The week before Christmas was the football program's big recruiting national signing day (NSD). Here's a quick primer for those who haven't been following:
First, there's now an early (December) and late (February, used to be the only) NSD. 90% of kids sign in December. UVA is had most all of its current verbal pledges sign, with hopes that the remaining two will finalize in February. That leaves the last two months to just fill a couple final slots, while the bulk of our class is legally protected from poaching blue bloods (like Miami who's desperate for recruits).
You can find a list of our signees and remaining pledges here: LINK
Assuming everyone signs (and always the chance one of the remaining gets cold feet) it's a solid class that lacks a lot of star power but has great depth across the board. There are some projects, but the nice thing about this class is I think the staff was incredibly selective about kids who are good system and culture fits. There should be a low washout rate from this group unless kids just flat out aren't developing in a couple years and get beat out.
Quarterback (2): Robert Harvey is a 3-star speedster out of FL, undersized (5-10) but a gamer; Luke Wentz is a Euro import (Germany) who's a Thorterback physically (6-3 210) but will have to adapt to the US game. Wentz, due to some international transcript issues, will be slated to sign in February. Both are longer term prospects, and Armstrong and Stone will need to bridge (3 years remaining for each) until they're ready by their RS Soph year at the earliest.
Running Back (2): Mike Hollins is a high 3-star out of LA, was a plan B for many SEC powers, a true bruiser who could be instant impact. Seneca Milledge (FL) is a high 3-star speed back who's undersized (5-6) but is dangerous in the open field (Darren Sproles type). Solid pairing for what we like to do.
Wideouts (3): Went with size this time around, with Dorian Goddard (6-3, TN), Dontayvion Wicks (6-2, LA), and Nathaniel Beal (6-5, TX). All are three stars, but all have early impact potential. Wicks and Beal are at the high end of the 3-star spectrum, and Goddard is coming in January to get a head start. We had one late loss from this class in Blacksburg speedster Tiquest Terry, who reportedly needed to go to FUMA but would rather find a different school. This is an important position to replenish with three premature losses from the 2018 roster (Wooby Theork dismissed, Cole Blackman and Zachariah Burton transferring) in addition to Oz (and Butts, see TE next) graduating.
Tight End (0): The position hasn't really been a priority for the staff the last couple of classes, and may be in the process of being phased out. That's a whole other discussion. We lose Butts and only Tanner Cowley is left on the roster.
Offensive Line (4): Headlined by 4-star OT Ja'Quay Hubbard (PA), along with three solid 3-star developmental candidates in German OG Kariem Al-Soufi, Zachary Teter (FL) and Jonathan Leech (FL). Given big OL classes in 2017 and 2018 (5 recruits each class, plus transfer Oluwatimi), 4 is a fine number here.
Defensive Line (2): Two 4-star instant-impact guys rated high in our class. Jowon Briggs (OH) is a Top 100 prospect nationally and looks like one of those incredibly special kids (character and academics are super high with him, which is why we stole him) we'll value for a long time. 757 stud DE/DT Ben Smiley is our best in-state pledge in years. Given the habitual depth issues at this position group, would've liked to have seen a third, as we lost Denmark import Emil Andersen to NCAA qualifying. Look for the DL to possibly get a late-cycle add.
Linebackers (5): Fantastic group here, with three potential early impact players in legacy Nick Jackson (GA), Hunter Stewart (DC), and D'Sean Perry (FL) and some promising investments in Josh Ahern (NoVa) and Jairus Satiu (UT). Satiu is slated to sign in February.
Defensive Backs (5): Deep, solid group, though lacking obvious top-end instant impact types. Antonio Clary (FL) and Chayce Chalmers (NoVa) should early-enroll and go through spring practice. Arriving in the summer are 3-stars Fentrell Cyprus (SC), Major Williams (FL), and Tenyeh Dixon (DC). It's not an eye-popping group from a stars perspective, but our excellent defensive staff should be able to build them into a good secondary.
Specialists: Recruited walk-on kicker Justin Duenkel is well-regarded.
We've got 21 signed, 2 more expected pledges for February (not counting the PWO kicker).
At this point, the only remaining needs (and it may be a stretch to call them a need, moreso wants) are a DL and a TE. Otherwise we've really effectively spread the commitments around the position groups. It's basically an entire lineup, minus an OL and a DL.
As for adding more, it's a gamble right now playing with the 85-scholarship limit. The staff probably has some close-hold math on who's not coming back next year (there are two obvious rising 5th years who probably won't get invited back in OL Bischoff and LB Paul, but after that it's TBDs on some medical concerns and Bryce Hall's NFL decision). I put the O/U on remaining new pledges at 2.5.
Staff will look to fill the remaining 2-3 spots in a variety of ways. May be a late bloomer like FUMA CB Jamel Hamm, or traditional or graduate transfers. Could be anytime between now and the Feb signing day, or in the case of transfers even after Spring Ball.
Only other discussion point is the relative lack of Virginians. Smiley (in-state ranked #16), Ahern (#30), and Chalmers (#34) are it, though it's maybe fair to add in the two DC kids (Stewart's #6 and Dixon is #14 in the District). Virginia is largely being picked over by national powers, but we still trail VT when it comes to the Commonwealth (they got #'s 4, 10, 17, 19, 21, 22, and 38, with a few more yet to declare). As an 804 kid, with friends in the 804 coaching community, this is a personal sticking point to me, and hopefully this starts to turn next year. For comparison, we took 6 kids from FL, 2 from LA, 2 from Europe, and 2 from GA. But only 3 from our home state.
All told, though, it's a successful group, and building well for the future. It's not filled with four stars, but instead stronger from a depth perspective. When it comes to recruiting star power, and from within the state, I've come to peace with the "baby steps" we're seeing. For a couple reasons:
1) There's a culture shift that needed to happen that was eerily similar to the one Bennett had to institute, and on a larger scale with 80 players vs a dozen. There was a decent chunk of talent that needed to be run off for the sake of building the right kind of locker room.
2) We changed systems on both sides of the ball (going to an RPO on offense, and a 3-4 on D) that not only meant learning new playbooks by the players but also having to put square pegs in round holes talent-wise for the short term.
3) The Lines. OMG the lines. You can reread the deep dive articles I did on them earlier this year (click here for OFFENSE and DEFENSE), but the offensive line has only a couple of organically developed program vets because London ultimately secured only 7 O-Linemen between the 2014-2016 recruiting classes (the last of which was handed over for Bronco to sign, but the stink is on London). And on the D-Line we had, depending on your math, 10+ losses due to injuries/medical/transfers/dismissals/qualifying who otherwise could've added a ton of veteran depth to the DL this year so we wouldn't have been relying on 3 freshmen by the end of the year.
4) We get zero help from the in-state high school programs who either push their best kids to VT or out of state. Plenty of blame to go around on this one, so Bronco doesn't need to shoulder a ton of it. Blame the HS programs, blame London and Groh for destroying our credibility, etc.
5) The 2016 recruting class was 90% inherited from London. Bronco's guys came in starting in 2017. They'll be rising true juniors and RS Sophs this year at the oldest. We're still a year away from having a roster that's essentially all Bronco's guys.
Don't get me wrong, the program missed a giant fucking opportunity when we shit the bed against VT yet again. It set us back with in-state recruiting, it set us back with player confidence, it set us back with the fan base (many of whom have a "not until we beat Tech" mindset when it comes to reinvesting their time and money into being diehard UVA football fans again). Blowing that lead probably put us 4-6 months behind schedule, doubly so since it buoyed Fuentes and a VT program that was in free-fall, saving their season and spring-boarding them to a bowl game and preserving their bowl eligibility streak.
The Defense is going to be straight nasty next year. I have some worry with the DBs depending on whether Hall comes back (losing Thornhill and Harris already), but the front 7 is going to be stacked, our best since the Groh years with Blackstock/Parham/Brooks at LB.
The offense I'm still worried about. The O-Line I think is still a year away. We'll only have 3 upperclassmen in the 2-deep (Proctor, Reinkensmeyer, Glaser... maybe a grad transfer), so it's still a young group. There are big recruiting classes on their way up, with five rising sophomores (6 if you count the PWO transfer Oluwatimi who's got a ton of upside), three freshmen coming off redshirts (not counting Mariteragi who'll leave for his LDS mission, back in 2021), and four incoming true frosh, but O-Linemen more than any other position just need 2-3 years to age into the position for us really to be dangerous. Perkins and Armstrong are good QBs, the WRs are fine if lacking a ton of star power. The tailbacks are a hard group to evaluate given the inconsistent OL play.
Schedule next year sets up semi-favorably. The non-conference is a pretty safe 3-1 bet, with W&M, Liberty, and ODU as games we ought to win and Notre Dame a safe bet loss (happy to be proven wrong though!). The ACC schedule is opportunistic... FSU, Louisville, and Miami are down-cycling, GT and UNC have new coaches as well. We've owned Duke of late, with Cutliffe slinking back to average with them. That leaves Pitt and VT as two uphill battles. 7-5 should be the baseline expectation, with 9-3 and a Coastal crown very much in play if the OL finally puts the pieces together.
Recruiting, we'll see. I think having recruiting classes ranked around #30 is fair for us. Between our academics, our facilities, our 15 years of incompetence vs VT as well as the rest of our lack of history (we're the only team in the Coastal who's never won the division; we've never represented the ACC in the playoffs/BCS/Alliance/NY6 bowls)... I think there's a ceiling to what we can do until the facilities improve and we accomplish a bit more on the field (beat Tech, win the Coastal, etc).
When it comes to recruiting nationally vs in-state or even regionally (mid-Atlantic, from the Carolinas to Pennsylvania), I'll add that there's probably a ceiling on recruiting the deep South. We made good hay this year in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana. But in SEC country, a program like Virginia is going to top out with kids feeling overlooked by the SEC powers. We're finding the hidden gems, but they're all 3-star types, many who may need some developmental time. If we want to get over the hump talent-wise by getting 4-star, Top 500 guys, we're not stealing them from the backyards of LSU or UF or UGA or Tennessee. We took good shots but missed on a few of those types this year, and they all went SEC. As such, improving our recruiting performance in the mid-Atlantic is paramount. VA, NC, DC, MD, and PA will need to become the backbone of future classes for that reason alone. I do like how Bronco is reportedly targeting academic factory high schools, whether public or private, that are already closer culture fits for UVA. The DMV prep circuit could continue to be a great fit there.
NC State is really the template we're following. Dave Doeren arrived before the 2013 season, so 3 years ahead of Bronco. He went 3-9 (0-8) his first year, then in his next three regular seasons went 7-5 (3-5), 7-5 (3-5), 6-6 (3-5), before reaching 8 and 9 regular season wins and winning ACC records the last two years. He took a lot of shit for scheduling a ton of non-conf cupcakes to get to bowl eligibility years 2-4, but it slowly built that program into a winner, bowl games meaning more $$ and more practices and more exposure, even if they were achieved by slumming it vs mid-major dregs repeatedly. As of now, NC State just got the #3 recruiting class in the ACC. That's saying something when Miami, FSU, and Clemson are usually de facto #'s 1-3 based on reputation alone. And Bronco's ahead of their curve by some metrics... our class this year is better than Doeren's 3rd full class was by a wide margin. One thing NC State has going for them though is that they've been dominant vs UNC in the in-state rivalry.
We're playing the long game here. It's hard, but it's necessary, and 10 years from now I think we'll be glad we did.