Oct. 27, 2017
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- On the list of the question marks surrounding this University of Virginia football team heading into the season, punting ranked near the top.
Lester Coleman, who won the starting job during training camp in August, had not appeared in a game since 2013, his senior year at Woodberry Forest. But Coleman, a redshirt junior from Martinsville, has been a revelation for UVA (5-2 overall, 2-1 ACC), which plays Pitt (3-5, 1-3) at Heinz Field at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
"He's exceeding expectations to this point," said Bronco Mendenhall, who's in his second year as the Cavaliers' head coach. "We thought he would be solid and capable. We didn't know that he'd be capable of the kind of things that he's doing, and doing consistently."
Coleman, who came to UVA as a walk-on, was awarded a scholarship over the summer. He's punted 40 times this season, for an average of 44.1 yards per kick, and he's coming off a record-setting performance.
In Virginia's loss to Boston College at Scott Stadium last weekend, Coleman averaged 52.3 yards on his seven punts. That broke the single-game mark by a UVA punter. In 2007, Ryan Weigand averaged 51.6 yards per punt in a loss at Wyoming.
"I'm certainly happy with my performance in the last game," Coleman said. "Consistency is still something I've been driving home and trying to work on, but I'm feeling more comfortable with each game. It's just becoming more natural."
His older brother was the Wahoos' No. 2 punter in 2013, '14 and '15. After graduating from UVA in 2016, James Coleman transferred to Western Michigan for his final season of eligibility. He averaged 40.3 yards per punt for a WMU team that finished 13-1 last season.
From his brother, Lester Coleman said, he learned that it's critical to "just do your job and trust the people around you. Control the controllables, and then all you can do is catch and kick, and do the best you can with that."
When he finally made his UVA debut, against William & Mary in the season opener, "I think I was surprised by how realistic practice is," Lester Coleman said, "just because when you get out there, in my opinion the fans are irrelevant. Because when you're out there punting the ball, you're out there to help your team. If you hit a great one, you're excited because you helped the team. And if you didn't, then you're disappointed because you let those guys down."
TAKE TWO: The Cavaliers are trying to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011. They squandered their first opportunity to do so, losing 41-10 to BC last weekend.
The `Hoos practiced well last week, Mendenhall said Monday, and he expected them to play well against BC. In the aftermath of the blowout loss, however, he realized bowl talk had distracted his team.
"That took a little bit, I think, of the focus off of exactly what this [team] needs to be," Mendenhall said. "Our team needs every ounce of energy, every bit of concentration and every bit of preparation we can do to be on the field at the end of the game with a possible chance to win, and that's playing complementary football. That's the offense, defense, special teams and our foresight of the ball all being completely dialed into that. That's when we have a chance. If any of that comes off just a little bit, that lessens our chances.
"I saw enough of it in hindsight to say there's probably some effect, but I still thought the practices were strong enough that we would play well."
Senior wide receiver Andre Levrone said Monday that any "time you reach an opportunity to do something you haven't done in a long time, that can cloud focus."
ONE STEP AT A TIME: When the Cavaliers, who finished 2-10 in 2016, reconvened Monday morning, Levrone said, Mendenhall talked to his players about "how we're still at the early stages. People can make this season out to be what they want to make it out to be, that we're trying to accomplish so many great things and write a historic novel. But at the end of the day, we're just playing football right now. And every day, we show up to the McCue Center to work hard, to prepare for our next opponent, to win a football game.
"I can't say much more than that. We can't blow things out of proportion. It was one game. It's unfortunate that the outcome was the way that it was. But I think moving forward, it's just going to be: show up to the McCue [Center], understand where we are right now in the season, where we are right now in the program and what chapter we're trying to write right now, not focusing on the outcome of the season's totality [and saying], `Can we win the ACC? Can we win the Coastal Division? What bowl game are we going to play in?' "
Instead, Levrone said, the `Hoos have to focus on another goal: going 1-0 every week.
Outside linebacker Chris Peace said the loss to BC taught the Cavaliers valuable lessons.
"I think some of us probably jumped the gun on looking ahead," Peace said, "instead of looking at the task at hand, at one game at a time.
"That was a wakeup call, for sure. We definitely didn't expect the game to go the way it did. But now that we actually endured that, that just knocked us back down to reality."
'HOOS TOGETHER: A few hours after the game ended Saturday, Mendenhall met with Carla Williams, who was introduced two days later as UVA's next athletics director.
"I was really impressed with Carla as a person, not only from a professional standpoint and all the things she's done preparation-wise and things on the résumé that have helped her build her career to this point, but I was very impressed with her communication skills," Mendenhall said at his weekly press conference Monday.
At Williams' request, Mendenhall spoke on the phone with University of Miami head football coach Mark Richt, with whom she worked at Georgia. Richt and Georgia parted ways after the 2015 season, but he and Williams remain close.
Richt praised Williams personally and professionally, Mendenhall said, and complimented her "insight and vision and results that she was able to get ... I'm really excited for the chance to build an exceptional football program, and I think with her experience at the University of Georgia and within [the SEC], there's some really nice points of reference that I think will be helpful, and so I'm looking forward to partnering with her, and I think it's an exciting time for UVA."
Cross, a 6-2, 200-pound redshirt freshman from Allentown, Pennsylvania, has played wide receiver, quarterback and cornerback this season, as well as on most special teams. He's expected to start in Thornhill's place against Pitt.
Thornhill left the BC game in the first half, after which Cross played the most on defense that he has as a Cavalier.
"It was a great learning experience from a defensive standpoint, being out there for a bunch of plays," Cross said, "and just getting situated."
RARE OPPORTUNITY: A win Saturday would improve Virginia's road record to 3-0 for the first time since 1992.
The Cavaliers, who won Sept. 22 at Boise State and Oct. 14 at North Carolina, are 2-0 on the road for the first time since 2000.
"I think the approach that this staff has to road games is a great one," Levrone said. "A lot of times the message is, we pick up what we do here at the McCue Center, Scott Stadium, we pick up Virginia football and we transport it to another location, and it's just football again -- Virginia football. It's our brand of football, wherever we're at. So I really am confident wherever we're playing."
RAISING HIS GAME: Defensive end Andrew Brown, who had a breakthrough season in 2016, continues to improve as a senior.
Asked Monday about Brown, a 6-4, 285-pound senior, "I think probably the best thing I can say is what I tell the professional people when they come in: He's becoming a complete football player," said Mendenhall, also Virginia's defensive coordinator.
Brown is third on the team in tackles for loss this season, with four.
"He's gone from a player that hasn't played much, and that was prior to myself and my staff arriving," Mendenhall said, "to learning how to play pass defense in terms of pass rushing, and that's really what he only wanted to do a year ago and really all he could be trusted to do, to now he's becoming not only an every-down player, but he's becoming an every-down player and then a nickel pass rusher, and then playing a position for us that ... [requires] some coverage, as well.
"That development, it might not sound like much, but that development in that amount of time is not only average or good, it's pretty remarkable."
STEPPING FORWARD: Sixteen true freshmen have played for UVA this season, including Lamont Atkins, a 5-10, 200-pound running back from Lake Braddock High School in Northern Virginia.
Atkins has carried the ball only once this season, for 1 yard, but he distinguished himself on special teams against BC. That was an important step in Atkins' development, Mendenhall said.
"We won't consider a player offensively or defensively unless they're a starter on a special team," Mendenhall said. "It's right in alignment with all of our guiding principles, and getting on [a special teams unit] is one thing, actually playing well and making plays is something else. So when a player actually earns a chance to start on a special team, but then secondly starts to make plays, then it's, `OK, now what else can he do?'
"Until then, there's not much additional attention given. But once there's a play or two made like what happened on Saturday, then it's maybe he's ready for more of a role."
Cooper Thriving Under New StaffSwimming & Diving12/12/17A senior from Atlanta and one of the team's captains, Caitlin Cooper set the UVA women's record in the 50-yard freestyle early this month in Athens, Georgia.Hazzard Aiming to Uphold Family TraditionTrack & Field, Cross Country12/11/17A freshman from Long Island, New York, Halle Hazzard is the younger sister of Payton Hazzard, who was an All-America sprinter for the Cavaliers.UVA's Campbell Winners Share Special BondFootball12/6/17UVA is the only ACC school with multiple winners of the prestigious Campbell Trophy: Tom Burns in 1993 and Micah Kiser this year.
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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