By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– The list of Virginia’s scholarship players who’ll be out of college eligibility when Dec. 30 Orange Bowl ends is not an especially long one. It includes Bryce Hall, Jordan Mack, Eli Hanback, Tanner Cowley, Hasise Dubois, Joe Reed, Chris Sharp, Terrell Chatman and Dejon Brissett.
Given that, the Cavaliers’ recruiting class for 2020 was always going to be small. The early signing period opened Wednesday, and UVA received letters of intent from 11 players that morning, with at least a couple more expected to join the class in the coming days (and perhaps several more during the late period in February.) A 12th recruit, Olasunkonmi Agunloye, signed with the Wahoos on Wednesday night.
“Most of our needs have been met. Not all,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said Wednesday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena. “I’ve never been able to, in a recruiting class. say that all our needs have been met.”
However, he added, in “terms of fit on the field in relation to where we currently are, to continue our unbroken growth pattern, in terms of off-the-field fit and academic fit, I’m at peace and really happy and satisfied with what this class brings.”
This is Mendenhall’s fourth season with the Hoos, and their rise under his leadership has been steady and pronounced.
In 2017, the Hoos advanced to a bowl game for the first time in six years. In 2018, UVA blanked South Carolina 28-0 in the Belk Bowl, closing with a victory for the first time in 13 years.
Late last month, the Hoos clinched the program’s first Coastal Division title with a victory over Virginia Tech, ending a 15-game losing streak in that series. A week later, they played in the ACC championship game for the first time, and now the No. 24 Cavaliers are preparing for a date with No. 9 Florida (10-2) in the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.
“More doors are opening,” Mendenhall said. “Progress is being made. Credibility has taken a huge jump. Every bit as impactful has been the way it’s happened in this methodical, sequential, incremental way.”
Most of the players who signed with UVA on Wednesday had been committed since before the start of the season. In recruiting, the Cavaliers’ success this year figures to pay more dividends in the 2021 class.
“If early indications are relevant, that’s already happening,” Mendenhall said.
In terms of making recruiting targets more interested in UVA, the program’s 2019 accomplishments have “already had a significant impact.” Mendenhall said. “That’s prior to players committing, but it’s based on players’ level of interest and the amount of attention that they’re giving us and vice versa.
“So I certainly see a difference in that, and so it could lead it [an impressive 2021 classs]. Doesn’t guarantee it, but certainly could, and right now it is. So it’s a matter of now, I would say, developing and fostering the existing level of interest and then helping that come to fruition through relationships to the point where we can [see results] at this time next year.”
The 11 players who signed Wednesday are from nine states: two each from Maryland and Louisiana, and one apiece from Indiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, New York, Colorado, Florida and Pennsylvania.
“I really love these players,” Mendenhall said. “The relationships we have with the 11 … those relationships go really deep, and I would say they’re almost completely aligned with the principles, goals, values of not only our program, but of UVA, and so I think they’re excellent fits.”
Three recruits are scheduled to enroll at the University next month –– quarterback Ira Armstead, defensive back Donovan Johnson and tight end Joshua Rawlings –– and that group could grow, Mendenhall said.
Defensive back Elijah Gaines, who’s from Queens, N.Y., attends Episcopal School in Alexandria. That’s it for the class’ in-state connections, though that may well change in February.
Mendenhall said the absence of Virginians reflects both the small size of the class and losses in head-to-head recruiting battles with other schools.
Virginia Tech had similar struggles recruiting in the Commonwealth this year.
“Lots and lots of players are leaving the state,” Mendenhall said. “I keep a list in the room where I work. Many are leaving the state.”
He said eight in-state players whom UVA “really wanted” ended up signing with other schools. In-state recruits are the Cavaliers’ “first priority every single year,” Mendenhall said, and he considers those defeats. But he senses the “trend is changing … [with] momentum being gained.”
The jewel of the Cavaliers’ class is Andrew Gentry, a 6-7, 300-pound offensive lineman from Columbine High School in the Denver suburb of Littleton, Colo.
“Andrew is an amazing football player,” Mendenhall said. “I would say to this point in the classes that we’ve signed at the University of Virginia, he is the most skilled and talented and prepared at this level of any player we have signed. He is exceptional in every way: the most highly recruited player that I think I’ve ever recruited in terms of numbers of offers and elite level offers and quality of offers.”
Like Mendenhall and many of the Cavaliers’ assistant coaches, Gentry belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As tailback Wayne Taulapapa did after graduating from high school in 2016, Gentry is expected to serve a two-year LDS mission before enrolling at UVA.
“His faith is very important to him,” Mendenhall said. “Certainly our staff’s faith mattered to him. He wanted to compete for conference championships and values education at a really high level. He has a connection with us that goes beyond football, and so does his family.”
Dillon Reinkensmeyer, a three-year starter on UVA’s offensive line, is also from the Denver area.
Gentry’s choice “shows the program is trending in the right direction, especially getting someone like Andrew to come,” Reinkensmeyer said. “Andrew came and saw what we’re doing here and believed in it, and we’re happy that he’s coming.”
In Colorado’s Class 5A state quarterfinals, Columbine upset Valor Christian 37-30 last month. Reinkensmeyer is a Valor Christian graduate.
“He’s a very impressive athlete,” Reinkensmeyer said. After the playoff game, “I just remember hearing from people: This Gentry kid is insane.”
Final exams ended Tuesday at the University, and the Cavaliers convened Wednesday for their first official Orange Bowl practice.
Virginia is coming off a 62-17 loss to No. 3 Clemson in the ACC championship game, an experience from which Mendenhall expects his program to benefit.
“Our loss to Clemson was ‘falling forward,’ ” Mendenhall said, “meaning I put it in the same category as our first game against Virginia Tech [at Lane Stadium in 2016], our loss to Navy in the [2017 Military Bowl], and now that one. I view those three as critical moments in this program, in this era, under our staff, for improvement. It exposed things we certainly have to get better at, and I love that process.
“I hate the losses, but I love the learning. I put those three together and [consider them] some of most impactful things that have happened since I’ve been the coach at UVA, with the potential to help us go to places we couldn’t have as early without being in those, as painful as they are.”
The Cavaliers’ offense totaled 387 yards in the ACC championship game, by far the most Clemson has allowed this season. But UVA’s defense, in a performance marked by missed tackles and breakdowns, surrendered 619 yards.
“I would say that Clemson was the most talented football team offensively that any of our players had played,” Mendenhall said. “[The Tigers] certainly deserve credit for their execution … Now, having said that, our lack of execution and consistency attributed for most of the yardage and points. There are certain plays they absolutely would’ve made regardless. The points, it’s hard to predict, but if we played on edge in terms of assignments, execution, and coordination, the number of missed tackles, numbers of balls caught, all those things would’ve been significantly reduced.
“I don’t think it would have been enough for us to win the game, but it would’ve been a different game than it was … Clemson gets every bit of credit they deserve for the
win, but … it was one of the poorest games we had played from a consistency standpoint.”
For the Cavaliers, their focus between now and the Orange Bowl, junior linebacker Zane Zandier said, is “just getting back to work and working on those specific things that we saw in that game … I think you can only grow from that, and that’s the only way you can approach such a bad loss.”