The last we saw the Virginia Cavaliers football program, they were leaving a bitter taste in fans’ mouths with a 49-7 stinker against the Navy Midshipmen in the Military Bowl. Unfortunately, the recruiting dead period that followed—extending all the way to January 11th—meant there has been no positive football news to wash that taste away.
Thankfully, that blessed day is nearly upon us. And while the traditional February signing day is right around the corner (Wednesday, February 7th), it runs up against another major sporting attraction: the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, which open on February 9th.
In the Olympic spirit, here are the players and storylines to watch as Virginia comes down the homestretch of its 2018 recruiting class.
World Record: landing Nicholas Petit-Frere
Petit-Frere is a 6’6, 275-pound offensive tackle from Berkeley Prep in Tampa, Florida. He’s also one of the best football players in the country: 247Sports has him 5th overall nation-wide, Rivals says 15th and ESPN says 16th. His offer sheet reads like a rundown of the CFP Top 25: Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, Auburn, Ohio State, Penn State, Stanford, Michigan, Notre Dame. He’s an Under Armour All-American, and has dominated even on that impressive stage.
In short: This would be a Eugene Monroe-level addition to the class of 2018.
Is there any reason to think it will actually happen? The odds are longer than long for now. But Virginia has recruited well in Florida this class, nabbing coveted wide receivers Tavares Kelly and Wooby Theork, along with linemen Martin Weisz and Jordan Redmond. Petit-Frere does follow several official UVA-affiliated accounts on Twitter, including Coach Atuaia (one of the better recruiters in the McCue Center) and Coach Hunter. Berkeley Prep is also a very strong academic school, and that angle is one that has been big in landing some of the better players in this class.
If the UVA coaches were able to muster some of those previous first-round NFL Draft pick offensive tackles to have come from Charlottesville—Monroe, Morgan Moses, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Branden Albert—that could make for one heck of a final pitch. Having previous top-25 national recruits Quin Blanding and Andrew Brown on Grounds could help, as well.
Minds across the recruiting world would be blown if Petit-Frere were to end up at UVA. But what’s a world record if not mind-blowing?
Gold Medal: keeping D.J. Brown OR adding Taiyon Palmer
The D.J. Brown saga continues its twists and turns. First there was the offer from Notre Dame, followed by scheduling an official visit to South Bend, and then the cancellation of that visit. Then Brown was one of the missing names from the early signing day, with Mendenhall taking some not-very-veiled shots at Brown’s coach for not “letting” St. John’s College players sign early.
In the weeks since signing day, Brown has continued to pile up Power Five offers: Duke, South Carolina, and Clemson have all come knocking recently, in addition to Louisville and Cal getting in the door before signing day.
Brown had a relatively quiet appearance in the Under Armour All-America game on Thursday. You won’t find his name on any of the “top performer” lists, but not the “stock falling” ones either. Whether he pulls in more top level offers remains an open question, as is whether the Hoos can hold onto one of their top-rated commits.
If they can’t, though, the wounds can be salved if Taiyon Palmer came onboard. Palmer is a four-star cornerback who decommitted from Duke in late November. Nebraska, NC State, and Northwestern all extended offers since his decommitment, with Minnesota stopping by for an in-home visit as well. UVA’s Nick Howell has been in touch with Palmer, with some apparent mutual interest. Watch for updates on visitors to see how strongly Virginia stays in the mix.
Silver medal: adding one or more of Christian Jones, Otito Ogbonnia, or Caleb Kelly
Two defensive line prospects from Texas have picked up interest and offers from Virginia since the beginning of December. Landing either would be fairly significant recruiting coups for the Hoos.
Christian Jones is currently committed to SMU as an offensive tackle, but has been offered by Virginia as a defensive lineman. With Chad Morris leaving Dallas for the head job at Arkansas, Jones has been re-evaluating his options and UVA has pushed hard. Jones was on Grounds on December 15th, together with now-signee Jaylon Baker. As an example of Jones’ commitment to and capacity for high-level academics, the big man’s other late offers include Cal and Vanderbilt, and he already had offers from Dartmouth and Yale. If Virginia can beat out PAC-12 and SEC schools to flip Jones and pull him out of his native Texas, they would gain a hard-hitting athlete with size to play immediately at a major position of need.
The other Lone Star big fella to watch is Otito Ogbonnia out of Katy. At 6’4, 290, Ogbonnia has the length and size to contribute as a defensive end in UVA’s 3-man fronts. And his recruitment has EXPLODED in the last few weeks. Since Virginia offered on December 5th, Ogbonnia has also gotten offers from UCLA, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Nebraska, and Oklahoma State. UVA is still in it: as late as Christmas, Ogbonnia was planning to include Charlottesville among his three remaining official visits (having already taken trips to see Ole Miss and Texas Tech).
One other defender with a longer offer history from Virginia is outside linebacker Caleb Kelly from Atlanta. Things have been quiet from Kelly since he named a top five that included Virginia—along with Ole Miss, Stanford, Tennessee, and Michigan State—in mid-July. Standing 6’3 but weighing only 205, Kelly fits the profile of linebackers who have thrived under Mendenhall, from Jordan Mack in 2016 to Elliott Brown and Charles Snowden coming on this year. With Kelly still on the board after the December signing period, UVA will have to show some closing strength at the end of a fairly drawn-out recruitment.
Any of these three guys would add talent at positions where Virginia sorely needs it, and demonstrate that the coaching staff can hang with some of the biggest boys on the block when it comes to recruiting.
Bronze medal: adding one or more of Ryan Winkel, Joshua Ezeudu, or Jayde Pierre
The names above are all splashy and will pull up the top of the recruiting class. But there is still a need for solid, playable depth, especially in the trenches. Any of these next three guys will easily check that box, even if they wouldn’t necessarily turn heads outside the UVA universe by committing.
Ryan Winkel is a fast-rising offensive tackle out of Memphis. Although only carrying an 82 rating from 247 Sports, a very strong senior year has brought major programs to Winkel’s doorstep. UVA offered on December 6th, just one week after Northwestern became Winkel’s first Power Five offer. By Christmas, he held offers from Nebraska, Arkansas, and Mississippi State, too. UVA got in the door with an in-home visit by offensive line coach Garrett Tujague (and look how much bigger Winkel is than the massive-in-his-own-right Tujague).
If UVA can squeeze a late January visit from Winkel, they’ll have a chance to box out other programs and close on a guy who fits the profile of the offensive linemen these coaches are looking for.
Joshua Ezeudu’s situation is similar to Winkel’s but in reverse: well rated, but with a slightly underwhelming offer sheet. The 6’5, 305-pound offensive tackle from Georgia is rated in the mid 80s by 247 Sports but held only a smattering of Power Five offers through the end of his senior year. In the span of just a few weeks, he added offers from Virginia, North Carolina, Louisville, and Nebraska. UVA brought Ezeudu in for an official visit during bowl prep. The academic pitch should work well with him, as Ezeudu holds offers from Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Yale, and includes his GPA (3.9) in his Twitter bio. (One also wonders whether the coaching staff’s success with international players at BYU would be attractive to a kid who refers to himself as “the Nigerian Nightmare.”)
Jayde Pierre would do more than just bring depth to Virginia’s defensive line—he would also add an in-state recruit to the 2018 class that only features three Virginians at the moment. A stout 6’1, 305-pound defensive tackle, Pierre is in the mold of UVA signee Jordan Redmond, and would likely slot well in the middle of the Virginia defensive front. He decommitted from Temple back in October, and has held a UVA offer since May of 2016 (his very first offer, in fact). His Dominion teammates include the Christ brothers: Tommy Christ was a freshman defensive lineman for the Hoos this year, and his “little” brother Jimmy is an offensive lineman in the 2020 class.
Whether the Hoos find themselves etched in the record books, standing on the medal podium, or dealing with an unexpected development between now and Signing Day 2018, we’ll have it covered here on Streaking the Lawn.