By Doug Doughty,
Roanoke (Va.) Times
August 23, 2004
Majority Of Top Prospects Cut Drama Short With Early Decisions
ROANOKE Recruiting devotees who wait until the fall for their yearly Virginia fix may be too late. Even now, only a handful of the state's top recruits remain uncommitted.
By late August, at least 20 Virginia players had made commitments to Division I-A programs, many of them by the end of their junior year in high school.
The numbers were somewhat skewed by the unusually large numbers at UVa, which ended July with 22 commitments, including two from 2004 signees who will play this fall for Hargrave Military Academy, Olu Hall and Branden Albert.
One of the main storylines in UVa's recruiting has been the Cavaliers' success in New Jersey, a former home to head coach Al Groh and several of his assistants, but Groh and Co. haven't exactly ignored the Old Dominion, home to 11 of their early commitments.
It all started last Oct. 3, when record-setting Gretna High quarterback Vic Hall announced that he would commit to the Cavaliers. At a time when rival staffs were just starting to discuss whether Hall, at 5-9, was tall enough to play quarterback at the Division I-A level, the Cavaliers made the decision that he could become the next Marques Hagans.
Actually, even Hall was not the first Virginia junior to make an early commitment. That distinction fell to Ashburn Stone Bridge tight end Ed Wang, the son of one-time Chinese Olympians, who announced Sept. 15 that he would sign with Virginia Tech. Wang weighed 280 at one point and shouldn't have much trouble bulking up for a spot on the offensive line if the Hokies want him to go in that direction.
With 11 commitments from the Class of 2005, including three from Hargrave-bound players, the Hokies haven't exactly been cautious, but few teams in the country have been able to match the Cavaliers' rapid-fire recruiting pace.
Virginia got a commitment from North Carolina wide receiver Maurice Covington four days after Hall's pledge, but that was the last one before Ashburn Broad Run end Alex Field committed on Feb. 24. That was followed by a flurry starting March 29 in which the Cavaliers got eight commitments in a one-month span, including decisions from in-state prospects Jason Fuller, John Phillips, Patrick Slebonic, Aaron Clark and Chris Cook.
Many of those prospects play tight end in high school and all but Cook, a cornerback, fit the jumbo athlete description that would make them candidates for tight end, defensive end or the offensive line once they arrive in Charlottesville.
What may separate this class from other outstanding recent classes in Virginia is its variety. While other groups may have lacked quarterbacks or running backs or linemen, this class has a little or maybe a lot of everything. Plus, there aren't as many question marks as in past years.
In 2003-04, the only in-state quarterbacks who signed with Division I-A programs were Sean Glennon with Virginia Tech and T.J. Mitchell with West Virginia. This year, UVa already has taken two commitments from in-state QBs, Hall and Jameel Sewell. Greg Boone, Cody Brodus and Bobby Rome are other quarterbacks who have attracted I-A interest, with Boone's size (258 pounds at the beginning of the summer) drawing comparisons to Daunte Culpepper. Brodus comes from the same Tommy Reamon stable that produced Aaron Brooks, Michael Vick and Vick's younger brother, Marcus.
The quarterbacks take a back seat to the running backs only because Victor Harris from Highland Springs High and Elan Lewis from Hampton Phoebus generally are considered the top two prospects in the state. The rankings usually are in that order, because Harris is projected as a future star on either offense, defense or special teams. Harris also is a fraction faster, according to most observers.
Lewis may be more of a 30-carry-a-game, Emmitt Smith-type. He comes from a Phoebus program that in recent years surpassed Hampton High as the top team in the talent-rich Peninsula region. Lewis rushed for 2,472 yards and scored 40 touchdowns as a junior, after leading his team to the state championship in 2002.
Harris and Lewis should qualify for freshman eligibility without great difficulty, and Harris scored better than 900 on the SAT as a junior. Both players have Virginia and Virginia Tech among their finalists, but the Hokies' recent recruiting success at Hampton and Highland Springs have made them the team to beat. Harris rushed for 2,200 yards and scored a regional-record 27 touchdowns as a junior, when he also had eight
At mid-summer, one Tech aide said the Hokies still had a chance to sign the top five prospects in the state, obviously an indication that Hall did not rank among the top five in his estimation. Without names being named, it was an obvious reference to Harris, Lewis, Virginia Beach Landstown linebacker Deveon Simmons, Clifton Centreville offensive lineman Pat Sheil and Richmond Hermitage defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald.
Tech subsequently received a commitment from Simmons, the speedy, undersized type of linebacker off which the Hokies have made their living in recent years. Simmons had 32 tackles for loss last year for a fledgling Landstown program that has been best-known for its offense but played well enough defensively to make the state final in its classification. One day, he could team with productive Virginia Beach Kellam linebacker Demetrius Taylor, who committed to the Hokies on May 25.
No in-state prospect has provided more fodder for the recruiting services than Sheil, believed close to committing to Virginia at the start of the summer. Subsequently, the Cavaliers fell behind Tech, Boston College and Georgia, and Sheil surprised everyone by announcing for the Eagles in mid-August. The Hokies' 2004 roster boasts three ex-Centreville players, but there also is a pro-UVa faction at the high school, coach Mike Skinner said.
Like Sheil, Fitzgerald was considered a strong Virginia lean at the beginning of the summer, and it still appears as if the Cavaliers are the team to beat, although, again, Tech has a Hermitage contingent on its roster. So does UVa, with wide receiver Fontel Mines, as well as Fitzgerald's current teammate, the Charlottesville-bound Sewell.
Virginia has been successful in selling recruits on Groh's success with linebackers. On the flip side, rival recruiters point out that the defensive end spot in the Cavaliers' 3-4 defense is more of a traditional tackle. Olu Hall and prospects such as Antonio Appleby this year have bought into the opportunity to play the kind of pass-rush role that Darryl Blackstock has enjoyed as an outside linebacker at Virginia. Fitzgerald may be more of a traditional end, but he has the ability to fit into almost any scheme.
While there are ample pass-catching tight ends, wide receivers are relatively scarce behind Hampton High's Todd Nolen, who has talked mostly about Virginia and Nebraska, and unheralded Kevin Cousins from Richmond Huguenot. Cousins was almost unknown before committing to Penn State, where Huguenot perennially goes to camp and has sent players in the past. Huguenot coach Richard McFee said the Nittany Lions also have made an offer to one of his cornerbacks, Sean Smalls, who was still waiting to hear in writing from the in-state I-A programs.
The Hokies got the safety they wanted in coveted Cameron Martin from one-time Tech feeder George Washington High in Danville. Martin's uncle, former Virginia Tech linebacker Bobby Martin, is the head basketball coach at George Washington and a former GW assistant who once used to entertain his young nephew in the Tech locker room.
Disappointed at the loss of Martin, Virginia was pleased to get a commitment from Chris Cook, who wowed the recruiting services when he ran a 4.49 40 and had a vertical leap of 36 inches at the Nike All-Star Camp held in Charlottesville one day after the Cavaliers' spring game. Remarkably, many of Virginia's in-state targets already had committed, including Hall, Field, Fuller, Phillips and Slebonic.
Anybody who watched Hall at the Nike camp under NCAA rules, the UVa coaches were unable to leave their offices for a peek had to be impressed with his footwork and ability to throw the long ball. He was the best quarterback on the field.
Phillips, whose brother was named the Group A state player of the year before signing with William and Mary, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament that caused him to miss the state playoffs, but he is expected to be as good as knew for next year. The Cavaliers may have helped themselves by offering to take his brother, Jacob, if he would first spend a year at Fork Union. The older Phillips tossed four touchdown passes in the state all-star game but will play quarterback a lot sooner at William and Mary than he would have in Charlottesville.
The Cavaliers have enjoyed unusual success to their west, with commitments from Cook, Phillips, Lexington High defensive end Aaron Clark and Roanoke Fleming linebacker Darryl Gresham, who received offers from Florida and Tennessee before committing to the Wahoos. Gresham, whose father played basketball at Florida, did not intend to play football before moving to Roanoke before his junior year, but he has good size (6-3, 230) and a knack for making plays.
With Virginia so close to its limit and Tech no slouch, outside schools may be able to make a move on the likes of Hampton Phoebus defensive end Steven Friday, who has many of the same suitors as his teammate, Lewis (a top three of Tech, UVa and Maryland), but has more ground to cover academically. While on the Peninsula, recruiters would be wise to take a look at uncommitted Hampton Bethel cornerback Jamar Jackson, undersized at 5-8 but unmatched in one-on-one drills at the Nike camp in Charlottesville.
Not even under consideration are the players who inevitably emerge during their senior seasons. For programs with needs to fill late in the recruiting process, Virginia may be the place to look this year.