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Bronco: Nine returners had to prove their passion before allowed to come back

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Bronco Mendenhall

Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall. Photo: Erin Edgerton/ACC Media Services)

It might be shocking to Virginia football fans that when nine senior players expressed a desire to come back for an extra year of eligibility, they had something to prove before Bronco Mendenhall gave them his blessing.

Joey Blount (free safety), Mandy Alonso (defensive end), Chris Glaser (offensive guard), Nick Grant (cornerback), Ryan Nelson (offensive tackle), all had been staples at their positions for quite some time in the Cavaliers program. R’Shaun Henry (transfer wide receiver), De’Vante Cross (cornerback), Elliott Brown (outside linebacker) and Adeeb Atariwa (transfer defensive end), contributed last season.

Fans were excited that so many experienced Wahoos had elected to return, but it wasn’t automatic.

“When I presented that option [returning for an extra year] for those players, it was a blunt conversation. They weren’t to come back unless they were passionate about becoming more than they already were, and helping the team become more than it already was,” Mendenhall said during his pre-spring practice session with media late Monday afternoon. “Otherwise, it wasn’t okay for them to come back.”

Fans might consider that a bit harsh, but Mendenhall is all business, and didn’t find last season’s 5-5 record to his liking even under pandemic conditions.

“They had to be passionate and not just kind of passionate,” the coach said. “I mean I had to be convinced.”

Wish granted. During the team’s winter workouts, Mendenhall was blown away by the passion demonstrated by those nine players. No wonder he was excited a day ahead of Tuesday’s start of spring practice, the first of 15 days allowed for drills (UVA’s spring practice was cancelled in 2020 because of the pandemic).

“Those players for this offseason have been so impressive,” the coach said. “When I watch Mandy Alonzo, it is the best I’ve ever seen him train and work. De’Vante Cross would be another in that same category … it’s just fierce how hard he’s trying. This was Joey Blount’s first offseason being healthy, and his numbers have just gone through the roof in terms of his strength and his size and his speed.

“But every player that has chosen to come back under those [passionate] circumstances are driving this team, and to their credit, that’s what they said they would do. I appreciate them keeping their word, but the team notices it and they see it, else they weren’t welcome back.”

Not only are those nine back and flourishing heading into spring drills, but Virginia’s program welcomed back all six players who opted out (due to Covid reasons) and did not participate in the program last season.

Two of those six are of particular interest to Wahoo fans: sophomore running back Mike Hollins and junior defensive tackle Aaron Faumui.

Hollins is a 5-9, 200-pound sophomore from Baton Rouge, La., who played in 12 of UVA’s 14 games in 2019 when the Cavaliers won the ACC Coastal Division and played in the Orange Bowl.

He rushed for 112 yards on 21 attempts (5.3 yards per carry) that season and scored three touchdowns. Most of his action was on special teams, but as a reserve true freshman back, he scored two touchdowns against William & Mary when he rushed for 78 yards on 11 carries. The only other game he had significant time as a running back was against Liberty when he scored a touchdown, rushing eight times for 27 yards. His longest run was for 37 yards against W&M.

Mendenhall was hoping Hollins would be a strong contributor to last year’s running attack, but Hollins decided to sit out the season during the pandemic.

Faumui, a 6-1, 280-pound junior did likewise. He played in all 14 Virginia games in 2019 and started five times on the defensive line. He has 13 career solo tackles and 20 assists, four sacks and eight tackles for loss.

He will bring experience and depth to UVA’s D-line in 2021.

The other players who opted out and returned include sophomore Tenyeh Dixon, redshirt freshman Brandon Williams and sophomore Luke Wentz.

“Wow does our team look different, and we’re better because they’re back,” Mendenhall said of the opted-out players returning, along with the nine previous seniors and a few transfers. “Just having six quality players (that opted out), great people who are on scholarship, good athletes that we recruited, that we love, that makes a difference.

“I think we were down to four defensive linemen by the end of [last] season, maybe three, I don’t remember for sure. Tommy Christ came over, but we’re so glad to have Aaron back because he’s a really good player, fits well within our program and he’s really apable. We’re glad that they’re all back.”

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