off leading up to the Military bowl. Navy dominated the lines of scrimmage and Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert’s passes went in every direction except that of wide open receivers. Benkert missed 3 walk-in touchdown passes, under and over shooting by 10 yards or more, so off the mark that fans wondered who was Benkert’s intended target. The balance of Virginia’s performance was equally dismal. I could only tolerate 3 quarters of frigid football torture before heading for the warmth of the 3-hour ride home.

Speaking with friends about the game, one particularly loyal and astute Virginia fan raised a most interesting question – What will Carla do?

Virginia’s new athletic director Carla Williams was an all-SEC guard for the Georgia women’s basketball team. She spent the last 14 years with he Georgia athletic department, overseeing the Georgia football program. During her 14-year tenure at Georgia, the Dawgs won 10 or more games 9 times. They had one losing season, a 6-7 campaign in 2010. The bottom line is that Carla Williams is used to winning…a lot.

I wonder what she thought as Virginia went a second consecutive game without scoring an offensive touchdown? I wonder what she was thinking when Virginia punted from inside the Navy 40 yard-line? I have no doubt she has never seen a field goal attempt from 46 yards bounce across the goal line, having never reached a height that would clear the cross bar. The cynical part of me wanted to say “welcome to Virginia football” Ms Williams. Given her background of winning, however, I doubt Williams will stand idly by while Virginia football continues to struggle in its return to football respectability.

The real question is, what will Carla do? Recall, Carla Williams was running the football program at Georgia when the Dawgs fired Mark Richt, who averaged almost 10 wins per season in the juggernaut SEC. The Dawgs won the SEC twice, their division 6 times and won 9 bowl games while Ms Williams as in Athens…and then Richt was kicked to the curb.

I don’t think Georgia holds the SEC record for the largest loss margin as Virginia does for the ACC – tying it’s own record this week with the 42 point drubbing against Illinois in the 1999 Micron PC Bowl. I also don’t think Carla Williams will find this year’s performance an acceptable outcome for the Virginia football program. She didn’t hire Bronco and she didn’t hire any of the staff Bronco brought with him. I am sure she expects a better performance from a coach making almost 3.5 million a year.

I don’t think that Bronco is in trouble, yet. However I do expect to see changes in the program – some of which we will see, others will be kept behind closed doors. I will be very surprised if offensive coordinator Robert Anae is with the program next season. 10 consecutive quarters without an offensive touchdown is unthinkable for someone with Carla Williams’ background – even Vandy can get the ball in the end zone once or twice a game against the best in the SEC.

While Virginia fans should be encouraged by the improvement in the program from 2-10 in 2016 to 6-7 in 2017, I doubt that this is the expectation for Virginia’s new athletic director. This makes the 2018 season a critical one for Bronco and his staff. I think that another 6-7 season with a season-ending drubbing will raise questions in her mind if Bronco is the right leader for Virginia football. I have no doubt that Williams has a short list in her mind of talented coordinators she could bring to Charlottesville should the Virginia program stagnate or regress in 2018.

I don’t think Bronco will make any public “hot seat” lists in the coming year, but I’d bet you 5 bucks he is on the only hot seat list that matters and that there will be many candid discussions during the off season with his new boss.

This is all is good news for Virginia football. I am not ready to throw in the towel on Bronco and staff, but I am glad that he has a boss who is used to winning on Saturdays and who I doubt has many positive feelings about the 2017 season. If Virginia is going to continue to improve its football results, 6-7 seasons with an embarrassing bowl loss cannot be part of the recipe for success. Based on Carla Williams’ background, I suspect Virginia football will improve under the current leadership or it will see dramatic changes that will lead to wins in the future. Either way the Virginia fans who posted in Annapolis on a day when it would have been easy to stay home will see more winning Saturdays for Virginia football. I am good with that.

Virginia Football is Heading in the Right Direction – Despite the Last 2 Games

It’s a shame that disappointment was the overriding sentiment among Virginia faithful as the regular season came to a close on Saturday in Charlottesville. The current sentiment is understandable but should not be the prevailing sentiment when looking at the full body of work and the progress Virginia football demonstrated during the year. That said, I get the current feelings of disappointment and pondering what might have been.

Two weeks prior, Virginia completely dominated the #3 team in the country, on the road, for two and a half quarters before falling apart and adding an expected, but still disappointing loss to the 2017 record. Overmatched and on the road, Virginia looked like they could play with some of the best teams in the country before mistakes and fatigue showed that they couldn’t.

If I’d have been offered the following bet prior to this weekend’s game against Virginia Tech – if UVA holds VT to 10 points in the game, would you bet $ 100 that UVA wins the game? – I would have taken the bet in a heartbeat…which reinforces the reasons why I’m not much of a gambler. Virginia’s defense played very well against a respectable Virginia Tech offense, while Virginia’s offense posted its worst performance of the year against a solid but far from great Virginia Tech defense.

Virginia Tech feasted on wimpy opponents to start the year, bolstering its defensive stats by smashing lousy Delaware, ODU, and ECU teams while pitching shutouts in two of those three scrimmages. On Saturday however, Virginia’s offense helped the Hokie defense look like 1975 Steelers. It is hard to fathom that this was the same Virginia offense that racked up 28 points and 440 yards of total offense the prior week against a far more talented Miami defense. The Virginia offense had a couple of chances to score enough points to beat Virginia Tech, but unlike several games prior, dropped passes, overthrown balls, and a fatigued offensive line sealed Virginia’s fate.

Virginia fans know this drill. So close, but no cigar. Hence, the pervasive and familiar feeling of disappointment.

I’d suggest that Virginia fans need to shake off the disappointment and recognize that the 2017 football season was not only a success but could be a turning point in the return to football respectability. Optimistic projections entering the 2017 campaign predicted 5 wins in ’17. Many fans would have seen progress if not success in more than doubling last season’s win total with a 5-win season.

While close-but-no-cigar is recognizable territory for Virginia fans across the athletic spectrum, “close” has not really been part of the equation for football for the past 5 years. Not only was Virginia close in most of their games this season, they won 6 of them and are going bowling for the first time since 2011.

While a bowl game is a significant achievement for a previously 2-10 team and a nice reward for seniors who worked hard to turn the fortunes of Virginia football around, the best outcome of making a bowl may not be apparent until next season. Making a bowl means an extra month of practice for a Virginia team that sports a plethora of red-shirt and true freshman in their 2-deep. An additional month of practice gives Bronco and his staff the opportunity to give younger guys significant practice time and more first-team reps than usual. This extra practice time is invaluable for young teams working to build on a successful season.

Virginia fans can do their part in the turn around of Virginia football by forgetting the disappointment of 2 losses to end the season plus the distraction of a nice start to basketball season by turning out for the bowl game this year. Most projections have Virginia playing in the Military Bowl in Annapolis which is right in the drivable heart of the Virginia fan base. If Virginia draws the short straw and ends up in Detroit at the Quick Lane Bowl I understand that is a slightly less desirable trip and may not see a stellar Cavalier turnout.

Given the breaks of the last two games, I think this team is overdue for a bit of good luck. See you in Annapolis!

Virginia Posts a Strong Performance in Boise

Is the Virginia football jinx dead? (Gasp!) Thinking such things seems outlandish, risky, and maybe even blasphemous. Serious consideration of such a possibility is premature. However, the thought occurred to me as the final seconds ticked off the clock in Virginia’s improbable 42-23 victory Friday night.

Winning football games is hard. Winning football games against good programs on the road is harder still. Over the past 10 years, Boise State has won 110 games. The Broncos have beaten teams that Virginia only dreams of beating – Oklahoma, TCU, and Virginia Tech among them. I don’t know if this year’s BSU team is up to the usual Broncos’ standard, but I do know that on Friday night, Virginia took a good Boise State program to the woodshed.

Contrary to the Las Vegas betting line of 13 points in favor of the Broncos, I had a good feeling about Virginia’s chances against BSU. In its first 3 games of the ’17 season, Virginia had really cleaned up their play. Turnovers, penalties, and mental errors were way down from what the Virginia faithful had come to expect from the Cavaliers. The turnover trend was positive for Virginia. It seemed like the Cavaliers were on the brink of putting things together for the first time in many years.

My good feelings about Virginia’s chances to win were converted into assured confidence for victory on one critical turn of events in the first half. As any Virginia fan knows, the probability of converting fake punts and on-sides kicks is very low…except against Virginia. In recent years, conversion rates against Virginia for these plays has been the inverse of the rest of the football universe. Virginia football of the past 10 years gives up the trick play. The Virginia team Friday night did not and quickly converted the resultant opportunity into points.

That’s what good teams do. They take advantage of their opponent’s miscues. They make them pay. Virginia’s inability to do this with any consistency the past 10 years is why they have a 10+ year losing streak against Virginia Tech. It is why Virginia has been absent from the bowl picture 8 of the last 9 seasons. Now, for 2 weeks in a row, when Virginia’s opponents have made mistakes, Virginia has capitalized and won in convincing fashion.

Equally encouraging, and also swimming against the traditional Virginia currents, the ‘Hoos never took their foot off the gas against Boise State. Despite a couple of late game blunders after victory was in the bag, Virginia played to win for 60 minutes. Well conditioned Virginia fans, in any game where Virginia leads, start doing the math in their heads when it looks like Virginia might win. How many touchdowns does the opponent need to score divided by the time remaining…and what is the probability of the making the needed scores in the remaining time? No matter how improbable, Virginia fans have a fatalistic feeling anytime a win looks possible. Think Notre Dame. Think Louisville. Think Michigan, Texas, UNC, and a host of others.

Friday against BSU, Virginia was as focused and aggressive in the final minutes of the game as they were at the start. It was clear that Virginia’s players were intent on this win, on making a statement, that they were not going to let this one get away. How refreshing. How encouraging.

Friday’s win was a good win. The challenge now is stringing together multiple good wins to become a good team. Virginia gets an extra week off to rest and prepare before a solid Duke team comes to Charlottesville. This is an important game. It’s at home. It comes off a bye-week. It comes on the heels of 2 strong wins. Good teams win this game. Virginia gets a chance to take another step towards becoming a good team in 2 weeks.

Is the Virginia football jinx dead? Is the curse of Al Groh finally broken? It seems risky to ponder such things. When seeking guidance in life on important questions…investment advice, house purchase decisions, predictions on the fortunes of Virginia football, I find the Magic 8-Ball as good of source of truth as any.

Magic 8-ball, is the Virginia football jinx and the curse of Al Groh dead? “Concentrate and ask again”

Magic 8-ball, is the Virginia football jinx and the curse of Al Groh dead? “Signs point to yes”

Even though the Magic 8-ball said “my reply is no” when I asked if I should sell Sun Microsystems at $ 75/share many years ago, I think it is on the right track now, as is Virginia football.

I hope Virginia fans reward their team in 2 weeks by coming to the game, not just the tailgate. This team is vastly improved over last season. In Bronco Mendenhall’s culture of earned not given, this team has earned increased fan support. Let’s do what we can to deliver.

Virginia Football – Let’s Try This One More Time

The pre-season might be the best time of year for many college football programs. It certainly was for Virginia football last year. Standing ovations for new head coach Bronco Mendenhall making an appearance at JPJ, followed by bullish statements about bowl games. Graduate transfers infusing talent into a program that clearly had holes to fill. Late summer ’16 was awash with optimism. Then the Richmond Spiders came to town and washed all expectations for a return to football respectability down the drain as Virginia suffered the first of its 10 losses for the season.

Here we are again. Late summer. The joy of pre-season excitement is in the air. I am hearing lots of optimistic football chatter among the Virginia faithful once more. Virginia hasn’t had a punt blocked in months, hasn’t given up a 4th & long since the Louisville game, and its record stands at a level 0-0. Is this the zenith of the ’17 football season for the Cavaliers? Maybe, but then again, maybe not.

A lot has changed since the start of the ill-fated 2016 campaign:

Virginia has added experienced graduate transfer talent across the offensive line bringing much needed depth to an area of persistent weakness for the Wahoos.

Virginia has jettisoned teams like UCLA and Oregon from the schedule. While Virginia has one last debt to pay in its non-sensical scheduling over the past several years with an away game at Boise State, it is both prudent and hopeful to see teams like UConn, Indiana, & William & Mary on the schedule…where Virginia has a fighting chance for a win. Mercifully the ACC scheduling gods kept both Clemson and Florida State off the Virginia slate in 2017.

Virginia has 2 pre-season all-Americans on defense in Quinn Blanding and Micah Kiser as well as a potential early-round NFL pick in Andrew Brown.

The health of the team is good with few summer-camp injuries.

The staff has another year under their belts and a better understanding of the talent on hand. Comments from the staff indicate that they are making adjustments to both offensive and defensive schemes that leverage the skills of the team and cover deficiencies where they exist.

Virginia has experience across the offensive line, in the receiver corps, and at QB. The defense returns a mix of seasoned veterans and red-shirt freshmen ready to make their mark on Virginia football.

Anyone ready to book their bowl season travel plans yet?

In the words of Lee Corso ‘Not so fast!”

While it is great to have a stable of returning upperclassmen on the team, let’s not forget that those upperclassmen went 2-10 last year. Bronco’s recruiting class was ranked 57th nationally according to Rivals. The football tide is rising in the ACC and the biggest question for Cavalier fans is can Virginia keep up with the pace?

It is certainly possible that Virginia will post a respectable season in ’17. It is not completely ridiculous to think that Virginia could make a bowl game for the first time since 2011. However (you knew that was coming) Virginia needs some good luck.

The Cavaliers are woefully thin at many positions, most notably at quarterback. If Kurt Benkert gets hurt, guess how many combined snaps the backup quarterbacks have played at the college level? The unfortunate answer for those hoping to spend the holidays in Shreveport at the Independence Bowl, is zero. Making the quarterback depth chart more frightening is the fact that Virginia’s offensive line play has not been stellar the past few years. While the expectations are high for improvement in the trenches, if Kurt Benkert is running for his life the first few Saturdays in September, the Virginia season could come unravelled in a hurry.

Maybe the biggest asset in the Virginia arsenal this year is the simple fact that if any program in the country is over due for a little good luck, it’s Virginia. So Virginia fans, cross you fingers, go dig up that old rabbit’s foot, and look for some 4-leaf clovers. Virginia can put up a respectable season this year, but the fates are going to have to smile on the Cavaliers.

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E-mail David at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

Photo: Wikipedia

Virginia Fans are Divided on Bronco Heading into Season 2

The start of fall football practice is just over a month away. It is no secret that Bronco Mendenhall has many hurdles to clear before Virginia football gets back to a winning groove. He has a new challenge this year. One of his own making. After one season, the Virginia fan base is split on the wisdom of bringing Bronco and his band of assistants to Charlottesville.

Posting a 2-10 record in his first season has many Virginia fans concerned. Opening the season with a convincing 17-point loss to University of Richmond took a lot of the optimistic winds out of Bronco’s sails. The team’s performances in the following weeks did little to build confidence in the direction of the program. The rotten cherry on the soured sundae was a thumping at the hands of Virginia Tech when Bronco deployed a ridiculous QB rotation that ended in utterly predictable failure.

The recruiting season has not brought tidings of joy to hardcore Virginia fans who spend the football off-season analyzing the whims of 18-year old high school footballers. While Bronco is filling his 2018 recruiting class at a brisk pace, the reality is that Bronco is bringing a different breed of cat to the program.

A standard measure of a recruit’s talent is always the “offer list”. Who else wanted a recruit to play for them? Over the Groh and London years Virginia landed many recruits with impressive offer lists. Fans were often giddy when Georgia, Penn State, USC, and Florida were vying for kids who decided to come play for Virginia. Unfortunately, those kids didn’t win that many games wearing the orange & blue.

A look at the offer lists of the 2018 recruiting class has many Virginia fans concerned. Bronco’s recent commits have offer lists that include Bucknell, Penn, Yale, and Cornell. Others have offers from Wake Forest, Vandy, and Boston College. Still others boast offers from Bowling Green St, Akron, and Florida Atlantic. Let’s recognize the obvious: Bronco is not recruiting the same kids as college football’s blue bloods…or even college football’s light-blue bloods. It sounds like his guys might do well as contestants on “Jeopardy”, but can they beat Clemson & Miami? Heck, can they beat Richmond & UConn?

The Virginia fan base is split into two camps: those who believe in Bronco and his system. They look at his past performance. His BYU recruiting classes were littered with castoffs from Southern Cal, UCLA, and Oregon. Bronco won a lot of games with those players. Many of them went on to play in the NFL.  Virginia’s “system” fans are convinced that Bronco’ can succeed in similar fashion at Virginia.

There is evidence to support this position. Jim Harbaugh was a “system” coach at Stanford. Harbaugh came to Stanford after a 1-11 season in 2006. The talent pool at Stanford was not deep when Harbaugh arrived. Rivals ranked Stanford’s 2004-2008 recruiting classes in the middle of the pack at best:

2004 57th

2005 41st

2006 54th

2007 51st

2008 50th

Yet in 2007, Harbaugh improved Stanford’s record to 4-8. He went 5-7 in 2008, 8-5 in 2009, and then reached his zenith at Stanford with a 12-1 season in 2010. Think about the redshirt juniors and seniors that led the 2009 & 2010 teams. They were kids from the middling recruiting classes that averaged 50.6 in national recruiting rankings. I recognize that one of those recruits in the 50.6 ranked classes was Andrew Luck. Got it. He’s a stud. However, his supporting cast on offense and defense was made up of “system guys” who developed during the years at Stanford and thrived in the Harbaugh system.

The system fans believe in Bronco. They believe in player development and past performance as a predictor of future success. I get the “system” fans’ argument. There have been several successful programs that back their stance. Paul Johnson at Ga. Tech is the consummate system coach. Ga. Tech has won a lot of football games while Virginia has floundered the past 10 years. I want to believe the system fans. I want to be optimistic, until I hear from the “athletes” crowd.

The opposing camp of Virginia fans feels that Bronco is doomed for failure at worst and mediocrity at best. As noted in an earlier column, it is not hard to conclude that Virginia simply does not have the athletes to compete and win in the rising tide of ACC football. Pick a team, any team from the George Welsh era and compare those players (their recruiting rank and NFL potential) with the players Virginia has on the roster now and more importantly with the players Bronco is bringing to the program. These fans will tell you, with great passion, that we can have the best system and player development on the planet, but unless you have the horses that can run with Clemson and Florida State, Virginia is going to be a perpetual bottom tier program.

Last season’s performance combined with Bronco’s recruiting strategy has created this fissure in the Virginia fan base. The gotta-have-the-athletes crowd is biding their time with Bronco, waiting for him to flame out with his players that belong in the Ivy League or the Patriot League. The System fans ask for patience and pray for at least 5 wins this season.

Only time will tell which position is correct. I tend to think that Bronco’s system has done very well in the past and deserves more time. I think it can succeed at Virginia, but I worry about a low ceiling for success and settling for 6 wins a year as the measure of a successful program. I also worry that if the system breaks down, we don’t have any one fast enough to run down the next Deshawn Watson or Lamar Jackson. It’s hard to consistently “out-system” the thoroughbreds coming to play at other programs in the ACC.

My bigger concern is that Virginia football needs all the help it can get returning to respectability. One of the assets Virginia needs is an optimistic and enthusiastic fan base. I am worried that a divided fan base likely spends more time in the West Lot than in the stands, which is not good for anyone, except the bourbon distillers.

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E-mail David at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

Perspectives on Virginia Football from the Glory Days

I had the pleasure to meet a former UVa football star at a cocktail party recently. He was an iconic figure from the salad days of Virginia football. A George Welsh recruit and player. A football warrior and a very nice guy who laughed when I asked him if he had any eligibility left because we sure could use him next year.

I have no doubt that he has endured the same conversation a hundred times with UVa fans looking for insight and inside scoop on the state of football affairs in Charlottesville. He was engaging, patient, insightful, and generous with his time. His perspective was thought-provoking at best, distressing at worst.

I asked if he thought Virginia was going to be better this year, if we were heading in the right direction. I hoped for a big smile and confirmation that indeed football at UVa was emerging from its 10-year funk. Instead I got a dose of reality that made me wish I’d gotten a double scotch before I started the conversation. The facial expression was one of concern, from someone who clearly wants UVa to get back to its winning ways. The net of his comments – we don’t have enough athletes. I rattled off a few of names of kids I viewed as top notch players…no confirmation, no bright smile, no “yes, that kid is a player”. Just sincerely held concern that we don’t have enough athletes.

I was taken aback, but who was I to argue about talent levels with someone who had been there and knew first hand? How could I question what it takes to win in the ACC with one of the many star players who had won in the ACC through his entire career under George Welsh?

So, after I got home, before I changed, I poured another drink and spent an hour or so looking at some of the rosters from the George Welsh days. The days when Virginia won a lot of football games. When Virginia was clearly the best team in The Commonwealth and one of the best teams in the ACC. A scan of the rosters of the late 1980s &1990s yielded the same conclusion – there was a lot of talent in the program in those years. I needed to pick a point of comparison for the current roster, so I picked one outside of my conversation and settled on the 1998 team. While a little bit of a “cherry pick” this was not the No. 1 team in the nation nor the team that featured the Barbers of C’ville in the final years in orange & blue.

The 1998 team was a good one, however. They went 9-3 overall, 6-2 in the ACC, and lost a heart-breaker to a good Georgia team in the Peach Bowl. As I looked at the roster, my heart sunk a bit, as did my expectations for the 2017 football season.

Let’s bounce around a few names from the Cavalier roster in 1998:

Aaron Brooks, Thomas Jones, Antwoine Womack, Anthony Poindexter, Terrence Wilkins, Casey Crawford, Billy Baber, Chris Luzar, Monsanto Pope, Noel LaMontagne, John St. Clair, Antonio Dingle, Patrick Kearney, Wali Rainer, Byron Thweatt, Donny Green, Antwan Harris, & Maurice Anderson. If you are keeping score at home, that is a count of 18 players…all of whom played at least 1 season in the NFL. Several had exceptional NFL careers. At least 2 had exceptional careers in the NFL cut short by injuries they sustained at UVa. There was also a pack of players who were borderline NFL talent that played big roles for UVa in the late 1990s. Guys like Anthony Southern, Kevin Coffey, Ahmad Hawkins, Brad Barnes, Tyree Foreman, & Tim Spruill.

Wow! Anyone want to send George Welsh a heartfelt thank-you note for all he and his staff did for Virginia football? Recall before Coach Welsh arrived, Virginia was a joke program, de-emphasized by design by the big dogs in The University administration. Virginia lost to good teams. Virginia lost to bad teams. Virginia lost to a mediocre Wake Forest team by 50 points not long before coach Welsh arrived. Yet there we were in 1998, with 18 future NFL players on the roster, playing toe-to-toe with the SEC (Virginia went 1-1 versus the SEC in 1998 beating Auburn on the road before losing to UGa in the Peach Bowl).

With all due respect to Kurt Benkert, Daniel Hamm, and Jack McDonald, the comps to Aaron Brooks, Thomas Jones, and John St. Clair are not encouraging. So where does that leave Virginia football with the 2017 season only 3 months away and counting?

Scanning the 2017 roster, it is not void of NFL talent. Quinn Blanding and Andrew Brown are solid NFL prospects and likely low to middle round picks in next year’s draft. After that, it gets hard to find kids destined to play on Sundays. My guess is Bronco will develop a few, but if the comparison for talent & depth is the 1998 roster, there are not 18 NFL players on the 2017 roster. Virginia might be fortunate if there are half that number.

This talent reality leaves Virginia fans pinning their hopes and guarded optimism on Bronco and his system. Going back to his BYU days, Bronco never had herculean high school players on his roster. However, during his tenure at BYU he sent 25+ players to NFL careers which shows his eye for undervalued talent and his talent for player development. I think this works for Virginia. At least it works for Virginia right now.

Virginia football needs stability. It needs discipline. It needs to learn how to win. It needs coaching grounded in fundamental football that results in strong player development. Bronco can deliver these things. I think Bronco can consistently deliver 5-7 wins a season. That might be good enough for Virginia football. It is certainly an improvement.

That said, Virginia is never going to be truly and consistently competitive if Clemson and Florida State have 25 or more players on their teams who are a step faster and push-up stronger than Virginia – discipline and player development be damned. It is hard to consistently win against teams that not only have better athletes, but that have a lot more better athletes.

I would never have thought this absent my recent conversation, but maybe Branco is a transitional coach for Virginia. Maybe he stops the bleeding. Maybe he brings discipline and a culture of winning more than losing to Virginia football and then hands the keys over to the next young hotshot coach who can build on Bronco’s foundation by recruiting 18 NFL caliber players on the same roster.

In this context, I think Bronco is the right guy for the Virginia job. Certainly, he’s the right guy for right now. If 5-7 wins a year with an occasional bump to 8 wins is good enough for Virginia fans, maybe he is the long-term answer too. I still think it is a coup that Craig Littlepage and Jon Oliver brought Bronco and his staff to Virginia. At some point however, Virginia is going to need “the athletes” to win consistently in the ACC and beat top-shelf SEC opponents on the road. Maybe winning will allow Bronco to ramp up his recruiting, though winning at BYU didn’t change his recruiting results dramatically over time. Maybe that is a function of BYU.  Maybe unfettered by BYU’s strict college experience, Bronco can compete with the national programs and close on 4 and 5 star recruits. Maybe.

I wish I’d had more time to ask more questions about the progress of Virginia football to someone who knew about winning and player development, but I had probably intruded too much already and as noted before, due to my short-sightedness, my drink was glass was empty. After the brief conversation and doing a little homework afterwards, I might want to keep a full drink glass for the coming season.

E-mail David at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

 

Spring Comes to Virginia Football

Spring has sprung for Virginia football, which means that spring practice has ended and the spring game…spring scrimmage…football festival (whatever) has mercifully passed. Now recruiting season kicks into high gear.

With all due respect to the 90,000 Alabama fans that pack Bryant-Denny stadium for the Red & White game, spring football is boring. It is a zero-sum game. If a great performance by your redshirt freshman running back is an indication that he is the next Heisman hopeful it also likely means that your run defense stinks. Many players sit out the spring healing from off-season surgery, quarterbacks wear red jerseys so no one hits them, and the new freshman class has yet to arrive. If you can find the fun in spring football, let me know. I’ve been to far too many spring games when I could have spent the day pulling weeds or stripping wall paper.

The importance, and the fun, of spring and summer for college football fans is recruiting season. For Virginia fans though, I think the fun of this year’s recruiting is going restrained. It might even be a little boring.

When Al Groh and Mike London arrived in Charlottesville, they each won big recruiting battles in their early years with the program. Al Groh brought consensus high school All-Americans Ahmad Brooks and Kai Parham to Charlottesville. Mike London landed 5-star super stars Andrew Brown and Quinn Blanding. These recruiting wins, among others, brought excitement, optimism, and paper victories to Charlottesville. The thing about paper victories is they don’t always translate into on-field victories. At least they don’t for Virginia.

It is no secret that Bronco Mendenhall is facing strong recruiting headwinds. The program has been in a funk for the past 10 years. It hasn’t beaten Virginia Tech in over 10 years. Then there is Bronco’s coaching philosophy. Bronco is all about earned not given, running a hyper-disciplined program, and success in the class room in addition to the playing field. If you were a 5-star recruit with Alabama & LSU wooing you daily, telling you that you will be their next future first-round draft pick who cashes-in after 3 years in “college”, would you return a call from Bronco Mendenhall?

Therefore, the fun of recruiting under Bronco will not compare with the fun we had under Al Groh and Mike London. Bronco is going to recruit over-achieving 2 and 3 star kids who want to play in Bronco’s system and go to class at UVa. A scan of BYU’s recruiting classes under Bronco shows long lists of kids that weren’t recruited very hard by Southern Cal, Oregon, and UCLA. Virginia generally had higher ranked recruiting classes than BYU during Bronco’s tenure with the Cougars. The happy news for Virginia fans who worry about Bronco’s lack of recruiting star power is that Bronco won a lot more football games in the fall than recruiting battles in the spring. He certainly won a lot more football games than his two predecessors at UVa.

A glance at the offers out to the high school seniors in Virginia’s 2018 recruiting class is a manifestation of things most fans already know. Virginia is woefully under-staffed on the offensive line. The defensive line is in better shape, but only marginally so. Bronco has over 60 active offers out to shore up his depth and talent in the trenches. Virginia also needs to upgrade it’s team speed. Virginia needs playmakers who can turn a short 4-yard slant into a long TD run.

A little deeper analysis of the current commit and offer lists shows that Bronco and staff are looking for kids they can develop, that might be a bit under the radar, and can survive the rigors of Bronco’s system and UVa’s classroom. Bronco is not recruiting a lot of kids with offers from the top of the Big 10 or SEC. Bottom line, there aren’t many 4-star and 5-star recruits on the 2018 offer list and there aren’t any on the commit list.

The glass half-full reality for Virginia fans is that UVa is not going to have to beat Clemson and Florida State for any of their recruits this summer. There are no Terry Kirby’s or Chris Slade’s committing to Virginia this summer that will make Virginia fans giddy and Hokie fans jealous. Bronco is recruiting kids that seem to align with the mold of players he recruited at BYU. The great news for Virginia is that Bronco won a lot of games with those kids. The sour pill for Virginia fans is that this requires still more patience. Instead of high-fiving big recruiting wins, Virginia fans are going to have to trust that Bronco and staff know what kind of kids thrive in their program and can win games of Saturdays.

Spring practices and spring games are inherently boring. Spring & summer recruiting is not. While the path that Bronco demands for his program might make for a subdued recruiting season, if Bronco gets the kids he wants, the fall should be a lot more exciting than the spring…and much more successful than the past several falls.

Football Recruiting Changes and So Does Virginia’s Recruiting Strategy

College football recruiting has changed dramatically over the years. Its coverage has changed. How teams recruit has changed. Many years ago, back when UVa was a good football program, each year’s recruiting class was announced with a small-font list of high school players’ no one had heard of in the Sunday sports page. Only George Welsh and recruiting coordinator Danny Wilmer really knew anything about the incoming recruits.

Technology changed all that. With the advent of the all-knowing, all-seeing internet, subscription-based recruiting services like rivals.com & scout.com emerged. Suddenly there was a plethora of recruiting information about 16 & 17-year-old kids who happened to be very good high school football players. Every college fan with an internet connection & $10/month became a recruiting expert. The “star system” of ranking high school players made off-season recruiting battles with your in-state rival a great way to pass the time between the end of bowl season and the first kickoff of the coming year. Beating your rival for a local 5-star recruit was almost as much fun as beating them in November.

The recruiting landscape for college teams has evolved as well. In 2017, there are “haves” and then there is everyone else. We can all name the “haves”. There are about a dozen or so. ‘Bama, LSU, Georgia and the rest of the SEC traditional powers. Ohio St, Michigan, Southern Cal, Notre Dame, Texas, FSU, & Clemson round out the list of big dawgs. The rest of the college football world are also-rans.

The vast majority of the most coveted 4 & 5-star recruits go to the haves. The have-nots fight over the scraps. A handful of the big recruits will eschew the big time programs, but not many. If one were counting recruiting stars the Alabama class looks like a clear autumn sky at midnight in the country. By contrast, the Virginia class looks more like a foggy sky after a rain shower in Seattle.

This does not mean that the also-ran community won’t muster a competitive sacrificial lamb from time-to-time to smack the big boys in the mouth on the playing field. Louisville was one of this year’s shooting starts we thought could run with the big dawgs, but they couldn’t. Over the long term, thanks to the new playoff system which exacerbates the recruiting bifurcation, we all know who has a chance to win a national championship. We also know who doesn’t. Virginia falls in the latter category. To the dismay of the HokieNation, so does Virginia Tech.

The unfortunate reality for Virginia is that it is one of the neediest of the have-nots. Clemson and Alabama each won 14 games last season. Over the past 4 seasons combined, Virginia has won 13 games. Most of the “have” programs won twice as many games in September as Virginia won all year in 2016. I continue to believe however, that Bronco Mendenhall can bring this program back to life and Virginia can be one of the taller dwarves in college football’s division of have-nots. Bronco has to be smart in his recruiting and play a different game than the rest of the wannabe programs.

Bronco had a tough sell this recruiting season. Five losing seasons in a row and the second 2-win season in the past four is not a strong hand when wooing 17-year-old kids. Despite his gale-force head winds, Bronco did a remarkable job. His class of high school recruits is ranked 56th in the nation and 11th in the ACC. For those keeping score at home, this is a pretty typical Bronco class. At BYU the national ranking of his recruiting classes ranged anywhere from 42nd to 71st. He won a lot of football games with recruiting classes that the “experts” viewed as middle of the road.

Bronco recruits “his” kind of kids. A third of last years recruiting class, with whom Bronco spent very little recruiting time, never matriculated to UVa or have left the program. That’s a big hole to fill. That doesn’t happen at LSU or Ohio St. The ’16 kids were not Bronco’s recruits. They were Mike London’s kids that Bronco tried his best to hold on to so he would have enough warm bodies to field a team in the fall. As we are all too aware, the gaps in the program were wide and many opposing running backs darted through them for touchdowns.

Bronco is not standing still however, pinning his plans exclusively on the talents of the high school players who were not recruited by Clemson and FSU. Thanks to Russell Wilson, a new recruiting phenomenon has emerged in the past few years. The graduate transfer. These are players who have their undergraduate degrees in hand (so they can play immediately) but still have eligibility remaining. Some have one year left due to a redshirt year and some have two because they red-shirted and graduated in 3 years. These are the kind of kids Virginia covets, at least in the short term, and Bronco has made good use of this opportunity. He signed two graduate transfers last season in QB Kurt Benkert and DL Jack Powers. Both played extensively.

Virginia signed 25 high school recruits last week that comprise the incoming first year class. As noted this group is ranked 56th nationally by rivals.com – right in the meaty part of the Mendenhall recruiting curve. However, Bronco has already signed 2 graduate transfers (Dual-threat QB Marvin Zanders from Mizzou & OL Colin McGovern from Notre Dame) and has 2 more offensive linemen (another from ND and one from Oklahoma St) very likely on the way. Barring injury or a massive surprise, as Bronco noted in his signing day press conference, he only brings in graduate transfers who can start the following season. For any fan who watched Virginia’s offensive line last year, 3 new, experienced starters next year is not good news. It’s great news.

I applaud Bronco for his graduate transfer strategy. He has to fill holes and can buy time with proven players until he can stock the program with his recruits. The players he is bringing in are a great fit for UVa – they have proven they can succeed in the classroom and most have started at their previous schools. Some had injuries and lost starting jobs, others were recruited over and wanted a clear path to playing time. Lord knows, Virginia has playing time to offer.

I think this is Bronco’s version of “Moneyball” for Virginia football. He cannot go toe-toe with the national programs and expect to compete for national recruits. Given Virginia’s record the past 5 years, he has a hard enough time recruiting regionally in the shallower end of the recruiting pool. So Bronco is going to get high school kids he believes can win at Virginia over time, and he is going to buy time for them to develop and continue to plug holes as needed with graduate transfers who can contribute right away.

The world of recruiting has indeed changed over time. It has changed for both fans and coaches. I applaud the Virginia fans for not losing their minds because UVa does not have a top ranked in-coming freshman class. I also applaud the coaching staff for recognizing the opportunity to upgrade talent with graduate transfers and for selling the broader value of UVa to high school kids. Bronco doesn’t hold a lot of aces in his hand right now. Coaches have to play the cards they hold the best they can, not spend time wishing for a better hand. I think Bronco has done a nice job this recruiting season playing the cards he had. I expect to see the results in the fall.

E-mail David at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

Can Bronco Deliver Before Moses?

Moses wandered 40 years in the desert leading the Israelites in search of the promised land.

Since it decided to relieve George Welsh of his duties leading it’s football program, Virginia has wandered for 16 years in the wasteland of college football. 15 years were essentially wasted chasing false prophets. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 24 years for Bronco Mendenhall to find the promised land. Unfortunately, watching the debacle in Blacksburg on Saturday, 24 years looks about right.

Just for a little comparative ACC perspective, it took David Cutcliffe 5 years to start winning at Duke after decades of football futility. Dave Clawson didn’t start winning at Wake Forest until his third year leading the program. Heck, our own football legend George Welsh went 2-9 in his first year at Virginia. So before we all panic and assume that Bronco Mendenhall should have stayed in Provo, I think it is safe to say that fan expectations were well ahead of reality for Bronco’s first year leading the program. 

That said, I have seen some bad performances by the Virginia football team in my decades as a fan, but I would have a hard time coming up with one worse than this year’s drubbing against a pretty good, but not great, Virginia Tech team. The players made mistakes early and often on both sides of the ball. I don’t have the space nor the stomach to review Saturday’s on-field miscues.

I am most perplexed however, by the decisions of the coaching staff. When your team is 2-9, there is nothing wrong with going unconventional. There is a difference between unconventional and stupid. Calling a flanker option pass on 4th & 1 is unconventional. High risk & high reward. Rotating quarterbacks with similar skill sets based on down situations is stupid. If we were going with stupid, why didn’t we play barefooted or with our helmets on backwards. At least that would have given us a legitimate excuse for the results on the scoreboard.

I’d love to know who on the staff thought that the situational quarterback rotation with two pocket passers would be an effective strategy for an upset win. Oh, and let’s toss in a QB option run with our 3rd string quarterback, also a pocket passer. Who wouldn’t have guessed that play along with this game would end in tragedy? Maybe this was Bronco’s way of throwing in the towel. Letting Matt Johns play in his final game with the team, but not letting him be the sole scapegoat for the inevitable embarrassing loss. I can’t think of another reason for such an inexplicable strategy.

Whatever the reason for the quarterback carousel, the fanbase is not amused. Virginia fans are tired of being the doormat of the ACC Coastal, which is the doormat division of the P5 cartel. If Virginia had a solid game plan and played their hearts out but just lost to a better Virginia Tech team, I think Virginia fans could have accepted that result. However, the team played like the plan for the game was to throw the towel early. It is too bad Virginia couldn’t have just gotten on the bus back to Charlottesville at halftime and saved everyone a lot of time. There was no fight, no adjustment in game plan in the second half, just more of the same nonsense that didn’t work in the first half. In poker I think that is called throwing good money after bad or doubling down on a pair of 2s.

I suppose the good news is that what should be the worst season of Bronco’s tenure in Charlottesville is over. Like lousy corporate earnings from a prior year, the comparison for next season is based on a pretty low bar. Let’s hope that Bronco and staff can double the number of wins and show some heart in both play on the field as well as game planning & strategy.

While Virginia fans are generally a patient bunch, they do not have the patience of Job and are tired of directionless wandering. I’ll renew my season tickets for 2017, but may not have 24 year’s worth of patience left to see this program get back to relevance.

E-mail David at david [dot] rayner [at] campuspressbox [dot] com and follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

Photo: Wikimedia

Getting It Mostly Right, Unfortunately


In a new twist to keep myself entertained during a 2-9 season, I wrote this “game summary” at 9:00 Saturday morning, 3 hours before kickoff. I was hoping I would be dreadfully off base in my musings. However as I wrote this I had visions of Matt Johns overthrown passes going for picks. Visions of 2015 danced in my head. For the first half it looked like I was going to be dead wrong. Then we played the second half and I got this one more right that I had hoped:

While I don’t think any Virginia fans expected the ‘Hoos to be 9-2 eleven games into the 2016 season, I don’t think many expected 2-9 either. If this is the process of getting back to football respectability, at least we have 1 year under our belts and can look forward to improvement in 2017. George Welsh was 2-9 in his first season at Virginia as well, so at least we have that going for us…which is nice.

Listening to the team, especially the seniors, speak about the season that is about to conclude, you would never imagine that the won/loss record was so abysmal. The chatter is optimistic. It is about winning. It is brimming with enthusiasm. Unfortunately, when you have a young defense that has sustained more than its share of injuries going up against the triple-option of Georgia Tech, execution is more important than enthusiasm. Virginia learned that lesson in a big way on Saturday in Atlanta. Hopefully Saturday’s loss will help them when the Jackets visit Scott Stadium next year.

Ga Tech’s unique offense always carries with it the advantage of style. Very few teams run the triple option and defensive coordinators struggle at times to alter their schemes for the “one off” game against the Jackets.While not dominant, the Georgia Tech offense was “effective enough” and most importantly, effective when it had to be. Virginia continued its trend of giving up big plays at inopportune times. Usually following tackles for loss or in 3rd and long situations. Georgia Tech’s triple option was good enough when it had to be and Virginia had no answer on ether side of the ball.

In true Virginia fashion, even the upside of Virginia’s game against Ga Tech has a downside. While I think most if not all Virginia fans think the world of Matt Johns and were glad to see him have solid game in a return his role as Virginia’s starting QB, the fact that he was back leading the Virginia offense did not speak well of the performance to date of Kurt Benkert, Virginia’s opening day quarterback.

I was glad to see Johns running the show again. By all accounts he is a great kid an outstanding leader with a bright future ahead of him. His penchant for picks at just the wrong moments however, is the reason his future prospects do not include holding a clipboard on the sidelines on Sunday afternoons. At this point in a 2-9 season, that is beside the point. Johns helped keep Virginia in the game for a half and made the ‘Hoos competitive in the battle for boxscore stats. Well done Matt, Virginia fans sincerely wish you great success next week and beyond.

If Virginia football collectively won the Power Ball lottery, I bet it would forget to pay its taxes and end up in jail. It seems that no matter what happens to Virginia football that on the surface, appears to be good, it ends up being bad. Once again, Virginia failed to convert opponent miscues and Virginia accomplishments into points on the scoreboard. When really good teams are presented with opportunities to crush their opponents, they get it done. Virginia failed to capitalize on several opportunities both presented and earned throughout the game.

For what seems like every game this season, Virginia showed it could hang with their opponent, for about a half. Virginia has been in most every game this season (Oregon excepted) up to halftime and some times beyond. I am not sure if this is a depth issue, a lack of confidence, or just providence (see last year’s column) but Virginia just cannot close. Turnovers have been a problem all year and have contributed mightily to Virginia’s tribulations. If the Virginia team were a salesman in Glen Gary, Glen Ross, we certainly would not be in the running for the new Cadillac or the set of steak knives.

Next week Virginia gets on more shot. One more chance to close the deal. It would seem that just once this year the ball might bounce our way, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

 

E-mail David at david [dot] rayner [at] campuspressbox [dot] com and follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.