Recruiting Breakdown: A big-picture view of UVa's needs
With spring barreling forward toward summer and the rubber of 2023 appearing closer and closer, it’s a good time to take a big-picture view of things.
In our weekly recruiting feature today we’re going to take a look at some areas of focus for the new staff on the recruiting trail and how they will go about building their first full recruiting class at Virginia.
Rebuild the Offensive Line
Virginia’s line was a veteran group in 2021 and they did a really nice job protecting their quarterback. UVa didn’t run the ball enough to evaluate that group’s ability in the ground game, but that group was certainly one that could be trusted week in and week out. Now, with a bunch of lineman transferring out and a few more moving on from college football, OL coach Garett Tujague starts the effort to get a new group to reach the heights that the 2021 group did.
There’s only so much that can be done for this season. The staff went into the transfer portal and added some linemen to the 2022 class late. The line will have a bunch of new faces, and will probably have some growing pains while they learn on the fly.
But for the 2023 team and beyond, recruiting the offensive line is going to be paramount to the long-term success of the offense.
Virginia signed six offensive linemen in 2022 but if we’re being honest, most of them were under-the-radar flyers that the Hoos offered late in the cycle and could have potential to grow into ACC-quality linemen. It remains to be seen how many of them get there, and historical results show that late additions to recruiting classes—meaning players that got Power 5 offers late in the cycle—are a bit of a crap shoot. So the strength of the 2023 and 2024 recruiting classes at the offensive line spots will be key to rebuilding the line’s quality and depth in the years to come.
UVa is off to a good start in that department, with three-star lineman Cole Surber already committed to the Wahoos. North Carolina once again grabbed one of UVa’s top targets in Stafford native Nolan McConnell, but there are still a lot of talented linemen left on the board for the Cavaliers to target. Tujague seemingly has good relationships with scores of recruiting targets that he interacts with, and the new UVa staff will need those interactions to pay off in the form of signatures come this December.
Identify Defenders That Fit
Under the previous coaching staff, there was a certain type of player at each position that was targeted and players that didn’t fit would be passed over. That’s how many coaches operate, but Mendenhall and his staff had a very specific vision on defense, and recruited to it. With John Rudzinski taking over as the defensive coordinator, it seems that the Cavalier alignment and personnel will be a bit more flexible.
In the 3-4 defense that Bronco Mendenhall ran, he prioritized a certain type of defensive lineman and length at the outside linebacker and defensive back spots. Those traits may be important to the new staff, but since the alignment appears to be a bit of a work-in-progress, and could really change throughout the season and year-to-year based on personnel, perhaps the new coaches will simply try to accumulate as many ACC-quality football players as they can on that side of the ball and then find a place to allow them to thrive.
UVa could continue to target long, speedy edge rushers like Charles Snowden, but in a four-man front, outside linebackers have different responsibilities and the primary pass rushers will have their hand in the dirt. That could alter what UVa is looking for at those spots, as well as inside linebacker where responsibilities may be a bit different in a different alignment. In the secondary, Mendenhall’s staff recruited to create their own “legion of boom” style group of defensive backs with plenty of size. Cornerbacks and safeties come in all shapes and sizes, so perhaps the new staff will be a bit more flexible here.
Regardless of the alignment, UVa will need to go out and find players that the coaches feel can handle whatever responsibilities they’re given, and make it work once they get to Charlottesville.
Find the Next QB1
Like they did with defenders, UVa’s previous staff had a very specific type of quarterback that they looked for: The “Thorterback.” A dual-threat player who was physical enough to handle the running-game workload and with a good enough arm to make all of the throws in Robert Anae’s offense, the Thorterbacks didn’t necessarily need to have rocket arms, though Kurt Benkert had one. Additionally, short accuracy was a bigger part of the game plan than stretching the field. But it was clear that the staff wanted a very specific type of quarterback to allow them to do everything they wanted to do schematically. And the results were quite good. Bryce Perkins and Brennan Armstrong both had a lot of success under Anae and Jason Beck and threw for a whole bunch of yards and touchdowns.
The new coaching staff will do things different, but selection and development at the quarterback position will still be just as critical to the success of the program. QB coach Taylor Lamb comes in with a reputation as an up-and-comer, just a few years removed from his own playing career. Tony Elliott served as the offensive coordinator at Clemson that oversaw a pair of national titles, led by first-round quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Deshaun Watson. Clemson’s offense wasn’t as efficient without an elite quarterback, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, but should inform Elliott and his staff when building their roster.
Virginia hasn’t thrown a lot of quarterback offers out yet but it seems that the coaches are a little less locked-in to a specific style of signal caller than the last one was. UVa has offered players like Avery Johnson who can pass and run, but also have offered more pro-style options like Brock Glenn. Both Watson and Lawrence can move around quite well, but neither really fit the “Thorterback” mold. It’s easier for an offense when a quarterback can throw and run, but teams can’t sacrifice arm for athleticism, as it will eventually become a problem.
Regardless of the style of quarterback, finding a solid option in this class, or at least in the 2024 class, is imperative for the new bunch. Armstrong coming back was a big win for them but after this season, the new staff will either need to turn to an unproven younger player on the roster or go into the transfer portal to find a starter. Regardless of which route they go, the Cavaliers will need to have a solid prospect in the pipeline, and one behind them, and so on, in order to sustain success.
Build Relationships at Home
Virginia’s lack of recruiting success in the Commonwealth of late is well documented at this point. In the 2022 class, UVa signed one Virginian, quarterback Davis Lane. The Hoos had more success in other previous cycles, signing nine Virginians in 2021 and eight in 2017, but in most years the previous regime only signed two or three in-state players. Solid recruiting classes can be built without being loaded with Virginia natives but it’s easier to keep a roster together and build on success in various localities once you have some recruiting wins at home.
That is an area for the new staff to put down roots, and try to emphasize having a presence in their home state. The new coaches have made a point of getting out of the road and being visible at high schools around the Commonwealth and the early returns appear to be good from these various high school programs. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the new staff will have to prove to prep coaches that they’re in it for the long haul and are willing to put in the work to build lasting relationships.
UVa also needs to not just land guys from Virginia but find a way to get some of the state’s premier players. That perhaps becomes more difficult with NIL but the new staff seems to have some dynamic recruiters who really have a passion for recruiting. That, plus a new football facility on the way in a couple of years, may make the job a bit easier for this group.