Bronco Mendenhall’s first full recruiting class came to a close Wednesday as 25 “New Hoos” signed letters of intent to play for Virginia. Cavalier fans who judge the class solely by the recruiting rankings might see a less-than-scintillating picture. UVA’s class ranks 54th nationally in the 247 Sports Composite. It’s the 11th-ranked class in the ACC and the lowest-ranked class in the ACC Coastal Division.
Only time will tell how accurate those rankings are. It’s undeniable, however, that this class will provide Virginia some much needed depth at almost every position on the roster. In that light, the class has to be viewed as a solid success. Here’s a positional breakdown of the class, along with predictions about which signees will see time on the field as freshmen.
Quarterback: UVA landed the best signal-caller in the state in Woodberry Forest’s Lindell Stone. That said, it will be interesting to see how the 6’2” Stone fits into Robert Anae’s offense. Stone is a more traditional pocket passer, and Virginia’s coaches have admitted a desire to land more dual-threats. Still, Stone is an impressive prospect who most recently appeared in an Under-19 US National Team game against Canada. Virginia projects to have at least 5 QBs in 2017, so look for Stone to redshirt.
Running Back: Virginia loses more talent at running back this year than at any other position on the field. So Mendenhall’s staff thoroughly addressed that loss in this recruiting cycle. UVA signed 3 RBs, including Virginia Gatorade player of the year Lamont Atkins. While Atkins will be a “small back” in UVA’s system, Jamari Peacock will be the first “big back” Mendenhall has had in Charlottesville. The Yulee, Florida native checked in at 245 when he enrolled alongside Atkins in January. I’d look for Atkins and Peacock to get immediate playing time as Virginia looks to replace Taquan Mizzell and Albert Reid. Winchester’s PK Kier, who will arrive this summer, could also battle for playing time.
Wide Receiver: Virginia signed two wide receivers this cycle: DJ Pratt from Good Counsel in Maryland, and Shawn Smith from Brunswick, Georgia. Smith could see early playing time at the slot receiver position, as Virginia will need to find someone to replace Mizzell’s receiving production. Pratt, at 6’3”, could fits in nicely as a replacement for graduating senior Keeon Johnson. UVA returns most of its receiving corps from 2016, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pratt redshirt.
Offensive Line: Virginia’s offensive line woes have been well-documented here at STL, but Mendenhall’s staff made major strides in building o-line depth in this class. UVA will enter spring practice with 8 scholarship offensive linemen. By the time the season rolls around, that number could swell to 16. UVA signed five linemen in this recruiting class and will add three more as transfers.
Ryan Nelson, an offensive tackle from California, is the most heralded of the bunch and is Virginia’s highest-rated recruit in the 247 Composite Rankings. Nelson will join 6-10 Floridian Ryan Swoboda at tackle, while Georgia’s Tyler Fannin and Ohio’s Chris Glaser are likely to be slotted at center and guard, respectively. 11th-hour addition Gerrik Vollmer was a Louisville commit before losing his slot after a coaching change. Vollmer could potentially be slotted at any of the line positions. With Virginia having at least 10 other linemen on the roster, the entire freshmen class could be headed for a collective redshirt.
Defensive Line: Defensive tackle Tommy Christ was Virginia’s first commitment in the 2017 cycle. The Northern Virginia native is joined by Florida’s Mandy Alonso on the inside. Alonso checked in at 290 pounds on his signing day film, and may give Mendenhall his nose tackle of the future. Woodberry Forest’s John Kirven and Kentucky’s Isaac Buell will join the fray at defensive end. Kirven actually committed to former coach Mike London in 2015 as a tight end. He decommitted in the spring before renewing his pledge as a defensive end in the summer. Buell joined the class after a January official visit. Virginia looks to have most of its two-deep set for 2017, but I wouldn’t be shocked if at least one of these players saw the field.
Linebackers: Virginia played three true freshmen linebackers in 2016: Jordan Mack, Landan Word, and Matt Terrell. If any of its 2017 freshmen see playing time, it will likely be Zane Zandier from Pennsylvania. Zandier was ranked the 11th-best player in the Keystone State by the 247 Sports Composite. Matt Gahm, an inside linebacker from Dallas, could be one of the more underrated members of the class. Outside linebackers Charles Snowden and Elliot Brown are both lean and tall. They could give Virginia an intimidating look from the outside in future years, but I think both are likely redshirt candidates. Brown, however, won the “best commitment photo” contest going away.
Secondary: UVA took five defensive backs in 2017, including legacy Germane Crowell. Crowell’s father (also Germane) was a standout receiver under George Welsh and his uncle Angelo was force at linebacker under Al Groh. Crowell has the best shot of the group of seeing the field early. In addition to being highly-regarded at cornerback, he also showed promise in high school as a kick and punt returner. Crowell and fellow cornerback Riah Burton enrolled in school in January. They’ll be joined in August by Joey Blount, Terrell Jana, and Darrius Bratton. Blount, like Crowell, is also a UVA legacy, and was one of the top recruiters of his class. His relationship with Shawn Smith helped bring the latter to Hooville.
Special Teams: It’s difficult to say which of UVA’s 2017 recruits will have the largest long-term impact on the program. In the short term, however, the choice is obvious. UVA signed Westfield’s Brian Delaney as a kicker and punter, and he’ll likely be the opening starter at one (if not both) of those positions. Delaney will have big shoes to fill at punter as he tries to replace Nick Conte. I’m not even sure Virginia’s placekickers wore shoes in 2016. Virginia missed field goals in close losses to UConn and Louisville. Delaney could be worth a couple of wins in 2017 if he merely makes the kicks he’s supposed to make.
Overall: While Virginia’s class lacks the star power of the early Groh or London years, there’s reason to be optimistic about the depth it will bring. It’s been quite a while, maybe since Groh’s larger classes, that Virginia has so methodically landed players at each position. While London landed his share of high-caliber players, the lack of depth planning from his classes are part of the reason Virginia’s program is in the hole it’s in.
Of course, recruiting is only one piece of the puzzle. And both Groh and London struggled to retain talent once it arrived in Charlottesville. Mendenhall saw a fair share of attrition last spring and summer, but that’s reasonable for a new coaching staff. Virginia fans should keep an eye on how the roster holds together (or doesn’t) between now and September. Player retention may be the most important story of the off-season.