Barring any late additions, the University of Virginia football program’s class of 2020 is in the books. Fifteen prospects in total signed with the Hoos, who added California defensive end Nusi Malani and Tennessee wide receiver Demick Starling at the open of the Regular Signing Period one week ago. Virginia signed 13 prospects during the Early Signing Period in December; three of those prospects have since enrolled on Grounds.
Bronco Mendenhall estimated this class – his fourth full recruiting cycle since taking over as Cavalier head coach in December of 2015 – would be “anywhere between 12 and 15” and his guess fell right into that range. The Cavaliers have a verbal commitment from another high school senior prospect in defensive end Lorenz Terry, but the Varina (VA) standout plans to attend Fork Union Military Academy this fall for postgraduate work before enrolling at UVA in January of 2021. He does not plan to sign a letter of intent during this Regular Signing Period.
Following the signings of Malani and Starling, Mendenhall reflected on his latest haul.
“Our emphasis was on finding the right fits for positions based on matriculation at particular positions,” said Mendenhall, who signed 20 or more prospects in each of his first three full recruiting classes at UVA. “With it being a smaller-than-usual class, it meant we needed to achieve that to continue to build our depth and address future position needs. At the same time, we recruited quality individuals who have a desire, mindset and work ethic to help us continue our unbroken growth and who align with the principles and values of UVA.”
“I’ve been told, based on average ratings of players, this is our top class using that metric, so we are pleased with the results,” Mendenhall said. “As I said in December, most of our needs have been met and I’ve never been able to say that all of our needs were met in a particular recruiting class, but I’m pleased with what this class brings.”
Virginia Football’s Class of 2020
(*** denotes student athletes who enrolled in January of 2020)
Olasunkonmi Agunloye, Defensive Lineman, 6’6”, 240 pounds, Lindenhurst (N.Y.)
***Ira Armstead, Dual-Threat Quarterback, 6’3”, 200 pounds, Adams (South Bend, IN)
Sam Brady, Linebacker, 6’3”, 200 pounds, North Lincoln (Denver, N.C.)
Jahmeer Carter, Defensive Lineman, 6’2”, 300 pounds, Archbishop Spalding (Severn, MD)
Lavel Davis Jr., Wide Receiver, 6’7”, 200 pounds, Woodland (Dorchester, S.C.)
Elijah Gaines, Defensive Back, 6’2”, 185 pounds, Episcopal (Alexandria, VA) (native of Queens, N.Y.)
Andrew Gentry, Offensive Tackle, 6’7”, 300 pounds, Columbine (Littleton, CO)
Dave Herard, Defensive Back, 6’0”, 170 pounds, Stranahan (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
Jonathan Horton, Outside Linebacker, 6’4”, 215 pounds, Scotlandville Magnet (Baton Rouge, LA)
***Donovan Johnson, Safety, 6’2”, 180 pounds, Helen Cox (Harvey, LA)
Jestus Johnson III, Offensive Lineman, 6’3”, 330 pounds, Gonzaga College (Washington, D.C.)
Nusi Malani, Defensive Lineman, 6’5”, 260 pounds, Junipero Serra (San Mateo, CA)
***Josh Rawlings, Tight End, 6’5”, 245 pounds, Woodland Hills (Pittsburgh, PA)
Demick Starling, Wide Receiver, 6’0”, 170 pounds, East Nashville Magnet (Nashville, TN)
Brandon Williams, Outside Linebacker, 6’3”, 200 pounds, Isidore Newman (New Orleans, LA)
Virginia Football’s 2020 Class, By The Numbers
1 QB – Ira Armstead
2 WR – Lavel Davis Jr., Demick Starling
1 TE – Josh Rawlings
2 OL – Andrew Gentry, Jestus Johnson III
3 DL – Olasunkonmi Agunloye, Jahmeer Carter, Nusi Malani
3 LB – Sam Brady, Jonathan Horton (OLB), Brandon Williams (OLB)
3 DB – Elijah Gaines (safety), Dave Herard (cornerback), Donovan Johnson (safety)
Virginia addressed all three levels of the defense, adding three players on the line, three linebackers, and three defensive backs.
Carter has the look of a nose tackle while Agunloye and Malani are probable ends in the 3-4 and tackles when the Hoos feature 2-man (with OLBs as standup ends) or 4-man fronts. To me, Agunloye and Malani were significant late additions. Agunloye, who committed and signed on December’s “Signing Day,” has ideal size at 6’6”, 240 pounds. After a year or two of development under Strength and Conditioning coach Shawn Griswold, he could be a physical specimen at 275-285 pounds.
Malani is a player I really like. The 6’6”, 250-pound California native has been hailed for his passion and heart, in addition to his physical skills and playmaking. Malani is greater in size to Aaron Faumui, but the two seem similar in terms of their passion and determination. As a late addition for Virginia in the class of 2018, Faumui has proven to be an outstanding get. If Malani turns out the same way, that’s good news for the Cavaliers.
Horton and Williams have the potential to be dynamic outside linebacker prospects. The staff also seems very high on Sam Brady, a versatile athlete who could end up at inside or outside linebacker.
Mendenhall likes versatility in the defensive backfield. Gaines, Herard and Johnson all fit the bill in that regard. I think the listed positions are where they will start their Cavalier careers, but I’m interested to see where Herard and Johnson wind up ultimately. Could Herard become a Brenton Nelson type?
Virginia’s offensive haul included filling what perhaps is the greatest immediate need, tight end, with 6’5”, 245-pound Josh Rawlings. In what could be a major plus, Rawlings enrolled in January. The extra time with Griswold and the experience of going through spring practice prepare him for what could be significant minutes this fall. Unless Mendenhall moves a current player to tight end, rising redshirt sophomore Grant Misch will be the only returning scholarship tight end next season. It appears likely that Rawlings will be needed right away.
Coach Mendenhall mentioned wide receiver as a need during his Early Signing Period press conference. At the time UVA had announced the signing of 6’7” South Carolina product Lavel Davis Jr., who is what Mendenhall refers to as “always open” because of his size. The Hoos addressed the need with 6’0”, 170-pound Demick Starling … whether or not that’s enough for Mendenhall remains to be seen Starling is a track star who caught the staff’s attention during his senior year.
Virginia signed a quarterback – a “Thor-terback” type – in 6’3”, 200-pound Ira Armstead. Armstead enrolled in January along with Rawlings and Donovan Johnson. The South Bend (IN) native has significant physical tools, including good size, good arm strength, and dynamic ability as a runner. Armstead appears to be a good prospect. How quickly he’ll be ready to contribute is the main question.
This is the first full recruiting cycle under Mendenhall in which UVA did not sign at least four offensive line prospects. The Hoos landed one of the nation’s best senior tackles in Andrew Gentry as well as interior lineman Jestus Johnson III. Only Johnson, though, will be in uniform this year. Gentry, a consensus 4-star who is one of UVA’s most highly rated recruits in the Mendenhall era, is essentially a 2022 recruit because he plans to take a two-year LDS mission beginning this summer. Johnson is a product of Gonzaga (Washington, D.C.), a WCAC member Virginia has now scored a prospect in in two consecutive classes. The WCAC is a talent-rich conference UVA would love to mine for prospects on a consistent basis.
Louisiana proved fruitful for Virginia for the second consecutive class. The Bayou State produced three of the Cavaliers’ class of 2020 signees. Virginia rounded out the class by signing one player each from schools in California, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington (D.C.).
Hardly a Virginia recruiting hotbed prior to 2019, Louisiana is home to Virginia rising sophomores Mike Hollins and Dontayvion Wicks, who flashed dynamic ability as true freshmen in 2019. Led by Special Teams Coordinator Ricky Brumfield and Senior Scout Jordan Arcement, two Louisiana natives with strong connections in the state, Virginia signed Horton, Johnson and Williams in 2020. Rivals and 247Sports rank all three among the top 30 seniors in the Bayou State. Horton gained 4-star status per 247Sports for his breakout senior season performance, and he surprised some by choosing the Hoos over Baylor.
Through four full recruiting cycles under Mendenhall, Virginia has signed at least one player in each class from four states: Florida, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia. After signing 13 recruits from Florida in the previous three classes, UVA landed only one prospect the Sunshine State this time around. Virginia signed prospects from schools in Colorado, Indiana and New York for the first time in the Mendenhall era. This was Mendenhall’s first full class in which the Hoos did not sign any prospects from Georgia, Ohio or Texas.
With respect to the home state, UVA signed its fewest number of in-state prospects since Coach Mendenhall arrived. Eight players from schools in the Commonwealth signed in 2017, followed by three in 2018 and three more in 2019. Virginia landed Elijah Gaines from a Virginia Episcopal (Alexandria, VA) program that has pumped out prospects in recent years and again has a verbal commitment from Lorenz Terry, who hails from the Richmond area.
247Sports ranks Virginia’s 2020 Class as the no. 53 overall class in the country, no. 9 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Rivals has the Hoos’ 2020 haul at no. 59 in the nation and no. 10 in the ACC.
According to both 247Sports and Rivals, this class is Virginia’s best in the Mendenhall era in terms of average player rating. 247Sports’ average player rating is 86.06, almost a “high three-star rating.” UVA’s previous three classes were 85.22 (2019), 84.18 (2018), and 83 (2017). Here is 247Sports’ description of their player rankings.
Five-stars (98-110 rating): The top 32 players in the country to mirror the 32 first round picks in the NFL Draft. These are 32 players that we believe are the most likely to be drafted in the first round from each recruiting class. The full list of 32 with five-star ratings typically isn’t complete until the final ranking. Any player with a rating of more than 100 is considered a “franchise player” and one that does not come around in every recruiting class.
Four-stars (90-97 rating): These are players that we believe are the most likely to produce college careers that get them drafted. By National Signing Day, this number is typically in the range of 350 prospects, roughly the top 10 percent of prospects in a given class.
Three-stars (80-89 rating): This is where the bulk of college football prospects are found and it incorporates a large range of ability levels, all of whom we consider as possible NFL players long term.
A high three-star (87-89): is considered a player with significant NFL upside who expect to be an impact college football player.
A mid three-star (84-86): is a player that we consider to be a capable starter for a Power Five football team and an impact player at the Group of Five level.
A low three-star (80-83): is a player that we consider to be a potential contributor at a Power Five program but a probable Group of Five starter with impact potential.
Two-stars (70-79 rating): These are prospects that we consider to be FBS-level players with very limited NFL potential.
Virginia’s recruiting is trending in a positive direction in Rivals’ rankings too. This year’s average player star rating of 3 is the highest of Mendenhall’s four full recruiting classes in Charlottesville. The average star ranking of players in the classes of 2017, 2018, and 2019 were 2.96, 2.75, and 2.6, respectively.
247Sports rated Gentry and Horton as 4-star recruits. Gentry is ranked no. 146 overall and the no. 11 offensive tackle in 2020. Horton is ranked no. 176 nationally and the no. 12 weakside defensive end in his class.
Starling is rated as a 2-star by 247Sports, which ranks the rest of Virginia’s class as 3-star prospects.
Per Rivals, Virginia has only one 4-star in Gentry, who is the site’s no. 68 overall senior and no. 8 offensive tackle. Except for Ira Armstead, who is rated as a 2-star prospect, the rest of Virginia’s class is rated on the 3-star level by Rivals.
Virginia’s Class Of 2020 Storylines: In-State Recruiting, Linebacker Recruiting, & Stars and Sleepers
Are In-State Recruiting Fortunes About To Turn Around?
When Bronco Mendenhall and much of his BYU staff headed to Charlottesville four years ago, one of the major questions was how they would fare in terms of in-state recruiting. By signing seven players from the Commonwealth in the past three classes, including just one player this year (albeit in a small class), concerns remain.
Regarding the class of 2020, Mendenhall said the lack of in-state signees is “a product of a small class and it’s a product of defeats. It’s certainly different. Once you’re the best team in the state on a given year, that’s demonstrated on the field, you’re playing in a New Year Six game, there is a different I would say perception that’s formed through winning and excellence. So I think that will take a significant step forward.”
“Lots and lots of players are leaving the state,” added Mendenhall, who saw in-state 4-star senior offensive lineman Jimmy Christ decommit from the Hoos in favor of Penn State. Running back Chris Tyree and offensive lineman James Pogorelc are among the other state of Virginia targets the Cavaliers missed on.
“I keep a list in the room where I work. Many are leaving the state. Of those, I think there were eight players in state that we offered and really wanted that chose elsewhere of the long list. Anyone that we offered in-state that didn’t come, I would say that’s a defeat. I offer them because I want them. If they don’t choose us, there is a reason. I can’t speak for what the reasons are other than we’re going to continue to work on it.”
The in-state high school coaches I’ve spoken with since Mendenhall took over have had nothing but praise for the way they are recruiting. Relationships and effort aren’t the issue. On-field success almost certainly has been when it comes to the top tier in-state kids, but that should change as a result of the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
UVA has enjoyed back-to-back seasons of winning 8-or-more games, and in 2019 the Hoos captured the Commonwealth Cup, won the ACC Coastal Division, and turned in a solid showing in a New Year Six bowl game. Recruits certainly should be taking notice. Mendenhall is feeling some positive in-state vibes. If we don’t see some improvement in recruiting the Commonwealth in 2021, it will be a disappointment.
“For whatever reason, [in-state recruits] haven’t chosen us,” Mendenhall said. “However, I sense that trend is changing. The results in this class, again, because of size, but also some of the defeats within the relative small class magnify that, I still sense momentum being gained. So we’ll see if it plays out the way I’m hopeful for and the way I’m predicting. Eventually, there will be those players that want championship football in their own state. They want New Year Six bowl games in our state. They want to win the game against their rival in our state. Eventually the body of work — there will be a tipping point at some time. I don’t know when that is. We’re certainly not there yet.”
Cavs Continue To Stockpile Linebackers
There is a lot to like about Virginia’s linebacking corps, present and future.
In 2020 the Cavaliers project to start senior Zane Zandier and either senior Rob Snyder or sophomore Nick Jackson at inside linebacker. Senior Charles Snowden and junior Noah Taylor should fill the outside linebacker starting roles with senior Matt Gahm in the rotation as well. With this group intact, this position will be a strength for the Hoos in 2020.
Virginia’s 2019 Class of linebackers is promising beyond Jackson. There is outside linebacker Jairus Satiu, who earned playing time on special teams as a true freshman in 2019. Fellow true freshman inside linebacker Josh Ahern received praise for his practice play. Neither Hunter Stewart nor D’Sean Perry played, but both were well regarded coming out of high school in the class of 2019.
Virginia added three more quality players to the mix in 2020. The 6’4”, 215-pound Horton lacks experience, having played only one year of varsity football. He more than makes up for it with dynamic athleticism and speed off the edge. He’s in a great position as he’ll have the opportunity to learn behind Snowden, Taylor and Gahm. When his time comes, Horton has the chance to be a star. Williams, a fellow Louisiana native, may not be as dynamic athletically as Horton, but he’s certainly got a lot of potential off the edge.
And then there is Brady, who I think is a sleeper in this class. UVA Co-Defensive Coordinator/Outside Linebackers Coach Kelly Poppinga tweeted the following about the Tar Heel State star last December: “Wahoo fans this guy is going to be a star! One of the athletic and dynamic athletes in this class! Can’t wait to coach this guy! #HoosRising #GoHoos”.
The 6’3”, 200-pound Brady reminds me of Zandier in some ways. Both players played wide receiver and defensive back in high school, a testament to their versatility and overall athletic ability. Brady will need a year or two to develop physically, but I think the coaches are excited about his potential and ability to fit wherever they may need him at linebacker.
Stars & Sleepers
Gentry. What UVA lacked in terms of quantity in offensive line recruiting, it made up for with quality. Gentry is an outstanding tackle prospect capable of being a 3 or 4-year starter. In addition, he fits UVA’s “and” perfectly as a great student and a great athlete.
Virginia won’t get to see Gentry in uniform until 2022. Coming off an LDS trip, whether or not he contributes right away depends on what shape he’s in. As soon as he gets in football shape strength and size-wise, he has the ability to step in as a starter. His arrival in 2022 comes after Virginia’s current starting offensive line group will have moved on, so he may be needed to play sooner rather than later.
Defensively, Horton has the makings of a star. His upside is tremendous and he is entering a great situation that will allow him time to develop.
As you can tell, I like Sam Brady and his future as an inside or outside linebacker at Virginia. My sleeper on defense, though, is Dave Herard. A 3-star is not much of a sleeper, but the Fort Lauderdale native is not being discussed much in this class. Herard played quarterback his senior season and played well. He played well no matter where he lined up in high school, a sign that he is simply a good football player. With his speed, he could be a big benefit to UVA either as a corner or potentially as a safety.
Offensively, let’s go with Armstead. He’ll have to show he can pass the football on a high-major Division 1 level. He has the arm strength, though, and as a runner he has the ability to gain tough yards and also break big plays. I do think he’ll need time to develop, but again his physical skillset is what Mendenhall is looking for … if his accuracy is up to par.