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February 6, 2014

Quality class not without issues

When UVa signed its 2013 recruiting class last February, there was every indication that, while it was a good group, the next one would be even bigger. And more important. Possibly historic.

A year later, there are certainly plenty of positives among the group of 17 signees (two already enrolled, one prepping at Fork Union) that Mike London and the Cavaliers welcomed to the fold on Wednesday. But there's unquestionably some issues that stick out about this recruiting cycle and what might have been.

Despite a 2-10 season on the field and a small senior class leaving the program, Virginia signed multiple five-star prospects for the first time since 2002, it's first back-to-back classes with at least one five-star signee in the modern era. The Wahoos got both of those commitments (Quin Blanding and Andrew Brown) before the fall and somehow managed to not only hold onto them but add others to the fold, perhaps none more important than four-star wide receiver Jamil Kamara. In looking at the class of 2014, there are more positives among a versatile, close-knit group than negatives even if the latter requires attention going forward.

Hard work pays off

It has been known for several years that the 2014 class in the Commonwealth would feature some of the best prospects the state has produced in a long, long time. Names of then freshman and sophomore prospects rang out years ago on a national scale and the UVa staff began recruiting these players not long after London was hired as head coach. It's clear that much of the work the staff put in over the past four years paid off. Loyalty and trust in recruiting are hard to come by.

London and his assistant coaches made Blanding and Brown, along with Kamara, priority recruits even when other recruiting cycles were in the forefront. Blanding committed to the Cavaliers almost a year before he signed on Wednesday, and ended up being a great ambassador for the Hoos. Brown had a more open recruitment but his trust in London and relationship with players in the program was too much for the national powers to overcome. It was a standout official visit that sealed the deal for Kamara.

After a 2-10 season on the field and talk of London being on the hot seat, many outside the program wondered aloud why these caliber of players wouldn't want to go somewhere. A big part of the equation was the relationships that London and his staff cultivated over years of recruiting in the area and specifically with the recruits themselves. Time and time again, they refer to London as "real," saying that he takes an interest in recruits as people and not just football players. These top-end recruits trust him and they value the vision that he has shared with them for their futures, and the future of the program. That cannot be denied.

The linchpin

On Signing Day, coaches near and far are praised by those on the outside for their ability to land some of the top prospects. If there was an award for best recruiter amongst the UVa signing class itself, that award would go to quarterback Corwin Cutler. On the recruiting trail, the Virginia Beach native put in work to make sure Virginia's recruiting class was as good as it could possibly be.

Cutler's long-time friendships with several of UVa's signees, including Brown, Blanding, and Kamara, are well documented. But what was just as vital was the way he created an atmosphere among the group, to the point where London even mentioned during his press conference how "close" this recruiting class became. It's hard to show tangible proof of how Cutler (or any other recruit) helped the Hoos hold on to some of these players but it's clear when talking to them that the former Ocean Lakes standout did a great job in both selling the idea of turning the program around and in making UVa feel like home.

A big part of Virginia's path to a turnaround on the field is getting better play from the quarterback position. Which quarterback will be at the reins next season is still up for debate. Cutler will certainly have his chance to prove himself when he arrives for fall camp and if he's the best option, he can win the job. It's also clear from looking at the signing class and how they have spoken about Cutler as a leader and recruiter that he's already done quite a bit to help the program before he even actually arrives on Grounds.

Three in, three out

UVa's 2014 class had more attrition than any previous one under London. Over his tenure, the Cavaliers have done a great job of keeping players committed and eventually signing them, despite on-field struggles or outside interest. Even when teams do well, players changing their minds is simply a part of the recruiting process. This year, Virginia lost three commitments during the cycle but the 2-10 season on the field seemed to have little to do with any of them.

Though London pointed to one-time commit Gary Wunderlich leaving for Ole Miss as a negative that stands out, the only commit that Virginia lost after the season was offensive tackle Will Richardson, who switched to NC State shortly after his official visit.

Sure, prospects flipping goes both ways and the Cavaliers successfully grabbed three players from other schools. But the loss of Richardson, and the lack of offensive line commits overall, is a glaring issue for the class of 2014. It also makes recruiting that position even more crucial for the class of 2015, a year that doesn't set up nearly as well for Virginia the way this class did.

A strange business

In every class, there are a few players that look like good bets to sign with one school that end up going somewhere lese. Virginia's 2014 cycle was no different. Last spring, Derrick Nnadi seemed to be favoring Virginia in a major way, coming very close to committing at one point in the spring. As his recruitment progressed, he started to look harder at other options and eventually the Cavaliers faded. Virginia Tech led for a long time thereafter but the Hokies eventually faded, too, before Nnadi ultimately signed with Florida State.

Recruiting isn't about moral victories and while getting Nnadi on Grounds for an official visit the weekend before Signing Day is nice, missing out on him makes the sting of the "DMV" struggles more significant.

Manassas athlete Greg Stroman looked like a lock to choose Virginia in the spring, and CavsCorner even offered up a "fearless prediction" prior to his pledge to Tech. And he wasn't the only Washington, D.C./northern Virginia/southern Maryland recruit to go from favoring the Hoos to signing elsewhere.

If the Wahoos are going to be able to have successful recruiting classes in the future, that area, especially in the northern part of the Commonwealth, has to be more fruitful.

2015 brings new challenges

The shift in recruiting calendar does UVa no favors. Whereas the 2014 class was smaller, 2015 will be a much deeper class and therefore require more. Virginia already has one commit, three-star athlete Juan Thornhill, committed but other than him, its tough to project who will be a part of UVa's next haul.

In 2014, it was clear that the Hoos had a great chance to land certain players, and they ended up signing most of that group. But in 2015, there aren't as many prospects who are clear leans to Virginia, particularly within the state.

The Cavaliers will also have to deal with the elephant in the room, the team's 6-18 record over the last two seasons. Year five will be a make-or-break season and recruits (and rival recruiters) will know that. Some targets may decide to take a wait-and-see approach and judge for themselves if UVa can improve on the field. Obviously in that scenario, those players could always jump on another offer instead of waiting around to see how the Wahoos play.

How the dynamics of the on-field struggles impact the class UVa puts together will be a crucial storyline over the next calendar year. If the Hoos are able to turn it around and win games, then we could see some solid additions in the class and perhaps momentum building on the trail. If the turnaround doesn't take place, then the entire recruiting class, as well as many other things relating to this program, will be in flux.

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