FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — On its first visit of the season to Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, Virginia took the football field with two of the ACC’s most valuable defensive players in cornerback Bryce Hall and linebacker Jordan Mack.
To find them Monday night at Hard Rock, where UVa will take on No. 6 Florida, look for crutches and a cast or two on the Cavaliers’ sideline.
Hall has been out since Oct. 11, after suffering a fractured ankle in Virginia’s 17-9 loss to Miami. Mack has played in every game for the Cavaliers to date, but he saw limited duty Dec. 7 in the Cavaliers’ 62-17 loss to Clemson in the ACC championship game.
“That was the third game in a row where Jordan really wasn’t practicing till Thursday,” coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “He would move around some and then try to rebound well enough to contribute somehow in the game.
“With each successive week, he just wasn’t able to perform even to the level he did the previous week. So, it became clear that he wasn’t going to be effective in this game.
“Right after the Clemson game, he and I had a discussion and he was tormented by trying to decide [on surgery]. It was the best decision for him [and] it was the best decision for us at the same time.”
It won’t be the first time the Cavaliers have been without Mack, cited for a controversial targeting penalty Oct. 26 in a 28-21 UVa loss at Louisville. He missed the second half of that game and the first half of a 38-31 victory at North Carolina one week later.
Slated to start alongside junior Zane Zandier at one of the inside linebacker spots Monday is Nick Jackson, a true freshman who has appeared in all 13 UVa games to this point, with his lone start occurring at North Carolina.
Zandier leads the Cavaliers in tackles with 95 and probably would have topped that if not for a cast on his hand that makes it difficult to take ball-carriers to the ground. True freshman Josh Ahern is in reserve and, with three appearances to date, could play in one more game without losing his redshirt status.
Mendenhall and Florida coach Dan Mullen have a relationship dating back to the days when Mendenhall was the defensive coordinator at Brigham Young and Mullen was the offensive coordinator at Utah, the Cougars’ chief rival.
Aside from that, UVa and Florida have played only once, when the Gators hammered visiting Virginia 55-10 in 1959. They did have two common opponents this year in Florida State and Miami.
Florida beat Miami 24-20 on Aug. 24 in Orlando and hammered Florida State 40-17 in Gainesville, Florida. Virginia beat visiting Florida State 31-24 on Sept. 14, but lost its third straight game to Miami at Hard Rock Stadium 17-9.
Florida, coming off a 10-3 season in Mullen’s first year in 2018, was ranked eighth in the AP preseason Top 25 and never fell lower than 11th.
Virginia was unranked in the preseason before spending five straight weeks in the Top 25. The Cavaliers re-merged at No. 22 following a 39-30 victory over arch-nemesis Virginia Tech but were gone after losing to Clemson 62-17 in the ACC title game.
“I don’t intend to put it behind us until we rectify any of the deficiencies that were exposed,” Mendenhall said Sunday. “I intend to use it to leverage the program and moving forward every minute, every second until we become better. It’s one of the most valuable catalysts, I think, maybe ever that’s been had for the program in football at the University of Virginia.”
The mission for Florida might be to hold on to Mullen, who took the Gators’ job after nine seasons at Mississippi State, where he was 69-46. He stands 20-5 after back-to-back 10-win seasons at Florida.
“I think those are nice compliments, ” he said of a possible NFL coaching gig. “ We’ll take that [scuttlebutt] for being a successful season.
“I think usually in the coaching profession, they either need to get rid of you or you’re going somewhere else. So it’s always better to be on the latter of those two.”