After beating rival Virginia Tech for the first time in 15 years and earning a trip to the Orange Bowl to cap off the 2019 season, the future of Virginia football undoubtedly looks bright. With National Signing Day over and Virginia’s 2020 recruiting class solidified, there is now even more reason to be optimistic. Virginia’s class for 2020 ranks ninth in the ACC and 48th nationally, according to 247 sports. While those numbers do not pop off the page, Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s class features players that will have an opportunity to make a significant impact.
It is no secret that Mendenhall values experience in his starting lineups. In 2019, Mendenhall utilized only one freshman over the course of the season in starting lineups — defensive tackle Jowon Briggs. However, after losing 78 percent of his offense in the form of senior quarterback Bryce Perkins and forfeiting talented defensive stalwarts such as senior cornerback Bryce Hall and senior linebacker Jordan Mack to graduation, there will be plenty of holes for these incoming freshman to fill. With that being said, it will be interesting to see how Mendenhall plans to use his incoming recruits for the upcoming season. In the meantime, let’s take a look at who has the potential to make a splash for Virginia football going forward.
At 6 feet 8 inches, 310 pounds, Gentry is a mammoth on the offensive line, with the lower body strength to challenge defensive linemen and the sly agility to keep up with blitzing linebackers and safeties. He ranks as Virginia’s highest-rated recruit in the 2020 class and sixth best tackle overall. While Virginia’s offense was a powerhouse in 2019, the offensive line struggled at times. The Cavaliers allowed 41 sacks in 14 games last season, forcing Perkins to improvise many times. Perkins is a one-of-a-kind creator, and it is hard to envision the Cavaliers finding another diamond in the rough when it comes to the quarterback position. Whoever is at the helm in the coming years will need a solid line in order to build confidence as a passer.
As of now, junior Bobby Haskins is set to return as the team’s left tackle, while senior Dillon Reikensmeyer is projected to start at right tackle once again. Additionally, Gentry will serve a two-year religious mission trip prior to playing college football. It will be a while before Cavaliers fans see Gentry on the field, but there is plenty to be excited about when he returns to Virginia to begin his collegiate football career.
Williams is an athletic outside linebacker who possesses the elite bend and speed on the edge to get to the quarterback. After seeing the success of the freakish tandem of linebackers in junior Noah Taylor and senior Charles Snowden on the edge in previous years, it is no surprise that Mendenhall made an effort to recruit an active player that fits the mold of the aforementioned defensive stars. The disruptiveness of Taylor and Snowden in 2019 proved to be lethal for Virginia’s defense, as the tandem combined for 12 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss.
With Snowden and Taylor set to reprise their roles as the teams starting edge rushers, there will be no pressure on Williams to come in and make an immediate impact. The New Orleans native can take a year to learn from the experienced duo before, hopefully, taking the reins from Snowden in 2021.
Similar to Williams, Horton has great speed off the edge. However, he has the versatility to put his hand in the dirt and play as a defensive end because of his enormous power and tenacious mindset. After playing his first season of football during his senior year of high school, there is plenty of potential for Horton to develop into a star for Mendenhall. At the moment, Horton is extremely raw, but has a quick get off from the line of scrimmage and has an aggressive mindset. He has a great frame at 6 feet 5 inches, 215 pounds but has more room to add muscle and truly become a menace. His versatility on the line will be key for the Cavaliers in the upcoming season, giving them more flexibility in their rotations along the defensive line.
In 2019, Virginia’s secondary struggled to stay away from injuries. Projected starting junior cornerback Darius Bratton tore his ACL before the season began, and Hall was lost for the season midway through the season. With Bratton returning opposite senior Nick Grant at cornerback, and seniors Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson set to start at safety, the secondary for the Cavaliers appears to be set. However, if there is a lesson to be learned from last year for Mendenhall and his staff, it is that there cannot be too big of a rotation in the secondary. Enter safety Elijah Gaines, a rangy safety with a nose for the ball. Gaines possesses great position flexibility, with the speed and long frame to play free safety and nickel corner, and the power to play at the line of scrimmage as a linebacker. Gaines checks in at 6 feet 2 inches, 193 pounds, and will serve as a chess piece for Mendenhall in his first year.
Armstead is the biggest mystery in this class. He stands tall at 6 feet 3 inches, 200 pounds and has an extremely high ceiling. Recruited to be the eventual heir to Bryce Perkins, he possesses the measurables and dual threat ability that made Perkins so lethal. It is easy to envision him taking the keys to the offense and putting up similar numbers. Armstead will challenge the 2019 backup, junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong, for the starting quarterback role, but it is likely that Armstead will need time to develop behind Armstrong before he is ready to lead the Cavaliers.