Bronco Mendenhall is back — and he’s taking some of Utah’s top football recruits with him

Three of the state’s Top 25 high school prospects have committed to Virginia

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Joe Brown, center, a senior offensive lineman for Lone Peak High School practices with the team, Sept. 15, 2021. Brown has committed to play for the University of Virginia.

Dominique and Marcus McKenzie promised each other they wouldn’t commit to any universities before they had made all of their official visits. The twin brothers from Pine View High School — Dominique, the wide receiver, and Marcus, the cornerback — are two of the top high school football recruits, and had offers from various schools, including BYU, Utah State and Oregon.

But once the brothers visited Charlottesville and sat in front of the coaches at the University of Virginia, something changed. They liked what they heard and saw so much that they reneged on their pact and committed that day in late June, keeping their decision quiet until they made a public announcement in September.

“Virginia, it feels like a second home,” Dominique McKenzie said.

And Utah is feeling more like home, once again, to Bronco Mendenhall and his staff at Virginia. After deciding not to recruit in Utah for several years, Mendenhall and his staff have returned to lock up commitments from three of the state’s Top 25 high school football recruits this year.

The McKenzie twins are the 10th and 11th best recruits from Utah’s Class of 2022, according to 247Sports.com. Lone Peak senior offensive lineman Joe Brown, who committed to Virginia in June, is ranked No. 12. They intend to join former Skyridge High linebacker Jairus Satiu, who committed to the school in 2019.

Mendenhall’s connections with the Beehive State are obvious. The former BYU coach spent 11 years in Provo before leaving for Virginia. Many of his assistant coaches either coached with him with the Cougars, or played at other schools in the state like Utah and Utah State. Of the 19 coaches on the Cavaliers’ staff, at least 10 have ties to Utah.

Justin Anderson, UVA’s recruiting coordinator who once held that role at BYU, said that when Mendenhall and his staff first arrived at UVA in 2016, the group recruited high school players from Utah. But they decided to stop and focus on local athletes as they started to build a name for themselves in the state.

Now that the Cavaliers have some experience with the coaching staff and have done some winning, the team is starting to look outside its home state more often for talent. One of those states has been Utah.

“When we first got there, we did a little bit, we stopped and then I think we’ve as we’ve created a little bit more of a brand for ourselves, I think now we kind of know specifically what we’re looking for,” Anderson said. “So when we go to Utah, we’re looking for specific types of things.”

Some of those “specific types of things” can be strong leadership and mentality, Anderson said.

“I think those qualities from kids in Utah tend to be really strong. I think there’s great leadership qualities and a lot of it is based on how some of those kids potentially could be raised,” he said. “But I would say grit, toughness and hard work ethic are things that we really look for when we’re looking outside of our state.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Joe Brown (#67), a senior offensive lineman for Lone Peak High School practices with the team, Sept. 15, 2021. Brown has committed to play for the University of Virginia.

Brown’s recruitment picked up steam after June 1, when the NCAA lifted its moratorium that was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. He committed to Virginia on June 30.

“I knew where I wanted to go,” Brown said.

The McKenzie twins and Brown are all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They each said said they would be serving two-year missions after high school, before arriving to Virginia to start their college football careers. Dominique McKenzie said the Cavaliers coaches’ understanding of the religious culture in Utah made it easier for him to talk about his desire to go on his mission.

“We understand that religious aspect for some of those young men, and therefore, we understand how it works, the amount of time that it takes,” Anderson said. “We don’t go to Utah just for that, but if there is a kid that has that and that’s something they would like to do, we’re definitely supportive of them doing that.”

Brown said a big reason he committed to Virginia is because the coaches all seemed like they were going to be with the program over the long haul, a sentiment echoed by the McKenzie twins. Many commits reopen their recruitments soon after a coaching change.

“A lot of those guys, they left places to all be there together, so I know they’ll all stick there and they all want to work together,” Dominique McKenzie said.

Another aspect that has attracted some Utah high school players has been UVA’s reputation in academics. In 2019, 10 players were placed on the Atlantic Coast Conference’s All-Academic team.

Brown and the McKenzie twins all said academics were very important to them. Dominique McKenzie may want to go into the medical field once he’s done with school, and Brown said he wants to go into business like his two brothers — both BYU alumni — did.

“It was like a big cherry on top of everything,” Dominique McKenzie said of the school’s academic reputation.

For Brown, UVA offensive line coach Garett Tujague, who coached at BYU with Mendenhall and also played there under LaVell Edwards, “sealed to the deal” for him to commit there, he said. Tujague also played with Brown’s O-line coach at Lone Peak, Gary Pay.

But Dominique McKenzie sees Virginia’s deep connection to Utah as merely “a cool tie.” What made his and Marcus’s decision clear was the standard to which UVA’s players are held.

“Everyone’s always pushing each other up as a unit, as a team,” Dominique McKenzie said. “There are no individuals. That’s the type of environment I would want to be in and play college football at.”

But the bottom line, at least for Brandon Huffman, national recruiting editor 247sports.com, is that Mendenhall and his staff provide the biggest draw to players from Utah because of their connection with BYU and the state at large.

“When you look at it from a football standpoint, a lot of those kids are at high-level programs that Bronco recruited when he was at BYU,” Huffman said. “So there’s the familiarity with the scheme, with the system, with the program, with the culture, with everything that Bronco has been a part of when he was at BYU.”