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July 3, 2013
Virginia ahead of the recruiting game
Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.
Mike London officially is credited with 16 victories in his three seasons as head coach at Virginia. But even before the 2013 campaign begins he has put two more notches in the win column by landing the commitments of five-star prospects Quin Blanding and Andrew Brown.
Brown was the latest standout player to select the Cavaliers when the 6-foot-3, 298-pound defensive lineman from Chesapeake (Va.) Oscar Smith made his pledge on Saturday. It was nearly four months after the 6-foot-2, 206-pound Blanding announced his choice.
Those two commitments are the result of the more focused recruiting effort that began with London's hiring. His philosophy on recruiting the state -- specifically the Hampton Roads area -- as well as the improvement in facilities such as the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility have elevated the level of athlete coming to the program. And the shape of the roster has changed from one that had a smattering of players from around the region to one that is rife with local talent.
Brown said Tuesday that his relationship with the head coach was the main reason for his early pledge.
"Pretty much what he's telling me is once I get into college he's going to be like my father," Brown said. "He's going to be my father in the football world. It doesn't get any better than that because he looks at you more than as just a football player. He looks at you like a son as well."
Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell said that, in an industry that often gives too much credit to the coach, London may be one who does not get the recognition he deserves.
"He is the linchpin; there is no doubt," Farrell said. "Obviously he has other coaches who are out there doing a good job recruiting, but it was his confidence and relationships that allowed the program to really get into Virginia Beach and that Hampton Roads area to get kids who were almost exclusively going to Virginia Tech.
"It wasn't that Virginia was doing a bad job of recruiting players, but many times the best players in the class were from New Jersey or other areas and now they are coming from inside the state lines and that is where the most successful of programs build the foundations of their programs."
London was born in West Point, N.Y., but went to Hampton (Va.) Bethel before playing at Richmond.
He has used his roots in the area, as well as his time as an assistant at Virginia and head coach at his alma mater, to land some of the best players.
His relationships at Virginia Beach (Va.) Bayside may be among his most valuable.
The class of 2011 was one of the first major in-state wins that London experienced when he signed four-star cornerback Demetrious Nicholson from Bayside.
The class of 2013 produced Bayside athlete Taquan Mizzell, who elected to follow suit. Now Blanding will do the same.
Farrell said that getting Nicholson was bigger than any on-field victory London has had.
"Demetrious was a kid whom a lot of these guys looked up to," Farrell said. "He was a Rivals100 player with opportunities to go to a lot of schools, but he chose Virginia and really he vouched for Mike London.
"I think Quin wanted to commit to Virginia since ninth grade because he really looked up to Nicholson."
The trio from Bayside will not have much time together on campus, but Blanding said that the group being together is important to him.
"To be honest, yeah, I do think sometimes that I wish we could all get there at the same time," Blanding said. "I just feel like there's nothing better than playing alongside the people you grew up with. I understand when I make it up there they'll still be there, but I just feel like if we could all come in at the same time, at the same speed, with everybody knowing what they're doing and ready to play, we could start building this thing up early."
While Brown is not directly tied to the group from Bayside, he is friends with many of the players on the Virginia roster, including Mizzell and Corwin Cutler.
"Man, I grew up with them dudes," he said. "It all started in middle school.
"I was in seventh grade, eighth grade. We had this little football team called the Steelers. That's when it all started. That's when I started to meet these guys. I started playing with them, developing history and chemistry. Why not play with them again?"
Brown is now turning from the recruited to the recruiter. He is calling on his friend and the top prospect in the country, Da'Shawn Hand to join the fray.
"That's my No. 1 dude I'm trying to get," Brown said. "I tell him, pretty much, we've been in this thing forever. So why not take it to the next level and play with each other in college?"
Blanding was active in luring Brown to come to Virginia and said Tuesday that he has shifted his focus to others.
"I know (Andrew) is working on Kentavius Street. I'm working on M.J. (Marvin) Stewart. It's everybody," Blanding said. "Andrew is staying on Da'Shawn Hand. They're two of the top d-linemen, so it would be the best fit for both of them to play together."
He was quick to join the ranks that continue to heap praise on London and his staff for building trust and not trying to sell a product.
"I know other schools are in there, they're trying to promise this and offer that," Blanding said. "End of the day, I just feel like Virginia's going to have the real, true basis for something special. When you get there and you see it for yourself and see where the coaches are coming from, it's an easy decision.
"They're not telling you, 'Oh, we did this and we're going to do this and do that again.' No, they're telling you, 'Come here and together we can do something special. We're going to compete. We're going to win the ACC championship.'"
This year, the Cavaliers will be introducing coordinators all around after the staff underwent a five-man overhaul.
Steve Fairchild joined the staff as the offensive coordinator, Jon Tenuta was named the defensive coordinator, Larry Lewis was hired as special teams coordinator, and Chip West was named to the recruiting coordinator position after three years on staff.
Farrell said the next step is to produce results -- or the pipeline to the players will run dry.
"He has to get it done on the field, or players won't stick with it just because he is a nice guy," Farrell said. "Players like Andrew Brown will still be getting recruited by schools all around the country, and if Virginia suffers through another four-win season I think he will be very tempted to look for a place that can win.
Brown said that his decision to commit to Virginia was made more difficult by separating himself from programs and coaches that he had built relationships with.
"It was a big struggle," he said. "A really big struggle because I had to cut off all those schools and I'm not that type of person to cut off a coach, especially after they've been looking at me for so long. But I had to do what I had to do."
Farrell believes that if the victories on the field fall in line with what is happening in recruiting that London will stay loyal.
"Virginia is a place that (London) wants to win and where he wants to be a successful coach. I don't think that Virginia is a steppingstone for him because of the ties he has to the school and the area, but to make it what he wants he has to keep getting kids. It is the cycle of recruiting that hasn't been solved: Does he have to win and then get the players, or does he get the players and then win?"
With the results on the recruiting trail ahead of those on the field, the Virginia case study is one worth following.
"I think Virginia can be what Virginia Tech has been," Farrell said. "If they are getting the kids out of that Hampton Roads area that Tech used to get, I can't see why becoming a consistent ACC title contender would be out of the question, but only time will tell."
Blanding thinks that is it can be boiled down even further. It is a message he hopes resonates.
"It's nothing but state pride," he said Tuesday from The Opening, where NFL and college stars help coach current prospects. "People don't really see where we come from. They just think we don't have any talent. If you think about it, you have E.J. (Manuel) here today. You had Tajh Boyd out here yesterday. They're from the same place we come from."
-- Jason Suchomel and Rod Johnson contributed to this report.