If recruiting rankings were the answer for everything, Virginia never could have won eight football games last year with two-star quarterback Michael Rocco handing off – and throwing to – two-star running back Perry Jones.
But, when you look at some of the difficulties the Cavaliers (2-2) have had so far this season, recruiting does offer some explanations.
The 2011 UVa team was loaded with fifth-year seniors, including first-team All-ACC choices Chase Minnifield and Matt Conrath; leading receiver Kris Burd; and such multi-year starters as defensive lineman Nick Jenkins, center Anthony Mihota and safety Corey Mosley.
Compare that to this year’s team, which has a total of six fifth-year seniors – linebacker Steve Greer, tight end Colter Phillips, defensive ends Billy Shautz and Ausar Walcott, reserve defensive lineman Buddy Ruff and reserve offensive lineman Matt Mihalik.
They are what’s left of an 18-man 2008 signing class that was the second to last of Al Groh’s coaching tenure. It included three good players who were not redshirted – first-team All-ACC offensive guard Austin Pasztor, safety Rodney McLeod and defensive end Cam Johnson – but there were also a lot of misses.
Running back Torrey Mack was the only four-star in the group and might have been the biggest disappointment. He was one of seven signees who did not complete their eligibility, along with quarterback Riko Smalls, defensive lineman Torey Allen, wide receiver Javaris Brown, lineman Mike Price, defensive back Devin Wallace and offensive lineman Aaron Van Kuiken.
Those seven combined for six letters, three by Van Kuiken, though he wasn’t a starter.
At least Van Kuiken had an excuse. He had a medical issue that ended his playing career prematurely. Wallace actually started for most the 2010 season but he and Price later were dismissed from the team as the result of their involvement in a fracas at JMU. Smalls and Brown transferred to Texas Southern and Hampton, respectively.
Virginia would have started on the 2008 recruiting class following a 5-7 season in 2006 that was the Cavaliers’ first losing season after four consecutive bowl trips under Groh. It was also the year in which UVa started three different quarterbacks – Christian Olsen, Kevin McCabe and Jameel Sewell — before the midpoint of the season.
You could theorize that recruits could already see chinks in the Groh armor but it’s always been my contention that the most important factor in recruiting is the people doing the recruiting.
Current UVa head coach Mike London was the Cavaliers’ defensive coordinator on that staff after a stint with the Houston Texans and he was a good recruiter. But, who were the other good recruiters? By then, Al Golden had gone to Temple, Ron Prince to Kansas State and Danny Rocco to Liberty.
Since rivals.com started rating the nation’s top classes in 2002, the highest UVa has been ranked was 12th in 2002, following Groh’s first year. The Cavaliers were ranked in the top 25 five times in 10 years from 2002-2011.
However, there was very little middle ground.
The worst classes were 64th in 2004, 61st in 2008 and 67th in 2010. At least there was an excuse in 2010, when Groh was fired less than two months before signing day and replaced by London.
So, what you have on this year’s Virginia team is the product of two of the worst UVa recruiting classes in the past decade, as well as three other classes that were ranked between 25th and 33rd nationally.
The two highest-rated UVa recruiting classes over the past five years are the last two and approximately 15 players in this year’s class haven’t seen the field yet. The 2013 class, already virtually complete, has been ranked 19th by rivals.com, which would make three consecutive top 30 classes.
That could pay off with some outstanding teams later in the decade but, for the time being, the Cavaliers will have to make up for last time.