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Gridiron Recruits Filling Up Quickly

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

  April 12, 2004 CHARLOTTESVILLE — One of the most noteworthy developments at the end of Virginia's winter sports season came on the football recruiting front. As of mid-April, the Cavaliers already had seven commitments from juniors, five since Feb. 24 and four in a flurry starting in late March. All of the later commitments came from so-called jumbo athletes, many of them tight ends who were attracted by what Virginia has been able to accomplish with Heath Miller, a rising junior who had 70 receptions in 2003. It might be noted that Miller is a former quarterback and state player of the year in Group A, Virginia's smallest classification, but most tight ends view themselves as pass-catchers before blockers, although Miller is quite adept at the latter. The most obvious comparisons to Miller are from 6-5, 235-pound John Phillips, who will become the first Division I-A signee from in-state Bath County, the only high school in the county most famous for the Homestead resort. Phillips isn't a quarterback and he wasn't the Group A state player of the year, but his brother, Jacob, was. Virginia coach Al Groh made an 11th-hour commitment to senior Jacob Phillips that would have brought him a scholarship after a year in prep school, but Jacob stuck with his commitment to Division I-AA William and Mary, where he could be assured of a shot at quarterback. The Phillips brothers played on a state championship team in 2002 and got all the way to the final, despite losing John Phillips to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the final game of the regular season. The damage wasn't so severe to keep Phillips from receiving scholarship offers to Virginia and Virginia Tech, and he was hoping to receive clearance to play baseball by mid-April. "Tight end is a prolific position in their offense," said Bath County coach Will Fields, who accompanied Phillips to the April 8 Virginia practice after which he committed. "Coach Groh has said, 'You remind us of Heath Miller.' He said, 'We're recruiting a lot of guys who look like you and look like Heath.' He said, 'Some of them will be tight ends. Some of them will be outside linebackers. Some of them will be defensive ends. Some might be offensive tackles, depending on how heavy they are when they come to us.'" Two other commitments came from in-state players who have played tight end, 6-5, 250-pound Alex Field from Broad Run in Northern Virginia and 6-5, 225-pound Jason Fuller from Kempsville in Virginia Beach. Both of those players could be headed for the defensive side of the ball. They have not put up the same kind of receiving numbers as Phillips, who had a total of 47 receptions over the past two seasons, but there is a spot for a blocking tight end in the UVa offense. Miller frequently plays in tandem with Patrick Estes, a more highly touted member of Virginia's 2001 signing class who played as a true freshman while Miller was being redshirted. Groh has done nothing to stop references to Virginia as Tight End U. He signed two of the outstanding receivers among the national crops of tight ends in 2003 (Jon Stupar) and 2004 (Tom Santi). Santi, from Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Tenn., probably didn't receive enough consideration among the top players in the most recent UVa signing class. The late inability to sign a marquee wide receiver took some of the shine off the Cavaliers' 2004 recruiting class, which can happen when a program gets a number of early commitments. Players such as the above-mentioned three tight ends, as well as offensive linemen Will Barker (6-6, 275) from the Haverford (Pa.) School and Pat Slebonic (6-5, 295) from North Stafford, won't get the multiple offers that often drive up recruiting rankings. On the other hand, several of the recruits saw the direction in which UVa's recruiting was going and felt a need to make their decisions at a time when scholarships were still available. The Cavaliers are after at least two more in-state linemen, Slebonic's 6-4, 310-pound teammate, Antonio "Tony" North, and 6-7, 260-pound Pat Sheil from Centreville. "I feel that the University of Virginia was the frontrunner from Day One with Patrick," said Slebonic's coach, Eric Cooke. "I know that Pat follows the recruiting process. I think he could tell you right off who the six or seven other recruits they've gotten are. He keeps up with that on the websites. He's of above-average intelligence and has done his research. He knows what each school has on their roster; he also has researched them academically. Coach Groh, being a hands-on coach and being involved in the spring practices that Patrick saw, was a big selling point. That and the professionalism of the staff." Virginia's first two commitments for 2005 came this past fall, from North Carolina wide receiver-outside linebacker Maurice Covington and 5-10, 180-pound Vicqual "Vic" Hall. Hall set a state record for passing yardage last season and was named Group 2A player of the year for in-state Gretna High, which is located between Lynchburg and Danville. When reports surfaced at mid-winter that Virginia was looking at other quarterbacks, Gretna coach Rob Senseney said Hall might visit other schools, which was not to say he was backing off the commitment. "If they do start recruiting more quarterbacks, yeah, we will be concerned," Senseney said. "That's always a concern. That would be something we would keep a close tab on. As far as where Vic is going to play, they have told me he is definitely a quarterback. Looking at what they have coming, plus the transfer (Christian Olsen from Notre Dame), they've got a lot of depth at quarterback. I'm just one of these guys who wants to prepare for every contingency and not be surprised at the last moment and have to say, 'Aw, geez, we should have kept all of our options open.' But, overall, I think his intent is to go to Virginia. We're not going to close the door completely." While not speaking of Hall directly, Groh is quick to point out that he never promised current frontrunner Marques Hagans that he would play quarterback, only that he would be given a chance. It was after watching the 5-10 Hagans abuse Western Michigan as an emergency starter that the UVa coaches finalized their offer to Hall.

Receivers Come In Many Forms There have been plenty of questions about UVa's wide receiver corps, but, in Miller and tailback Alvin Pearman, the Cavaliers have two players who had 70 and 63 receptions, respectively, and don't forget about fullback Jason Snelling. Snelling had 31 receptions as a true freshman in 2002, when he didn't become a starter until midseason. He now has bulked up from 220 pounds to 245, apparently without losing any of the speed than enabled him to play tailback in high school. Snelling, who was redshirted in 2003 for medical and academic reasons, has the kind of big-play ability the Cavaliers lacked last year in walk-on Kase Luzar, and Snelling has worked hard to enter Luzar's league as a blocker. UVa has not made a habit of running its fullbacks, but Snelling could be the exception. Athletic Program Upside-Down? A somewhat disappointing 13th-place finish in men's swimming, accompanied by a 16th place in wrestling and a 19th in women's swimming, enabled Virginia to move up to 29th from 53rd in the Directors Cup at the end of the winter season. In a stunning development, the UVa men's lacrosse team was in jeopardy of not making the NCAA field after winning the national championship in 2003 and being ranked No. 1 in the preseason. However, the Cavaliers stood to pick up some unexpected Directors Cup points from a baseball team that was 30-7 after sweeping a Clemson nine that was previously undefeated in ACC play. The Cavaliers, under first-year coach Brian O'Connor, were riding the left arms of starting pitchers Andrew Dobies and Joe Koshansky, who were a combined 12-1 through mid-April.