Like a lot of Virginia fans, I'm spending a lot of time these days trying to figure out the source of the football team's troubles. It's a fruitless endeavor -- I can't affect anything -- but three straight frustrating losses will do that to you. Longtime Roanoke Times writer Doug Doughty recently pointed to the weakness of Al Groh's final recruiting classes as the culprit. It's a great piece that I think every Virginia fan should read.
But I'd like to dig a little deeper. And when I do that, I keep coming back to a handful of former Virginia players who arrived on Grounds in 2009 with great promise but quickly flamed out. Their failures, in my opinion, continue to haunt the team today.
Virginia's 2009 recruiting class was ranked 33rd in the country and 6th in the ACC by Rivals.com. It had four 4-star players who enrolled that fall (a fifth, Morgan Moses, prepped for a year before enrolling in 2010). It was a short peak between two disastrous recruiting valleys. The 2008 class finished 61st in the nation and 10th in the ACC. The 2010 class finished 64th in nation and 11th in the ACC. But of the three classes, the 2009 crop has fulfilled its potential the least. Player attrition has hurt the class badly, and four player losses in particular have had reverberations in 2012.
Running back Dominique Wallace and receiver Quentin Hunter were two of the four-star gems of the 2009 class. Both played as freshmen. Wallace, a bruising back, broke his foot after flashing potential in a road loss at Southern Mississippi. Hunter, meanwhile, got caught up in the disastrous spread offense experiment. Both left the team before playing for Mike London.
Corey Lillard was a three-star in-state safety, and Javanti Sparrow was a speedy athlete from the 757. Both looked to be future stars in the Virginia secondary. Like Wallace and Hunter, they played early and showed promise. But they also left the team before playing for Mike London.
It's easy to look back and wonder "what could have been" with these four players. And given their positions, it's not hard to imagine that they would have contributed in 2012. Each time converted cornerback Brandon Phelps misses a tackle at safety, it makes me miss Rodney McLeod and Corey Mosely. It also makes me wish Lillard and Sparrow had stayed in school.
Wallace, as a big back, might have proved a nice weapon as the offensive line tries to improve. The running lanes closed up awfully quickly for Perry Jones and Kevin Parks these days. And Hunter, if he'd stuck around, would likely have allowed for more development time for a young (and sometimes drop-happy) receiving corps.
Virginia lost a lot of talent after 2011. Three starters in the secondary, two starters at receiver and two members of the offensive backfield finished their careers. It's not a given that these lost players of 2009 would have filled in perfectly, but they certainly would've helped. Sometimes, when trying to figure out why a team is where it is along the development curve, it's important to look at the talent that should be on the roster but isn't. At one time, those players were part of the vision for the future. When the future arrives without them, it can look a lot like the last three weeks.