By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – Virginia’s latest recruiting class for football compares favorably to the one that joined his program in 2017, head coach Bronco Mendenhall said, and that’s high praise.
In 2017, when the Cavaliers advanced to a bowl game for the first time in six years, 17 true freshmen played, including linebackers Charles Snowden, Zane Zandier, Elliott Brown and Matt Gahm, defensive lineman Mandy Alonso, defensive backs Darrius Bratton and Joey Blount, offensive lineman Chris Glaser, wide receiver Terrell Jana, kicker Brian Delaney and running backs PK Kier, Lamont Atkins and Jamari Peacock.
Many of them then made significant contributions as sophomores in 2018, when UVA finished 8-5, as did several classmates who redshirted after arriving in ’17, among them offensive lineman Ryan Nelson and defensive lineman Tommy Christ.
In December, 21 players signed letters of intent with Virginia, including three who enrolled last month and have impressed in winter workouts: wide receiver Dorien Goddard and defensive backs Chayce Chalmers and Antonio Clary.
When the second signing period opened Wednesday, UVA added three more players to the class: incoming freshmen Jairus Satiu (linebacker) and Luke Wentz (quarterback) and offensive tackle Alex Gellerstedt, a graduate transfer from Penn State who has two seasons of eligibility left.
“I believe this class that we just signed is similar to our ’17 class in terms of capability of players, how fast they might play, and the impact they might have,” Mendenhall told reporters Wednesday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena. “And so I’m really excited about this class from top to bottom and the needs being addressed, but also just the quality of players.”
Satiu and Wentz are longtime Virginia commitments who, for various reasons, were not cleared to sign in December. Gellerstedt entered the NCAA’s transfer portal after the Nittany Lions’ 2018 season ended.
The Cavaliers could add another graduate transfer or two before the start of training camp, Mendenhall said, but he’s confident that if the class doesn’t grow “we could play and play effectively” this coming season.
Still on UVA’s wish list for this year: another wideout and another offensive linemen.
“I would love another wide receiver, and I would prefer one with two years of eligibility who’s a great student,” Mendenhall said. “I think that fits really well at UVA. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t consider [a] one-year player.”
The Cavaliers’ 2018 season didn’t end until Dec. 28, when they blanked South Carolina 28-0 in the Belk Bowl, and the long year took a physical toll on many players. Another offensive lineman would bolster depth at that position, Mendenhall said.
In 2017, Virginia started two grad transfers on the offensive line – Brandon Pertile from Oklahoma State and John Montelus from Notre Dame. Marcus Applefield, a graduate transfer from Rutgers, started at right offensive tackle for UVA in 2018. Kurt Benkert, a graduate transfer from East Carolina, started at quarterback for the ‘Hoos in 2016 and ’17.
“I really don’t want to consider anyone as a grad transfer unless I’m certain they’ll start for us,” Mendenhall said, “and that makes sure they’re happy, they get a great education in addition to what they have, and they are more fulfilled. If it’s not that, it doesn’t seem like that’s necessarily the right thing to do, at least not to me.”
Offensive line coach Garett Tujague is thrilled that the 6-6, 311-pound Gellerstedt can have an extended stay in Charlottesville.
“That’s been the toughest thing [about graduate transfers],” Tujague said. “You take a kid like Marcus Applefield. I’d clone 10 of those dudes and I’d take ’em every time. The legacy he was able to leave in our room, which I think we’ll see here over the next couple years, is unreal.”
Applefield didn’t arrive at UVA, however, until after the 2017-18 academic year ended. With only one season of eligibility left, he was “in and out,” Tujague said. “It’s like a six-month lease. It stinks when they leave, but you’re grateful for the time they gave you.”
The 2019 class includes two players from Germany: the 6-4, 270-pound Wentz and 6-4, 350-pound offensive lineman Kariem Al Soufi. They were part of a group from Europe that visited UVA last season.
“When I saw the kids from Europe, they had just driven through the night to get to our camp, and they competed ferociously,” Mendenhall said, “and they worked really hard, and they were so thankful and hungry for an opportunity, and I was just very impressed with not only the group but with Luke in particular, and so we’re really excited about him.”
Wentz, an outstanding athlete, could also play defensive back or wide receiver, but he’ll begin his UVA career at quarterback.
“He’s fast and he’s big,” Mendenhall said, “and he’s a fierce competitor and a really hard worker, [with] a live arm, and so it’ll be fun to see where and how and what his production really looks like here at UVA and how long it takes, coming from Europe playing that position.”
This marks the second straight school year that recruits were able to sign in December, and most players around the country did so. Mendenhall remains a fan of the rule change.
“I think it eliminates so much more of the drama, while there still is some, [with] players flipping and some of the announcements and how they’re being made,” he said. “In reality, when the first signing period happens in our program there is less drama and more work. We’re preparing for a bowl game, we’re recruiting, school is happening, finals are going on, and the class is being added at that time. That’s much more realistic for these kids as a point of reference for what life really looks like. Very seldom is there a press conference just because you choose a place to go to work.”
Mendenhall is in his fourth year at Virginia. His first team at UVA won two games and his second won six. His third team posted the program’s first eight-win season since 2011 and first bowl victory since 2005.
Recruiting targets have noted the Cavaliers’ rise, Mendenhall said, especially in the Commonwealth.
“The UVA football brand is becoming more powerful,” he said. “It’s becoming very intriguing, and there’s momentum being generated at a really fast rate.”
Virginia’s prospects for the coming season look promising, too. The team’s returning players include quarterback Bryce Perkins, wideouts Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed, offensive linemen Dillon Reinkensmeyer, Ryan Nelson and Glaser, defensive linemen Eli Hanback, Aaron Faumui, Jordan Redmond, Alonso and Christ, linebackers Jordan Mack, Robert Snyder, Noah Taylor, Snowden, Zandier, Gahm and Brown, and defensive backs Bryce Hall, Brenton Nelson, Blount and Bratton.
Even so, Mendenhall said, the 2019 recruits will have an opportunity to earn playing time this year. He noted that, in the McCue Center, on the office door of each UVA coach are two symbols.
“There’s a greater-than symbol and then an equals sign with a line through it,” Mendenhall said, and they reflect his desire that each UVA team be “greater than, not equal to” its immediate predecessor.
“So every person we add to the team, every team which is the next team … we expect it to be better than what was just here,” Mendenhall said.
“That means that anyone currently in the program through our developmental process better be working like crazy to become better than they just were, so as we select players that we’re hopeful are better than, not equal to, what we already have, there’s this constant friction so we can improve the program on a consistent basis.”
The goal, Mendenhall said, is for the program to show “unbroken growth … So we’re hopeful that ’19’s class was better than ’18 and better than ’17. Now, what the ’17 and ’18 classes have to say about that is they’ve had one and two years in our program being trained and developed, and they really choose if they allow this group now to take their place or not. But the world is full of competition, right? We just happen to have a great culture of support and camaraderie and teamwork that ends up kind of bringing out the best in everyone, so it’ll be fun to see how it plays out.”