What was once simply National Signing Day for football programs has become the Late Signing Day. Most programs sign the majority of their recruits in the new Early Signing Day in December. UVA is no different in that regard. But there remained work to be done for the Hoos. As a result, UVA signed two new players to their 2020 class on February 5.
After the new additions, the Hoos have signed 15 new players in the recruiting class.
Just like our Early Signing Day Recap, I'll profile the new additions. St Lou Hoo will then review the roster makeup, update the recruiting landscape, and cover any remaining class needs.
Nusi Malani - Defensive Line
Junipero Serra High School - San Bruno, California - 6-6 250
247 Composite Rating: 3 Stars (.8444)
Power Five Offers: Virginia, Arizona, Nebraska, Washington State, Arizona State, Colorado
Other FBS Offers: Boise State, BYU, Colorado State, Hawaii, Utah State
Expectation: Early Career Impact
Malani made a solid bond with UVA defensive line coach Vic So'oto. As a result, he took a chance on an official visit to UVA despite the distance and things clicked. That gamble allowed the Hoos to sign a nice defensive end prospect over a group of solid programs.
If you want a longer, better look at Malani, check out his senior season highlight clips over at Hudl. The highlights from UVA don't do him justice as it's difficult to pick him out in the action before the snap.
What you'll see at Hudl is a player who despite his size could stand to add some mass to his frame. At 6-6, his 250 pounds carry very well. He'll likely need a bit more bulk to hold up against ACC offensive lines. However, you don't want to bulk him up so much that you lose some of that burst and pursuit that's evident in the highlights.
With Many Alonso having one more season of eligibility and Aaron Faumui just two, I've been hoping for a defensive lineman to enter the pipeline that plays with the nasty streak that you see from that duo. In Malani, it appears that the Hoos have found that guy. In the Hudl highlights, you see a player that takes no prisoners on the field. In a few plays, Malani walks right up to that edge and nearly crosses it with some of his hits on the quarterback. Coach So'oto will want to channel that aggression in the proper direction.
Ideally, Malani will take a redshirt during his freshman season. After that, he could possibly find himself on the two-deep at defensive end depending on his development. Aaron Faumui and Ben Smiley figure to hold the starting positions during his redshirt freshman season, but there won't be anyone else with a solid claim to the backup spots yet.
Demick Starling - Wide Receiver
East Nashville Magnet School - Nashville, Tennessee - 6-0 170
247 Composite Rating: 3 Stars (.8114)
Power Five Offers: Virginia
Other FBS Offers: Liberty, Miami (Ohio), Toledo, Western Michigan
FCS Offers: Alabama A&M, Austin Peay, East Tennessee State, Southeast Missouri State, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech, William & Mary
Expectation: Early Career Impact
Starling was a late bloomer on the football field despite being an excellent athlete. You can see that reflected in his offer list and composite rating calculated by 247 Sports. Starling is a player whose rating may be revised upwards a bit based on review of senior tape.
Besides football, Starling stars in track and also plays basketball for his school. He's reported to have run in the 10.7 second range multiple times in the 100-meter dash.
In his remarks on the signing of Starling, Bronco noted that former UVA football player and current regional scout Zach Bradshaw unearthed Starling. For more highlights of Starling, his senior highlight video on Hudl is a good watch.
Starling's speed will get him on the field early in his career. You can see that track speed when he gets into the open field. His acceleration is striking. He'll be able to take the top off of a defense as soon as he steps on Grounds. He also displays nice vision in the kick return game. Starling may be able to carve out a niche role early in his career as a return man for the Hoos.
Like all young receivers, Starling will have to learn to become an adequate blocker in the running game to stay on the field. All the speed in the world will not matter until he gets that part of the game down. Another thing I noticed in his highlight videos is that Starling often let the ball get into his body before making the catch. It's not something that happen every time, so he's likely been coached to catch the ball with his hands away from his body. But that's something that Coach Hagans will certainly work on in practice come August.
Starling will arrive at UVA with only Terrell Jana as an established ACC level receiver in the position group. Both Billy Kemp and Dontayvion Wicks appear poised to join Jana in short order. Tavares Kelly may make that leap this season as well. But that's not enough depth at the Power 5 level. The competition to get on the field at wide receiver for UVA will be fierce when fall camp begins. Because of that, Starling will have every opportunity to make an early impact if he arrives at UVA ready to compete.
The two pledges discussed above aren't the only changes to the roster picture since we recapped the December signing period. There have been a few moves for the better and worse to occur over the last month and a half that merit discussion.
The Hoos suffered a medical retirement from D-Lineman Isaac Buell, ending his career prematurely before he was ever able to contribute on the field.
Rising fifth year safety Chris Moore has elected to graduate-transfer for his final season of eligibility (destination TBD) after unfortunately being caught up in a numbers crunch in the secondary going into next year.
The running back room lost two players, with rising senior Lamont Atkins leaving the program to focus on academics while rising senior PK Kier will look to transfer.
We jinxed the arrival of grad transfer WR Theo Howard from UCLA back in December, who in early January jumped at the opportunity to play for perennial CFP-participant Oklahoma instead (grad transfers don't sign binding paperwork and can change their mind up until the day they arrive on campus).
The good news was that freshman WR Nathaniel Beal withdrew his name from the transfer portal. The returning Texan, who missed last season with a leg injury, provides a big boost to the wide receiver room as he's got multi-year-starter potential once he gets up to speed.
The Current Projected Roster
Roster Wrap Up
Looking up and down the roster, I think we're pretty darn well set across the defense. The staff may elect to chase potential "too good not to" players that pop up on the transfer list, but I'd be highly surprised to see any new names added to the defense for next season. With returning veterans getting healthy, young prospects turning the corner, and a fresh infusion of talented freshmen (3 DL, 3 LB, 3 DB, all well-regarded), there's a great balance of talent, depth, and class spacing across all three position groups.
Special Teams is probably also fine at this point, with plenty of kicker, punters, and long snappers on the roster for another year, likely to be addressed next as part of the 2021 class.
So that leaves the offense.
On the offensive line, the staff obviously tried and failed to bring in a top-flight tackle prospect as part of this class (I count Andrew Gentry as a 2022 since he'll take an LDS mission first). First they got a verbal pledge from in-state Jimmy Christ only to see him flip to Penn State during the season. This winter, the staff went all-in on in-state James Pogorelc only to lose him head-to-head with Stanford. Both were disappointing results, both because top-flight OTs are worth their weight in gold (both were highly ranked) and also because this marks the fifth year the staff has failed to secure a Top 10 in-state recruit. With that said, from a numbers perspective, OL wasn't truly a need in this class. With no graduates, no attrition (so far), and the addition of promising center prospect Jestus Johnson, the Hoos are up to 18 scholarship O-Linemen for next year, which is a big number. Recruiting OL at this juncture is mostly about succession planning for 2022+, especially with the massive class spacing imbalance with seven rising junior OL.
At running back, the staff elected not to prioritize running backs as part of the 2020 class due to scholarship constraints and needs elsewhere on the roster. Hard to say whether that decision was made with or without foreknowledge of the departures of Kier and Atkins this offseason, as now UVA is down to just two backs one might categorize as of the "every down" variety in Mike Hollins and Wayne Tualapapa. Jamari Peacock is more of a fullback and Seneca Milledge more of an open-space guy. Bottom line, we're now thin for next year, and project even thinner for 2021 once Peacock has graduated. The staff may elect to look for transfer running back options this spring, both of the immediately eligible and the sit-one-transfer varieties. The name to know here is Indiana transfer and former Hopewell prospect Ronnie Walker, who was a priority target for the 2018 class. No word on whether he'd be immediately eligible or would need to sit for a season; he's played both his seasons so far, so has two playing years remaining either way.
At wide receiver and tight end, the return of Beal and the commitment of Starling to join fellow 2020 wideout Lavel Davis (along with 2020 tight end Joshua Rawlings) gives UVA a nice core of young pass catchers for the future. We're still a little questionable for this coming season, with five players graduating (three major contributors) and only Jana, Kemp, and Kelly veteran receivers returning. Obviously in their December pursuit of Howard, they staff felt a grad-transfer wideout would be helpful to bridge for the youth to develop, so I wouldn't be surprised to see them continue to look for a transfer wideout this spring. No names really worth tracking at the moment.
Lastly, we talked about quarterback in the December piece. Nothing has changed here. We still feel RJ Harvey and Ira Armstead need another year before you're comfortable going into the offseason with either of them as QB2, though Harvey will reportedly get extended looks as QB2 this spring (Brennan Armstrong the assumed QB1). I still think the staff takes a long look a grad transfer options this spring, with BC's Anthony Brown and Howard's Caylin Newton being the two names worth knowing on the market right now, though more names might become known after spring practices end at rival schools.
Looking at total numbers relative to the NCAA-mandated limit of 85, UVA is sitting at 83 projected for next year by my current count, which assumes Nash Griffin stays on scholarship for his 5th year (we hope he does). We've identified maybe three additional needs that might be addressed via transfer in QB, RB, and WR, so the first two we can take with no problem, any more need to be offset by attrition. I think more attrition happens after the spring, but we won't speculate on names, and instead be patient. In addition to inbound transfers, attrition also allows deserving walk-ons to be rewarded.
Right now, the staff will turn their attention to spring practices, preparing the team for their Coastal title defense, while mostly turning their recruiting attention to the 2021 class and beyond. It'll probably be another couple of months (spring practices end late April) before we start hearing about transfer names either inbound or outbound, meaning we relax for the moment and just appreciate this continually-improving program that Bronco and staff have built.
Final 2020 Recruiting Thoughts
Maybe I should put "final" in quotes, since spring transfer activities count as recruiting to some. But as far as signing 2020 high school graduates, I like this class. On the defensive side, I like it a lot, nine players who balance great across the position groups and have plenty of buzz. Even better because due to returning depth, most if not all will have time to develop before being pushed into action. I give the staff a solid A on defense recruiting this cycle. Offense is a little harder to evaluate, as it's a much smaller group, 1 QB, 2 WRs, 1 TE, 1 OC. The players we got all seem like good fits for what we want to do. I think Davis, Starling, and Rawlings will be up to speed by their 2nd years, and Johnson won't be needed until 2022 after Vic Oluwatimi graduates, so he'll have two years to develop. Armstead probably needs at least two years as well, so he's essentially in the mix once Brennan Armstrong graduates in 2023 but it still leaves us in a precarious position backing up Brennan for the next two seasons. The class could've used a good RB given the losses of Kier and Atkins, and really just for long term class-spacing since both Tualapapa and Hollins played as true freshmen. And at OL, it admittedly stings to see both Pogorelc and Christ head out of state, both are missed opportunities for the staff to upgrade the talent level on the edge. To me, offensive recruiting gets a C+ grade due to the lack of a good RB and OT in this class and Armstead's projected long term development timeline. The offensive grade can get a bump if RB and QB transfers provide a quality bridge for the 2020/21 classes to get up to speed at those positions.
This was always going to be a small class with so few graduations. Right now it includes just 14 incoming freshmen plus whatever transfers we see this spring, far fewer than the usual 23-25 newcomers we see most years. I would've liked to see a little more success on the offensive side, but on the whole it's a good class with some good talent, and 247's average recruit rating for this class is right on par with last year's (once you factor out Gentry and Terry), which ranks in the middle of the ACC and Coastal. Remembering we're always going to come in behind the ACC's recruiting trinity of Clemson, FSU, and Miami, we essentially just want to do well compared to the other 10 rivals, taking into account the academic and character restrictions UVA has that rivals like VT and UNC don't. It continues a slow, steady build that hopefully will continue into a big 2021 class (18 projected seniors due to graduate plus additional 4th years unlikely to get invited back for their 5th), recalling that for the rising HS seniors UVA has been a bowl team for three straight years and are now confident that Bronco is a winning long term fixture in the ACC.
The positive momentum is real.