Feb 20, 2013, 10:50 AM EST
Editor’s Note: Over the three weeks following National Signing Day, we will talk with local journalists and bloggers covering our 11 schools to get their take on the teams that they cover. Each day will be devoted to a different program. Today we talk with John O’Connor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the Richmond Spiders.
You were there for head coach Danny Rocco’s National Signing Day press conference. What were your thoughts after seeing the list of signees and then hearing from him?
The first thing that hit me was just the size of the class in terms of the physical size of the guys. I’ve been doing this for close to 30 years and that’s the biggest class that I can remember when looking at the size of the defensive backs, linemen, running backs, tight ends, etc.
That was one of Coach Rocco’s points of emphasis. He wanted to get longer and bigger to give the team an added advantage. I think he felt that Richmond was small compared to its opponents. They also added some good speed, which is what every coach wants to do.
This past season was Rocco’s first at Richmond, so this was his first true recruiting class. How does this class compare to others in the program’s recent past?
In the FCS in particular, I think you need to wait at least two years to make an assessment because the classes at this level are so centered on development. At the FBS level, you have instant impact players almost immediately. That’s rarely the case in the FCS. So I’ll withhold judgment when it comes to that for another couple of years.
But as you mentioned, this was Coach Rocco’s first year. He was very emphatic about getting early commitments this year and being able to see these guys over the summer in order to get a better feel for them heading into the season. This was something he wasn’t able to do the previous year given that he wasn’t hired until December. So this is truly the first full class for Rocco and his staff.
What impresses you most about this year’s class?
It’s definitely the size. To give you a couple of examples, they got a lineman named Patrick Kliebert from down in New Orleans who is 6’8”, 320 pounds. He’s going to be the biggest Spider ever. They’ve never had a guy that big. And that trickles down to all of the positions. They’ve got a 6’3”, 200-pound quarterback by the name of Kyle Lauletta coming in who Rocco is extraordinarily high. He’s a really good-sized high school quarterback. They’ve got both a 6’5” and a 6”6 tight end coming in. The same is true for one of the defensive backs, Charles Mack, who is 6’2”, 190-pounds. They also have a running back named Jeremiah Hamlin who’s 220. So it’s just a big class everywhere and that’s what really struck me.
This year’s signing class is comprised of 13 players. Is the coaching staff done recruiting or should we anticipate additional guys signing at this point?
Well, there’s a two-part answer to that. There are three transfers that Richmond enrolled in January. One is former Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco, the second is a wide receiver out of Cornell, Shane Savage, and the third is a tight end from North Carolina named Sean Fitzpatrick. Savage has one year left and had a distinguished career before graduating from Cornell. He’s a veteran who’s interested in playing at a higher level for his final season of eligibility. He’s a small 5’9/10” receiver, but he really did well at Cornell, so I’d imagine he’ll make an impact at Richmond. Fitzpatrick has two seasons left. I don’t know how much he’s going to play because Richmond’s in pretty good shape at tight end in terms of returning guys. Michael Rocco’s situation is interesting because he’s only got one season of eligibility remaining and by NCAA rules he must sit out this year. Richmond is filing a request for a waiver on his behalf to see if they can get him eligible for this season – the rationale being that he did not redshirt at Virginia and he’s on track to graduate in the spring 2014, so there’s really no reason that he shouldn’t be eligible in 2013 to then get his degree. The only thing ineligibility would do is make the guy go to school for another semester.
The other side of it is the freshmen signing class. Richmond like all FCS schools now really hunts down those recruited walk-ons that can really add to a program. They can develop into starters, which happens at FCS schools both in the CAA and all across the nation. Guys put on weight, they gain a few inches or they’re just better than people estimated coming out of high school. So Richmond wants to get a handful of those guys to round out this class. My guess is that when all’s said and done, they’ll have 16-20 freshmen when camp opens in August.
What particular holes was the coaching staff looking to fill with this year’s signing class, and how successful were they in accomplishing this?
It looks like linemen because they have a pretty good base of offensive linemen. Those guys will be juniors this year, so it’s about time to get a new crop of guys in the pipeline so they’re ready to go for when these guys who are currently playing graduate. It looks like they did fine there and at a number of other positions.
Like I said, it’s hard to estimate it now, but it looks like they got some good-sized kids. What I like is that in the past with Richmond, when they’ve gone south to recruit – Florida, Georgia and periodically Texas – they seem to get better athletes; guys who can run a little faster, guys who can move a little bit better. They got some linemen from down that way. So I think that they’re in good shape and we’ll see how these guys develop.
At first glance, how do you think UR’s class stacks up to others around CAA Football?
I think Richmond has done fine. Perhaps when the kids are coming out of high school, Richmond’s kids don’t rank quite as high, but they do a nice job of developing kids over the years and particularly in the strength and speed departments. They put on weight and get a little quicker.
I would trust Danny Rocco in this case and say that he probably landed as a good a class as anyone in the league. The guy has a whole lot of experience going after FCS players having been at Liberty the previous six years before getting to Richmond. He has a good idea of what kind of gambles to take, what kind of sure things to go for, what you need and don’t need, who’s interested and who isn’t, who you may and may not have a good shot at, where to spend your resources in terms of going after people.
So I’ll defer to his wisdom and say that Richmond had a pretty good class because they have a coach who’s experienced in going after FCS guys.
Taking into account both transfers and true freshmen, who in this year’s signing class stands out to you and could potentially be able to step in and vie for a starting spot in 2013?
I think the fellow who may have the best chance to play right away is Jeremiah Hamlin, who’s a 6’0”, 220-pound running back from Jacksonville, Fla. That’s largely because Richmond can use some immediate help at that position. I don’t think Richmond’s done in terms of potentially getting an FBS transfer and if they do get one, my guess is it would be a running back because that’s the position they could use some immediate help at. If that doesn’t develop, my bet is that Jeremiah Hamlin will get a shot to play right away.
There’s another 6’2”, 185-pound local guy, Brian Brown, who’s a wide receiver that Danny Rocco also considers as a difference maker. I’m sure going into the season, Richmond would love to redshirt him and all 13 of these guys, but if I had to guess two who would play, it would be Brian Brown and Jeremiah Hamlin.
Virginia has always been a boon when it comes to football talent. With only three Virginians in this year’s class, did Richmond focus more on outside talent or is this typical of recruiting classes?
I think it’s probably typical that they have more from out of state, though it did also strike me that there was a lack of Virginia kids on this year’s list. But so much goes into that, including needs and academics.
I would have to see in the next year or two if that trend continues before I wonder if Coach Rocco was interested in recruiting elsewhere or if he did prioritize Richmond and or Virginia. He says he does, but this class really doesn’t reflect that. But again, you’d really have to take a deep look at the team’s needs and the recruits’ academic qualifications to fill those needs before knowing more.
Richmond will go anywhere to get players, and they’ve proven that. They’ve gotten plenty of good players from Texas, Georgia, Florida and plenty from the Northeast as well. They’ve pulled from all over the country.
So it will be interesting to see next year and beyond if there’s a lack of Virginians and maybe we can draw some kind of conclusion from that. But after one year, it’s difficult to do that.
As a university, UR is somewhat unique among its CAA Football counterparts in that it’s a smaller school and is also widely known for its academic reputation. What kind of role does the school’s size and academics play in recruiting at UR?
I believe it forces Richmond to cast a wider net, much in the way that William and Mary, Villanova and other very academically competitive schools do. You have to look farther for who you can get into your school, whereas bigger state schools can perhaps enroll some student-athletes who aren’t quite as competitive when it comes to academics. When you’re talking about Richmond, Villanova and William and Mary, you really have to think bigger and cast a wider net and maybe go into places like Atlanta or Texas that aren’t necessarily as close.
UR has undoubtedly built a winning tradition in recent years, as evidenced its 2008 national championship. Has the Spiders’ national title changed people’s expectations for the program over the last several years?
There’s no question about it because prior to that run that started with head coach Dave Clausen, the Spiders were very up and down over the years as an FCS program. There wasn’t much consistency. What Dave Clausen did that no other coach had done before him was bring some consistency to the operation.
The program became a steady winner. The 2007-09 era was the best that Richmond has had as an FCS program. There’s no question that that raised the bar. It showed their fans and people who follow FCS Football that that’s a program that can consistently compete for a national championship.
So yes, I think that’s where Richmond’s target is now, whereas 10 years ago that certainly wasn’t the case. Qualifying for the playoffs used to mark an extraordinary year at Richmond, but now they expect to win in the playoffs and advance.
We’ve already noted that this past season was Rocco’s first at Richmond and he’s now already been given a contract extension through 2017. What factors played a role into the immediacy of his extension?
I think Richmond was very interested in bringing some coaching stability into the Robins Center. They’ve had some turnover since Dave Clausen left. They were interested in getting a guy in there who was going to be there for a good amount of time, meaning 5-7 years minimum because what happens when you have coaching turnover is that it’s inevitable that you have attrition among your classes: your recruiting suffers a little bit, your players aren’t as connected to the staff as perhaps they would be if that was the staff that recruited them and visited and talked with them and their parents.
So you always have more attrition when you have coaching changes. That really bit Richmond over the years when they had some turnover in their head coaching office. What I think Richmond did with Coach Rocco’s extension was really say loud and clear that this is our guy and we have a stable coaching situation in the office.
What has been the general consensus in and around the Spider community about Coach Rocco’s first year?
I think he’s viewed as exactly what they needed: A mature, experienced head coach who has been through six years at a competitive FCS program in Liberty and someone who knows the ropes as a veteran of at least three decades of coaching. He’s been at every level of coaching, including the professional level, major college football and most recently the FCS.
So he knows what’s going on and he was clearly able to put together a good staff. I think he’s just what Richmond was hoping for in terms of someone who’s mature, experienced and can offer some stability to the program.
Do you have a sense of the community’s expectations for the program in 2013?
I think they’re very high. 17 starters are back and now you add a couple of these FBS transfers into the mix. Richmond went 8-3 last year and 6-2 in the CAA, and I think there’s every reason that the Spiders should challenge for a conference championship.
I know it’s early, but given your insight into the program, what do you think we can anticipate from the Spiders this fall?
Since they play 12 games this year, I’d say that 9-3 is a realistic goal for Richmond. Again, they have 17 starters back from a team that came on very strong as this past season progressed. They’re one of the few teams in CAA Football history that went 8-3 and 6-2 in conference and got left out of the playoffs because the strength of schedule was a bit of an issue.
But I think Richmond is in great shape now, and nearly all of those guys from last season are back. This is especially true for the offensive line, which was very good last year. That line is where a successful season can really start. So I see a very strong season in Richmond’s future this year.