June 28, 2004 CHARLOTTESVILLE At one point this spring, Virginia had more football commitments from juniors than the 10 other ACC programs combined, and the Cavaliers didn't stop there. UVa reached 17 commitments on the uncommonly early date of June 17, when prep All-American linebacker Lamont Robinson became the fourth player to commit to the Cavaliers in a five-day span, including fellow New Jerseyan and preseason All-American Eugene Monroe.
Monroe, a 6-6, 320-pound offensive lineman from Plainfield, N.J., emerged as the showpiece in a recruiting class that already includes three players ranked among the top 100 prospects in the country by Rivals. Monroe is 11th, Robinson is 89th and in-state quarterback Vic Hall of Gretna High is 100th.
Hall was the first member of the class, having committed to the Cavaliers last October. The Cavaliers got a commitment from North Carolina linebacker/receiver Maurice Covington in February, but the next 15 commitments were over a 10-week span starting April 1.
Monroe and Robinson committed during the same week as two other attractive prospects, outside linebacker Antonio Appleby (6-3, 235) from Salem High in Virginia Beach and wide receiver/safety Kevin Ogletree (6-2, 175) from Queens, N.Y. Appleby generally is considered one of the top 10 prospects in Virginia, while Ogletree was rated the No. 1 wide receiver at the Nike All-Star Camp at Penn State.
Clearly, more juniors are making early commitments than ever before, and Virginia may have been ahead of the curve in recognizing that trend. Coach Al Groh said he wanted to have all of his evaluations of rising seniors done before May 1, the time that college staffs go on the road, "because most players only have one or two offers at that time. If you wait till June 1, they might have nine offers and you've got a rodeo on your hands."
Groh said his staff was beginning to feel some of the benefits from contacts made during its first three years in Charlottesville, but new hires John Garrett and Mark D'Onofrio were an important part of this year's puzzle. Garrett, the Cavaliers' new wide receivers coach, had a background as an NFL scout and evaluated film for much of the winter.
D'Onofrio previously had been the recruiting coordinator at Rutgers, and it was no coincidence that the Cavaliers received three early commitments from New Jersey players Monroe, Robinson and outside linebacker Denzel Burrell. Several more of Jersey's top prospects still are giving UVa strong consideration, including five-star linebacker Brian Cushing of Bergen Catholic, although only a few are of the caliber that is likely to cause the Cavaliers to hold one of their few remaining spots for them.
At one point, there was a story making the rounds that Groh had said that New Jersey was Virginia's Florida. Groh said he never made a statement to that effect, but it makes sense, particularly given the Garden State backgrounds of Groh and three of his assistants son Mike, D'Onofrio and Al Golden, who was D'Onofrio's one-time college roommate. While it doesn't have the gridiron reputation of California, Florida or Texas, New Jersey produces an average of more than 50 Division I-A signees per year, a number that ranks behind only the three states listed above, plus Georgia and a few others.
In addition to recruiting coordinator Mike London, the Cavaliers have three former recruiting coordinators on their staff Golden (Penn State), D'Onofrio (Rutgers) and Danny Rocco (Virginia). Al Groh was not the recruiting coordinator in assistant coaching stops at Virginia, North Carolina, Air Force and South Carolina, but he was a tireless and effective recruiter who did not develop a distaste for life on the road. After more than 10 years in the NFL, where player acquisition is based on the draft, Groh liked the idea of recruiting and signing whomever he could get.
Rival recruiters felt that Virginia took some gambles with some of its early offers, but the class so far is not short on quality. Skeptics also question UVa's ability to hold onto all of its committed players, but, when a player such as Monroe is ready to make a commitment, it doesn't make a lot of sense to hold him off.
The biggest question at this point is whether there will be scholarships for all of the talented players who indicate that they remain interested in Virginia, many of them described as Virginia "leans" entering July. If in-state running backs Elan Lewis and Victor Harris don't decide until late fall or the winter, will UVa already have taken one or more of the other running backs and run the risk of alienating the cream of the crop? That's playing the devil's advocate game and, certainly, Virginia would rather have 17 commitments at mid-summer than be sitting on one or two prospects and seeing primary targets commit elsewhere.
Plus, if junior recruiting continues to be the trend, then it makes sense to start looking toward 2006.
Perception Still Hurting Gillen?
Virginia men's basketball fans weren't sure what to think when head coach Pete Gillen revealed June 18 that he was filling the vacancies on his staff with John Fitzpatrick, 46, and 28-year-old Mark Byington.
The selection of Byington, a former UVa part-timer, was no surprise. A Cavaliers fan when he was growing up in Salem, Va., and a good college player at UNC Wilmington, Byington had spent the past two seasons working under former Virginia assistant Tommy Herrion at College of Charleston. Byington will become the director of basketball operations, replacing Alexis Sherard, who moved up to the bench spot vacated by Scott Shepherd.
Shepherd, apparently a victim of the changes Gillen felt he needed to make to satisfy his bosses, recently was named head coach at Division III Ferrum College.
Fitzpatrick, a 22-year Division I coaching veteran, most recently was on Ray McCallum's Houston staff, which was fired in its entirety after four seasons. A former basketball and football player at Bowling Green, Fitzpatrick also has coached at Navy, Fordham, Ball State and Wichita State.
Fitzpatrick succeeded Rod Jensen, a former Boise State head coach who had spent two seasons under Gillen in the "wise-old hand" role. In a UVa news release, it was reported that Jensen, like Shepherd, had resigned. In truth, Gillen decided that he needed to make changes and wanted more emphasis overall on recruiting.
In some people's eyes, Virginia has recruited pretty well. This year's class of big-time point guard Sean Singletary, forward Adrian Joseph and post man Tunji Soroye has considerable potential, and the Cavaliers already have received a commitment from 6-8, 240-pound Laurynas Mikalauskas, a highly regarded Lithuanian, for next year.
Clearly, at this point, some of the problems Virginia faces in recruiting stem from the lingering questions surrounding Gillen's future, and not nearly as much from the personnel doing the recruiting. Entering the July evaluation period this year, it would have been a stretch to call the Cavaliers the leader for any of their top remaining targets in the rising senior class. The same questions affect the staff-building process, too.
The stability issue likely kept Gillen from landing his first choice to succeed Jensen, former Clemson head coach Larry Shyatt, who went to Florida. On the other hand, Gillen said he was approached by as many as four present or former Division I head coaches and that he didn't have to "settle" for Fitzpatrick or Byington.
Meanwhile, Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage was quick to point out that he did not mandate any coaching changes. Jensen shared a Boise State background with assistant athletic director Jon Oliver, an increasingly powerful figure in the UVa athletic department, but, in hiring Fitzpatrick, Gillen did not take the feared step of reaching into the Gillen coaching tree.