When he decided to leave Brigham Young University and take over a struggling program on the East Coast, Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall was steadfast in his belief that the Cavaliers would be a bowl team in year one.
He maintained that belief until the first quarter of the 2016 season opener — a game Virginia lost, 37-20, to Richmond.
“We instantly knew it was going to take time,” Mendenhall said.
The holes in the Cavaliers’ roster were apparent long before they finished that first season with a 2-10 record. There was a lack of succession planning, where the only option behind a fifth-year player was a freshman, and some positions had a dearth of scholarship players while others had far too many.
The most glaring omission, though, was the lack of NFL body types on the roster. So since landing in Charlottesville with Mendenhall in 2016, director of player personnel Justin Anderson’s mission has been finding players that fit the physical traits NFL scouts are looking for and getting them on Grounds.
“We’ve done some research over the last couple years about the average body types at each position, and then we break it down even further for what we need in a 3-4 defense,” Anderson said. “When we look at a kid, we’re looking for those metrics. If they don’t meet them, then it’s ‘What skills do they possess that may outweigh the fact that they’re not a certain height or weight?’”
Size was prevalent in the Cavaliers’ incoming freshman class, which officially took the field as college athletes this week with the beginning of summer workouts. Offensive linemen Ja’Quay Hubbard (6-foot-6, 320 pounds) and Kariem Al Soufi (6-4, 330) and defensive lineman Jowon Briggs (6-3, 290) certainly fit the bill, as do wide receivers Dorien Goddard (6-3, 210), Dontayvion Wicks (6-3, 200) and Nathanial Beal (6-5, 205).
The same can be said for the verbal commits in Virginia’s 2020 recruiting class. Offensive linemen Jimmy Christ (6-7, 285) and Jestus Johnson (6-3, 320) have the size to contribute early in their careers, and the most recent addition to the class was Lavel Davis Jr. — a 6-6 wide receiver from South Carolina.
“From a physical perspective, that is the start,” Mendenhall said. “If you recruit big, you have a big team. That doesn’t mean it’s the end all be all, because grades matter, character matters and I like coaching kids I like being around. However, one of the first filters is the metrics.”
Now recruiting their fourth class, Virginia’s coaches have learned a thing or two about what it takes to battle ACC, SEC and Big Ten staffs and land the talent needed to compete on a national level.
“We have a much clearer idea of what characteristics a player would need to thrive at UVa, and we have a much clearer picture of what the ACC is and what physical measurements are necessary to have success at this level,” Mendenhall said.
According to 247sports.com, Virginia’s 2019 recruiting class ranked 34th in the country. It was the first time since 2014 that a UVa class even cracked the top 50.
Mendenhall credits some of that recruiting success to the addition last year of several new analysts and regional scouts, which he said was made possible by support from athletics director Carla Williams.
“I didn’t think those positions were as needed as they were when I arrived, but over time I realized in this setting and this environment, they were essential,” Mendenhall said. “Now the personnel department is working around the clock while the coaches are coaching, and those going at the same time has allowed us to become more efficient and more effective, and we have a clearer idea of what we want and who we want.”
Anderson now oversees about 10 full-time employees in the Cavaliers’ personnel department. It’s still crazy for him to think that as recently as five years ago he thought of recruiting as part of his job, not the entirety of it.
In the summer of 2015, he wasn’t even thinking about recruiting when he got a call from Mendenhall to gauge his interest in a position that was still in its infancy at BYU. The two were already familiar with one another from Anderson’s time in Provo, Utah, as a graduate assistant coach.
“Who Justin is in terms of character, substance, integrity and intellect were all strong points I was impressed with,” Mendenhall said. “I really liked being around him in addition to those qualities. The who and the what both seemed to align.”
Anderson was halfway across the country, preparing for his 12th year of coaching. He was working with the wide receivers and coordinating the passing game at Nicholls State in Louisiana, and while he was excited about the chance to return to his alma mater, he wasn’t sure about moving behind the scenes full time.
“The pride in me was like ‘I’m a coach,’ and it was so new that I just didn’t know much about it,” Anderson said. “I miss the coaching side of things, but I really do enjoy recruiting and interactions with the recruits and evaluating talent.”
The talent Anderson and his staff are busy tracking down has Virginia coming off back-to-back bowl bids for the first time since 2004-05 and the future in Charlottesville looking brighter than it has in more than a decade.
“When we made the move, I didn’t know what to expect,” Anderson said. “Now, I feel blessed to be working with such dedicated people at such a special place. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.”