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Virginia football recruiting: An orange-and-blueprint for a winning program

If the Hoos want consistent success, here’s how they can build it.

NCAA Football: ACC Football Kickoff Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2017 National Signing Day just 13 days away, we’re officially in the nutty season for college football recruiting. Coaches are out riding go-karts with top targets, trying to land the best classes of future stars.

We’ll have full coverage of UVA’s commitments and enrollees in the weeks ahead. But before the focus turns entirely to number of stars or big gets or surprising misses, we wanted to set the table with a deep dive into recruiting strategy: how many players UVA should sign each year, and how good the Hoos need those players to be.

Building a “Year Five” Roster

Every NCAA athlete has five years in which to play four seasons. At Virginia, Coach Mendenhall has made clear that the normal course of a football player’s career will run four years. If the player has not played in one of those years, and has earned an extra season by virtue of his performance as a teammate and general contributor to the program, his scholarship can be extended to the permitted fifth year.

The NCAA scholarship limit for FBS programs is 85. Over the past decade, UVa’s football attrition rate has been right around 40 percent—that is, two-fifths of Virginia’s first-year enrollees won’t finish four years with the program, for whatever reason. For a recruiting class with 25 enrollees, that means you can expect about 15 to still be there on Senior Day four years down the road.

Mendenhall has emphasized that one of the structural areas where the Cavalier football program is weakest right now is its succession planning. There are major gaps between classes at key positions (most notably quarterback). The coaching staff is looking to smooth those gaps out, so the Hoos can “just reload rather than rebuild.”

Putting these elements together—the scholarship limit, the attrition rate, Mendenhall’s “redshirt” policy, and the need for stable position depth—leads to the conclusion that Virginia needs to bring in right around 25 commits per class.

Signing 25 players per class translates to approximately one player per formation position, per year: One quarterback, one big back, one speed back, two outside receivers, one or two slot/inside receivers, five offensive linemen, etc. The Hoos can alternate with specialists, so one year sign a kicker, the next a punter, then another kicker the third year.

After four years, losing 2 or 3 players per year (consistent with the 40% attrition rate), the roster would stand at 79 scholarship players. That leaves the coaches with room to extend a few fifth-year scholarships, and to take on a few transfers. If more than 2 or 3 players leave in a given season, the incoming class can adjust upward and target specific positional depth needs.

Here’s what a balanced roster could look like in the fifth year of following the recruiting strategy laid out above.

This roster could have a two-deep entirely stocked with scholarship players that doesn’t require a single true freshman to play. Talented underclassmen could, of course, leapfrog the more experienced veterans. There is still some scholarship flexibility for plug-and-play transfers as needs arise. And walk-ons can help with depth in case of injuries, suspensions, or other unforeseeable events, without being called on to contribute major minutes for a significant chunk of the season.

The position distribution in this strategy tracks fairly consistently with what Virginia has in place right now. There are some rough gaps between classes (especially at quarterback) but you can see about how many total players this coaching staff wants at each position.

The Talent Standard for Virginia

So that’s the raw number of players that makes for a stable roster. But what quality of player does UVa need to get to be successful?

Scouting and recruiting rankings are always kind of a crapshoot. Four-star guys can wash out, while a lightly recruited two-star can sometimes emerge as a diamond in the rough. Generally speaking, though, recruiting rankings are a good rough estimate of future success: the top NFL draft picks were usually blue-chip recruits.

Not every school is going to get those guys. In 2016, for example, there were 25 players who received 5-star ratings. Five schools signed more than 1 five-star recruit, and only 12 schools signed even one. The same is holding true in 2017: 29 of 32 five-stars have announced commitments, and they’re going to a total of 13 schools.

(For the analysis here, I’m using 247Sports’ composite rating and ranking systems; it’s a good snapshot of multiple services’ opinions of players.)

If you’re not one of those schools, with a national championship pedigree and enrollment of 30,000-plus and “$EC re$ource$,” your talent standard needs to be calibrated to your program expectations. What I expect of Virginia football: finishing in the top third of the conference, with not-infrequent runs at conference titles; regular appearances in the top 25; and beating that school down 81 with some regularity.

What, then, is the talent standard that makes that realistic? Breaking down the past eight recruiting classes brings that standard into focus.

For 247’s system, the vast majority of recruits are 3-stars. But a 3-star can have a wide range of numerical ratings, anywhere in the 80s. Here’s how 247 itself explains its numerical ratings for 3-star guys:

89 - 80 = Three-star prospect. One of the top 10% [of] players in the nation. This player will develop into a reliable starter for his college team and is among the best players in his region of the country. Many three-stars have significant pro potential.

To have talent consistent with a top-25 national finish and a top-third conference finish, UVa needs to land about 7 or 8 guys a year with talent equivalent to a rating of 86 or higher. Four classes, each with 7 or 8 players who are in the top echelon of the 80 ratings, results in a roster with 25 to 30 players who can be counted on as “reliable starters” with “significant pro potential.” Every formation position could have a starter who was “one of the top 10% of players in the nation” for his year coming out of high school. That sounds like what most of us remember from the best recent years of Cavalier football, and a reasonable expectation toward which to recruit.

Setting the goal of 7 or 8 “elite” players a year lets the coaches focus on succession planning. A program does not need an elite quarterback every year, so long as there is one every few years with reliable-starter quality guys coming in with each class. Year-to-year recruiting can focus on positions of need, as well as adjust for available talent. So long as every formation position has at least one 86+ guy every few years, Virginia can count on having players up to its talent standard year in and year out.

(Of course getting 86+ talent is only half the battle. Keeping them is the other. If the 10 guys who leave the program between Year 1 and Year 4 are all the top talents from their class—a la Jamil Kamara, Tre Harbison, or Greyson Lambert—you still end up with a sub-par roster that isn’t going to make much noise in the ACC.)

#HoosRising17: Not there yet

Nothing’s over til it’s over, but as of right now, the 2017 recruiting class looks like it will fall a bit short of the talent-standard benchmark. Including the four players who enrolled early, the Hoos have commitments from 22 players. Only 3 are rated 86 or higher in the 247 Composite.

There are a few big name targets that could still get on board. The biggest—in so many respects—is offensive tackle Mekhi Becton, from Highland Springs. Rated at 88, he’d come in on the good side of the ledger for the talent standard. Georgia speedster Josh Johnson, currently committed to Louisville, is also a possible future Hoo, and would likewise add some 86+ talent. Fellow Georgian Shawn Smith could also land in Charlottesville, and his 87 rating would be very welcome.

A big closing push with a few pleasant surprises would get the 2017 class above the “7 or 8” threshold I think is necessary for sustained success at Virginia. On the heels of a 2-10 season, that would count as a major victory, laying the foundation for more positive years to come.