CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Virginia’s top tailback, Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell, is looking forward to getting a break from grueling practices.

Mizzell and his teammates will get that break this week when the Cavaliers open the Bronco Mendenhall era Saturday by hosting highly regarded Richmond of the Championship Subdivision.

“I’m looking forward to the games, honestly,” Mizzell said Monday. “Practice has been kind of tough. Conditioning has been tough, but I don’t think (the game) is going to be anything like the practices that we’ve been having.”

Mendenhall promised the Cavaliers they would work harder than they ever have, and harder than they ever believed they could, when he was hired last December. The players say that has been the case, and getting a chance to see how that commitment pays off in a game has them eager to get started.

“Obviously you’re always excited for the first game of the year, but I think we just want to show the fans just how much hard work has really gone into what we’ve been doing and that we’re trying to flip the culture here,” said inside linebacker Micah Kiser, who was selected in a vote by the players as one of three team captains.

“That’s probably the biggest word — culture — from the entrance to what we wear to how we play. Most importantly how we play,” Kiser said. “We’re definitely trying to change the culture here, come out play smart, tough, aggressive, and really not make a lot of mental mistakes or a lot of penalties that was holding us back in the past.”

The Spiders advanced to the semifinals of the FCS playoffs last season before losing to eventual national champion North Dakota State. They have lost 10 straight in the series, but are highly ranked again heading into this season.

“I think this is a football team that is really well coached and they know how to win,” Mendenhall said. “That in and of itself is hard to earn, and they have done that.”

Mendenhall compiled a 99-43 record in 11 seasons at BYU. He talks of “when,” not “if,” Virginia will be a winning team again. The coach said he’s anxious to see how his team performs as it begins that transformation.

“It will be a step-by-step process,” he said. “We’re not going to launch right to the top of the ACC or the polls in Game One. We’ve hardly practiced how to come out of the tunnel for heaven’s sakes to get onto the field, or where players come off the field for breaks. There’s a lot of new things happening here.”

The coaching staff saved one of the more memorable events of the new era for last Saturday night. That’s when the team gathered in the locker room at Scott Stadium and 61 of them were allowed to choose their jersey and number. The remaining players have not yet earned the right to make a selection, Mendenhall said.

The players, broken up into task units, decided in what order their peers could select their number as the coaches looked on.

“That was probably one of the most special moments I’ve had at UVA,” center and offensive captain Jackson Matteo said. “It’s unexplainable, finally coming together as a team and being able to choose the jersey or, as coach Mendenhall calls it, ‘the treasure’ that you’re going to be putting on your back for an entire season.'”


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