Part 1: The Decision
Part 1 of a four-part look into how Virginia became a recruiting powerhouse
“Are you stupid?”
Taquan Mizzell and Quin Blanding, former teammates at Bayside High School in Virginia Beach and the first five-star prospects to commit to the University since 2005, share a secret they believe will drastically alter the trajectory of a college football program.
In a matter of moments, Virginia will become the only school in the country to receive a verbal commitment from two of scouting service Rivals’ top-12 prospects in the country, a boon that could shift the balance of power in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
On the morning of June 29, 2013, Blanding and Mizzell drive 15 miles south to the neighboring town of Chesapeake, where star defensive tackle Andrew Brown has set up a press conference to announce his collegiate destination. Brown, a standout senior at Oscar Smith High School, has been labeled an impact pass-rusher with speed, strength and size on the line.
ESPN.com broadcasts a live video feed from Brown’s dining room, where the 6-foot, 3-inch prodigy sits behind a makeshift podium, wearing a silver cross around his neck and a giddy smile upon his face.
“Andrew Waverly Brown III,” Brown begins, “is going to be playing college football at—” He pauses for dramatic effect, letting the tension build to an apex, “U.Va.”
Cheers of approval erupt throughout the room while Brown reveals an orange hat. Among the jubilant spectators, unseen by the camera which zeroes in on Brown alone, Mizzell, Blanding and fellow Cavalier verbal commit Corwin “Turtle” Cutler celebrate alongside the Brown family.
Mizzell, a freshman running back at Virginia, was the first five-star prospect to commit to the University in eight years when he did so in August 2012. Just six months later, Blanding, now a high school senior, became the second.
With his announcement, Brown becomes the third five-star recruit to choose Virginia in a 12-month span and just the fourth in the past decade. The other five-star was offensive tackle Eugene Monroe, who joined the Cavaliers in 2005 and enjoyed a brilliant four-year career before going eighth overall in the 2009 draft to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Brown, Blanding and Mizzell account for three of only 51 five-star recruits in the country during the past two years, according to the scouting service Rivals. They belong to an elite breed of prospects, a club more exclusive than the NFL Pro Bowl roster.
But this shared honor cannot begin to explain what links these young men. It omits their intertwined pasts, pasts that will shape their soon-to-be-shared futures. It overlooks a close friendship and healthy rivalry. It ignores their common upbringing that culminated in, and was renewed by, Brown’s announcement that the trio would reunite in college.
Back at the podium, Brown welcomes his friends and future teammates to the podium while an onlooker shouts, “U.Va. in the house, baby!” The introduction is anything but subtle, and Brown and Blanding decide to make their ambitions for the future of Virginia football explicit.
“It’s a big dynasty,” Blanding says of the 2014 recruiting class. It’s Brown’s turn next, and he decides to up the ante. “It’s gonna be the bomb squad, the ‘Dream Team,’” he says, invoking the back-to-back NBA Champion Miami Heat for comparison.
Brown fields a slew of questions, saying the next crop of Cavaliers can “change a program” and fondly recalling the positive reinforcement he received from Detroit Lions Pro Bowl lineman Ndamukong Suh. When a reporter asks what number Brown will wear in college, the interview turns serious, even as Brown’s endearing smile lingers. He replies that he will switch from “65” to “9,” the date that his mother passed away when he was only 11.
Before the melancholy significance of his answer dawns on him, Brown has moved on. There is no room for sadness on this day of unbridled optimism. Brown allows the scar from his past to fade, if only for an afternoon.
He turns his attention away from the trials and tribulations of his childhood, and toward the glory in front of him, filled with championships, individual accolades and eventually, a trip to a more official podium at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on NFL draft night.
That future begins in Charlottesville in the fall of 2014, where he believes the players gathered in his dining room will play co-starring roles in a golden era of Cavalier football. When the prospects arrive, the only question that will matter is: How good can the program become? But on this day, with Brown answering each query candidly, a more probing question emerges.
Why choose a school that has gone 17-22 since installing Mike London as coach when every program in the country is calling?
“People look at you like, ‘Who does that?’” Brown asks rhetorically, according to the Virginian Pilot. “‘Who cuts off Alabama? Who cuts off Florida? Who cuts off Florida State? Are you stupid?’”
That question has become unavoidable in the past few months. The answer may determine the fate of Virginia football for the next half decade or more.
“Recruiting is the lifeline of any program,” London said. “To make significant changes in your program, you have to acquire that type of talent.”
Without understanding the factors that have contributed to the wave of top prospects choosing Virginia, the recent commitments are “a shocker across the country,” according to Rivals’ Mid-Atlantic recruiting analyst Adam Friedman.
But given what has transpired in the past three years — a blossoming friendship between several of the country’s top prospects, the introduction of a charismatic coach at Virginia from around the same area and a well-executed recruiting blueprint — the result is, at the same time, not surprising to those in the know.
Building the “Dream Team” has necessitated a confluence of fate, an unlikely series of events that, taken together, make the implausible seem probable. Creating a “big dynasty” has required a small group of friends to emerge at the most opportune time and place for Virginia, carrying with them an eagerness to alter the course of a program and a willingness to take the path less traveled to do so.
This is the first installment of a four-part series detailing Virginia’s emergence as a recruiting powerhouse, particularly for prospects from the Virginia Beach area. Part two, “The 757,” will examine the abundance of talent in the Hampton Roads region and examine the relationships between many of Virginia’s most heralded commitments.