In Bronco Mendenhall’s quest to build a winning football program at Virginia, the biggest assist the coach has received has come in the buy-in from the players — who knew the old way wasn’t working.
As junior linebacker Chris Peace remembers, the movement started in January, after the Cavaliers finished 2-10 in Mendenhall’s first season. Micah Kiser, a redshirt senior linebacker and the Atlantic Coast Conference’s leading tackler the past two seasons, started peppering his conversations with teammates with the word “standard.”
When quarterbacks coach Jason Beck asked Peace to speak to the team in August, he took Kiser’s premise one step further, and “the new standard” became the mantra for what has been a surprising turnaround season for Virginia.
“That’s what just what we’ve just been going off of since August,” Peace said.
The Cavaliers (4-1, 1-0 ACC) are off to their best start in a decade, and will travel to struggling North Carolina (1-5, 0-3) on Saturday seeking their fourth consecutive victory, and second in a row on the road.
Not bad for a team that only last season ended a 17-game road losing streak.
“A part of this thing with new standards, we used to overlook opponents and that used to be the old way,” Peace said. “This year, we don’t do that anymore. We take every opponent just as serious.”
Mendenhall said the new standard represents everything he and his coaches have been trying to instill since they arrived. Now that the team has given it a name, he believes the foundation is being set.
“I think that involvement equals ownership, and there’s no great team that can be coach driven and be sustainable,” he said. “So it’s great to have upperclassmen or older players recognize that, and now it’s coming from them, not me, which is — that’s a lot more powerful.”
And noticeable, even from afar.
“They go in last year and you know it’s going to be a building year for them and now these guys understand what they’re trying to do on offense and defense,” Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora said Monday. “I think right now, with where they are right now, I think they’re playing with a lot of confidence. There’s no doubt that they’re playing well and they feel good about where they’re at. And they’re going to come in here and I’m sure they can smell some blood in the water. And they’re going to play really hard and get after us.”
At Virginia, history has shown that success this week guarantees nothing next week.
In 2014, a 4-2 start had them talking bowl game for the first time since 2011. They finished 5-7.
“I’ve been on a team that was 4-2 but didn’t go to a bowl game, so it doesn’t mean anything,” Kiser said. “But we want to keep going at it, taking each game as it comes, and hey, whatever happens happens.”
It’s a message Kiser shares over and over, especially with younger teammates, and one they hear.
“I think it gets everyone’s attention because even though I haven’t been here that long, I’ve kind of seen it and I’ve heard about it,” sophomore linebacker Chris Moore said Monday. “Just coming from high school, where losing wasn’t a thing for me, last year kind of makes me kind of feel how they felt.
“And for that to be happening for such a long time, that really touches me when they say that, because I can’t be here for that long and go through the same thing. I just can’t do it. I hear that and I take it to heart.”
Thinking not about a bowl game, but of the Tar Heels, is the road to change, Mendenhall said.
“One game or one win or one loss doesn’t determine the outcome of a season,” he said, “but yet the teams that are able to focus on the next game, cliche as it is, like it’s the only game, have the best chance.”
AP sports writer Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, North Carolina contributed
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