Virginia Football Notes: Increased Focus On Recruiting Proved Fruitful For Cavaliers

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Between April 17 and May 12, the University of Virginia football program received eight verbal commitments in the class of 2021 and announced the signing of three transfers, including two graduate transfers who will be eligible to play this season.

With spring football canceled because of the coronavirus, Virginia football head coach Bronco Mendenhall and staff turned their attention to the recruiting trail. Virtual visits surfaced as a substitute to in-person official and unofficial experiences, and Mendenhall made sure his staff was ready.

“I’m not sure how many times you’ve heard me say it, but organizations are designed for the results they get,” Mendenhall said in a video conference session with media on Thursday (May 21). “We’ve just shifted a lot of our focus that would have been on our team from spring practice into the talent acquisition and the selection process, and so we’ve put increased emphasis on it. We’ve designed protocols and processes that utilize technology and we’ve worked really hard. Coming off the success and the growth of our program over the past four years, we have momentum. We are leveraging that. Our messaging is really precise and we put that with the right processes and the right emphasis, and the yield is reflecting that.”

“Human interaction,” Mendenhall said, was/is the most difficult part of recruiting virtually.

“There’s usually some intuition and a feel and a sense that you get when you’re with somebody in person,” Mendenhall said. “We’ve really tried to be just so authentic and transparent through the virtual world that they could see exactly what they’re getting and who we are, and it’s been pretty much reciprocated on their part. Just the lack of human interaction has made it a little bit more disconnected. We’ve had to work around that really hard to ensure that we could resolve any concerns and have the same relationship depth that we could of as if we were in person, and we worked hard on doing that.”

An outstanding virtual visit experience swayed top defensive recruit Josh McCarron to Virginia. 4-star outside linebacker prospect Josh McCarron committed to the Hoos without having ever been on Grounds. He was sold on UVA by a virtual visit and announced his pledge on April 21. The Cavaliers added seven more rising high school senior commits in the ensuing two-plus weeks following McCarron’s decision.

“I had done a couple of [virtual visits],” said the rising senior standout out of the state of Washington in this EDGE Q&A. “They all take about an hour. I give UVA a lot of credit. I’d say they did the best job of bringing UVA to a recruit. I was online with an academic advisor, then [Deputy Athletics Director] Ted White, all while K-Popp was on the phone. I told someone from Scorebook Live in an interview earlier that I was 100% ready to commit to Cal last week, but UVA brought the heat. When I got off the phone, my mom was there. She cried and hugged me because she knew.”

Mendenhall was asked if he is concerned about decommitments once in-person visits are allowed. Virginia currently boasts 13 pledges in the class of 2021.

“Not necessarily,” Mendenhall answered. “I think the amount of communication and the time and the energy and the relationships we’ve built, be it virtually, is still grounding, unifying, and galvanizing. The only real issue to me isn’t necessarily that it’s been virtually. It’s just that with recruiting as fast as it is now and as early, there is just the matter of if you’re effective building relationships and then delivering on the things that you’ve mentioned have happened for young people in your program, then there’s really very little risk that they change. If for some reason those deliverables don’t come through over a longer time frame, then sometimes they have the option to change their mind. So time would be more of the context I would put that in.”

Offensive Line Recruiting

Athens Academy (Athens, GA) defensive lineman pledge Hugh Laughlin has the potential to play on the offensive line on the next level. Some schools recruited him to play offense, in fact. Virginia is recruiting him initially as a defensive lineman, though, which means the Hoos are still in search for their first offensive line commitment in the 2021 Class.

Coach Mendenhall cannot discuss specific recruits, but he did provide an update on the amount of offensive line prospects he hopes to sign in this class.

“We have a number of players that we want at the offensive line position, as we do at each position,” Mendenhall said. “That number has required us to go after five offensive linemen in our first four recruiting classes. That’s what the numbers say we needed. We need four this year. It’s taken four years to have the offensive line become healthy in numbers and quality, but we still need in this upcoming class four more according to our numbers, and then you should see the numbers drop down significantly per year as we become more reloading rather than rebuilding.”

Keytaon Thompson & Virginia Quarterback Recruiting

In his time at Virginia, Coach Mendenhall has successfully taken to the transfer ranks for help at quarterback. Kurt Benkert, who enrolled on Grounds in the summer of 2016 as a grad-transfer from East Carolina, started most of Mendenhall’s first season in Charlottesville and all of 2017. Virginia then recruited junior college transfer Bryce Perkins to the program in January of 2018. He certainly worked out well, guiding the Hoos to 17 wins, a Coastal Division title, a Commonwealth Cup win, a Belk Bowl win and an Orange Bowl berth as Virginia’s starter the past two seasons.

Bronco Mendenhall is excited to have former Mississippi State quarterback Keytaon Thompson in the fold. ~ Photo by Kelly Donoho

Virginia added another transfer signal caller to the program this spring in Keytaon Thompson, a 6’4”, 225-pound graduate transfer out of Mississippi State.

“It started really from high school and Ricky Brumfield being aware of Keytaon out of high school,” Mendenhall said, recalling his program’s pursuit of the former Landry-Walker (New Orleans, LA) star. “And then the volatility that was going on at Mississippi State with three different coaches, sometimes that just leads to a possible awareness, ‘Wait a second. This player’s graduating early. This is his third coaching staff and he’s not starting and there’s two years left.’ And so you’ve kind of got to keep track of players like that. As Coach Brumfield was in and recruiting and working through his area, through phone and through Zoom, etc., basically those are how players like that resurface. It might be the high school coach saying, ‘You remember so and so from three years ago? Well he’s here now and he’s just getting ready to graduate.’ That’s typically how it happens with graduate transfer players. This one really came from an area coach working his area, and then finding that Keytaon would be leaving.”

Thompson has two years of eligibility remaining. As a grad-transfer, he is eligible to play this season and is expected to compete with rising redshirt sophomore Brennan Armstrong for the starting job. Mendenhall believes Thompson and Armstrong provides UVA with two high-caliber quarterbacks, something he sees as necessary to continuing and building upon the level of success the Cavaliers enjoyed last season. Additionally, he hopes the addition of Thompson helps Virginia’s future at the quarterback position in terms of establishing a clear succession plan.

“It has eluded us to this point, but that is our hope,” Mendenhall said of establishing a succession plan at quarterback. “We prefer to develop from within and have great succession planning. To this point we haven’t added the quality and the volume of young quarterbacks to develop in that succession, but now when you look at this particular year – Brennan and Keytaon, and Lindell Stone is capable of getting us out of any game, any situation basically as a coach/player. He’s really smart and really sharp and manages the offense masterfully. And then we’re bringing along Ira Armstead as well, and then there’s two commitments for our next class that we really like, so I think you’ll see that developing and coming. To this point we haven’t been able to pull it off yet.”

Heading into 2020, Armstrong has three seasons of eligibility remaining while Thompson and Stone each have two. Armstead is a true freshman who enrolled on Grounds this January. The commitments Mendenhall is referring to are Texas dual-threat quarterback Jacob Rodriguez and Virginia dual-threat quarterback Jay Woolfolk. The latter committed to UVA to play football and baseball and was just named 2019-20 Virginia Gatorade Player of the Year in baseball.

More From Mendenhall: Walker Jr.’s Waiver Application Status

– Mendenhall think Indiana running back transfer Ronnie Walker Jr.’s waiver application in in the hands of UVA compliance, who will review the application before sending it off to the NCAA. If the waiver is granted by the NCAA, Walker Jr. will be eligible to play this coming season. If denied, he will have to redshirt in 2020 before having two years of eligibility remaining.

Virginia could use Walker Jr. this season, as rising junior Wayne Taulapapa and rising sophomore Mike Hollins are the only scholarship tailbacks projected on the roster in 2020.

– Virginia’s most recent transfer addition, wide receiver Ra’Shaun Henry, is a graduate transfer out of St. Francis (PA) University. Mendenhall expects Henry, who has one season of eligibility remaining, to be able to take part in Virginia team activities – virtual meetings, etc. – in the next week or so.

– In terms of class of 2021 recruiting, the coaches are in the “relationship building” phase of recruiting with most prospects. The potential loss of summer camps has a greater impact on evaluating the class of 2022, Mendenhall said.

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