By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Linebacker C.J. Stalker and offensive lineman Grant Polk were the first to arrive at the University of Virginia, enrolling in classes and joining the football team last month. Arriving this summer will be the rest of the Cavaliers’ recruiting class for 2015: the 21 players who signed letters of intent Wednesday.
In all, the class includes nine players from Virginia, five from Pennsylvania, four from Florida, two from New Jersey, and one each from Maryland, Ohio and Georgia.
“Very pleased with this recruiting class,” head coach Mike London told reporters Wednesday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.
London’s counterparts around the country offered similarly upbeat appraisals of their classes Wednesday. That’s a rite of signing day. Recruiting analysts aren’t always as positive, and UVa’s class isn’t ranked among the ACC’s best, but London believes his program addressed its major needs for 2015.
“You look at this class, you don’t see the five-stars, all the glitz and glamour,” London said. “What you see is to me kind of a blue-collar kind of class … They’re going to give us a lot of added depth, a lot of help. Some may have the opportunity to play right away. We just wanted to improve our team, and we did that, particularly closing. Very pleased about the way we finished up.”
The Cavaliers picked up six recruits after the calendar flipped to 2015: wide receiver Warren Craft, linebackers Eric Gallon and Dominic Sheppard, defensive ends Steven Wright and Naji Abdullah, and cornerback T.J. Griffin. Sheppard and Griffin made their announcements Wednesday.
“That was significant for us,” London said of the late surge.
“Those two young men made decisions that were best for them,” London said. “I would love to have had them and helped them finish their careers here, but they’re gone. And so now we move on to the ones that are here … It’s a next-man-up mentality, whether it’s an injury or players leaving the program for whatever reason.”
Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s scheme is one “that applies a lot of pressure, and a lot of players can have opportunities to make plays,” London said.
The Cavaliers played only four true freshmen last year: wide receivers Doni Dowling and Jamil Kamara, safety Quin Blanding and defensive tackle Andrew Brown. Among the freshmen who redshirted were defensive end Darrious Carter and linebackers Cory Jones and Chris Peace.
With Harold and Valles gone, London said, Carter, Jones and Peace are among the returning players who “have a chance now to step up and fill some of those roles, have a chance to step up and be significant in helping this team win football games. And I feel confident about those guys that had to sit and watch, and now it’s their turn.”
“We had to make sure that we shored up our [pass-rushing] capabilities,” London said.
Simmons, like Griffin, starred for Virginia Beach’s Ocean Lakes High School, which finished 15-0 after winning the Group 6A state title at Scott Stadium in December.
Griffin had planned on playing at Wisconsin, where Chris Beatty was an assistant coach in 2014. But after a coaching change at the Big Ten school, Beatty decided to join London’s staff at Virginia. Griffin withdrew his commitment to Wisconsin and, after considering his options, decided to follow Beatty to Charlottesville.
“I had a chance to hire him a couple times,” London said of Beatty, who was a successful high school coach in Virginia before moving into the college ranks. “One time I didn’t hire him. But this opportunity presented itself, and he’s paid [immediate] dividends.”
Beatty, who’ll coach the Cavaliers’ running backs, is one of two new assistants on London’s staff. The other is Dave Borbely, who’s back for a second stint as Virginia’s offensive line coach.
“He’s coached some guys, offensive linemen, that are playing in the [NFL] right now,” London said. “Very excited about the staff, about the men that joined this program and how they can move us further along.”
The recruiting class includes two tailbacks. Both are listed at 195 pounds, but Olamide Zaccheaus, from Philadelphia, stands 5-8, and Chris Sharp, from Princeton, N.J., is 6-2. Sharp has a much larger frame than most of the tailbacks who’ve played at Virginia in recent years.
“It was important to get a guy that had big-back capabilities,” London said of Sharp, a senior at The Hun School. “He’s a strong runner. He’s a very physical runner, and he can address a lot of needs that we have.
“We’ve got good running backs coming back, but at the same time you have to try to address the needs, and he fit one of the needs.”
Zaccheaus, who attends St. Joseph’s Prep, is “fast, athletic and really physical,” London said.
The Cavaliers had hoped to add one final recruit Wednesday, wide receiver Gary Jennings, but the Colonial Forge High senior chose West Virginia. Overall, though, London had few complaints, especially after picking up Griffin and Sheppard on Wednesday morning.
“We got our fair share and feel good about this class,” London said.
Among the recruits London singled out were Craft and Juan Thornhill, who in November 2013 because the first player to commit to Virginia for 2015.
Craft, a 6-2, 185-pound wideout, is a senior at William Fleming High in Roanoke. He’s an exceptional basketball player who at one point was committed to play that sport at Virginia Tech. But the Hokies backed away from Craft after they changed basketball coaches, and UVa’s football staff swooped in.
“I think he might be one of the sleepers of this class, because he’s very, very athletic,” London said of Craft. “Hasn’t played football a whole lot. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to watch his basketball highlights. It’s pretty good. It’s impressive.
“If he can play above the rim in basketball, he can go up and get those [footballs] thrown in the air as well. Very excited about him. He wants to have an opportunity to play early, and we will afford him that opportunity. He can run, he can jump, and he’s very athletic.”
Thornhill, a 6-1, 180-pound safety, is a senior at Altavista High, which has won two straight Group 1A state football titles. He’s also helped Altavista win back-to-back state titles in basketball.
“Very, very excited about having Juan as part of the Cavalier family,” London said.
Spring practice begins March 17 for the Wahoos. With six starters to replace — Harold, Valles, linebackers Henry Coley and Daquan Romero, cornerback Brandon Phelps and safety Anthony Harris — Tenuta faces a significant rebuilding project on defense.
On offense, the core of returning players is larger for coordinator Steve Fairchild, and Virginia hopes to have lineman Jay Whitmire back for training camp in August. Whitmire, a starter in 2013, missed last season with an injury and is recovering from surgery.
Most significant, though, is the experience gained in 2014 by the team’s top two quarterbacks — Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns, who between them passed for 2,741 yards and 18 touchdowns. They’ll be redshirt juniors in the fall.
“I feel good about the quarterback position,” London said.
DATE TO REMEMBER: Season tickets for UVa’s 2015 home schedule, which includes games against Notre Dame (Sept. 12), Boise State (Sept. 25) and Virginia Tech (Nov. 28), will go on sale March 2. They can be purchased online at VirginiaSports.com. To buy tickets over the phone, call (800) 542-8821 or (434) 924-8821.
Season tickets also can be purchased at the Virginia Athletics Ticket Office in Bryant Hall at Scott Stadium.
Fans who did not purchase season tickets last year and would like to be contacted about tickets should click here.