Tag Archives: UVa Recruiting

Virginia Continues to Beat Itself

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Virginia has been its own worst enemy this year. Kyle Green/The Roanoke Times

Turnovers have been both the boon and the bane of Virginia’s football existence this season. In fact, with better ball security I think that Virginia would be 6-4 or 7-3, not 4-6. The Cavaliers almost certainly beat themselves in losses to UCLA and UNC and probably did so again Saturday night in Tallahassee against a Florida State team that is undefeated but not invincible.  Virginia’s defense has played well enough to give the team a chance in every game this year but the offense has given the ball away at a rate that nearly matches the defense’s ability to get it back. What’s even more troubling is that Virginia’s turnovers have come not in the middle of the field but rather when Virginia is either in the red zone or in the shadow of its own goalposts. It’s hard to blame turnovers on coaching but with the staff on exceedingly thin ice, you can be sure that the boobirds are finding a way to pin Virginia’s turnover problem on embattled coach Mike London.

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The Cavaliers’ 24 takeaways places the team 10th nationally in turnovers created. However, its 22 turnovers places the team 116th out of 125 teams in a ranking of ball security. Overall, Virginia’s +2 turnover margin is good for just 51st. As I wrote last week, only Appalachian State among FBS teams has more red zone turnovers than Virginia’s five. When you couple that with Virginia’s propensity for turning red zone chances into field goals rather than touchdowns it is obvious that Virginia has let slip way too many scoring chances. As a result, Virginia’s promising 4-2 start has become a 4-6 spiral. The Hoos have an bye week to try to get the offensive line healthy before taking on Miami at home and Virginia Tech on the road in an attempt to break Tech’s ten-year stranglehold on the rivalry. The Tech game, for many reasons, will likely decide London’s fate. Beat Miami and Tech and London and the Cavs will be bowl eligible and he will finally have beaten Virginia Tech. That’s measurable progress. The Cavaliers undoubtedly are an improved team this year but the statistical improvement is not translating into wins.  If Virginia beats Tech and loses to Miami, the case for London’s retention becomes more questionable. With five wins–Virginia Tech being one of them–a case might be made that the incremental progress plus London’s recruiting ability should be enough to give him another year. But has London’s recruiting actually matched his reputation as a recruiter?

Mike London’s supporters have—in the absence of on-field success—pointed out that Virginia has made great recruiting progress with him at the helm. Virginia is a state that produces an outsized share of high major talent and the Tidewater area of the commonwealth is a hunting ground for every major program in the country. London’s predecessor, Al Groh, famously alienated many coaches at the state’s top high schools, with the result being that Virginia Tech and out-of-state programs became the destinations of choice for the state’s top talent.  Every recruiting analyst will tell you that state schools must be able to retain in-state talent. Under Al Groh Virginia had lost that ability. In-state schools—for a variety of reasons—should have an advantage over other schools when recruiting local talent.

Mike London must be given credit for repairing the damage Groh caused.  His message of ‘faith, family, and football” has resonated with recruits and their parents, who often are anxious about having their children away from home and are looking for a coach who will look after their children both on and off the field.  In Al Groh’s last recruiting class only one of the state’s top 30 players, Henry Coley, signed with Virginia.  Last year Virginia signed four of the state’s top 30, but two of them–Quin Blanding and Andrew Brown–were rated among the top recruits in the nation. Virginia has taken commitments from 91 players under Mike London.  Sixty-seven of those 91 recruits have been accorded three stars or less by ESPN.  Predicting college success for high schools players is a notoriously inexact science.  Two three-star members of Virginia’s 2012 recruiting class, Max Valles and Canaan Severin, now star for the Cavaliers while the top signee in Virginia’s 2013 class, Taquan Mizzell, has yet to become the star that his ranking would suggest.   London’s reputation as a recruiter seems to have been bolstered by a few high-profile in-state signings because the majority of his recruits are only of average ability per the ESPN rankings.   To London’s credit, his recruits appear to be good citizens.  His demand for personal accountability is a very real component of the recruiting process and has tended to weed out problem players.   Would Mizzell already  be a star at another scho0l like Alabama?  As a 5-star recruit he certainly could have gone anywhere he wanted to play football. Has Virginia’s weakness along the offensive line hampered Mizzell’s playmaking abilities? A recruiting class that is top heavy with a few stars but weak on the back end won’t fix Virginia’s problems.

London’s pitch to recruits has been the possibility of early playing time and the chance to help turn the program around.  That message works until recruits realize that the program is not in fact improving.  Playing in a losing program is a mentally taxing and hurts a player’s chances for a professional career.  When the coach’s job security becomes an issue, recruits go elsewhere and the coach’s recruiting reputation suffers.  London isn’t a bad recruiter and his connections to the state have allowed Virginia to get back into the mix with the state’s best players, but I don’t think that his recruiting record is such that Virginia will retain him if the Cavaliers post another losing record.

 

 

 

Mike London Needs to Win Now

Miami v Virginia
Geoff Burke/Getty Images

The University of Virginia will find itself in a difficult situation at the end of the upcoming season if its football team does not reach bowl eligibility. The school will be forced to make a decision on the continued employment of head football coach Mike London, revered as a mentor and “father figure” to his players.  London’s off-field successes are numerous but it’s his 18-31 record as UVA’s coach that is the problem.
London demands accountability and his off-field mentorship is defined by these three principles:

  • Go to class
  • Show class
  • Treat People with Dignity and Respect

While all schools talk the talk of athletes being students first, UVA walks the walk. Virginia is first and foremost an institution of higher learning, charged with molding students into career-ready graduates. But while UVA’s alumni delight in seeing the school routinely ranked among the nation’s best academically, they pine for the days when UVA made another ranking: the football top 25.
The current status of the football program puts the school’s administrators in an awkward position.  A successful football program determines the profitability of any school’s athletics department and allows for the funding of the non-revenue sports. Football success also spurs the giving that supports all areas of the university, not just athletics.   Because state funding now makes up less than 5% of the school’s operating budget, alumni giving is especially important at UVA. It is therefore economically vital for UVA to field a winning football team.
Mike London was hired in 2009 and given, by current coaching standards, a relatively modest salary of $1.7 million per year for five years. After UVA surprisingly went 8-4 in 2011 and was invited to the Chick-Fil-A bowl, the school extended his contract, adding two years to his deal and giving him a 23% raise.  London is due to make $2,330,213 this year on his current contract, which runs through 2016.
Were UVA fans and alumni happy with the state of the football program this would all be a non-issue.  However, last year UVA had its worst year since 1982, winning just two games and no conference games. The media reports that London has the most tenuous job security of any football coach in the country.  Athletic Director Craig Littlepage has been adamant that London is the right man to coach the team, putting him at odds with fans longing for a return on their investment in the football program.
Making the situation even more difficult is the fact that London recruits phenomenally well and his players love him.  Some coaches, knowing that tenure doesn’t exist in coaching, prefer not to get too close to their players.  London is the opposite, embracing his role as a mentor. “I’m in it for the players. I’m in it for the players’ development.  My personal goals are that they become educated men because one day they’ll be husbands, fathers, employees, employers much longer than they’ll be a football player,” London said recently.
“We can come in and talk to him about whatever we want, whether it’s something about football, about class, something personal, something with our lives, something going on with the program,” said senior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson. Tony Covington, a former UVA  and NFL player and currently a UVA football radio commentator, speaks glowing of the man. “Coach has a great football mind and kids love playing for him.  They love playing for him because they know that he genuinely cares about them. Not just as football players but as family.  Coach London goes into a recruit’s home and tells that young man and his family that he will treat that young man like his own son…and he actually means it.  How else do you think that his recruiting classes have consistently ranked in the top 30 nationally despite a UVA winning percentage of only fifty-eight percent?” (Tony’s math is off because, at 18-31, London’s win percentage is actually 37%, but the message is clear and his recruiting prowess is a testament to the power of that message.)
ACC football writers have predicted that UVA will finish last in the league’s Coastal Division this year.  There are just too many questions about this team to give the media any confidence that this team will be markedly better than last year. This is the fifth year of London’s tenure and his rebuilding efforts should be showing some results by this point. He has pulled in recruiting classes that amaze pundits and that belie UVA’s status as a struggling program.  However, London’s message of early playing time, the chance to turn around a program while earning a degree from a prestigious university, and the opportunity to play for a man who has demonstrated more than just a football interest in their wellbeing resonates with recruits.  Despite his hot seat status London so far this year has verbal commitments from 15 recruits who are forming another impressive recruiting class for next fall. It was rumored that commitments from two 5-star recruits in the last class saved his job and UVA may be facing the same situation this year.  Were London to be dismissed, would this year’s highly-ranked recruits opt out?  Everyone knows that a team must have talent to win.  If London is fired, UVA risks alienating the impressive talent that he has brought to town and that he hopes will reverse UVA’s fortunes.
This year is critical. London’s contract runs through 2016 and with another losing season there is no way UVA could extend it.  Were he retained as the coach and not given an extension it would mean that he would be recruiting as a lame duck.  Opposing coaches would feast on this. Additionally, London will be due a longevity bonus of $250,000 if he still is the coach on January 15, 2015.  The football program must make meaningful progress this year in order to quell fan unrest and allow the school to extend his contract.  London’s situation is hopeless otherwise.
For those who choose not to follow the media herd, there are hints that a turnaround is in the offing.  If new starting QB Greyson Lambert can effectively manage the game and if his young offensive line can open holes for the running game and also give Lambert time to pass, everything else looks pretty good. UVA’s defense should be stout this year and there are playmakers all over the offense if they can find room to operate.  Granted, these are big ifs but there is room for some optimism.
UVA hired London thinking that he was the right man for the job.  The school would rather not fire him, eat the remainder of his contract, and start another rebuilding program. London is a good mentor and a good representative of the University, but is he a good coach? The players know that they are playing for their coach’s job. “Coach London looks out for us players,” senior running back Kevin Parks said. “He puts his players first. We’ve got to play harder for him and do everything within our will to win games for him and keep him around.”
 
 
 
 

UVA: Recruiting Wins Cause for Optimism?

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Mike London needs to convert recruiting wins into actual wins in 2014.

For modern-day Virginia football fans, the George Welsh-era casts a light of hopeful illumination over a program that last year endured its worst-season since 1982.  Lauded as one of the greatest turnaround artists in college football history, Welsh took the University of Virginia (and the Naval Academy before that) to heights not scaled since his retirement in 2000.  His UVA record of 134-86-3 included 14 consecutive years with at least seven wins and proved conclusively that UVA could win despite its reputation for academic rigor. If it was done once it can be done again, Virginia fans insist. They are still waiting.
Welsh’s successors have proved unable to maintain the momentum he established and UVA since then could be characterized as a program in a steadily decaying orbit. Following Welsh’s (some say forced) retirement UVA turned to Al Groh and under his direction the program had several memorable years. Fans had hope. The 2002 team won 9 games. The 2004 squad started 5-0 and reached #6 in the national polls. The 2007 team won 9 games, with an NCAA record five of those wins coming by two points or less.
Groh was winning at an acceptable rate but cracks began to appear in the program.  While UVA had seemingly settled into a “seven wins and a bowl game” mindset, rival Virginia Tech was coming on fast.  UVA fans vociferously objected when Virginia Tech joined the ACC in 2004, sensing that ACC affiliation was all that stood between Virginia Tech and state football supremacy. They were right. Virginia has not beaten Tech since.  Tech’s on-field success and ACC status made the school dominant in recruiting in-state talent.  Virginia produces football talent at a level just below powerhouse states Texas, Florida, and California and keeping that talent at home is a priority for the state’s Division 1 coaches. Groh wasn’t doing that.  There were reports that Groh had strained relations with coaches at some of the state’s top high school programs, especially those in the talent-rich Tidewater area.  Eventually, Groh’s inability to recruit in-state talent, his surliness with fans and the media, his record against Tech, his willingness to burn red-shirts to no real advantage, and UVA fans’ abandonment of the program cost Groh his job. He was let go at the end of the 2009 season.
The Cavaliers turned then to Mike London, a former Groh assistant and a coach who had guided the Richmond Spiders to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) National Championship in 2008.  UVA fans hoping for a big name to make a recruiting splash perceived this as a questionable hire. UVA, however, was sensitive to criticism it received for having to buy out the remainder of Groh’s contract during a time of dwindling state financial support and resultant budgetary cuts.  With already good in-state recruiting ties, London was, financially at least, a lower risk.
Like Groh before him, London delivered a season early on that gave UVA fans reason for optimism.  His 2011 team won 8 games before getting steamrolled by Auburn in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.   Virginia stumbled in 2012, losing 8 of its last 10 to finish 4-8. Fan nervousness was offset partially by the fact that London appeared to be a players’ coach and was once again bringing top-level in-state and national talent to Charlottesville.  UVA fans logically believed that London’s recruiting wins were a precursor to gridiron success.  The one-sided nature of the Virginia Tech rivalry remained an issue, however. The 17-14 loss in 2012 was as close as UVA had gotten since a loss by the same score in 2008.
Last year, the program crashed. Hard. A season that began with a somewhat surprising and frankly miraculous win over BYU was followed the next week by a 59-10 home loss to #2 Oregon that gave UVA fans a very clear picture of where the program stood in its quest for national relevance.  After cruising past an overmatched VMI team that UVA had no business playing, nine consecutive opponents bested Virginia and exposed all of the team’s flaws.  The losing streak was attributed to new offensive and defensive schemes, new coordinators, a largely untested QB, a shaky offensive line, bad game management, and lack of upper class depth.  A program that had struggled for a decade to stay afloat lost all buoyancy, posting an oh’fer in the ACC and dropping to the bottom quartile of many national statistical rankings.
All struggling programs sell optimism when wins are scarce and UVA is doing some hard selling this year. Despite its 2-10 record UVA had a very good recruiting year, garnering commitments from twin Tidewater 5-stars DL Andrew Brown and S Quin Blanding and several other highly-touted in-state and national recruits.  With Brown, Blanding and last year’s 5-star addition, RB Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell, in uniform this year, UVA likely will have more talent than at any time since the Welsh era.   Last year’s very young team is a year older and returns 9 starters on a defense led by senior All-American safety Anthony Harris.  Highly recruited Greyson Lambert has supplanted the popular-but-ineffective David Watford at QB. Lambert will have the luxury of handing off to Mizzell and Kevin Parks, the ACC’s only returning 1000-yard rusher. The transfer of senior TE Jake McGee to Florida no doubt hurts the passing game but sophomore Keeon Johnson flashed big play potential last year and Lambert will have ample receiving talent at his disposal.
This team certainly does not lack for talent and London’s recruiting ability has gained him another year to try to turn this program around.  Virginia was one of only 8 teams to sign more than one 5-star recruit last year and the only one with a losing record. With more game experience this team should show better execution on both sides of the ball.  There is no guarantee that this additional depth and experience will show up in the win column because every one of UVA’s 2014 FBS opponents was bowl eligible last year.
Most pundits predict that UVA will need to gain bowl eligibility this year for London to keep his job. London has proven his prowess as a recruiter but ultimately recruiting wins are not as important as actual wins. It is time to turn this impressive collection of individual talent into a winning team. If UVA flounders around at the bottom of the Coastal Division again no number of recruiting wins will save his job.

UVa: Winning on Paper vs. Turf

Despite subpar results on the field the last two years, Virginia football continues to win the paper wars by getting the signatures of talented high school players on grant-in-aid forms. Many players are drawn to UVa for its blend of BCS athletics and top tier academics. Others are drawn to coach Mike London. A true “player’s coach” it is clear that Mike London connects well with kids and their families, selling football, academics, and character development as the pillars of his program. There have been many deficiencies in the on-field performance of the Virginia program under Mike London, however recruiting has been consistently strong. Now, the challenge and the sole determinant of whether Mike London continues in his role leading the Virginia program, is can he translate talent into wins in 2014?
 
A common refrain from fans and analysts alike is that Virginia has enough talent to win. Mike London has had 4 full recruiting years to get the players he wants on the roster. There are several Virginia players who had offers from “big time” programs. Eli Harold, Mike Moore, Taquan Mizzell, Greyson Lambert, Daquan Romero, Darius Jennings, Tre Nicholson, Tim Harris, Jay Whitmore, Stephen Moss, Andrew Brown, Quinn Blanding, and Jamil Kamara among others could have signed with any number of big time programs across the nation. So, is the talent really there to win in the ACC?
 
If we want to set a bar for comparison, the 1995 team that beat #2 ranked Florida State as well as Clemson on the road for the first time in program history is a good measuring stick. How does the talent on the 2014 Cavaliers compare to the 1995 team? Let’s take a look: The gut response, given recent recruiting success is that the 2014 roster stacks up reasonably well against the 1995 squad. I think that conclusion might be getting a little ahead of ourselves. The 1995 team was very good. Two last second losses on the road at Michigan and Texas (how’s that for an out-of-conference schedule?) turned what could have been an historic season into a very good season. The 1995 team boasted 17 players who earned all-ACC post-season honors and 5 players who were recognized at some level as All-Americans. While, the 1995 ‘Hoos were very talented, the 2014 team doesn’t lack for star power. A semi-objective review of the 2014 roster yields 14 potential all-ACC candidates. Based on their performance to date and/or their offer lists coming out of high school, Anthony Harris(DB), Eli Harold(DE), ‘Tre Nicholson(DB), Mike Moore(DE), Henry Coley(LB), Daquan Romero(LB), Maurice Canady(DB), Alec Vozenilek(P), Andrew Brown(DT), and Quinn Blanding(DB) have the ability to deliver all-ACC results on defense. On offense Kevin Parks(RB), Taquan Mizzell(RB), Keeon Johnson(WR), and Jamil Kamara(WR) have tremendous ability and all-ACC potential.
 
On the surface, this is not a bad comparison. A 17 vs. 14 differential suggests that the 2014 Virginia talent is not that far off from one the best teams in UVa history. A little deeper analysis shows a few cracks in the foundation of that conclusion. First, of the 2014 players who have all-ACC potential, Brown, Blanding, & Kamara are true freshmen. While I would not be surprised to see any of those names on post season all-ACC lists, it is not a realistic expectation, so 14 candidates is in reality closer to 11. The second glaring difference between the 2014 and 1995 teams is on the offensive line. In 1995 Virginia had 4 all-ACC offensive linemen (1st team Jason Augustino, 2nd team Chris Harrison, & honorable mentions John Slocum & Jeremy Raley). While this year’s offensive line has potential to be a solid unit, they are bit young, they will need to mature quickly, and an honest assessment suggests there isn’t a player who jumps off the page as a likely all-ACC performer, much less four.
 
What conclusions should we draw? The 2014 team is not lacking for talent though it may not have the star-power of some of the great UVa teams of the past. Also, it is clear that Virginia will get a chance to prove or disprove the adage that “defense wins championships” as much of our potential all-ACC talent is skewed towards defense.  Is the talent there to go bowling in 2014? I think it is and Mike London needs to turn his paper wins into turf wins if he is to return in 2015.
 
One other conclusion we can draw from comparing the rosters of the 2014 and 1995 Cavaliers…George Welsh won more than his share of recruiting battles too.