Behind loaded '14 class, Virginia is rising recruiting hotbed
For the first time since the class of 2003, a single state is responsible for producing three of the top six players in the Rivals100. Surprisingly, it isn't a traditional hotbed such as Florida, California or Texas.
Meet Virginia: an up-and-coming state in college football recruiting.
No. 1 defensive end prospect Da'Shawn Hand, five-star safety Quin Blanding of Virginia Beach (Va.) Bayside (No. 4 overall) and five-star defensive tackle Andrew Brown of Chesapeake (Va.) Oscar Smith (No. 6) highlight a second consecutive heralded class from the Commonwealth. The talent level is not only improving -- it's getting significantly deeper.
John Harris coaches Hand at Woodbridge (Va.) High. He says the improved product throughout the state has been a group effort.
"Those top kids are just special, and I don't think there is much anyone can say about why they happen to all be from Virginia; they just are," Harris said. "We are getting better coaches on this level, and that is a result of better communication with college coaches. We are all learning what they want and how to get the kids better prepared, so I think that has pushed the fringe guys into the fold and the next-level kids up to the fringe.
"The kids are more committed to getting better and doing what they need to do, and you are seeing that with the recruits. They are getting better and more prepared to compete and stack up nationally."
Virginia's class of 2014 boasts four other players inside the Rivals100. Defensive end Jalyn Holmes of Norfolk (Va.) Lake Taylor is ranked No. 30; defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi of Virginia Beach (Va.) Ocean Lakes is No. 37; quarterback Caleb Henderson of Burke (Va.) Lake Braddock checks in at No. 65; and offensive lineman Steven Moss of Fredericksburg (Va.) Chancellor rounds out the group at No. 89.
Richard Morgan is the head coach at Oscar Smith. He says he's impressed by the state's improvement as a whole -- and especially by the three players in the top 10. "We have had guys that I thought could just go and contribute right away from Virginia before," he said. "I remember thinking that about Percy Harvin and Phillip Sims, but all three of those guys have the talent, the size, the ability and the mentality to step right into college football.
"It is rare for this state to have three guys in one class ready to do that, and I have no idea how they all got to that point."
Morgan has had Brown in his program for only one season. Brown played at Chesapeake (Va.) Indian River before transferring last June. That doesn't mean he hasn't had time to leave an impression. Morgan said the 6-foot-4, 292-pounder has been one of his hardest-working players since his arrival on campus.
"It is a credit to his father," Morgan said. "Andrew has been humble since he got here and really soaked up the coaching. His technique has improved dramatically. It was a quick flip of the light switch when he first saw what we did here and realized it was another level than he was used to, and he didn't take too long to get acclimated to the new demands."
Harris said that humility is something Brown and Hand have in common.
"Da'Shawn is just the genuine article. He has no ego," Harris said. "He gets excited to get an A on a test; he is fun loving. He is so mature that sometimes I forget he is just 17. And he is so humble that sometimes I forget I am talking to the best football player I have ever coached."
At the start of the evaluation process, Virginia's class of 2014 has an edge on the two best classes in state history -- 2002 and 2013.
The class of 2002 had five players ranked inside the Rivals100 and four of the top 27 prospects overall. That group was headlined by quarterback Marcus Vick, defensive end Kai Parham, all-purpose back Michael Johnson and linebacker Ahmad Brooks, all five-star players. Rounding out the crop was Anthony Martinez, a former four-star quarterback ranked 91st in the nation.
The recently signed class of 2013 may be the most comparable with 2014, as it had six players in the Rivals100. Running back Derrick Green, defensive end Jonathan Allen, quarterback Christian Hackenberg, running back Taquan Mizzell, defensive end Wyatt Teller and safety Holland Fisher led the charge; Green, Allen, Hackenberg and Mizzell were five-star players, while Teller and Fisher were four-star talents.
With plenty of time and evaluation remaining for this class, there is sure to be movement in the rankings before the 2014 cycle is finalized. But as of now, it's apparent: Virginia's class of '14 has a serious chance to be its best of all-time.
In-state schools Virginia and Virginia Tech did not land any of the highest-ranked local players in the 2013 class; Green signed with Michigan, Allen with Alabama and Hackenberg with Penn State. Virginia kept Mizzell, while Virginia Tech landed Teller and Fisher, making the state's first season on the rise a victory of sorts.
Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell believes this cycle could prove even more fruitful.
"The way the ties are set up with these kids, I think that most of them stay in state," Farrell said. "Last year the best three guys were not even listening to staying in the state, and this year the best three, I think, want to and will."
Blanding attends the same school where Mizzell played, and that figures to make him a natural lean to Virginia. Oscar Smith has been a split decision in years past, sending a roughly equal number of kids to Virginia as Virginia Tech. The initial belief, however, is that Brown is extremely interested in Virginia and would like to stay close to home. Meanwhile, Hand recently named a top five, and it included Virginia Tech. He has also said on record that he's always possessed an admiration for Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster and wants to play for him.
Even as the trend of top recruits wanting to team up grows, Farrell says he doesn't think Hand will flip the way last year's No. 1 prospect, Robert Nkemdiche, did.
"Da'Shawn will make his decision and go with it," Farrell said. "I don't think he is a kid that is going to recruit other players. He doesn't want to influence other kids to go with him because he wants everyone to make the choice that is best for them."
Farrell also said the pressure is on Mike London and Frank Beamer in 2013. A successful season for the Cavs and Hokies on the field could pay huge dividends on the recruiting trail.
"This year did not go the way Virginia or Tech wanted it to go," Farrell said. "While I do think that those kids want to stay home, the fact of the matter is, if those schools don't show improvement it will open the door for other programs to get a wedge in and pry them out of the state."
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