Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall wasn’t shy at ACC Media Day about heaping praise on the Cavaliers’ freshman class.
“Our entire class of first-years looks to be a strong class in every regard,” Mendenhall said. “That doesn’t mean they’ve played and it doesn’t mean I’m right yet, but at this point, they certainly look capable.”
After wrapping up his first summer conditioning session with the freshmen, Virginia strength and conditioning coach Shawn Griswold would tend to agree.
“This freshman class is something unique,” Griswold said. “They’re definitely dynamic, speed wise, good leadership and they truly like each other and the energy has been really good. From top to bottom, that’s a really good class.”
Three early enrollees — defensive backs Antonio Clary and Chayce Chalmers and wide receiver Dorien Goddard — have already climbed the Cavaliers’ conditioning ladder. Virginia uses colored workout gear to designate what tier players are on, and after arriving in January, the trio has already progressed through white and gray and is sporting orange. That just leaves blue and then black, which is reserved for the most physically impressive players on the roster.
Underscoring what it takes to make it to the top level, senior wide receiver and kickoff specialist Joe Reed – one of the team’s fastest players – didn’t earn his black T-shirt and shorts until the final week of his final summer session.
“That’s pretty cool because we’re an earned-not-given program,” Griswold said. “It came down to the last moment on the last day, right? And that’s probably how the conference is going to play out. It’s going to come down to the last game, so for him to be that motivated, that’s pretty cool to see.”
Inside linebacker Nick Jackson is the first true freshman since Griswold arrived to progress to orange during his introductory summer conditioning session. Griswold also said cornerbacks Fentrell Cyprus and Major Williams have each gained 18 pounds since landing on Grounds in June.
Running back Mike Hollins (5-9, 200) looked the part last season while leading University Lab High School in Louisiana to a state championship, and Griswold called him one of the strongest members of the class after he put up 330 pounds on the bench press and cleaned 326. At Media Day, Mendenhall said Hollins was in the mix with junior PK Kier to replace workhorse running back Jordan Ellis.
“He’s as strong as they come and as physically fit as they come,” Griswold said, adding that Hollins has gained about eight pounds since arriving this summer and he recently posted a 35-inch vertical leap. “That’s impressive for a guy who is stacked up like that.”
The Cavaliers’ coaches have been on the recruiting trail the past couple years in search of size and they found it. Defensive linemen Jowon Briggs (6-2, 286) and Ben Smiley (6-4, 260) and offensive linemen Ja’Quay Hubbard (6-5, 335) and Kariem Al Soufi (6-3, 335) are about as physically impressive as 18-year-olds can be.
Similar specimens have already joined the 2020 class, including 6-6 wide receiver Lavel Davis, offensive linemen Jestus Johnson (6-3, 324) and Jimmy Christ (6-7, 285), defensive lineman Jahmeer Carter (6-2, 297) and tight end Joshua Rawlings (6-5, 230).
With all that size and athleticism already on Grounds and more to come, Griswold said the focus is on harnessing it.
“People forget that we were one of the youngest teams in the nation last year, and we’re still a young team,” Griswold said. “We just have to keep getting bigger, faster and stronger. You can get them in shape pretty quick, but it takes time to really build strength.”
Virginia opens the season Aug. 31 at Pittsburgh.