CHARLOTTE, N.C. – No need to remind Micah Kiser how close Virginia came to upsetting Notre Dame last year.
He remembers Virginia leading the No. 9-ranked Irish, 27-21, in the fourth quarter until Notre Dame scored with 40 seconds to play to snatch victory from the Cavaliers.
Next, Kiser, a first-team All-ACC choice despite being a sophomore playing for a team with a 4-8 record, can tell you about falling to Louisville, Miami and Virginia Tech by a combined 16 points.
Worse, he remembers a 2014 season-opening loss to UCLA, 28-20.
“We had UCLA dead to rights and lost,” said Kiser, shaking his head during a breakout media session at the ACC Kickoff last week at the Westin Charlotte.
Kiser explained “close losses” are no longer a salve for a losing record with the arrival of former BYU Coach Bronco Mendenhall to take over the program in Charlottesville.
“Every year we’ve almost beat good teams,” Kiser said. “Coach Mendenhall talks about how hard it is to win. It’s easy to get close. We’ve proven that. We’ve been close every year. That’s why we’re doing everything harder this year.”
Kiser said Mendenhall doesn’t talk about the record. He talks about the work it takes to have a winning season. That’s enough for the Cavaliers to buy in to his methods based on his track record.
BYU may be on the other side of the country tucked away in the Wasatch Mountains, but the players are aware their new coach led the Cougars to 11 bowl games in 11 seasons. Virginia hasn’t been to a bowl game or posted a winning record since 2011.
“None of us on the roster have been to a bowl game or had a winning season,” Kiser said. “When you bring in a coach that wins at least eight or nine games a year and goes to a bowl game every year, you listen to what he says.”
Mendenhall’s Cougars posted double-digit victory seasons five of 11 years and won eight or nine games in four other years. His low points were 6-6 his first year taking over a 2005 team coming off three straight losing seasons and a 7-6 record in 2010.
“Coach Mendenhall says our program is designed for results,” Kiser said. “It’s designed for nine or 10 wins. If it doesn’t happen right away, he will get this program headed like BYU.
“The vibe around the program is different. The level of excitement that the coaches and the strength and conditioning coach bring has you excited to play football. That’s something that was missing. College football is supposed to be fun. I’ve never had more fun in my life playing football, and I feel a lot of guys can say that.”
The 6-foot-2, 240-pounder from Baltimore is a strong building block for Mendenhall to lay his foundation. Kiser led the ACC in tackles with 117. He had double-digit totals in seven of 12 games.
He is one of six returning starters, although Mendenhall is switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme.
Kiser will still be inside, though. Senior Zach Bradshaw (6-foot-3, 235), who played weakside linebacker last year, will line up inside next to Kiser.
“It’s not that much different,” Kiser said. “I’m still on the inside, playing in the middle. We still attack a lot. We’re not just going to sit back and let teams dictate stuff to us.”
The Cavaliers’ second-leading tackler was free safety Quin Blanding (6-foot-2, 205), who matched Kiser as a first-team All-ACC choice as sophomore on a losing team. That’s no easy trick.
Blanding finished with 115 tackles, but Kiser said the Cavaliers will be a better defense if they both have fewer tackles.
“Ideally, I don’t think you want two players to have all those tackles,” he said. “We want everyone else to be involved, to be a little bit more efficient on defense. Hopefully, we’ll improve on that, and we will get better and better and we’ll have a great defense this year.”
Unlike last year, close losses won’t equal “better and better.” The Cavaliers aren’t settling for moral victories.