Finding 5-star talent becoming more difficult in Western Pennsylvania

Jerry DiPaola
| Wednesday, June 27, 2012, 7:16 p.m.

Pitt is second to none in recruiting the best football players from the WPIAL. Considering geography, that probably is as it should be.

But the flip side is this: There aren't enough elite area players to sustain the Pitt program, and this year two of the best — four-star linemen Patrick Kugler of North Allegheny and Dorian Johnson of Belle Vernon — already have verbally committed elsewhere.

“There has to be a lot of upset people at Pitt,” national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said a day after Johnson said he will go to Penn State. “There is no way to really spin it positively. Kids in your backyard are what you build your foundation on.”

But it's only halftime. Pitt remains on the lists of four-star wide receivers Tyler Boyd of Clairton and Robert Foster of Central Valley, the two best uncommitted players in the WPIAL.

The competition is fierce, with Pitt among Foster's seven finalists that include Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Oregon and USC.

Boyd will choose from among Pitt, Penn State, Arizona, Michigan State, Notre Dame, West Virginia, Wisconsin and many others.

Pitt wide receivers coach Bobby Engram, who played 14 years in the NFL, has cultivated good relationships with both players, while Foster and Pitt freshman running back Rushel Shell have been friends since childhood.

“He's been talking to me about going to Pitt,” Foster said of Shell.

Boyd's teammate at Clairton, defensive back and Pitt commit Titus Howard, likewise has been working on behalf of the Panthers.

“I already talked to him about the whole situation,” Boyd said. “I'm trying to find the best situation for me, but it would be great to watch us there because we'd probably change things there.”

Win or lose in the Foster/Boyd sweepstakes, Pitt needs to continue to stretch recruiting borders, something it has done successfully in recent years with players such as four-star running back Ray Graham (New Jersey) and two-star defensive end Greg Romeus (Florida).

“The glory days of the WPIAL are past,” Farrell said. “If you look at the cities that produce the most talent, Pittsburgh is not in the top 10 nationally. Miami won with Miami kids. USC won with southern California kids, but Pittsburgh is not that talent wealthy.”

The current Class of 2013 marks the fourth consecutive year the WPIAL has no five-stars, but what ultimately matters is how players develop after they arrive on campus.

“There could be a 3-star in Ohio or Pennsylvania who ends up being better than all of them,” Farrell said. “These stars all go away when a kid signs. They all become zeros when they start as freshmen.”

There have been 41 four- and five-star WPIAL recruits since 2003, according to rankings, and Pitt landed more than any school (13).

Yet, Pitt has not been to a BCS bowl game since 2004 while West Virginia — with no elite Western Pennsylvania recruits — played in three, winning them all.

Pitt is broadening its borders under coach Paul Chryst, landing a verbal commitment from 2013 New Jersey power back Corey Clement and ascending to the top of the list held by four-star Ohio quarterback Tra'Von Chapman, who might announce his choice today.

Meanwhile, Chryst has assigned defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield to California, and other Pitt coaches are venturing south along the Atlantic coast.

Pitt's offer to Orlando, Fla., four-star safety Marcell Harris indicates it isn't afraid of the SEC. Auburn, Florida, Georgia and LSU have promised Harris a scholarship.

Pitt also has entered the fray with some future ACC opponents chasing three-star Tucker, Ga., athlete Juwaan Williams. Clemson, Florida State and the Panthers are among many programs in the hunt.

In the past 10 years, Pitt has signed only 20 four- and five-stars from outside the WPIAL, compared to Penn State's 55 and Ohio State's 107.

A few successful seasons under Chryst might begin to narrow the gap.

“It takes time, and we have to back it up,” he said.

So far, Pitt has received verbals from nine rising seniors, all ranked as three-stars or below, although rankings can change during and after the season.

“The schools that win the BCS, the schools from the major conferences, rely on (the elite recruits),” Farrell said. “It's part of their depth, competition, attitude.

“Four-star or five-star kids come in and either compete like crazy or get flushed out of the system, but having them there makes everyone more competitive. It's very important to bring those types of kids with you.”

Keith Barnes and Kevin Gorman of Trib Total Media contributed to this story. Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7997.

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