David Eldridge announced his departure from the Virginia football program this week. Eldridge is the fifth player with remaining eligibility to leave the program this offseason. Should Virginia fans worry about these departures?
I’m not so sure.
Don’t get me wrong...the optics of players leaving are never good. It’s easy to argue, as some have, that Bronco Mendenhall’s first 16 months at UVA have included more negative optics than positive ones. But I’m not convinced that the optics of the situation matter.
I asked myself three questions as I was considering Eldridge’s departure on my morning commute:
- Will this hurt the team in the immediate future?
- Will this hurt the team in the mid-to-long term?
- Does this point to a larger cultural problem within the program?
When I consider these questions, not only about Eldridge, but about all of the players who’ve left, I’m left with an overall feeling of “meh.”
Here’s how I got there.
Do these departures hurt the team in the immediate future?
The five departing players are Eldridge (WR), Cory Jones (OLB), Landan Word (ILB), Matt Terrell (OLB), and Brendan Marshall (TE). Word and Terrell were likely to make the biggest impact in 2017. Word was a projected starter at ILB, and Terrell would have likely been a second-stringer at OLB.
The staff compensated for Word’s departure by shifting Jordan Mack to inside linebacker for the spring. At outside linebacker, Virginia looks set with Malcolm Cook and Chris Peace as the starters. Would folks really complain about a starting linebacker corps of Cook, Peace, Mack, and All-American Micah Kiser? I don’t think so.
Terrell would have provided depth this season. Remember, though, that UVA has six other OLBs on the roster who can provide depth. That number includes incoming freshman Zane Zandier, one of the highest-rated players in Virginia’s 2017 recruiting class. Zandier seems like the logical recipient of Terrell’s playing time, and could certainly prove an able replacement.
On offense, Eldridge would have seen snaps as Virginia’s best deep-threat receiver. But UVA has nine other receivers on the roster and has rededicated itself to getting tight ends involved in the offense. Quarterback Kurt Benkert should still have plenty of options.
The verdict? Having five players transfer out looks like it would create big issues, but in reality, the only departure that hurts here is Word.
Do these departures hurt the team in the mid-to-long term?
Again, the main loss here is Word. Cory Jones was passed over early in 2016 and would have struggled to see the field. Brendan Marshall would have finished up his eligibility this season. Eldridge could potentially have started as a senior in 2018, but do folks think he would have beaten out Olamide Zacchaeus, Warren Craft, Hasise Dubois, and Joe Reed? Again, I’m not convinced.
At outside linebacker, there’s a chance that Cook could qualify for a 6th year of eligibility due to medical hardship. That means Cook and Peace could hold down starting spots in 2017 and 2018. Terrell would have had to either shift spots or wait until 2019 to earn a starting role. As far as future depth, Virginia already has Zandier, and just received a commitment from New Jersey OLB Javar Garrett for 2018. Garrett is UVA’s highest-rated recruit in three years.
Word, on the other hand, could potentially have been a three-year starter. He earned a significant role as a true freshman, beating out teammates CJ Stalker and Jahvonni Simmons last season. His role would have grown even further after Kiser graduates.
The verdict? None of these losses look crippling in the long term, but Word could have been a central part of the defense for years.
Do these departures point to a larger cultural problem within the program?
This is the sexiest and messiest question of the three. Virginia has received its fair share of bad press in Mendenhall’s short tenure. The report of an alleged hazing incident raised eyebrows. Questions about the program’s practice and training techniques have come from reporters and fans alike. Sanctions for self-reported recruiting infractions were frustrating. And the team’s 2-10 record in 2016 was far below expectations – expectations that Mendenhall helped raise by telling fans to plan on a bowl trip.
Even so, I’m not convinced that any of these things add up to a deeper problem. For a program coming off of a 2-10 season, Virginia actually has some positives going for it. Kiser and Quin Blanding decided to return, giving the team two legitimate All American candidates. Would they have returned if they didn’t believe in Mendenhall? Not likely.
Both players mentioned the changing culture in Charlottesville as one of the factors in his decision to stay.
“I want to be a part of the change here at UVA and be a part of the change in culture, and definitely be one of the reasons why this is a winning program,” Kiser said.
“Rome wasn’t built in one day,” Blanding told the Daily Progress. “That’s the biggest thing I can say. The culture’s changing here. The wins are going to come. The program will change. It takes time.”
Meanwhile, practice reports suggest a number of the players have gotten bigger and healthier. Cook, quarterback Kurt Benkert, and cornerback Tim Harris have all gotten over injuries. And UVA’s recruiting class, while not star-studded, added depth at almost every position in the lineup.
The verdict? Transfers are always worrisome, but there isn’t enough evidence to suggest the program is suffering from any type of serious turmoil. Things may be sloppier than fans would wish, but that’s the worst indictment I can muster at the moment.
So what’s the bottom line?
The loss of Word stings the most. Terrell and Eldridge would have been nice pieces to have, but they’re both replaceable. Marshall and Jones would likely have struggled to see the field at all.
At the end of the day, however, all will be forgiven and forgotten if Virginia starts winning on the field. UVA starts off 2017 with home games against William & Mary, Indiana, and UConn. The Hoos will be favored in at least two of those three games.
As for the players who left? If UVA starts 3-0…fans won’t even remember their names.