Cavalier program making an impact in Northern Virginia

Ahmad Brooks’ decision Monday to attend the University of Virginia was more than just an end to the pursuit of one of the nation’s top high school football players.

It was also another reminder of how much the Cavaliers’ recruiting strategy has changed toward Northern Virginia since Al Groh took over as head coach in December of 2000.

Before Groh, Virginia had not had great success recruiting this area under former coach George Welsh.

If there was a big-name recruit, they might have considered Virginia, but the recruit usually ended up either going to Virginia Tech or out-of-state.

To underscore that point, only two area players have signed with Virginia out of high school since 1990 and they both came from Gar-Field: Josh Lawson (1997 Gar-Field graduate) and Kofi Bawuah (1996 graduate).

In that same span of time, Virginia Tech has signed seven players.

In addition, Brooks is the first Brown-coached player to sign with the Cavaliers directly out of high school. And that’s over a 20-year period of time in which Brown has had over 40 of his players sign with Division I programs.

To reverse that trend, Groh decided to recruit this area harder than usual. He knew the area and Brown well already. He had recruited here as an assistant at North Carolina in the 1970s and again as a head coach at Wake Forest in the 1980s.

In fact, one of Brown’s players, Richard Roeske, signed with the Demon Deacons out of Potomac in 1983.

But Groh also made sure he had assistants who shared the same relentless philosophy. Thirty-one-year-old Virginia defensive coordinator Al Golden, who was Brooks’ primary recruiter, symbolized the new approach.

“I think there were a lot of guys on Coach Welsh’s staff who had gotten to an age where they weren’t going to be a head coach and they got complacent,” Brown said. “But Al Groh went for energetic guys on his staff. Not that older guys couldn’t recruit as well, but he wanted to go at the schools as hard as they could.”

Besides Brooks, Virginia also received a commitment from Potomac defensive lineman Keenan Carter. Teammate Antwan Stewart originally committed to the Cavaliers before deciding to sign with Tennessee instead and Gar-Field linebacker Jamar Atkinson, who is headed to Syracuse, had received interest from Virginia as well.

With his eye on next year’s class, Groh has already been in the area, checking out Gar-Field offensive lineman Flordell Kissee. Kissee, who is rated the state’s 13th best junior according to the Roanoke Times, was a second-team all-state selection this past season.

What impressed Brown too was that Groh was making his presence known before he even knew about Brooks.

In the past, Virginia coaches would be in to see Brown if one of his teams had a highly regarded player, like when he had B.J. Hawkins, Craig Novitsky and Tommy Thigpen at Potomac.

But if he didn’t have any all-American caliber players like that, he might not see anyone from the Cavaliers at all. Virginia Tech, the state’s other Division I program, though, made sure it came by no matter what.

“That’s how you build strong relationships,” Brown said. “Virginia Tech has done that and been faithful.”

Brown said the Virginia coaches were ecstatic that they had landed Brooks.

“Coach Groh compared it to getting a No. 1 NFL draft choice,” Brown said.

Brooks’ decision gave the Cavaliers four Parade all-Americans who will sign with Virginia today. The others are running back Michael Johnson from Heritage, linebacker Kai Parham from Princess Anne and defensive lineman Kwakou Robinson from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Last season, Virginia only had one Parade all-American on its roster, running back Arlen Harris, who has since transferred to the University of Delaware.

“Virginia made a major impression and they meant to send a message,” Brown said.

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