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Ratcliffe: Harold thinks Virginia can build a powerhouse with homegrown players

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Posted: Friday, August 2, 2013 10:24 pm

Hope.

That’s what August is all about for college football teams around the country. Everyone is undefeated. Dreams, goals, ambitions have wings. Glory remains attainable until the crushing reality crashes through the door like the Grim Reaper.

Hope was alive on Friday at Virginia’s football media day. The Cavaliers have re-armed with new coordinators, dreams of a high-scoring offense, a terrorizing defense and special teams play like we’ve never seen in these parts.

Hope was evident when talking to those three coordinators and head coach Mike London. Hope abounded from the players.

While many observers have lowered expectations for the Wahoos via preseason polls and magazines, fans are holding out hope that all the newness can overcome aggressive scheduling. Perhaps even another losing season or even a break-even campaign is made much more palatable because of the temptation to peek into the future.

Yes, this season holds as many mysteries as a John Grisham novel, but most anyone who knows football believes that 2014 could be the Year of the Cavalier.

Don’t tell that to Eli Harold, Virginia’s potential all-star defensive end. The sophomore believes something magical is about to happen in Mr. Jefferson’s Village and he and his “757” mates are trying to accelerate that magic by convincing more of his home boys to join the ride.

You’ve heard of “The U,” how Miami transformed itself from a bankrupt football program to a national power? Harold believes the same thing can happen at Virginia.

So, could “The U,” happen at “The U-Va?”

Harold began thinking so when he was at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach. He and several players from the Hampton Roads area, the much-heralded “757” region of the state, participated in a 7-on-7 tournament in New Jersey. All the “757” prospects were on the same team in the tournament.

At that time, Harold, who was being recruited by the Who’s Who of college football, was a strong lean toward the Florida Gators until he spoke with a close friend.

“All you home town boys should stay at home, go to Virginia and build a dynasty,” Harold remembered the advice.

Harold began to think. Star cornerback Demetrius “Tre” Nicholson from Virginia Beach’s Bayside High, had committed to Virginia and all of a sudden that piece of advice began to make more and more sense to the blue-chip pass rushing prospect.

“When I saw that Tre had committed to UVa, I said, I think I will stick with Virginia, too,” Harold said. “The week before I committed here, I was supposed to go to Florida for a visit. I was on the verge of committing (to the Gators). Me and Anthony (Cooper) had teamed up at a junior day recruiting trip and I told him, ‘Man, I’m coming here. You should, too.’”

From that point onward, the “757” guys began talking, texting, tweeting to one another. Harold and Cooper began thinking about that advice about staying at home, building something special.

They saw the ESPN documentary on “The U,” on how Miami’s program was built with home grown talent.

“It was basically all of us watching it, and telling all the other guys to check it out,” Harold said of the documentary. “All those guys from Florida were staying home and winning championships. It dawned on us that, ‘We can do this, too.’ I talked with Drew (Cooper), Smoke (five-star running back Taquan Mizzell), all those guys. And, we’ve got even more guys coming up. We can really change things at Virginia. It’s all about staying home.”

Word has spread quickly. There are 23 players from the “757” on UVa’s roster as practice begins Monday. As Harold said, there are more on the way, having already committed for next year, and more that they’re all working on.

Because players are your best recruiters, London is letting his message spread like wildfire throughout the recruiting-rich Tidewater. He’s not shy about making frequent visits there to fill in the gaps.

Whatever he’s selling, the “757” is buying.

“He’s just being real,” Harold said about London. “He’s not coming at you with the rings, the bowl wins, the 20,000 jersey combinations, the 50 helmets. He’s just being straight up. He’s telling you what his life is all about, what he’s been through. He’s religious and that’s one reason I came here, to further myself and to become a better man. I figured he would be the best person to help me grow.”

So, what might happen if London and his staff continue to corral the best talent in the state, year after year? Look what Frank Beamer did in Blacksburg. Remember what George Welsh did here 23 years ago, directing Virginia to the nation’s No. 1 ranking for three weeks.

Personally, I believe the climate for big-time football to succeed in Charlottesville has never been greater than it is right now if administrators go about it intelligently.

Harold realizes that coming off a 4-8 season, the entire team having to adjust to new systems, facing a schedule that includes the likes of BYU, Oregon, Ball State, Clemson, North Carolina, Miami and Virginia Tech, skeptics might scoff at the whole notion of the Cavaliers turning things around soon.

Doesn’t bother him at all.

“Everyone on this team feels like we have a lot to prove because everyone else is doubting us, saying we’re going to win four games again,” Harold said. “As a player, you should love that kind of criticism. It should drive you.

“We’re always the underdog and I love it,” Harold said. “I’m a firm believer that hard work beats talent. I love proving people wrong.”

Whether or not UVa ever becomes another “The U,” without the issues, will have to be proven over time. Until then, Cavalier fans would like to see their team become competitive against the quality teams on the schedule and return to bowl games on a consistent basis.

Harold & Company dream for more.

“I’m ready to shock the world,” Harold said.

The opportunities are there. Hope is alive.

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