Virginia Uses Bye Week To Fix Inept Running Game

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Hollins

Virginia first-year running back Mike Hollins’ role is expected to increase, according to head coach Bronco Mendenhall (Photo: UVA Athletics).

South Bend might just have been the cold slap of reality that Virginia’s football team needed if it is to move forward and win the ACC Coastal Division as predicted.

It was painfully obvious that 10th-ranked Notre Dame revealed a serious wart on UVA’s armor in handing the Cavaliers their first defeat of the season (35-20). Virginia couldn’t block the Irish and finished with a mere four yards rushing in 29 attempts (although 16 of those were by quarterback Bryce Perkins, including eight sacks).

What that meant was the Cavaliers averaged 0.1 yards rushing per carry (again, some of that total was due to the sacks on Perkins).

Still, those numbers are clearly unacceptable for a team trying to win its first divisional title since the ACC split into two, seven-team divisions in 2005.

“Man, you’re not going to be a great team unless you run the rock,” said UVA center Olusegun Oluwatimi after the loss in South Bend. “That’s the step we have to take from good to great. We’ve definitely got to fix things up front and get better because it’s putting our team at risk.”

Oluwatimi’s assessment was spot on.

Perhaps the bye week came at just the right time for Virginia to get some things figured out up front to prevent a repeat of the Notre Dame game when the Cavaliers venture to Miami for Friday night’s showdown with the Hurricanes (Miami is a slim favorite).

Coach Bronco Mendenhall, who started his Monday press conference by pointing out that the bye week is one of the biggest myths in football, indicated that he and his staff have been pushing hard to fix Virginia’s running game problems.

First, they’ve worked hard on the basic fundamentals with the offensive line, and also Mendenhall noted that freshman running back Mike Hollins’ role will likely be expanded beginning Friday night.

Virginia presently ranks No. 115 in the nation (out of 130 FBS teams) in rushing offense.

“Our offensive front is really the position group right now that’s controlling the speed in which we can progress,” Mendenhall said. “Because of its effect — direct effect — on the run game and the pass game, there’s really no offensive play where that can be a workaround. It has to go through the offensive line.”

Not only did UVA struggle with the run game, but the O-Line’s inability to protect quarterback Bryce Perkins contributed to the Cavaliers’ five turnovers. Of Notre Dame’s 35 points in the game, 28 were directly related to turnovers.

Mendenhall is no stranger to offensive-line issues. He said Monday that Saturday’s problems were a continuation of work that’s happened since the minute he arrived in Charlottesville four years ago. 

“We have needed graduate transfers, we’re developing players, we have enough scholarship players now while we work on the quality,” Mendenhall said. “Our run game yardage is about 70 yards off pace from where it was a year ago per game.

“There is no comfort zone for our offensive line, there’s continual expectation, asking and directing and prompting and driving, and they want to get better, they need to get better, and they’re working hard to get better. That’s just a matter of factually where we are.”

Mendenhall has placed a lot of emphasis on fixing the problem during the bye week.

“The volatlity is surrounding our front, quite frankly,” the coach said.

As a result, he has offensive coordinator Robert Anae working with half the offensive linemen and O-line coach Garrett Tujague with the other half, while Mendenhall oversees the work.

“When I was the defensive coordinator at New Mexico, we played against Texas Tech a number of times and Robert [Anae] was the offensive-line coach there, which he also did at Arizona,” Mendenhall said. “So, yeah, we’re working double time and I feel comfortable with the plan.

“It’s just how fast we can make the progress needed to reach the goals that we have in the time frame that we want. It’s not a matter of intent or desire.”

Another fix could possibly be Hollins, regarded by many, including Mendenhall, as the best running back prospect in the state of Lousiana last season. Hollins has played in all five games, but has only 11 carries for 78 yards (7.1 yards per carry) and two touchdowns, all against William & Mary.

“I really like Mike,” Mendenhall said. “I like him not only this year, but I certainly like him in the future.”

The future is one reason that Mendenhall has been intentionally holding Hollins back, noting that it is a delicate balance when it comes to development.

“Sometimes when you give a first-year too much too soon — especially in a primary ball carrier role — if not careful, over time, and this isn’t specific to Mike, this is just young first-years that I’ve played before. Sometimes their careers don’t last as long; the trajectory doesn’t stay as steep in terms of what their potential is.”

So Mendenhall has intentionally been holding Hollins back for the sake of trying to build his future, which the coach admitted was opting for the conservative side of things.

Still, with Virginia’s running game lagging so far behind, Mendenhall revealed that fans will see Hollins’ role “expand from this game on.”

“I won’t predict, nor can I say how many touches, but I think that you will see that expansion in a more sequential manner. It appears now that just as we get to know our first-years better, Mike included, and they get to know our program better and through the culture and the maturity and expertise we try to experience, we try to balance that when they’re ready for more and what they can handle that will actually benefit their future development rather than something we have to go back and fix later.”



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