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December 1, 2019
Charlotte, North Carolina
KEVIN BEST: Welcome to today's ACC Football Championship Game media teleconference which features the two participating head coaches.
As you know, the game will feature Coastal Division champion Virginia against Atlantic Division champion Clemson on Saturday, December 7th, 7:30 p.m. on ABC.
We are joined by Bronco Mendenhall, coach of the Virginia Cavaliers.
Coach, if you could make an opening statement and then we will take questions.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It's a privilege to be with you today representing the University of Virginia and the players on our team. It's been and is my absolute pleasure to be their coach. I love everything about our team, who they are, how they're playing, the growth and progress that they're seeing, that we've seen as a program over the past four seasons.
Each year has brought new steps and new challenges and new opportunities for growth and development. This stage and this step is the next in our process and our progress. We're looking forward to it. We're certainly anxious to play and represent our school, our institution, and our side of the league in the best way that we can.
I'll take questions.
Q. How hard is it to prepare for an opponent you haven't played in six years?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It certainly is a challenge because there are no existing reference points or shared experiences of a coach or a team that you can refer to that are relevant.
I don't have any experience against Clemson or Coach Swinney or really any of their existing players. So really at that point the focus certainly has to be really more on your own scheme, your own strategy, your own execution, your own position mastery, mindset, everything that you can control.
My job hopefully is to predict and assess and plan for in the very best way I can of what the opponent will be like and move from there.
Q. A lot of people are comparing this to David and Goliath. At least David had a slingshot. You shouldn't have any trouble with bulletin board material with your players because no one expects you to win. Would that be the case?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think that's probably the case with anyone that Clemson has played this year. I don't find us in any different situation.
If you look at the program they have established over time, the job Coach Swinney has done, as well as their record, I think we'll just be the next team that will be lumped in the same category as everyone else.
The difference simply is that we've battled, scrapped and clawed our way to win our side of the division in a program that hasn't known recent success and is hungry for more. The rest of it will be played out in the game.
Q. When you told us Saturday there is nothing that Bryce can't do, we didn't realize that also meant playing the same week he was hospitalized with tonsillitis. Was there a moment or moments during the week when you thought you might not have him Saturday? Given all that he's dealt with, neck, thumb, knee, have you ever coached someone who is quite this tough?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Regarding the first part of the question, Bryce's playing was never in question, it was at what level, what health, what recovery stage he would be in for the game.
So he was hospitalized immediately after our previous game. He missed the first day of full practice of the week. He returned the next day of full practice, then continued recovering stronger as the week went.
I don't think it's fair to compare Bryce. What I certainly can say is after what you just mentioned and listed, anyone that would underestimate him, what he's capable of, simply hasn't been paying attention at to what he has accomplished, what he continues to accomplish, and what he will yet accomplish as our quarterback.
Yeah, I would say you underestimate him at your own risk.
Q. As a connoisseur of defense, I don't know how much of Clemson you have studied, but a team that hasn't allowed anyone to get as much as 300 yards this season, what are your impressions of this particular group?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Not only this particular group, but past groups as well. I think first of all the leadership from the coordinator is strong. I think the scheme, strategy, initiatives that are launched each week, which are never quite the same, I think are really well thought out.
The talent base at every position has been crafted at a really strong level that matches the style, system and schematics of the design. You have a really nice blend of leadership with scheme and personnel and experience. That then forms culture and tradition.
This group I think is the next version and probably the strongest version that I've seen. I have studied Clemson before defensively and have been impressed with not only the scheme but the innovation and the ideas they have.
Q. You hinted in your opening about the fact that your program has made this incremental but rapid growth in the time you've been there. Is winning an ACC Championship Game against an opponent like Clemson, playing in a game as many expect like the Orange Bowl, the next step, or in some ways are you cheating a little bit ahead right now with those goals?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think the cheating ahead would simply be the result of how resilient our team has been, which then has allowed us to cheat ahead. There's progress that's been made.
The Coastal Division championship, beating Virginia Tech, were certainly two things that had to happen to then have the next door and doors open to us. They have been.
Now what that has allowed is a caliber of opponent on a stage of significance that allows not only the testing and the proving and the battling, but the opportunity. Man, that's exactly what we want for our program.
It's exciting, it's exhilarating, it's challenging all at the same time. It really is an opportunity to rise to what the team earned and earned probably slightly ahead of schedule now for these next couple of opportunities in terms of impact.
The players would not say that. They've earned that again through resiliency. How fast it's approached, it seems like four years has become the reality and it's really exciting.
Q. Specifically looking at your secondary, the resilience of that group, to lose Bryce, everything that group has gone through, how surprised are you or pleased are you that you've been able to patch that thing together and get to where you've gotten?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Yeah, I really am impressed and thankful for the job Nick Howell has done as our coordinator and secondary coach. It has been patched. It's been resorted and rethought with as much innovation as we can apply to get us in a different style of play to where we are.
That's what good coaches do. It's what good staffs do. You innovate, adjust, match up to whatever the opponent is, whatever current resources you have, then you do the best you can. That's what we've done. We've done enough to win our side and get to where we are.
Q. Their offense with Trevor, what kind of challenge would that present to your secondary?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: A significant challenge, not only at quarterback, but runningback and wide receiver. When you look at this particular opponent, and it doesn't matter which side you're looking at, offense or defense, the talent is certainly the first thing that jumps out. The scheme and strategy and the coaching is certainly strong also from the Clemson offense specifically.
Basically everyone that touches the ball is very skilled, very capable. Clemson's ranking and their success is not accidental. It's coming because of the collective the things I just mentioned.
Yeah, significant test for us.
Q. When you don't play a team like Clemson in the regular season in four years now, do you watch them play?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Every possible comparison and analytic that we can make with our existing staff and resources we are making. There isn't a true point of reference, not having crossed over, but there are teams that they have played that we have played. One step removed, there is some relevance there.
However, this stage is a different stage. It's a new step for the program. Our program, there's a newness to it, an excitement about it, a hungriness that radiates from our team right now and their desire to do really well in this game.
In terms of points of reference, no one on our team has been or experienced anything like it. That doesn't mean they're hesitant nor afraid of it. They're all looking forward to the challenge.
Q. What kind of relationship do you have with Dabo?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Professional mostly, obviously through the ACC meetings. Then the Nike trip, which some of us as coaches are invited on and able to take. Holly and I have had a chance to meet he and his wife, visit on occasion. Just been really impressed in my interactions with him.
But don't know him extremely well on a personal level. Certainly from a professional and more than just professional but not quite to the level of long time friends or quite to that point, but I've just been really impressed and admire the job he's done and does.
Q. In the first half against Virginia Tech, Bryce looked like he was pushing the ball a little bit, almost as if he had an arm problem. After the game I asked him about that, and he said it was a matter of footwork and placement. Did you see that? Did someone correct him on that?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: That was happening between each series. The footing in the game on Friday, as you watch it, there were multiple players slipping. That just kind of is inherent of where grass fields are this time of year. The footing on the field was effective, but there was some slipping and sliding. That affected him a little bit, which means the top of his drop and balance was slightly off.
Then there was some indecision, even where the ball was going to go. A couple of throws, it looks like he was trying to pull off kind of mid delivery. So it was some indecision as well as footwork early on when saw you a few of those balls that either fluttered short or went wide.
Q. Will you encourage him to be less indecisive this weekend?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Certainly. One of the strengths of Virginia Tech was the assessment you have to do and make mid play of what coverage they were going to be in. Virginia Tech just caught us a few times at the top of his drop. We believed it was one coverage, and the ball would go here, and they basically baited us and fooled us into it, which then had him try to withdraw a throw or in other cases the footwork part of it.
The good thing you mentioned was that it was mostly in the first half and rarely occurred after that. I think it was addressed, addressed properly, effectively, then we went on to play well.
Q. Given all that Clemson has accomplished, their winning streak, national championship, you're not new to this deal as a head coach, have you faced any more daunting challenge than what you'll face Saturday night?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I don't see the word as 'daunting'. I see an amazing opportunity. The brutal fact acknowledgment, everyone else will draw that, come to their own conclusions that way. I see an amazing chance for my team, my coaches and my staff to try as hard as we can try to learn, grow, development and compete. That's what we intend to do.
Q. You've had some landmark victories the past couple years: Boise State, Miami, South Carolina. How much will you draw upon those experiences in terms of having games to where people didn't give you much of a chance and you won anyway?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Not so much. Our team is I would say pretty much over that. They want to win every single week. They believe they're capable of performing against any opponent on any given week. Really the mindset has as much to do with outcome as anything.
I'm really not looking to present points of reference for them as to things we've done in the past against other opponents. I'm really working on and just presenting to our team what can we control, what we can we influence, spending all of our time focusing on that. There aren't any other points of reference against this team that are relevant.
The other points of reference that have been mentioned, other games we played, it's not this opponent, it's not this stage. Really the only point that's similar is the mindset we had going into those games in terms of our preparation.
So really that's the best gift I can give our team, is to be well prepared and help them be well prepared.
Q. What is the value, in your opinion, of just having one more game thrown into the schedule?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It's off the scale for our program at this time on our quest for national relevance. Last week did wonders for achievement and moving the needle for our program, hitting new benchmarks and metrics. Now all that does is qualify us, and that qualification isn't a gift and it's not random, it's something we've earned. It's qualified us and our team has earned the chance now for the next and significantly bigger opportunity and challenge.
Those two things are usually synonymous, opportunity and challenge. We've framed it as such. It's a magical opportunity for our program.
Q. You've faced a lot of good runningbacks in your career. You're going to be going up against another great one in Travis Etienne. What challenge does he bring to your defense? Does he remind you of anyone else you faced over the years?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Doesn't really remind me of anyone else. Size, speed, durability, productivity, versatility, really every quality that you can say in terms of positive about a player, the Clemson runningback has. That alone is a challenge enough. When you add a quarterback, personnel in play, receiver personnel in play, offensive line personnel in play to that, that makes it even more challenging.
So it's difficult to add additional resources simply to the run game knowing what the threats downfield look like, what the quarterback is capable of.
The combination of all those things really make not only Etienne a really strong player in their own right, but when the supporting cast around him is also strong, that even makes it more vibrant in terms of his production.
Q. You talked about Clemson's defense a little bit earlier. Does that remind you of any defense you've faced in the last couple years?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: No, it doesn't. Statistically it's stronger. Schematically I think it's better developed. Production-wise it's yielding at a higher level. I've seen a lot of good defenses and been a part of a lot of good defenses. This one, besides the production, the personnel and the execution is just being done at a really high level. That's bred confidence, which allows young people to carry themselves in a way and work together in a way that is formidable.
I'm impressed. They've done a really nice job over time in not only building their program but establishing that component of the program.
Q. You were close to this breakthrough at the end of last year. Maybe a couple of overtime losses from being in the position. How much did those games kind of infuse spring ball, off-season practice, getting this team prepared for the challenge this year?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: That's a really relevant question, probably the most significant of the day of things that I've answered.
We had two overtime losses after being in a similar position about four weeks remaining in last year's season. We went on the road a couple of times, had again a few overtime losses. I just hadn't prepared the team quite enough. We weren't quite mature enough, sound enough, not quite productive enough in the critical moments to break through.
None of that was accidental. That was exactly where we were, who I'd led our team to be at that point. In the off-season we recognized we were close. We recognized the critical plays, critical moments, that bigger stages was going to be part of our next step in what we call in our quest for unbroken growth, which this team has certainly done.
I expect each team to add to what the previous team has done. That's happened in each of the four years, which has qualified us now for this stage, which is an unknown for our team, our program and our institution.
That's all really positive. So now a more masterful job has to be done on my part to make what is not normal normal for this team in a short amount of time, infusing some of the qualities that are necessary to manage the next caliber of opponent, on the next caliber of stage, with the next level of visibility so we can move forward. That's all a new place for us, which is an exciting place to be.
Q. Was there any effect you could measure from Virginia's basketball success last year? Your athletes talk, know some of their athletes. Can that kind of success filter through an entire athletic department, particularly your team?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: Oh, sure. At the University of Virginia what I have learned in coming here is the university, as well as the athletic department, expects excellence. Football had been lagging behind, had kind of been supported and viewed as an afterthought for a significant amount of time.
I was hired to influence and correct that, as well as our new administration. That is happening. Just as we spoke, if we were to have spoken a week ago, our men's soccer team was ranked number one, our women's soccer team was ranked number one, our field hockey team was in the semifinals, our basketball team just won the national championship, here we are competing for an ACC football championship.
That seems normal and commonplace at the University of Virginia, which is not normal and it's not commonplace. It's pretty remarkable.
But the culture you're mentioning, as players and young people communicate, they certainly can say, If that person or if that team can do this, they don't seem that much different than us, then maybe this is possible.
I think it certainly helps. I can't tell you to the degree of influence, but I think it does have an influence.
Q. Back to Clemson's defense. You mentioned schematically they're very advanced. What are the things they do defensively schematically that make them so difficult to prepare for?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I would say one of the things I like and admire is that it's not the same plan each week. A lot of teams, they take the approach that it will be our system with very few changes, we're just going to do is better and apply it to the next opponent and their style.
I like the approach that Clemson uses more frequently than most. There is a core, there is a standard amount of defenses played, but there's innovations that happen week-to-week, specific to opponents, specific to situations, specific to personnel groups, that you have to kind of discover as you go. They're usually disguised. There's movement associated either pre or post snap that make it more difficult to discern.
All those subtle things take extra work and extra time, are really kind of a next level of coaching that I think that Clemson is doing routinely. That takes time to build and takes really strong and cerebral players to pull off as well as coaches. That's what they're doing.
They're doing a really nice job.
Q. You mentioned this game, you called it a magical opportunity. In the outside perspective it's a tough challenge. From the inside for you, for your players, how excited are you to have this opportunity?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: It's off the chart. I came to the University of Virginia because I like hard things, doing hard things. I chose this job because I crave building and developing and growing. The harder the better.
There hasn't been one easy step or one easy game in the past four years for our program. But the players have earned this chance in the timeframe they've earned it. It just seems fitting. It doesn't guarantee outcome in any different way except that it is directly in alignment with the things we like to do, which we view as hard things together. This will be exactly that.
What else would we rather be doing? If you ask myself or my team, there's nothing else we'd rather be doing. The bigger, the harder the challenge, the more we like it. This just happens to be one of the biggest and hardest. Yeah, we're really looking forward to it.
Q. (Question about Hasise Dubois.)
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I would just say it's been transformative not only as a player but a person. His maturity, his competitive spirit, his discipline has grown by leaps and bounds. The leadership that he's willing to manifest on behalf of our team, the direction we're going, has been critical, as well as the plays he's made.
It's one of the true gifts of being a coach, is being able to see young people develop and grow and trust you enough to apply just some of the simple suggestions that you give along the way. Hasise has done that. I think he'll continue to do that from this point forward.
He has become our most consistent play-maker at receiver, and certainly the best when it comes to contested catches, making the hard and critical play. He just always seems to come up with those plays when we need him.
I'm really thankful that I'm able to coach him, just so pleased with the progress that he has shown not only over year one but year two, year three, year four. His progress his mirrored or program's progress where it's been pretty rapid but steady and incremental as we have become a different program than we were.
Q. Has the leadership role he's had in the Thursday's Hero program played a role in his personal development?
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I think it's a natural fit for him. I certainly think it is because he's in front of his peers. He was influenced in that regard by Doni Dowling. Just the main difference I would say between Doni and Hasise is I've had Hasise longer. I loved and cherished both players.
Some of those qualities were passed from Doni to Hasise in terms of competitive spirit and critical plays, giving to others in terms of Thursday's Hero. It's just been fun to have and be with Hasise a little longer to see even more growth happen than the short time I was with Doni.
KEVIN BEST: Coach Mendenhall, we're all out of time. I appreciate you joining us today. We'll see you on Friday.
BRONCO MENDENHALL: I'll be there. Thank you.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports