By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Kamren Robinson’s announcement Wednesday evening that he’s headed to the University of Virginia added an exclamation point to a satisfying signing day for head coach Tony Elliott and his program.
Robinson, a linebacker from Essex High School on the Northern Neck, committed to UVA in July but recently visited Florida State and South Carolina. In the end, though, he stuck with his commitment and signed a letter of intent with Virginia, whose coaching staff rejoiced.
“I really can’t put it into words, I’m so excited about Kam Robinson,” Elliott said. “I believe that he’s the most dynamic football player in the state of Virginia, regardless of what the rankings may say, just watching how he plays the game, watching him on the basketball court. He’s a three-sport athlete. He comes from an unbelievable family. He’s extremely humble. He’s got a big. bright smile, a ton of charisma, unbelievable leadership … I’m really just excited that the total package is coming to the University of Virginia. He was a guy that I told the staff I believe could be the cornerstone of this class, with his potential on the field, but more importantly with his potential off the field, with his charisma, his leadership skills.”
Elliott took over as the Wahoos’ head coach last December after Bronco Mendenhall announced he was stepping down. This is Elliott’s first full recruiting class at UVA, and he discussed it in detail during a news conference Wednesday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I’m really grateful for the coaches and all their work,” Elliott said. “Our recruiting department did an outstanding job. Administration did a great job supporting us and giving us the resources … to put together this class.”
It’s expected to grow next semester, but for now the class consists of 23 players: 19 high school seniors and four transfers. Two of those 12th-graders—quarterback Anthony Colandrea and wide receiver Jaden Gibson—will enroll at UVA next month, Elliott said, as will all four of the transfers: quarterback Tony Muskett (Monmouth), offensive lineman Daijon Parker (Saginaw Valley State), tailback Kobe Pace (Clemson) and wideout Malik Washington (Northwestern).
The Hoos loaded up on receivers and defensive linemen Wednesday. They’ll need to add more offensive linemen and cornerbacks during the late signing period, Elliott said, but he likes the profile of this class, especially the fact that so many of its members come from traditionally powerful high school programs, including Highland Springs in Virginia and St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida.
Before taking questions from media members, Elliott made one final point: that he’s “really excited because these guys chose us, considering the season and how it ended.”
Tragedy struck the UVA community on Nov. 13 when three football players—Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry—were shot and killed on Grounds after returning from a class field trip to Washington, D.C. Another player, tailback Mike Hollins, was wounded in the shooting, after which the Hoos, who were 3-7, canceled their final two regular-season games.
“Throughout the course of the season we had three total guys decommit,” Elliott said Wednesday, “and two of those happened early in the season … Once everything transpired late in the season we only lost one commitment in this class, so everyone stuck with us and we were able to add some transfers amidst a bunch of the adversity we were going through as a program. And that was my message to the staff: [The recruits] could have decided to go anywhere in the country, but they decided to hitch their saddle up to this staff, this program, and so I’m excited about the future.”
Of the players who signed Wednesday, seven are from Virginia: Robinson (Tappahannock), Muskett (Springfield), defensive tackle Anthony Britton (Norfolk), wideout TyLyric Coleman (Danville), defensive end Miles Greene (Richmond), running back Donté Hawthorne (Spotsylvania) and offensive lineman Cole Surber (Bristow).
Since the end of the season, several UVA players have entered the transfer portal, including quarterback Brennan Armstrong, linebacker Nick Jackson, cornerback Fentrell Cypress II, tailback Ronnie Walker Jr. and offensive linemen John Paul Flores and Logan Taylor. Many others, however, weighed their options and decided to return to UVA in 2023, Elliott said, including defensive linemen Chico Bennett Jr., Kam Butler, Aaron Faumui and Paul Akere, tight ends Grant Misch and Sackett Wood Jr., linebackers Josh Ahern and Hunter Stewart, safeties Antonio Clary and Coen King, and tailback Perris Jones.
“I know we lost some guys going into the portal,” Elliott said, “but we also had a good number of guys that decided that they want to come back and make another run at it.”
Armstrong was a three-year starter for the Cavaliers. Among those likely to be in the quarterback competition in the spring are Jay Woolfolk, Jared Rayman, Delaney Crawford, Davis Lane, Grady Brosterhous and newcomers Muskett and Coleandra.
Woolfolk backed up Armstrong in each of the past two seasons. He’s also a talented pitcher on the UVA baseball team, though, and he plans to play that sport again in 2023.
“We’re gonna have to put together a schedule for him,” Elliott said, “because he’s legitimately in contention to be a weekend starter, and I don’t want to hinder that progress. But at the same time, too, if he wants to be a starting quarterback at the University of Virginia, he’s going to have to be present in practice.”
Elliott said he’ll meet with head baseball coach Brian O’Connor after the holiday break “and really put together a plan of what that looks like … I’m excited about the competition. I think the competition is just going to make the cream of the cream rise to the top and give us not only competition, but it’ll give us some competitive depth there too.”
Muskett, who starred at West Springfield High School, threw 51 touchdown passes in his three seasons at Monmouth, an FCS program.
“We were looking for a guy with some experience,” Elliott said, “ and the first thing that jumps out is he’s played three years. He was the freshman of the year in his conference and back-to-back first team all-conference in his league, so we were looking for a guy with experience, a guy who was competitive and a guy who wanted to come in and compete and wasn’t going to be afraid of the competition he was going to have to go through if he wanted to be the guy … He’s done what he needed to do at that level and feels he can compete at this level. We feel he can compete at this level, so we thought it was a good fit.”
Elliott came to UVA last year from Clemson, where he spent 11 seasons on head coach Dabo Swinney’s staff. Pace was one of the players Elliott recruited for the Tigers.
In three seasons at Clemson, whose roster is well-stocked with high-caliber tailbacks, Pace carried 152 times for 793 yards and nine touchdowns, and he caught 23 passes for 192 yards and a TD. He started six games for the Tigers.
When Pace entered the transfer portal, Elliott said, it was not a foregone conclusion that he’d end up at UVA. But after hearing from Elliott, Pace was intrigued.
“He said that he’d be interested in taking a look at our situation,” Elliott said. “So we went down for a home visit with a couple of coaches with me to meet him and his mom, then brought him up on a visit and gave him an opportunity to see if he wanted to look at some other options. But he decided that he wanted to reconnect and, as he says, we’ve got some unfinished business that we need to take care of.”
The Cavaliers’ offensive line struggled this season, largely because of its inexperience, and it figures to look much different in 2023. Not only have Flores and Taylor entered the transfer portal, two other starters, guard Derek Devine and tackle Jonathan Leech, have decided to “transition on to life after football,” Elliott said.
Moreover, Garett Tujague, the Cavaliers’ offensive line coach for the past seven seasons, left this month to take the same position at NC State.
Elliott said he doesn’t have a timetable for hiring a new O-line coach. “I don’t want to rush,” he said. “When you think about some of those veteran guys, what they’ve been through in the last just two calendar years, it’s been a lot. So I want to try and take my time and make sure I get that right, give them a voice and an opportunity to express their desires and what they would like to see happen at that position.”
He’d like to have at least 15 offensive linemen in the program each year, Elliott said, and the Cavaliers currently have 12 for 2023. Virginia is likely look in the portal for two tackles and perhaps a guard or center, Elliott said.
Parker, who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 300 pounds, will have an opportunity to play immediately. He’s coming to UVA from a Division II program and so, like Muskett, has no FBS experience. When evaluating such players, Elliott said, what the Hoos look “at, first and foremost, is fit. What is their character? What do their coaches say about them, what do their opposing coaches say about them?”
Once the staff determines potential transfers are a “good fit from a character standpoint,” Elliott said, then “when you look at them athletically, do they still have room before they hit their ceiling? … So we’re looking for guys that are not necessarily peaked, because if they’re peaked, then it’s gonna be hard for them to compete, but if they’ve still got a little room in their ceiling, that’s what I’m looking for.”
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