In his six seasons as Virginia football coach, Bronco Mendenhall has never put together a Top 25 recruiting class.
He couldn’t get much closer than his 2021 class that was made public Wednesday. The Cavaliers were ranked 26th by rivals.com and 28th by 247Sports.
As recently as 2018, UVa had the 69th-ranked recruiting class in the country.
That class included a quarterback, transfer Bryce Perkins, who subsequently took the Cavaliers to the 2019 Orange Bowl.
It also included Perkins’ heir apparent, Brennan Armstrong, as well as this year’s leading receiver, Billy Kemp, a two-star recruit.
Still, there’s room for improvement after a 5-5 season that ended Saturday with a 33-15 loss at Virginia Tech.
“We’re kind of switching gears now between in-season play to out-of-season recruiting and how fast that transition happens, even though they co-exist for much of the year,” Mendenhall said Wednesday.
Unlike past years, there was much more “virtual” recruiting involved as the COVID-19 pandemic kept most prospects from playing in the fall.
“We’re really under no dead period or quiet period,” Mendenhall said of past restrictions.
“I’m really thankful for this particular [recruiting] class. It’s unprecedented in terms of the pandemic, the restrictions and the unique nature of their recruiting.
“So much of our communication has been virtual, has been online, has been through Zoom but the volume of communication has probably succeeded that of any regular year. There’s an advantage just in terms of accessibility.
“The class shows growth, it shows progress, it shows momentum, it shows direction, it shows continued development, not just subtly but boldly.”
The Cavaliers, who seldom get four-star recruits, landed three of them in this class — linebacker Josh McCarron from Mukilteo, Washington; defensive tackle Bryce Carter from Life Christian Academy in Chester, and offensive tackle Logan Taylor from Episcopal High School in Alexandria.
Prior to that, Taylor played in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he was known for building his body by throwing tires and other heavy objects.
“He’s blue-collar and white-collar at the same time, which is UVa,” Mendenhall said. “We really like what we see of him.
“We start every single year … in state. It has taken time to build traction; it’s taken time to build relationships; it’s taken time to build credibility. It’s taken time to establish traction, but each year it becomes better.
“This year alone, the numbers reflect that. The needle is moving. The tipping point is arriving and the swing is starting, and I think this class is a reflection of that.”
Counting Taylor, 10 of the 24 UVa signees are from Virginia, including 6-3, 200-pound linebacker James Jackson from Pulaski County by way of North Cross School in Roanoke.
Two of the in-state signees are from the Charlottesville area — wide receiver Malachi Fields from Monticello High School and defensive back Jonas Sanker from Covenant. Sanker had reopened his recruiting after committing to Boston College.
“Proximity matters,” said Mendenhall, whose first look at Fields came when he played against one of Mendenhall’s sons in high school. “It doesn’t mean that you’re not having a college experience. We’ve started in state every year and tried to expand our footprint.”
“No better place to do it is in Charlottesville first. which we’ve been doing. If I’m looking for a sleeper pick, [Sanker] is the one.”
Quarterback signees include 6-foot-1, 200-pound Jacob Rodriguez from Wichita Falls, Texas, and Jay Woolfolk, who has plans to play football and baseball, from Benedictine in Richmond.
“That starts to look more like exactly what we were hoping and want every year in those type of athletes,” Mendenhall said.
A second signing period will begin Feb. 3 and it’s certain that Mendenhall will be looking for transfers — grad transfers and others — in light of the contributions made by tight end Tony Poljan and others.