This piece is a part of our 2018 football preview. To view other entries in the preview series, click here.
"27 ACC-calibre football players."
That's how Bronco Mendenhall described our spring roster the the Board of Visitors recently. You may have heard about it, it made quite a bit of noise. He displayed optimism that it was an improving number, expecting that number to climb to "the mid-40s" this year, and to "65-ish" a year further down the road.
No, I'm not going to go through the roster and pick out the 27, or argue that the number is actually higher or lower by my estimation, or start assigning blame on how it arguably got "this bad".
Instead, I'm going to generally acknowledge that this was a roster with a depleted talent pipeline when Bronco arrived at the start of 2016, compounded with the additional roster churn accompanying a regime change, and that a lot of work was necessary to rebuilt said roster. As Bronco said in a summer 2017 interview with Norfolk's WAVY sports, "this is not a polish and reboot, it's not even a rebuild... it's more start up oriented."
Let's focus on three characteristics of a good roster as we look at it:
Deep - Is there ample depth to field not just a 2-deep, but have reserves for when injury strikes? Are the bulk of those NCAA-limited 85 scholarships given out?
Balanced - Are those 85 scholarships distributed in a balanced manner across (a) the various position groups, and (b) the year groups, ensuring there won't be weak spots on the field either now or in the future?
Talented - Are the players wearing the uniform talented enough to hang with ACC compeition? Are they talented enough to excel against it?
As we go into this new season, this article's goal is to look at how this season's roster fits into a bigger picture of Bronco's reconstruction (dirty word to Southerners, I know!) of the roster, both where we've come from after the last couple of years, and where we look to be going over the next few years. Going by position group seems to be the cleanest way to look at it. But first, a few ground rules.
1) Projecting this year and forward, I won't count on true freshmen, instead conservatively projecting them to redshirt. A couple from each class will ultimately surprise, of course, but there's no sense to trying to guess on that in advance.
2) I don't like the idea of RS Freshmen starting, but it's okay if they factor in as rotational backups.
3) Given those assumptions about freshmen (True and RS), that means you need enough veterans available to cover all of your starting positions plus enough extra that a veteran reserve is available to step into a starting spot when another veteran starter gets injured. And that needs to be enough that you don't have to rely on transfers (designated with a *) or positional cross-training (designated <>).
4) I occasionally pull in a preferred walk on (PWO) who did or who looks primed to factor into the discussion. They're designated as such but don't count towards the summary scholarship numbers.
5) The amount of depth needed varies by position, based on (a) whether backups can swing between positions, such as having a backup offensive guard who can play any interior position in a pinch, (b) the physical development demands of that position necessitating extra years before readiness, such as linemen needing more time to get physically ready than a cornerback, and (c) skill positions like RB, WR, LB, and DB lending themselves to kicking unit (return or coverage) depth meaning extra bodies may be necessary.
Starters needed: 1
Ready backups wanted: 2
Preferred scholarship count: 4-5
Bronco inherited 6 QBs, but lost two immediately in Nick Johns and Corwin Cutler. That left him with two seniors (Matt Johns and Brewer) plus two incoming London recruits, Cross and Abramson. ECU transfer Benkert entered the picture as a two-year stopgap, while Bronco needed to start the depth chart from square one behind him. Stone was signed as fast as they could get him and moved onto the 2-deep as a true freshman. Bryce Perkins, another immediately-eligible two year transfer, is another band-aid until the home-grown QBs are ready, though two preferred walk-on transfer candidates fell through with the medical retirement of Matt Merrick and the 11th-hour decision of Beau English not to leave Air Force. Perkins will need to buy enough time for Stone and Armstrong to put it all together in a year or two, while incoming 2019 freshmen Robert Harvey, Jr. and German project Wentz develop.
Verdict: Improving. With three returners projected for next year and four the year following (after only having 1 or 2 returners each of the last three seasons), there are enough options to have confidence a good starter and competent backup will be in place, though we'll have to avoid the kind of attrition we've seen over the last couple of offseasons.
Starters needed: 2
Ready backups wanted: 4
Preferred scholarship count: 7
With only one underclassman on the roster in Bronco's first season, and no commitments out of his first February haul of London leftovers (well, none that stuck, with Tre Harbison leaving as quickly as he arrived), the tailback position was a ground-up rebuild. Peacock, Atkins, and Kier came in last year and played as true freshmen, while Chris Sharp was brought over from safety. The three rising sophomores should carry the load (pun intended!) for a year or two to come, but while Wayne Tualapapa (a 2016 commit arriving this fall after his mission trip) should shake off rust to be a solid contributor next season, there are question marks down the road. Both Terry and Milledge are lower-ranked, smaller backs, so there's a real need in 2019 and/or 2020 for more size and power to make up for the misses in the 2015, 2016, and 2018 classes.
Verdict: Still Needs Work. The lack of 2015 or 2016 recruits on Bronco's initial roster and the subsequent need to steal a DB and press three true freshmen into action last year is hampering the long term rebuild schedule. As such, looking to when Kier/Atkins/Peacock project to graduate, there remains a big need in the 2019/20 classes to ensure a steady succession plan is in place.
Receivers and Tight Ends
Starters needed: 4
Ready backups wanted : 4
Preferred scholarship count: 13+
The wideouts Bronco inherited weren't in bad shape, plenty to fill out a two-deep over a season, even with our new spread attack. The depth has been somewhat affected by career-ending injuries to high-upside Warren Craft, the transfers of David Eldridge and Aidan Howard, and the move of Richard Burney to defense. Class spacing was also affected by pressing three true freshmen into action in 2016, largely to help with special teams. But regardless, as it stands today, there is enough depth to play 4-wide routinely both this year and in the years to come, with time to bring along the more developmental members of the 2017 and 2018 classes. Worth watching is the potential phase-out of the TE position... after Cowley graduates in two years, left of the roster is only converted 2-way lineman Osiris Crutchfield who likely won't have seen much if any action at the position. The impetus now becomes to find wideouts with good size who can take on TE-like roles.
Verdict: Holding Steady. This was never that big a weakness for Bronco, as London left the position group in relatively okay shape. Assuming the 2019 class closes out with an additional big body or two, the position group is set to keep a stream of double-digit returners each year from which to field a 2-deep.
Starters needed: 5
Ready backups wanted: 5
Preferred scholarship count: 18
Fielding a deep, competent O-Line has been a problem from the beginning, arguably our weakest unit and the team's biggest handicap. Upon arriving, he only had 7 underclass linemen in his pipeline, only 5 of whom are still with the O-Line after Moss's departure and Crutchfield's move to the defense. We've had to paper over depth issues with grad transfers, Pertile and Montelus last year and Applefield this year. Looking out long range though, we now have 11 scholarship underclassmen in the pipeline and on campus this fall, not counting Mariteragi (who may take a mission), a couple of mid-major worthy walk-ons in Knutson and Olawutimi, with a solid 2019 recruiting group being built as well. Offensive line is a group where the most important thing to do is to build up a lot of good bodies, and trust that five good ones will emerge. Those numbers, really trying to bring in 4-ish a year, are being put in place effectively, and the need to bring in grad transfers should blessedly end after this season.
Verdict: Improving. Having to rely on three grad transfers at one position over two years speaks volumes about the poor state of the OL, only 9 players returned in 2017, and 10 in 2018, which isn't what you want to field a good 2-deep. But with big 2017 and 2018 classes, plus another under construction for 2019, the line projects to have 13+ returners each of the next few years, from which to find a "best 8" to field the 2-deep.
Depth: This is drastically improving. The last two offseasons we've returned only 25 or 26 offensive players, which has forced us to shove 9 true freshmen into action and bring in a number of transfers at QB and the OL. But starting next year, even with some attrition, we should bring back over 30 offensive players, and could have close to 30 underclassmen in the pipeline as well, setting up quality depth for both the near and long term.
Balance: The depth we do have is becoming well distributed across the position groups. Of next season's 34 projected returners, 13 are on the OL, 13 at WR/TE, 3 are QBs, 5 are TBs. That's not just a 2-deep, that's almost a 3-deep at every position group.
Talent: The talent level is still pretty average. Bronco's classes have been almost entirely composed of three star talents, having missed on some of the 4-star in-state offensive studs like Indiana's RB Ronnie Walker or Louisville's OL Mekhi Becton. But at the same time, there are very few reaches populating the roster either, the 3-stars they are getting are good fits for the scheme, good fits for the locker room, and all seem to have measurables or a skillset to eventually make an impact, even if they may need a couple years to soak.
To continue with Part 2, click here.