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O’FARRELL: Virginia football has yet to reach its peak

Notre Dame exposed size and athletic shortcomings in Virginia’s roster, but improved recruiting will help in the future

<p>Better recruiting in the future will help the Cavaliers compete with top programs, especially in the trenches.</p>

Better recruiting in the future will help the Cavaliers compete with top programs, especially in the trenches.

When Virginia football Coach Bronco Mendenhall took the reins of the team in 2016, he inherited a struggling program that had finished with a losing record in each of the last four seasons. After former Virginia Coach George Welsh’s retirement in 2000, the program struggled to maintain its reputation, and for a decade, the football team was the black sheep of the University’s otherwise outstanding athletic program. 

After coaching BYU to a bowl game in each of his 11 seasons in Provo, Utah, expectations were high when Mendenhall arrived in Charlottesville. Now, halfway through his fourth season at the helm, Mendenhall has outperformed even the most optimistic expectations. After a 2-10 record in 2016, his first season, Mendenhall has turned the Cavaliers around at a head-spinning rate, leading the program to its first bowl game victory in 13 years last season.  

With senior quarterback Bryce Perkins and other key players returning, Mendenhall and the Virginia football looked poised for another big year in 2019. After two convincing wins to start the year followed by thrilling victories against Florida State (3-2, 2-1 ACC) and Old Dominion (1-4, 0-1 C-USA), Virginia was ranked No. 18 in the country, entering its highly anticipated matchup against Notre Dame (4-1). 

After taking a 17-14 lead at halftime and starting the third quarter off with a successful on-side kick, Cavalier fans couldn’t help daydreaming about how great this team really could be. Was Virginia really good enough to beat Notre Dame, the 10th-ranked team in the country and one of the most storied programs in all of college football? How far would a 5-0 start and the win in South Bend, Ind. carry us up the rankings? 

The second half brought fans back to reality. Notre Dame pulled away for a 15-point victory after a dominant performance to close the game. The result delivered an important message — Virginia is full of skilled, well-coached players, but the Cavaliers are currently unable to compete with the athletes of elite programs. A telling statistic is the number of four- and five-star recruits on these rosters. Notre Dame had 47 such players and Florida State had 39. For Virginia, it was one player — four-star freshman defensive tackle Jowon Briggs.

The consequences of Virginia’s recruiting shortcomings are most noticeable in its lack of size and athleticism. In the red zone, the Fighting Irish played smash-mouth football, running into the teeth of the Cavalier defense and picking up chunks of yardage nearly every time. Virginia’s running game was stifled by Notre Dame’s imposing defense — the running backs only produced 30 yards on 12 carries. For Virginia, the offensive line is most concerning as the unit allowed eight sacks against Notre Dame and also struggled against Florida State. Perkins was under pressure the whole game, ultimately giving up four turnovers.

While this team is not ready to compete with programs like Notre Dame yet, future Virginia teams may be in a better position to do so. Recruiting can be difficult when a program lacks a track record of success. However, Mendenhall is quickly establishing a reputation of both team and individual success. 

Despite the lack of blue-chip recruits, the program has consistently sent multiple players to the NFL. Recruits are already starting to take notice, as the Cavaliers will have two more four-star recruits coming in next year and have already made offers to several top recruits in the Class of 2021. 

Additionally, the University announced its $180 million athletics master plan last year, which will include a brand new football operations center. The center will feature two football practice fields, a locker room, a team meeting room, an equipment room and staff offices, as well as areas dedicated to strength and conditioning, nutrition, medicine and video operations. 

“This project will enhance the brand of the institution while signaling to everyone in college athletics that football matters at Virginia,” Mendenhall said in support of the plan.

Mendenhall also chose to personally donate $500,000 dollars towards the master plan, signaling his commitment to take Virginia football to greater heights.  

The development of these new facilities — coupled with Mendenhall’s growing record of success — will put Virginia on the radar of top recruits. While the loss to Notre Dame was an unfortunate reality check, the Cavaliers are still well-positioned to win the ACC Coastal division. Additionally, Virginia will have opportunities going forward to establish its presence as a prominent college football program. This season’s No. 18 ranking was not the peak for Virginia football, but it was merely part of the ascent. Mendenhall is just getting started, and the future of the program has never looked brighter.