BLANK: Virginia football searches for depth
For all of Virginia’s problems on the football field in recent years, it has never lacked talent at the top of the roster. In coach Mike London’s last five recruiting classes, according to Rivals, there were three five-star and 15 four-star recruits. This talent has translated to the National Football League as well, with Virginia boasting a 33-year streak of teams selecting players in the NFL draft.
While that draft streak has the potential to end this year, the defense will still be bolstered by former five-star seniors in defensive end Andrew Brown and safety Quin Blanding. This is a familiar sight for Cavalier fans — highly-touted stars carrying a struggling roster. However, this may change, as the classes that follow are lacking in the star power that was once scattered among Virginia’s incoming classes.
By Rivals’ rankings, coach Bronco Mendenhall’s two recruiting classes to date have featured no four- and five-star recruits. On the surface level, a week before national signing day, this lack of top-tier talent seems concerning.
While some may label this a sign of a program laid low by years of poor play, Mendenhall never relied on top-tier recruiting at BYU — in the same five-year stretch from 2011-2015, he recruited zero five-star players and only six four stars. His teams never suffered, as Mendenhall went 43-22 over the stretch, receiving an invite to a bowl game every season.
Top-tier recruits don’t seem to be a key component of Mendenhall’s success. He has had a knack for finding the players he likes and coaching his way to success despite the lack of accolades for his incoming athletes.
Additionally, both of Mendenhall’s recruiting classes at Virginia have been ranked higher nationally than any class he had in his last five years at BYU. The lack of top-notch recruits might not be something Mendenhall fears.
In fact, I would argue Mendenhall’s recruiting classes show a different strategy entirely rather than a failure to execute the old one.
Mendenhall seems to be placing an extra focus on depth — something Virginia football has lacked as of late. Mendenhall has lamented this weakness multiple times publicly.
“We don't have the depth as a team,” Mendenhall said at a preseason press event before his first season began.
This can be a problem with getting through the season with injuries, and it is something Mendenhall has explicitly pledged to address.
“As we look to build the program ... absolutely more depth,” Mendenhall said. “Absolutely more depth.”
Mendenhall has already taken steps towards achieving this goal. Last year, he had 25 commitments. This year, he already has 21 commitments, and he isn’t finished recruiting yet. In London’s final three seasons, Virginia averaged roughly 20 commitments per season — a noticeable drop off.
The recruiting rankings don’t even fully show Mendenhall’s renewed commitment to depth, as he has put a focus on graduate transfers as well. Beginning last season with defensive end Jack Powers and quarterback Kurt Benkert, Mendenhall has demonstrated his desire to focus on a new avenue in recruitment.
This offseason is no different. So far, Mendenhall has reportedly landed two senior offensive linemen from Notre Dame — John Montelus and Colin McGovern — to fill out his team this season.
Given Virginia’s struggles on the field in Mendenhall’s first season, it’s only natural to expect a larger interest in his recruiting efforts. With national signing day rapidly approaching, now seems like as good a time as any to see how that effort is going. The team may not be able to turn things around overnight, but if Mendenhall is to succeed eventually, then the recruits he brings in this offseason are going to have to play a major role.
While the lack of blockbuster incoming talent may be easily noted, it may not be a negative sign for the program at all. Rather, it could be a sign of renewed focus. Splashy recruit signings never led to success for London during his tenure here. Hopefully, Mendenhall’s focus on aspects other than recruiting stars will lead to a more positive outcome.
Jake Blank is a weekly Sports columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Jake_33.