Part 4: The Ripple Effect
Recent Tidewater recruiting triumphs could facilitate future success
“This could be a national power program”
Henry Coley, a star linebacker at Bayside High School in Virginia Beach in 2009, came to terms with a harsh reality prior to his senior season. His grandmother was dying of cancer.
Coley put everything else on hold to be by his grandmother’s bedside, reneging on a commitment to attend his official recruiting visit at Virginia. Mike London, the new head coach in Charlottesville, reacted with empathy. He invited Coley back the following week and earned the linebacker’s admiration in the process.
“That’s one of the biggest reasons that made me invest everything I had into coach London,” Coley said. “That was more because it wasn’t just about football for him. It was also about that family. My grandma is basically on her deathbed … and he understood where I was coming from whenever I had to deal with that.”
Coley became the first of a slew of top prospects to commit to the University from Bayside, and his presence at Virginia was far more than incidental in that trend. In many ways, Coley helped kickstart a movement that has drastically altered the Cavaliers’ recruiting fortunes — whether he meant to or not.
When Bayside senior safety Demetrious Nicholson — a four-star prospect and Coley’s close friend — began to consider his collegiate options in 2010, he called his former teammate to gauge his impressions of the University. Coley did not pressure Nicholson to join him, but he still affected Nicholson’s December 2010 decision to decline offers from North Carolina, Michigan and others to become just the second Rivals Top 100 prospect since 2005 to commit to the Cavaliers.
“Him being here really influenced me because I enjoy coming to a school where I already had someone that could show me a way to go when I get there,” Nicholson said.
Since Nicholson’s 2011 class, at least one prospect from Bayside has committed to the University each year: sophomore safety Anthony Cooper in 2012, freshman running back Taquan Mizzell in 2013 and class of 2014 top-rated safety Quin Blanding. The success that Nicholson enjoyed at Virginia in his first season — earning Freshman All-American honors for a team that enjoyed a revival on the field — resonated with Bayside’s top prospects.
“I think that other guys look at how Tre carries himself, and the things that he does on the field as well as off the field, and I think more and more guys want to be a part of that,” Bayside coach Jon White said. “That’s the main reason why Anthony Cooper chose it, that’s the main reason why Taquan Mizzell chose it, just follow suit. It started with Henry Coley.”
But the ripple effect from Coley and Nicholson extended well beyond Bayside High School. Positive reports about Cavalier football and the direction of the program under London have spread by word of mouth, from one recruit to another, from one class to the next across the Tidewater area. That message has enabled Virginia to improve its recruiting capabilities at a seemingly exponential rate — at least in the Tidewater area.
“The one thing that I recognize is that the sense of team is just fantastic, I mean it’s just beautiful,” White said. “And that’s why I think more and more guys are really buying into it and really putting forth efforts to get U.Va. strength because of the fact that the right things are being preached and taught at that University in regards to football.”
Players that had already formed close bonds with one another since childhood were given an opportunity to reunite at an in-state school that prided itself on providing a family atmosphere for its players. That offer proved too much for many prospects to pass up, even when weighed against offers from more traditionally dominant football schools.
“Why wouldn’t you want to go somewhere where you’ve been around your brothers?” Coley said. “I didn’t move to Virginia until I was 12, but these guys have been playing together since they were 8, 9 years old.”
The tight-knit nature of the Tidewater area may allow current Cavaliers to reach back into their former hometowns to persuade undecided recruits to choose Virginia. Currently uncommitted Ocean Lakes senior defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi — the No. 41 prospect in the nation and the second best defensive tackle in the class of 2014 behind Oscar Smith senior and Cavalier verbal commitment Andrew Brown — watched Virginia’s 59-10 loss to Oregon along with other recruiting targets
“We all train together, so I know what they’re capable of doing and I know how they play,” Blanding said of the uncommitted talent in the Virginia Beach area. “So you can go back to where you’re from and get the players from another year and get them up there with us.”
Rivals Mid-Atlantic recruiting analyst Adam Friedman said an effective selling point for Virginia has been the allure of building something up from scratch. In that sense, Virginia can offer something that esteemed programs such as Alabama cannot. By virtue of its checkered recent history on the gridiron, the Cavaliers can offer recruits the opportunity to be the catalyst for a turnaround rather than to simply maintain a program’s legacy.
“Wanting to build something is something that we see in recruits a lot,” Friedman said. “Taking pride in something that they’ve built, not something that they’ve just come in and interviewed into, like you would at like an Alabama. That train’s already rolling. Guys who go to Virginia are guys who want to start something, really.”
Aside from the allure of playing with childhood friends and building a program from the ground up, strong recruiting success in the Tidewater area may improve the Cavaliers’ recruiting capabilities on a national level for another simple reason. Players want to play for good teams. If the recent commitments pan out the way London hopes, prospects nationwide may begin viewing Virginia as a viable destination.
“With this recruiting class, if they stay until they’re seniors, they have the potential — success breeds success, so if you can continue to have a great recruiting class this year, that can help the momentum into next year’s class and so on and so forth,” Friedman said. “So by the time that the 2014 class are upperclassmen, this could be a national power program.”
Friedman did caution that many variables could derail the Cavaliers’ ascent, including poor quarterback play, injuries and coaching turnover.
“There are so many things that can happen between now and then that it’s really tough to make a prediction like that,” Friedman said. “But they certainly have a chance to do [turn things around], especially with the caliber of players they’re starting to get.”
Still, the balance of recruiting power in the Commonwealth, so long centered in Blacksburg, is seemingly shifting east. Something is brewing in Charlottesville, and more and more top-flight Tidewater recruits are shunning football mainstay Virginia Tech to be a part of it.
“Virginia is where I’m from pretty much,” Blanding said of his decision to commit to Virginia. “I mean, yeah, I know you’ve got Virginia [and] Virginia Tech, but I just feel like Virginia back in the day was the number one school pretty much in the nation, number two in the nation. So why not bring it back and be back to where we started from, and just go from there?”