Bronco Mendenhall arrived at the McCue Center around 5:50 a.m. Wednesday, eager to start work on what would be a long, rewarding and festive day for the University of Virginia football program.
By 4:30 p.m., UVA had received national letters of intent from 20 high-school seniors. They joined a recruiting class that also includes the four players who enrolled at the University last month: tight end Christian Baumgardner, kicker Holland Corbett, tailback Tre Harbison and linebacker Matt Terrell.
“It’s a great starting place,” Mendenhall told reporters Wednesday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena, in his second press conference since taking over as head football coach in December. “I’m really comfortable with where we ended up.”
Mendenhall, 49, came to UVA from Brigham Young University, where he compiled a 99-43 record in 11 seasons as head coach, with 11 bowl appearances. He replaced Mike London, who resigned in late November after six seasons as the Cavaliers’ head coach.
“The majority of the recruits – the overwhelming majority – Coach London and his staff identified and committed,” Mendenhall said. “I was impressed as I went from home to home ... by what Coach London had done with the quality of people. So as I went into their homes, the young men were polite and respectful, bright, and the families were strong. I was impressed.
“I had seen the film prior, so I knew what you can ascertain from film [about] what quality of player they were, but I was more impressed by the type of people they were.”
Of the members of this recruiting class, 21 committed to UVA before Mendenhall was hired in early December. The new staff added quarterback Devante Cross, tailback Wayne Taulapapa and defensive lineman Trysten Hill, who’s expected to play nose tackle in the 3-4 defensive alignment that Mendenhall is installing.
The coaching staff was not able to address all of the team’s needs, but Mendenhall said he considers the class “a great starting point.”
The Wahoos need more offensive and defensive linemen, Mendenhall said, and the staff “will be working overtime to get those numbers up to speed. It’ll probably take two years. That doesn’t mean we can’t have success in the short term. It’s just there’s not as much depth.”
This was anything but a typical signing day around the McCue Center. Throughout the morning and into the early afternoon, players and coaches filmed videos in which they danced while rapping about the new recruits, using the hashtag “#HoosRising,” and then posted the videos on social media.
Mendenhall spent part of the day responding on Twitter to fans enthused by the videos and the new staff’s off-the-charts energy level.
He doesn’t follow social media much, Mendenhall said at JPJ, but “I love expressing our message through that, because so many times it’s defined for you if you don’t have a voice. So I love having a voice.”
The reaction on Twitter from former UVA players, among them Chris Long, Patrick Kerney and Ahmad Hawkins, was overwhelmingly positive.
“Happy signing day to the HOOS,” wrote Long, who later stopped by the McCue Center for a visit with Mendenhall. “There’s so much excitement surrounding this program right now and I hope that the commits can feel it.”
Hawkins: “#hoosrising got C’ville excited!”
Kerney: “Excited to see @UVACoachBronco build his vision for @UVa_Football! Big step today! #HoosRising”
Even former UVA basketball star Justin Anderson – not to be confused with the new director of player personnel of the same name in the football program – weighed in.
Anderson, a rookie with the Dallas Mavericks, tweeted that he loved “the fun and energy [Mendenhall is] bringing to the Ville! Looking forward to meeting you and watching you build. #HoosRising”
Mendenhall said he and his staff want to “not only run a great football program, but be woven into the fiber and fabric of the community, and really make a difference in that regard also.”
Before taking questions at his press conference, Mendenhall introduced his staff, including assistant coaches Robert Anae, Mark Atuaia, Jason Beck, Marques Hagans, Nick Howell, Shane Hunter, Ruffin McNeill, Kelly Poppinga and Garett Tujague.
McNeil was East Carolina’s head coach last season, and Hagans, a former Virginia standout, is a holdover from London’s staff. Anae, Atuaia, Beck, Howard, Hunter, Poppinga and Tujague followed Mendenhall to UVA from BYU.
“I have great coaches in terms of their work ethic in recruiting,” Mendenhall said. “They have excellent personalities. They’re tireless. They love to be on the road, and they collaborate really well, and they like each other. And I don’t like working with people who don’t like each other.
“These are my friends, and they’re also friends with each other. I love that environment. This staff is actually thrilled to come to work every day. They believe in what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and they like who they’re doing it with. That’s the next part of this: continuing to bring players that facilitate that. As we continue to drive the culture and develop work capacity, then we keep adding the right talent into that, that’s going to produce, I think, an amazing football team and football program.”
Of the 24 recruits in this class, nine are from high schools in this state. Recruiting Virginia will be a priority for the ’Hoos.
Mendenhall said he believes that “not only do you have to do a great job in your own building every day, and certainly on your own practice field, and then in the stadium on game day, but certainly in your own state. And not only the in-state game that you play” – against Virginia Tech every season – “but also in-state recruiting.”
That doesn’t mean, Mendenhall added, that he will focus on a certain region of the state.
“I’ve had that question a lot: What about the 7-5-7 [the area code for the Hampton Roads, region, traditionally a hotbed of football talent] or what about Northern Virginia or what about this?” he said. “I’m viewing Virginia as Virginia, and wherever the best players are that are the right people with the right standards to fit our program, that’s where we’re going to go. And that footprint will expand to regional, and it will expand to national to find those players. But it will expand [only] as needed. If we don’t have to go national more frequently than we need to, then we won’t. So our focus will start inward and expand from there, but what we’ve already seen is, we think there are plenty of players [in Virginia].”
Overall, Mendenhall said, he’ll have a deeper pool from which to recruit than he did at BYU.
The Cavaliers’ coaches are “like kids in a candy store [in terms of] how many more choices we have,” he said.
Mendenhall attended the men’s basketball game Wednesday night at JPJ, where he saw No. 9 UVA defeat Boston College 61-47. His break from recruiting, though, will not be a long one.
“We’ve already started working really hard on 2017,” Mendenhall said. “We’re already behind in 2017, just simply because of our time frame here, so we’re working diligently and spending extra time ... to make sure our recruiting gets caught up for 2017. Which it will. By the time we hit summer, we will be caught for ’17, and we’ll be right on track for ’18.”