ACC Football, Recruiting

Football Recruiting Changes and So Does Virginia’s Recruiting Strategy

College football recruiting has changed dramatically over the years. Its coverage has changed. How teams recruit has changed. Many years ago, back when UVa was a good football program, each year’s recruiting class was announced with a small-font list of high school players’ no one had heard of in the Sunday sports page. Only George Welsh and recruiting coordinator Danny Wilmer really knew anything about the incoming recruits.

Technology changed all that. With the advent of the all-knowing, all-seeing internet, subscription-based recruiting services like rivals.com & scout.com emerged. Suddenly there was a plethora of recruiting information about 16 & 17-year-old kids who happened to be very good high school football players. Every college fan with an internet connection & $10/month became a recruiting expert. The “star system” of ranking high school players made off-season recruiting battles with your in-state rival a great way to pass the time between the end of bowl season and the first kickoff of the coming year. Beating your rival for a local 5-star recruit was almost as much fun as beating them in November.

The recruiting landscape for college teams has evolved as well. In 2017, there are “haves” and then there is everyone else. We can all name the “haves”. There are about a dozen or so. ‘Bama, LSU, Georgia and the rest of the SEC traditional powers. Ohio St, Michigan, Southern Cal, Notre Dame, Texas, FSU, & Clemson round out the list of big dawgs. The rest of the college football world are also-rans.

The vast majority of the most coveted 4 & 5-star recruits go to the haves. The have-nots fight over the scraps. A handful of the big recruits will eschew the big time programs, but not many. If one were counting recruiting stars the Alabama class looks like a clear autumn sky at midnight in the country. By contrast, the Virginia class looks more like a foggy sky after a rain shower in Seattle.

This does not mean that the also-ran community won’t muster a competitive sacrificial lamb from time-to-time to smack the big boys in the mouth on the playing field. Louisville was one of this year’s shooting starts we thought could run with the big dawgs, but they couldn’t. Over the long term, thanks to the new playoff system which exacerbates the recruiting bifurcation, we all know who has a chance to win a national championship. We also know who doesn’t. Virginia falls in the latter category. To the dismay of the HokieNation, so does Virginia Tech.

The unfortunate reality for Virginia is that it is one of the neediest of the have-nots. Clemson and Alabama each won 14 games last season. Over the past 4 seasons combined, Virginia has won 13 games. Most of the “have” programs won twice as many games in September as Virginia won all year in 2016. I continue to believe however, that Bronco Mendenhall can bring this program back to life and Virginia can be one of the taller dwarves in college football’s division of have-nots. Bronco has to be smart in his recruiting and play a different game than the rest of the wannabe programs.

Bronco had a tough sell this recruiting season. Five losing seasons in a row and the second 2-win season in the past four is not a strong hand when wooing 17-year-old kids. Despite his gale-force head winds, Bronco did a remarkable job. His class of high school recruits is ranked 56th in the nation and 11th in the ACC. For those keeping score at home, this is a pretty typical Bronco class. At BYU the national ranking of his recruiting classes ranged anywhere from 42nd to 71st. He won a lot of football games with recruiting classes that the “experts” viewed as middle of the road.

Bronco recruits “his” kind of kids. A third of last years recruiting class, with whom Bronco spent very little recruiting time, never matriculated to UVa or have left the program. That’s a big hole to fill. That doesn’t happen at LSU or Ohio St. The ’16 kids were not Bronco’s recruits. They were Mike London’s kids that Bronco tried his best to hold on to so he would have enough warm bodies to field a team in the fall. As we are all too aware, the gaps in the program were wide and many opposing running backs darted through them for touchdowns.

Bronco is not standing still however, pinning his plans exclusively on the talents of the high school players who were not recruited by Clemson and FSU. Thanks to Russell Wilson, a new recruiting phenomenon has emerged in the past few years. The graduate transfer. These are players who have their undergraduate degrees in hand (so they can play immediately) but still have eligibility remaining. Some have one year left due to a redshirt year and some have two because they red-shirted and graduated in 3 years. These are the kind of kids Virginia covets, at least in the short term, and Bronco has made good use of this opportunity. He signed two graduate transfers last season in QB Kurt Benkert and DL Jack Powers. Both played extensively.

Virginia signed 25 high school recruits last week that comprise the incoming first year class. As noted this group is ranked 56th nationally by rivals.com – right in the meaty part of the Mendenhall recruiting curve. However, Bronco has already signed 2 graduate transfers (Dual-threat QB Marvin Zanders from Mizzou & OL Colin McGovern from Notre Dame) and has 2 more offensive linemen (another from ND and one from Oklahoma St) very likely on the way. Barring injury or a massive surprise, as Bronco noted in his signing day press conference, he only brings in graduate transfers who can start the following season. For any fan who watched Virginia’s offensive line last year, 3 new, experienced starters next year is not good news. It’s great news.

I applaud Bronco for his graduate transfer strategy. He has to fill holes and can buy time with proven players until he can stock the program with his recruits. The players he is bringing in are a great fit for UVa – they have proven they can succeed in the classroom and most have started at their previous schools. Some had injuries and lost starting jobs, others were recruited over and wanted a clear path to playing time. Lord knows, Virginia has playing time to offer.

I think this is Bronco’s version of “Moneyball” for Virginia football. He cannot go toe-toe with the national programs and expect to compete for national recruits. Given Virginia’s record the past 5 years, he has a hard enough time recruiting regionally in the shallower end of the recruiting pool. So Bronco is going to get high school kids he believes can win at Virginia over time, and he is going to buy time for them to develop and continue to plug holes as needed with graduate transfers who can contribute right away.

The world of recruiting has indeed changed over time. It has changed for both fans and coaches. I applaud the Virginia fans for not losing their minds because UVa does not have a top ranked in-coming freshman class. I also applaud the coaching staff for recognizing the opportunity to upgrade talent with graduate transfers and for selling the broader value of UVa to high school kids. Bronco doesn’t hold a lot of aces in his hand right now. Coaches have to play the cards they hold the best they can, not spend time wishing for a better hand. I think Bronco has done a nice job this recruiting season playing the cards he had. I expect to see the results in the fall.

E-mail David at david [dot] rayner [at] campuspressbox [dot] com and follow him on Twitter @dmrayner.

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1984 UVa graduate, multi-decade fan & football season ticket holder. The longer I follow Virginia football, the more I appreciate the job George Welsh did leading this program.