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Breakdown: Mendenhall lands two high-profile UVA football recruits

bronco mendenhallUVA football coach Bronco Mendenhall reeled in the first two high-profile recruits of his UVA tenure last week, four-star defensive tackle Jowon Briggs and four-star linebacker Hunter Stewart.

Reader and podcast listener Tremayne Blair noted Monday evening on Twitter that I should probably note the first big recruiting victories in the Mendenhall UVA era.

Here goes.

First, to the good: obviously, the best part of this is that Mendenhall has two talented commits on the defensive side of the ball in Briggs (other offers: Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Notre Dame), a 6’3”, 275-pounder from Cincinnati, and Stewart (other offers: WVU, Pitt, Maryland), a 6’3”, 205-pounder from Washington, D.C.

Landing commitments from four-stars this early in a recruiting year can snowball into other top talents wanting to join the bandwagon, and Mendenhall has some flexibility in that sense. His Class of 2019 already has 16 commitments, but there is room on that bandwagon.

Also good: at least for now, and these numbers change literally daily, but as of this writing, after 8 p.m. Monday, Mendenhall’s 2019 class is ranked 30th, which would be by far the best of Mendenhall’s three recruiting classes (the 2018 class was 69th, the 2017 class 57th).

Next, not necessarily to the bad, but … some perspective: Mike London. I bring his name up because, yeah, he had three classes in the 20s (2011, 2012 and 2013), and his 2014 class, which ranked 41st, also had two five-stars, Quin Blanding and Antonio Brown, and two four-stars, offensive lineman Steven Moss and wideout Jamil Kamara.

And how did that work out for London? We all know that London would only coach this class for two years, with 5-7 and 4-8 finishes to show for having all those classes in the 20s and four- and five-stars walking around on Grounds.

It’s totally unfair to bring up London’s recruiting successes in the context of discussing Bronco Mendenhall. I get that. But it’s also not at all irrelevant, unfortunately, given the UVA football program’s long mediocrity.

Football is by far the toughest sport to flesh out in terms of a roster. You’ve got 22 starters on offense and defense. To account for injuries, you assume you need at least two guys per starting position, so you’re talking 44, not counting your kicking-game specialists.

Basketball, you have five starters, and most coaches use eight-man rotations. Baseball, you’ve got eight everyday position starters, three weekend starting pitchers, a mid-week guy, two or three guys you go to at the back end of your pen to close out wins, two or three other guys on the bench to give you at bats when you need to rest a guy, so … 18-20 guys total?

A lot more moving parts in football. You get one ace who can start on Friday nights, and your baseball team can book 8-10 wins a season on that one guy. You land a five-star guard or post player, and you’re going to the Big Dance.

Even two football five-stars can’t guarantee a single winning season in four years, as we saw with Blanding and Brown.

Sorry. Truth.

But, it’s a start. I like that Briggs and Stewart are defensive guys. It’s because I’m getting older now, but winning football begins on that side of the ball. Stop the run, make teams chuck it on second- and third-and-long, and you’ll win some games.

The challenge now is building depth. London’s downfall was not getting the splash recruits, but in not getting enough of them. You can’t game-plan that much away from LeBron James or Clayton Kershaw, but you can double-team a nose tackle or a sam linebacker.

Depth will be an issue for the 2018 ‘Hoos, most noticeably on both lines. There is talent in the program, and more on the way.

I understand why the diehards want the Briggs and Stewart commits to be World War II-font headline news. I can’t give you more than, step in the right direction, and I get it, that makes me the bad guy, but so be it.

Column by Chris Graham