With Bly leaving Carolina, does that open a recruiting door of opportunity for Virginia?

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Dre Bly (Photo: UNC Athletics)

When Mack Brown and North Carolina parted ways with cornerbacks coach Dre Bly last week, did the Tar Heels wave bly-bly to its recruiting advantage in the state of Virginia, and will both UVA and Virginia Tech take advantage of the opportunity by beefing up recruiting efforts, especially in the “757?”

UNC has been a recruiting force within the borders of Virginia since Bly, a former Tar Heel All-American from Chesapeake, joined the Carolina staff in 2019. Bly has helped Brown’s program pluck such stars as 5-star Tony Grimes and Zach Rice right from under the noses of UVA and Tech.

Are those days now gone for UNC? Can Tony Elliott and Brent Pry regain some recruiting momentum within the borders and in the Tidewater?

Apparently Bly saw his firing coming because UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, in his first year in that role (second time around), had enough of his cornerbacks coach, according to sources who cover the Tar Heels. Brown, who coached Bly, had been trying to unsuccessfully find Bly a job, and would have been fine keeping him on the staff. However, Chizik was adamant.

Carolina’s pass defense allowed 271 yards per game last season, No. 116 out of 131 FBS programs. The Tar Heels never allowed less than 230 yards passing per game over the last four seasons under the guidance of Bly.

Brown isn’t going to give up on recruiting Virginia, but reportedly has turned much of UNC’s focus for the class of 2024 on the state of Georgia.

“The first thing that came to mind was that this is a golden opportunity for Virginia and Virginia Tech among others in the ACC to kind of dig themselves back in and get their footprint in the 757,” said Matthew Hatfield, who closely monitors state recruiting as publisher of VirginiaPreps on Rivals, and hosts “757SportsTalk” on ESPN Radio 940.

“We’ve watched UNC with Bly, who’s well-known in these parts, and he’s got a lot of connections that run deep and has mined the area and got a lot of Tidewater talent,” Hatfield said. “I think it’s pivotal now because Virginia is going into year 2 with Tony Elliott.”

Hatfield pointed out that Hall of Fame coach George Welsh helped build a successful program with homegrown talent at Virginia, getting lots of talent from the 757, and Mike London also recruited the Tidewater well. Al Groh took some quality prospects from that area, too, early on during his time at Virginia. He also pointed out that Frank Beamer was highly successful with recruiters Bryan Stinespring and Kurt Newsome grabbing talent from the 757.

“I think there’s been a disconnect and maybe it has been through the end of the (Bronco) Mendenhall and (Justin) Fuentes eras and the beginning of the Elliott and Pry eras, where you just don’t have those relationships built, and it’s such a trust factor. Some of these coaches and their families grew up with Dre’, so they knew him and there was a connection there,” Hatfield said.

Hatfield believes UVA has a chance to seize ground because Elliott’s staff features two former Cavalier stars that blossomed in the 757, in Chris Slade (Tabb High) and Marques Hagans (Hampton).

“I mean those guys are legends in these parts, guys who can come in here and say, ‘I was once right here in this spot that your son was in,’ and can get their message across to parents,” Hatfield said.

The 2023 class, according to Hatfield, wasn’t that star-studded in the state and in the Tidewater, but the classes of 2024 and 2025 are loaded. Already, Rivals ranks 10 of the state’s Top 25 prospects from the 757, and another seven are from the Richmond area.

Elliott told us on the December signing day that by the time he and his staff arrived, many in the ‘23 class were already too far down the road in their recruiting decisions to give his new regime any consideration. Still, UVA landed five of the top 40, including winning a huge recruiting battle for the state’s No. 9 prospect Kamren Robinson, a 4-star linebacker from Tappahannock who ultimately chose the Cavaliers over Florida State.

Still, Virginia Tech signed nine of the top 40, albeit six of those were ranked between No. 25 and 37.

“I think the timing is greater than ever now for UVA because, OK, year one, you didn’t quite make a splash, so now, don’t miss out on your chance in year two because if you miss the window for two or three years and you don’t get some of these players, you might not be able to, under this current regime and staff, to be able to establish yourself in this footprint if you don’t do it now,” Hatfield said.

While Mendenhall and his staff recruited fairly well outside the state of Virginia, it never really got a foothold inside the state, as you will see in a breakdown of the last seven classes below. In fact, one year, Mendenhall’s staff landed more recruits from the state of Hawaii than it did from its home base of the Commonwealth.

It should be noted that when Bly joined UNC’s staff in 2019, he only landed one player from the state of Virginia in that recruiting class, and it wasn’t even a top-10 prospect. However in 2020, he landed 5-star Grimes (who has since transferred to Texas A&M after this past season).

Bly & UNC actually had no recruits from the state of Virginia in the 2021 class, which was dominated by outside schools such as Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Pitt. UVA had its best in-state recruiting experience that year, landing seven of the state’s top 40, including two top 10’s, No. 7 Bryce Carter and No. 10 Logan Taylor, who just transferred to Boston College.

However, in 2022, Bly and the Heels took seven of the Commonwealth’s top 20, including five of the top 10, including 5-star lineman Zach Rice of Lynchburg. Most experts believed Rice would commit to Virginia. In ‘23, Bly & UNC landed six Virginians, including three of the top 15.

Here is a breakdown of how many of the state’s Top 30 to 40 (some years Rivals only listed a Top 30) signed with UNC, UVA and VT:

  • 2023: North Carolina 6, UVA 5 (four of those were ranked Nos. 31-39), VT 9.
  • 2022: UNC 7 (Rice was No. 1), UVA 1 (No. 38), VT 13 (eight of those were Nos. 27 through 40).
  • 2021: UNC 0, UVA 7, VT 4.
  • 2020: UNC 2 (Grimes was No. 1), UVA 2, VT 0. Note: Notre Dame (2), LSU, Clemson, Penn State (2), Auburn, TCU, Florida and Kentucky took 10 of the top 12.
  • 2019: UNC 13, UVA 3, VT 7.
  • 2018: UNC 1, UVA 2, VT 6.
  • 2017: UNC 1, UVA 6 (none in top 20), VT 6.