For U.Va., Mardi Gras comes early

Hylton linebacker Ahmad Brooks and Potomac defensive lineman Keenan Carter were part of district football champions as high school seniors. Now they’re part of the nation’s fifth-rated recruiting class.

Both signed with Virginia on Wednesday, the first day of the national signing period and also the first day in which college coaches are permitted by the NCAA to talk to the media about recruits. Second-year Cavalier coach Al Groh had plenty to say about the first U.Va. recruiting class entirely made up of the players he and his assistants had wooed.

According to Wednesday’s ranking on, only Texas, Ohio State, Miami (Fla.) and Tennessee pulled down better classes. Potomac defensive back Antwan Stewart, who had a tentative verbal commitment to U.Va. for most of the winter, was won over by the Volunteers and signed with them. Brooks, though, chose to go to Charlottesville instead of Knoxville.

Monday, Brooks and fellow Parade All-Americans Kai Parham (a linebacker from Virginia Beach) and Michael Johnson (a running back from Newport News) all made verbal commitments to Virginia.

“There were a lot of guys running up and down in the hall in the offices when those calls came in,” Groh said. “It kind of looked liked Mardi Gras in that corridor. Those are three significant gets for us. Those players are not just talented, but they have the confidence that can help our program.”

Coming off a 5-7 season in Groh’s first year, U.Va. also landed defensive end Kwakou Robinson, a Parade All-American from Brooklyn, N.Y.

“When these guys are on the Grounds with our current players, it may be our biggest class in terms of size and also our fastest class,” Groh said. “I think we’ve made significant improvement. We need two or three more classes like this for the team to look like we want it to.”

Brooks, who said in an online chat on that he believed U.Va. could compete for a national title by his junior year, was perhaps the biggest prize of the bunch. Now listed at 6-foot-4 and 242 pounds (after starting the year at 6-3, 230), he was USA Today’s national defensive player of the year.

“We concentrated on Brooks individually, just like we did with all of them,” Groh said. “[He and Parham] weren’t a package deal, but they are very athletic and we’re excited about having them side-by-side. I think Ahmad can be a tremendous, superior player. I’ve had the good fortune in my career to coach some marvelous linebackers, and these two could be right up there.”

Groh, a former New York Jets’ head coach and long-time National Football League assistant, used his professional coaching background to his advantage. Several of his signees said that was a factor in their signing with U.Va. “I’m very excited today just like if we had picked the player off the draft board we wanted,” he said. “We got the guy we wanted and couldn’t wait to start coaching him, that’s how we feel now.”

The 6-foot-1, 299-pound Carter figures to battle for playing time at nose tackle. Brooks and Parham, though, are the most likely members of the class to play immediately next fall. They’ll both be middle linebackers.

“Both [Brooks and Parham] are great players,” Groh said. “We had a picture in our mind of what type of player we wanted on our team. We decided to go for it with those guys. When you go for that type of player, there’s a great value in saying, ‘You’re our guy.’ We weren’t looking at four linebackers. We wanted to show them they were our guys.”

U.Va. plays a 3-4 defense (with one more linebacker than many college teams), and Groh said he recruited with that in mind. He also spent most of his time targeting the top in-state players.

Brooks, who will keep his number 34 at U.Va., shed more light on why he chose the Cavaliers over Tennessee, Virginia Tech and Florida State. Responding to chat questions, he said that he wanted to stay close to home.

On Tennessee, which nearly won him over, he said, “I was still considering other schools but my mind was pretty much made up. After I saw Tennessee, I wanted to go there but I weighed all my positives and negatives. But I was considering Tennessee after that visit.”

On Virginia Tech: “They have a good school, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t think they played very good competition. Also with Groh having coached in the NFL, that influenced my decision.”

On Florida State: “First of all, FSU wasn’t what I expected. I thought it would be all that. But I just didn’t think it was any better than any other school I visited. But they do have a great program, just wasn’t what I expected.”

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