“Next man up” – it’s a phrase that’s been thrown around since the day Walter Camp invented football. As amazing as sports are, the inherent risk of injury is the eternal elephant in the room. In college football, the teams that win in September are usually the most talented and well-coached units. Preseason predictions appear credible when based off a team’s projected depth chart. But by November? It’s often a war of attrition. The injury bug hits some teams harder than others. The reality is that football is a contact sport – no football team finish the season with the same depth chart it started with.
For most college football teams, the next man up philosophy is the program’s spare tire. But for Bronco Mendenhall’s Virginia program, “next man up” is more than that. It’s the GPS.
On September 14th, 2019, Scott Stadium was as electric as it’s been in a decade. The 2-0 Virginia Cavaliers welcomed the struggling blue blood program of Florida State to Charlottesville. The Seminoles came out swinging and led for the majority of the second half. But Mendenhall’s Virginia squad fought tooth and nail through adversity – great play from the ‘Noles, controversial calls, and, at times, even their poor play. Wayne Taulapapa rumbled into the end zone for the go-ahead score late, and as FSU attempted to tie the game on their final drive, the clocks turned back to 1995. A goal line stand sealed the deal, and the Cavaliers celebrated on the field with 15,000 of their classmates.
Was it because of talent that Virginia won?
Not at all. Florida State rolled into Charlottesville with more stars on their roster than the Milky Way. The Wahoos countered with a single four-star recruit. By this logic, only Jowon Briggs belonged on the same field as the Seminoles. But Bronco Mendenhall’s message is not to run faster, jump higher or have more natural athleticism than the other team. Those specifications were finalized 20-or-so years ago at birth. His message is to play harder for longer than the other team. This systematic, player development-driven approach isn’t just the backbone of Bronco’s program. It is the entire body, mind, and soul of Virginia Football.
When an ankle injury ended cornerback Bryce Hall’s Virginia career in mid-October, De’Vante Cross moved to corner, bumping Nick Grant up to CB1. Grant, in his first full year of game action for the Hoos, needed to step into Hall’s shoes and shut down his man – or come as close to it as possible. As opponents have stopped throwing his direction, Cross has been picked on. De’Vante, the football equivalent of a “glue guy”, must be approaching the record for most positions played in a Cavalier uniform. Just like his move to safety, there was an adjustment period. But Cross twice had the honor of having his teammates handcuff him in celebration after picking off the Flames on two occasions.
A few weeks after the injury to Hall, Brenton Nelson suffered a season-ending injury. At that point, it became a defensive-back-by-committee approach. Chris Moore had played a major role in plugging the six holes left by wounded DBs for the Cavs. So when Moore was withheld from Saturday’s contest against Liberty, it was time for more baptism by fire for another young Virginia defensive back.
Enter Heskin Smith. The sophomore from Brunswick, Georgia was called on to cover the NFL-bound wideout Antonio Gandy-Golden. Smith buckled down after getting burned on an early wheel route, and limited Gandy-Golden to six catches for only 60 yards. When it was time to break the rock in the locker room following Virginia’s eighth win of the 2019 season, chants of “Heskin” broke out from the players.
Bronco Mendenhall awarded the venerable mallet to De’Vante Cross, which set off an equally wild celebration. The two “weak links” of the secondary according to the pundits (Cross and the rotating second cornerback) were the two players most deserving of smashing that coveted brown rock.
If this young, depleted secondary continues this level of play, the Cavaliers will smash Hokie Stone Friday.