— Virginia Football (@UVAFootball) December 20, 2023
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — In this era of college football, with the transfer portal and NIL and other options for players, challenges abound for coaching staffs, whose concerns extend far beyond X’s and O’s, strength and conditioning, and their players’ academic standing.
“Roster management is a daily thing that you’re working on,” University of Virginia head coach Tony Elliott noted at John Paul Jones Arena during his press conference on national signing day.
To succeed in today’s game, a staff must focus not only on adding new players, but on retaining key players who might choose to move on. Given that, it’s been an encouraging offseason for the Cavaliers, who on Wednesday announced the addition of 18 players for 2024: 13 incoming freshmen and five transfers.
Of those 18, 11 will enroll at UVA next month, including four of the transfers: offensive lineman Drake Metcalf (Central Florida), cornerback Kendren Smith (Penn), safety Corey Thomas (Akron), and wide receiver Chris Tyree (Notre Dame). Metcalf began his college career at Stanford, where his offensive line coach was Terry Heffernan, who nows hold that position at UVA.
The newcomers further bolster a program that, since its season ended last month, has been heartened by the news that center Brian Stevens, safety Antonio Clary and defensive linemen Kam Butler, Chico Bennett Jr., Jahmeer Carter and Ben Smiley III, among other veterans, will return next season.
Stevens shared his decision on social media Wednesday.
“It’s kind of crazy when you’ve got signing day, but sometimes you’re celebrating just the guys staying on your roster as much,” Elliott said. “So that was a huge get for us as a program.”
Several players from this year’s team have entered the transfer portal, but almost all were reserves who didn’t figure to have prominent roles at UVA in 2024. Elliott said he believes those who chose to stay “saw the investment in them from a program standpoint, both in-house and then also within the NIL space, trying to improve those opportunities for them. They felt like they could get whatever they needed from a development standpoint with the staff.”
Moreover, Elliott said, “I think that the guys also are a little bit more educated on what the reality is out there. I don’t think that perception is the reality when it comes to going in the portal for NIL and all those type of things. So I think they feel good about the development opportunities, the relationships and the direction that we’re headed, and then the work that was done by the athletic department and our supporters to help them have opportunities from an NIL standpoint.”
The Hoos plans to continue restocking their roster in the coming months, Elliott said. The staff will be evaluating players in the transfer portal as well as unsigned high school seniors. Among the positions that could use more depth, Elliott said, are quarterback, tight end, wideout, cornerback and, perhaps, linebacker and long-snapper.
On national signing day last year, UVA added 19 high school seniors and four transfers. (Four more transfers joined the program after the 2022-23 academic year ended.) The Cavaliers’ latest recruiting class was constructed along similar lines.
“I think philosophically you have to make a determination on who you are and what your program is about,” Elliott said, “and I’ve said from day one I want to be a developmental program, meaning that the bulk of your guys are going to be high school guys that you recruit and then you develop and they become the good players over time. They also help you establish the culture and the environment.
“Now, with the way things are in college football, the ease of movement, you have to be ready to react … We want to be a developmental program and then supplement through the transfer portal as needed, and so that’s how we strike the balance, and that’s the approach that we take.”
The seven recruits who’ll enroll at the University next month after graduating from high school are defensive back KeShawn Adams, linebacker Myles Brown, wide receiver Kameron Courtney, defensive ends and Jewett Hayes and Chase Morrison, offensive lineman Grant Ellinger and Ethan Minter, an excellent athlete who’s expected to move from quarterback to safety.
“It allows them to get acclimated academically,” Elliott said. “When you’re talking about from the player perspective, they get acclimated in the spring, they get a chance to go through 15 practices, they get the winter workouts. It’s huge. And so by the time you actually hit the grass in the fall, it’s almost like they’ve had a year under their belt. So that transition doesn’t take as much time.”
Also, Elliott said, the coaching staff has an “opportunity to evaluate and kind of see where they are and if they’re going to be able to contribute early. You have a better idea of that … We have guys coming in offensively and defensively that I’m excited about, and I think we have some core guys that are about what the program is about, so they’ll have a chance to get a head start on immersing themselves in the culture and then they’ll be able to also communicate that out to the guys in their class that are that are coming in the summer.”
The players who signed Wednesday and will enroll at UVA after graduating from high school in the spring are cornerback Kevon Gray, tight end John Rogers, defensive tackle Tyler Simmons, wideout Triston Ward and offensive linemen Dane Wleklinski and Ben York. Also enrolling then will be tight end Tyler Neville, who’ll graduate from Harvard in the spring.
Neville is one of six players in the recruiting class who grew up in this state. He’s from Williamsburg and graduated from Lafayette High. Rogers, who attends Episcopal School in Alexandria, is from The Plains in Fauquier County. Minter and Tyree are from Chester and starred at Thomas Dale High, and York, who attends Lake Braddock High, is from Burke. Courtney is from Manassas and attends Freedom High.
“Virginia is a priority inside-out,” Elliott said. “I want to do it with guys in-state, and I feel like we made a run at all the top players in the state. We got in a race with some of them and came down to the final two, and then some we weren’t able to get into the race because they had already had established relationships.
“I think for us the biggest thing is making sure that the guys that we do have, they have a great experience [at UVA]. And so far the guys that are from Virginia are having a good experience here, and I think that resonates with the [high school] coaches … The players that fit what we’re looking for, we’ve got to recruit them hard, provide them every opportunity to come, and when they do come, have success, but then also make sure that we’re delivering on the deliverables, that they’re having a great experience, we’re making sure that they’re progressing academically, they’re developing football-wise, and as we do those things I think the relationships will continue to improve. But I want to sign as many guys from the state of Virginia as we possibly can, and I know the staff and myself are making a run at all the top players. It’s just going to take us more time, but I think we’re headed in the right direction.”
Courtney originally committed to Indiana but re-opened his recruitment after the coaching change at the Big Ten school. He’s already played in Charlottesville. Courtney helped unbeaten Freedom secure its second straight Class 6 state title with a Dec. 9 win over perennial power Highland Springs at Scott Stadium.
“So not only are you getting the talent,” Elliott said, “but you’re also getting the championship character and somebody that can speak to what it what it takes and what it’s like. It’s a huge get. He’s a very versatile guy too. He can play a lot of positions. Obviously we’re going start him at wideout, but he could play corner, he’s a kick returner, and he’s just a football player.”
Among the players UVA must replace from this year’s roster is All-America wide receiver Malik Washington, who caught 110 passes for 1,426 yards and nine touchdowns. A graduate transfer from Northwestern, Washington played only one season at Virginia, but to “have the type of year that he had just kind of opens up people’s eyes to what’s possible,” Elliott said.
In conversations with other potential transfers, Elliott said, “you have the proof and you say, ‘OK, well here’s a guy who he bet on himself last year, went into the portal, believed in what we’re doing, and he came and he had production. And so those opportunities are available to you if you desire to come to the University of Virginia.’ And so it’s a credit to, one, Malik’s work. You can’t take anything away from Malik. He put in the work. He earned it. But also it opens up some eyes and creates a little bit of a spotlight on what’s possible through what we’re doing here at UVA.”
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