By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In 2002, the UVa football team landed a heralded recruiting class that included such players as Darryl Blackstock, Ahmad Brooks, Brad Butler, Willie Davis, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Marcus Hamilton, Wali Lundy, Kai Parham and Jason Snelling.
Al Groh ran the program then, and his recruiting coordinator was Mike London. In December 2009, London succeeded Groh as head coach, and this week the Cavaliers signed another highly regarded class.
Asked Wednesday to compare the ’02 and ’11 classes, London said, “I would say that the accolades and the accomplishments of this class are very, very similar to that one.”
The 2002 signees included four Parade All-Americans: linebackers Brooks and Parham, defensive lineman Kwakou Robinson and tailback Michael Johnson.
Many of the most touted recruits in this class — including cornerbacks Brandon Phelps and Demetrious Nicholson and wide receivers Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell — will operate more on the edge, but “I would say that in terms of a skill level, [they’re] very similar in terms of what they can provide on the field,” London said.
HIGH-STAKES POKER: Twenty-four hours before the start of signing day, UVa was still involved with four uncommitted prospects: Jennings, Terrell, linebacker Curtis Grant and cornerback A.J. Hendy.
The Wahoos batted .500. Jennings picked Virginia over Ohio State and Wake Forest. Terrell chose UVa over West Virginia and Miami (Fla.). Grant signed with Ohio State and Hendy with Maryland.
Not every signing day at UVa has included such drama, but that comes, London said, with the pursuit of elite prospects.
“Going into the final stretch, it’s a little bit more nerve‑wracking, because we start getting into a position where we won’t know until the final day about if we’re one of the top three or top two or whatever it is,” London said. “It’s a risky proposition knowing that you could lose out on, if you had four guys, lose out on all four of them.
“But at the same time, if you can put yourself in a position like that” and sign two out of four, London said, “I think those odds, talking high-caliber players like that, are pretty good.
“Hopefully for a while we’ll continue to attract high-caliber players in signing days.”
COMFORT ZONE: He joined London’s staff about three weeks before national signing last year, so Shawn Moore did not play a big role in putting together the recruiting class that signed with UVa in 2010.
This year, however, Moore made his presence known. He and fellow assistant Anthony Poindexter recruit the D.C. area, and together they helped persuade several blue-chip prospects from Maryland to sign with Virginia, including Jennings, Phelps, Vincent Croce and Marco Jones.
In all, six recruits who played their high school football in Maryland signed with UVa.
Moore, who coaches the Cavaliers’ wide receivers, had never recruited before returning to his alma mater, but he’s proven to be a natural.
His son, Michael, plays at DeMatha Catholic High, and Moore formerly worked at St. Albans School in D.C. So he’s familiar with the many of the schools and coaches in the D.C. area. It also helps, Moore said Wednesday, to have Poindexter as his partner.
“Anthony has a reputation up there,” said Moore, who was a three-year starter at quarterback for George Welsh.
“Kids love him. Coaches love him. For me, I’d been up there for the last 10 years, so it’s easy to kind of just fall into those relationships, the ones he’s had. We have a good rapport with the kids and the coaches there, so when we go there, it’s not like when they see us it’s a burden.
“Sometimes you’ve got to set two hours aside, because you’ve got to spend quality time with those coaches and those kids. I love having that area and splitting it with Anthony. I think when we go in together, we’re a pretty good team, we’re a pretty good tandem when we go in and we see a coach or we see a kid. It makes it easy for both of us, because we have one another to lean on.”
Virginia has signed several players from Washington Catholic Athletic Conference powers DeMatha and Good Counsel in recent years, and it will “continue to go in those same schools every year,” Moore said. “We’ll continue to try to build those relationships and continue to get kids, because they’re always going to have great football players out of those schools.”
Moore, who as a UVa senior in 1990 finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting, said he still has much to learn about recruiting.
“For me, I think, in certain areas, like the D.C./Maryland area, it’s easy,” Moore said. “New Jersey, Delaware and Atlanta, it’s tough. There’s relationships I don’t have. There are a few, when I go into Atlanta, there are a couple coaches that I know, and guys that I either played against or played with, and those relationships are easier. But Maryland/D.C., it’s a perk for me to go into those areas.”
HIGH-MOTOR PROSPECT: Croce, who’s listed at 6-4, 250 pounds, played tight end and linebacker for Good Counsel in 2010. He’ll be a defensive end at UVa, and Jeff Hanson is eager to work with him.
Croce was The Washington Post’s All-Metro defensive player of the year in 2010.
“He’s an intense guy that just flies around and makes play because he wants to get there,” said Hanson, who coaches UVa’s defensive line.
“He’s athletic, now, but he’s the kind of kid that we want our front to be, as far as the mental makeup of our front. Football is important to him, along with the academics, but he is a guy that gets to the football and makes plays. And that’s what we were so impressed with. He might be a step slow to be a linebacker, but traditionally what we’ve done is we’ve taken big linebackers and we’ve put them down, and they become very good down players. He was a great linebacker, but I think he’s going to be a great defensive end.”
MAN OF MANY TALENTS: Daquan “Da-Da” Romero played defensive end at Phoebus High, where he had 30 sacks as a junior and 19 as a senior. The 6-1, 212-pound Romero will be slotted at outside linebacker at UVa, but defensive coordinator Jim Reid envisions using him in a variety of roles.
Romero, who twice was named the Peninsula District defensive player of the year, enrolled at UVa last month.
“He’s what I would call, what I told him was, he was a hybrid linebacker. What’s going to happen here is very similar to what we did in Miami,” said Reid, who coached the Dolphins’ outside linebackers in 2008 and ’09.
“He’s going to be one of those linebackers that we always placed on the field that has some pass-coverage responsibility. Yet that’s also the linebacker that we bring quite a bit in pass rush … So when we go to nickel defense, don’t be surprised to see him line up on the outside, as a defensive end, with his hand on the ground, and go. Because he has some of that dynamic initial movement that we were looking for in our recruiting class.
“When we were recruiting him, I just saw him as a dynamic space player that could come off the edge and give us pass rush. And he really looked good on our field when he played here. He really looked fast, he really looked quick.”
In December, Phoebus beat Stone Bridge in the Group AAA, Division 5 championship game at Scott Stadium. The state title was the Phantoms’ third straight.
DYNAMIC DUO? They’re projected to be wideouts at UVa, but Jennings and Terrell were quarterbacks for their high school teams in 2010 — Jennings at Gilman School in Baltimore, Terrell at Osbourn High in Manassas.
“It opens possibilities in the kind of plays you can run,” said Virginia offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, himself a former quarterback.
“Again, time will tell. We’re very open to that. They’ve proven that they can throw the football, so that’ll be fun to see how that fits into the offense. And also, when you get guys who were quarterbacks, and very successful quarterbacks, you expect that you get guys who understand football and who are smart players. And what I’m hoping is that that translates into them learning and being able to contribute quickly. Time will tell, and that’ll play itself out on the field. But I expect we get guys in those guys who are real savvy guys, who understand the whole game, and it’s going to be a lot of fun to see how that plays out.”
Jennings and Terrell are among the incoming recruits who are likely to play as true freshmen. Jennings is the all-time leading rusher at Gilman. Terrell rushed for 2,077 yards and passed for 1,430 during his senior season at Osbourn.
“I do think they have unique skills that they bring to the table,” Lazor said. “I think when you watch them on film, you see really special guys. I don’t want to compare them to anyone else, but we’re excited to have them. I think they bring explosiveness to our offense potentially.
“They’re going to prove it when they get here, but we saw the potential for explosiveness with their speed, their proven playmaking ability. Our job as coaches is to find the very best way to put the ball in their hands and to make sure we’re doing a great job teaching them to play as much as they can possibly play. Time will tell how fast that happens, but I think they add explosiveness.”
FAMILY AFFAIR: When Scott Wachenheim, now UVa’s tight ends coach, was offensive coordinator at Liberty University, his top players included Terrell’s brother, Zach.
The older Terrell played running back, slotback and quarterback for the Flames, whose head coach is former UVa assistant Danny Rocco. Also on the team at Liberty then was safety Chris Rocco, whose brother, Michael, is a rising sophomore at UVa. Michael Rocco (a nephew of Danny) is among the candidates to replace Marc Verica as the Cavaliers’ starting quarterback this year.
“Zach Terrell was a great football player for us at Liberty University,” Wachenheim said Wednesday. “Zach had great vision, was a great make-you-miss guy, had great hands, could catch the ball in traffic. He wasn’t very fast, but he could cut full speed.”
As for Zach’s kid brother, “I actually got a chance to coach Dominique in camp at Liberty as a [high school] freshman, and he was the best player in our whole entire camp at Liberty as a freshman,” Wachenheim said. “There was no doubt, he was a can’t-miss Division I prospect as a freshman.
“Dominique’s much faster than his brother. He’s much quicker than his brother. I think what he does similar to his brother is, he has the same vision, really sees who’s coming to make a hit on him. He’s got the same ability to make a guy miss that his brother does. I think he’s got the same natural hand-eye coordination catching the football as his brother.”
IN THE TRENCHES: The Cavaliers’ recruiting class includes four offensive linemen: 6-4, 290-pound Ross Burbank, 6-7, 295-pound Tim Cwalina, 6-7, 285-pound Kelby Johnson and 6-6, 290-pound Jay Whitmire.
Burbank may play center at UVa, offensive line coach Ron Mattes said Wednesday. The others all have “tackle-type bodies,” Mattes said. “If they get a little bigger and they’re maulers, we’ll put them at guard.”
What the four have in common, Mattes said, is that “they’re very athletic. They’re big guys who can run and can move. And if you get that, you can teach them how to play football. As long as you’re athletic, you can bend, and you’re not stiff, you can play offensive line. It’s all about moving your feet. You can teach them landmarks, you can teach them techniques, you can teach them how to pass [protect], but you can’t teach them how to be athletic.”