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Summer Scheming: Virginia Cavaliers Football

The ‘Canes and Cavs have had a back and forth series for the past decade.

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

Bronco Mendenhall has managed quite the turn around at UVA as head coach of the Cavaliers. When Mendenhall took over the program in 2016, UVA had just ran through two coaches and seven losings seasons in eight years. Al Groh gave way to Mike London who then handed the keys over to Coach Mendenhall. Groh had moderate success in Charlottesville, the Hoos made five bowl games in nine season. Mike London managed only one winning season at UVA (a surprise after his run at Richmond).

Mendenhall left a great job at BYU where the Cougars made 11 straight bowl games in 11 seasons under the first-time head coach. Many assumed Mendenhall would retire a Cougar but UVA and the east coast came calling and he did not turn it down. I saw Mendenhall speak at the AFCA Convention one year and it was a fantastic experience. He didn’t just turn UVA around, he also pulled BYU out of a massive slump that Gary Crowton put the Cougs in, too.

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl - Brigham Young v Utah Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

In Charlottesville, Mendenhall started off 2-10 but it’s a slow burn to turn a program around the right way. If you know anything about Mendenhall, he’s a “right way” kind of guy. UVA climbed to 6-7 then 8-5, before 2019’s ACC Coastal title and Orange Bowl appearance at 9-5 overall.

Miami and UVA have had a back-and-forth rivalry no matter who is the coach at either school. In their first ever meeting at the 1996 Carquest Bowl, Miami emerged victorious with a 31-21 final. Miami also ran off two straight wins upon entering the ACC from 2004-2005. Then UVA struck back for two seasons including the 48-0 disaster in 2007. The ‘Canes took control under Randy Shannon in 2008 and 2009, but lost three straight after that. The teams then traded wins before Miami’s three year win streak before trading wins in 2018 and 2019. The overall record is Miami 10, UVA 7.

Mendenhall, a former Oregon State defensive back, had traditionally coached out west between Snow College, Northern Arizona, OSU, had one season in the delta at Louisiana Tech in 1997, then back west to New Mexico, and eventually BYU as defensive coordinator before head coach. His UVA squad is projected 44th overall per Bill Connelly’s SP+, with 64th ranked offense and 37th ranked defense. The U is projected at 23rd overall, with the 63rd ranked offense and 9th ranked defense.


The Cavaliers development has far exceeded their acquisition. UVA has averaged a 54th ranked recruiting class under Mendenhall, with the Hoos trending upward with their success. But what Mendnehalls teams at BYU and now UVA have promised is that they will recruit the BEST even if that means they’re not as talented. For Bronco’s squads it’s all about culture first, building a program that works hard, and plays hard. Both UVA and BYU under Mendenhall are known for hard hitting, old school football.

In 2019, UVA scored 32 points per game, which was good for 40th overall in FBS. The Cavs lose quarterback Bryce Perkins who accounted for 33 touchdowns last season. Perkins was a shaky passer at times when it comes to efficiency but won football games at a school that hadn’t done that consistently in over a decade.

Old Dominion v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

In true UVA flair, the Cavs don’t have a single player on the Athlon preseason All-ACC first team. UVA’s first player shows up on their 2nd team defense, in linebacker Charles Snowden. Snowden finished last season with 11 tackles for loss, five sacks, and four passes defensed.

WR Terrell Jana made the 3rd team offense, while linebackers Noah Taylor and Zane Zandler along with safety Joey Blount made the 3rd team defense. Jana has to step up as the man with 1,000 yard receiver Hasise Dubois having graduated. Jana pulled in 878 receiving yards with six touchdowns in ‘19. Taylor logged 56 tackles, 12 TFL, and 6.5 sacks a year ago. Zandler had a team best 108 tackles with 12.5 TFL’s and five sacks. Blount made 95 tackles from safety with three interceptions and 6.5 TFL’s with 3.5 sacks.

Offensive lineman Ryan Nelson made the 4th team offense, while defensive lineman Aaron Faumui made the 4th team defense. Nelson did a great job of protecting Perkins while opening lanes for young RB Wayne Taulapapa’s 12 TD’s a year ago. Faumui had eight TFL’s and four sacks last season.

Scheme on O

Remember, UVA is replacing Perkins on offense at QB and there’s a two-man race for the spot behind center. The two QB’s vying for the starting gig are former three-star dual threat Brennan Armstrong, and Mississippi State transfer and former four-star dual-threat Keytaon Thompson. Either way, Mendenhall has his offense focused on a dual-threat QB in 2020. Miami has struggled with mobile QB’s in the past, partly due to the lack of agility and overall stiffness at the linebacker position.

UVA is one of the few ACC teams that employs both tight ends and fullbacks in their offense. The times they are a changin’, but for Mendenhall he’s going with what worked for him at BYU and is starting to work at UVA and that’s a power football system on both offense and on defense in his 3-4 scheme.

UVA likes 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) like most of the country. Here the Cavs are in a 2x2 11p picture against Miami in 2019. UVA is going to move the H around and put him inline as a tight end, winged, and in the backfield.

UVA gave up five sacks and seven tackles for loss to Miami a year ago. Their lack of running game (31 carries with only 74 yards and no touchdowns) put Perkins into a situation to have to sling the football and the Hoos play better using a balanced attack than a pass-first offense.

Below, UVA uses a fullback in an RPO. It’s a pop pass RPO (diagram above) to the slot WR. When the safety lined up 10 yards off the #2 (slot) it gave leverage for the pop pass. The flat defender lining up in the box also gave UVA space, and the QB hardly even has to read the linebacker at this point there’s so much room to make the throw.

Sometimes “big boy football” can backfire. Just as Mark Richt and Dan Enos about their anemic offenses in ‘18 and ‘19. It backfires here for UVA, too. Below, UVA brings out the fullbacks and tight ends on 4th and 1. Miami can easily assume it’s a run play. The WR being in a nasty split (close to the end man on the line) brings the defense even tighter together, making it easy to defend.

Miami brings pressure as Blake Baker and Manny Diaz are opt to do and completely stuffs the 4th down attempt. This is a situation as an OC where I’m not sure why you wouldn’t spread the defense out and force them to cover space. You can see why UVA’s offense would sputter at times, it’s not very innovative.

Scheme on D

The Cavs like to bring pressure and bully offenses. They play safe coverage on the back end, not allowing deep balls. It’s why I absolutely lost my mind after Richt attempted to throw verticals all game at UVA in 2018. The Cavs were playing deep quarters daring Miami to put together a long drive of short to medium throws and Coach Richt never adjusted.

Good lord was the Miami offense bad in 2019. The lack of football IQ from the quarterbacks is painful. The overall lack of power and explosiveness was evident as well. Watch the running back (above) get blown apart by a linebacker. This isn’t a six-foot-six, 270 pound defensive end, it’s a linebacker. The interior of the line gets worked and it’s another sack on the season.

UVA is going to bring pressure, Miami needs to adjust to take advantage of the space they vacate and to use larger humans in protection to help against the UVA blitz.

Canyonero keys to victory

The keys to success for beating UVA are fairly simple. The first key is on offense to take what their defense gives you. UVA is going to bring pressure and play deep quarters coverage. Rhett Lashlee is a smart guy, he needs to hit his quick, short passing game. Think Phil Longo at UNC, take the 5 yard speed outs and quick slants and hitches. Your athletes have to convert them into big plays.

The O-Line has to improve, immediately. They’re the key to every game, at every level, for every program or franchise. Miami has to be able to run on UVA, and to protect against their pressure packages.

The kicking game is going to be pivotal against UVA. Mendenhall plays it safe, he’s going to kick and make field goals. UVA is solid on coverage for kicks and punts, and they play solid special teams all around. Miami’s kicking game must improve under Coach Patke or he needs to be reassigned. Miami can’t continue to give up fake punts, or to miss field goals, in 2020.