Virginia all but wrapped its headline-grabbing 2014 recruiting class well before the Cavaliers got whacked by seven touchdowns on national television by Oregon, well before Alec Vozenilek’s 42-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right at Maryland, well before a 22-point first half lead was blown against Duke and well before a 16-6 loss to Virginia Tech gave the Cavaliers their worst season since 1981.
No, the beginning to an end of a somewhat unexplainable recruiting narrative came on stage inside Bayside High School’s auditorium on Feb. 27, 2013.
Quin Blanding, a centerpiece to any program’s incoming class, unzipped a black track jacket to reveal blue and orange.
Forget those offers to regular powerhouses such as Alabama, Ohio State or Florida State. Blanding, regarded as the country’s top safety and one of its best players overall, had committed to Virginia.
Corwin Cutler, a childhood friend of Blanding’s and fellow Virginia Beach native, was in that room. He, too, was a future Wahoo, a talented quarterback three months from deciding to spend a prep year at Fork Union Military Academy.
Soon after Blanding’s announcement, he met with Cutler to create a list or targets.
Andrew Brown, Steven Moss, Jamil Kamara, Derrick Nnadi.
Virginia head coach Mike London would be the guide, but he was about to have assistance in bringing together a bunch Rivals.com national recruiting coordinator Mike Farrell calls “top-heavy, but historical.”
“It was everything,” Cutler said. “Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Just trying to do anything I could do to get in touch with them.”
Today is National Signing Day. Inside the McCue Center, fax machines are expected to spit out National Letters of Intent from at least 15 players, officially inking their way to Charlottesville. Two are already enrolled at UVa — Brown, a defensive tackle, and Jacob Fieler, an offensive lineman.
As of Tuesday, Rivals had tabbed Virginia as having the 38th-best class in the nation. 247Sports.com has it 31st. ESPN has it 23rd.
Call it a consensus top-40 class. Not bad for a program still licking its wounds from a 2-10 season and with a coach entering 2014 with an uncertain future.
How’d Cutler and company do on the trail?
“Yeah, I think we’ve put together a really good class because, as teammates, we all act alike,” Cutler said. “It’s kind of fun to have teammates just like you. It’s like you’re at home, in a family. Being like that and playing together, that’s going to be something crazy.”
Crazy, all right.
Losing, but winning
Rivals, a highly popular site for college football junkies for over a decade, started ranking recruiting classes in 2002.
It follows a five-star system for rating players. A five-star is considered an elite player. Not-so-coincidentally, elite high school players usually choose elite college programs. Exhibit A — Alabama is expected to sign at least four five-star prospects today.
It's rare for programs coming off losing seasons in November to nab multiple five-star players on the first Wednesday in February. In fact, it's happened just 16 times in 12 years.
When Blanding’s fax is completed today, the 2014 Cavaliers will be the 17th team to pull the upset.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Blanding is one of Rivals’ 33 five-stars in this class. Brown, an Oscar Smith product and Gatorade National Player of the Year, is another.
Brown made his pledge to Virginia on June 29 from his Chesapeake home during an ESPN online chat. Cutler and Blanding were in attendance.
Signing Day was still eight months away — UVa losing its last nine games of the 2013 season was still to come — but the Cavaliers had their core pieces.
And they never wavered.
“I think it’s one of those things,” Farrell said, “where after every loss you sort of waited for them to come out and say, ‘I’m going to go out and take a visit [to another school] just to check. Just to make sure, in case Mike London doesn’t make it.’
“And after every loss, there was just silence. Nothing.
“They never took a visit, either of them, to another school. It’s sort of a testament to the kids that they chose UVa and they love Mike London so much. He’s such a good recruiter.
“They chose UVa for more than just football, but it is very, very strange.”
Just how strange?
Virginia is the second team in the Rivals rankings era to get multiple five-stars after winning less than three games the previous fall.
The Cavaliers class of 2014 joins the Illinois class of 2007 in that regard. Ron Zook's Fighting Illini went 2-10 in 2006 and yet still signed five-star receiver Arrelious Benn and defensive end Martez Wilson.
“I look at the ones that have had multiple five stars and there’s just nobody that I can think of that was as bad on the field the previous year,” Farrell said of UVa. “I’m not trying to insult. I’m just trying to be honest.”
Added Tom Luginbill, ESPN’s national recruiting director: “It’s both shocking and impressive at the same time.”
The list compiled by Blanding and Cutler in late February received a checkmark on March 23 when Moss, a four-star offensive lineman from Fredericksburg, committed to Virginia.
It got another one three months later when Brown did the same.
Kamara, a four-star receiver and another Virginia Beach native, gave UVa the good news during last month’s U.S. Army All-American Bowl, an event that aired nationally on NBC.
Nnadi, a four-star defensive tackle and former Ocean Lakes High School teammate of Cutler’s, will make his college decision today. According to 247Sports, Virginia is among his final three candidates.
Cutler has yet to officially step on Grounds yet, but his handprints are all over the school’s new wave of football talent.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that getting Corwin Cutler laid the groundwork for Virginia to get Kamara and Blanding and Brown,” said J.C. Shurburtt, national recruiting director for 247Sports. “That was kind of one of those things where they made the right move. Cutler, he’s very respected. He’s the quarterback, which is sort of the leader.”
Corwin captained a recruiting class that, starting today, helps give a struggling team some positive press.
“This is what is great about recruiting and how it can help your program,” Shurburtt said. “The perception given to these players going to Charlottesville isn’t that they went 2-10. It’s the future is bright.
“It changes the narrative about Virginia football.”