By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Did UVa truly “take back the state” from Virginia Tech in football recruiting this year, as many analysts proclaimed last week on national signing day?
Check back in a couple of years. We’ll know more then about how much Mike London’s first full class of recruits will contribute to his program and more about the impact of Frank Beamer’s recruits in Blacksburg.
This much, though, is clear now: The message spread by London and his assistants resonated with prospects in the state’s Class of 2011, as well as with their high school coaches.
Of the 26 members of the Cavaliers’ recruiting class, 17 played high school football in this state, including quarterback David Watford and linebacker Daquan Romero, Peninsula District stars who began classes at UVa last month.
Overall, the Wahoos landed 14 of the top 35 prospects in the state’s Class of 2011 as ranked by The Roanokes Times. Virginia Tech, by comparison, signed eight of the newspaper’s top 35.
The Cavaliers’ success in the state this year, London said, will make it easier for them to do well here in 2012, too. The top prospects in that class, London said, will note that Watford, Romero, cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, tailback Clifton Richardson, offensive lineman Jay Whitmire and many other 2011 standouts chose UVa.
“Now the next five-star or four-star [prospects] will look and say, ‘Those guys went there.’ ” London said. “So there’s a feeling of, ‘I want to go there also.’ “
Recruiting well in the state is critical, London said, “because when a player comes, a community comes. And the young man that’s growing up watching, he watches you go back and forth from home with that V-Sabre and that cap and that gear, and the TV coverage that the local people give you because you’re an in-state player. It becomes significant, and if you can do that throughout the state, it raises your profile.”
As has been well-chronicled, Virginia is a talent-rich state whose high-school greats have included such players as Shawn Moore, Anthony Poindexter, Michael Vick, Chris Long, Bruce Smith, Tyrod Taylor, Ronald Curry, Cornell Brown, Lawrence Taylor, Chris Slade, Terry Kirby, Tiki and Ronde Barber, Thomas and Julius Jones, Heath Miller and James Farrior.
“The list goes on and on and on,” said Poindexter, a former All-America safety at UVa who’s now an assistant coach at his alma mater.
For the past decade, Virginia Tech has signed more of the state’s top prospects than UVa. Not coincidentally, perhaps, the Hokies have dominated the ‘Hoos on the field and been fixtures in the top 20.
How important is it for the Cavaliers to get their share — or more — of the state’s top players?
“I think it’s everything,” said Long, now a defensive end with the St. Louis Rams. “I think it’s the key to recruiting: focusing on the state and restoring a sense of in-state pride, so when guys go to school at Virginia, they can take ownership of not just their university but kind of the whole state, and take pride in that.
“Not only do we have great talent in the state … but when it’s your home state, that’s also another thing that can help fuel you.”
Players in the recent Pro Bowl, Long noted, included three Virginians: Vick, DeAngelo Hall and Jerod Mayo. In the Super Bowl, the Steelers’ starters included Miller and Farrior.
“Everywhere you look there’s guys from the state of Virginia,” said Long, who grew up in Ivy and attended St. Anne’s-Belfield School.
No one has to tell London what kind of talent resides in the state.
He was born in West Point, N.Y., but grew up in Tidewater and played football at University of Richmond. He’s been an assistant at UR, UVa and William and Mary. He was Richmond’s head coach for two seasons before taking over at UVa in December 2009.
At his introductory press conference at John Paul Jones Arena, London made clear that he intended to make UVa football relevant again in the state. His actions have matched his words. Virginia held one of its spring practices in Norfolk last year, and London said recently that similar events are planned in Tidewater and Northern Virginia this year.
London and his staff have traveled across the state, working to repair relationships damaged during Al Groh’s tenure as UVa’s coach.
“We are trying to do things to be accessible and available,” London said, “and to get high school coaches to think that they we are trying to be inclusive when we’re talking about recruiting their players.”
Anything the Cavaliers can do to “get [high school players and coaches] on Grounds,” London said, “we’re looking to do that.”
UVa’s coaches have made a concerted effort, London said, to make sure they talk to “every in-state player that [high school] coaches recommend to us, that we give them a fair evaluation [to see if] they fit our needs academically and athletically, then to do a good job and make sure that we recruit them.”
That effort is paying dividends in recruiting. So is the University’s decision to hire London.
“I think at the end of the day, with all these kids, it came down to they wanted to play for Coach London,” Poindexter said on national signing day.
Defensive coordinator Jim Reid echoed those comments.
“People like Coach London,” Reid told reporters. “You know that. He’s genuine, and everybody wants us to win.”
Of the Cavaliers’ recruits, nine are the from the “7-5-7,” the state’s storied Tidewater region: Watford, Romero, Nicholson, Richardson, offensive lineman Ross Burbank, defensive tackle David Dean, defensive back Kameron Mack, linebacker Caleb Taylor and safety Mason Thomas.
UVa’s lead recruiter for most of those players was cornerbacks coach Chip West, a graduate of Kecoughtan High School in Hampton.
“Just understanding the dynamics of the state, you want to have some kind of success down there,” West, a former assistant at Old Dominion University, said on national signing day. “It was a focal point in the sense that we felt there were good players down there and we wanted to recruit them and thought they were a great fit for us. Today we’re finding out that they wanted to come to Virginia, that Virginia was a great fit for them.”
Nicholson, a senior at Bayside High in Virginia Beach, was named the state’s Gatorade player of the year for 2010. He also was one of the two Virginians named to the Parade All-America team.
The other was Hermitage High linebacker Curtis Grant, who on signing day chose Ohio State over UVa. The Roanoke Times rated Grant the state’s No. 1 prospect and Nicholson No. 2.
Grant had an excellent relationship with UVa’s coaching staff, and it’s “unfortunate that he’s one that got away,” London said.
Still, London believes, the ‘Hoos reeled in so many of the other top prospects in the state that the next generation of high school stars in Virginia “could say, ‘Listen, let’s build it, stay in state, and let’s build this thing.’ “
If enough of them choose to do so, don’t be surprised to see UVa back among the ACC’s elite.
“There’s lot of good talent here in the state,” said Poindexter, who graduated from Jefferson Forest High near Lynchburg.
“You can see that if you can keep the talent in the state, both programs, us and Tech, have a chance to field very good teams. Obviously, you’ve got to get the right guys and the right fit for your program, but it’s always a bonus and a plus when you can get guys from within the borders.”