Recruiting battles around WPIAL to heat up
By Jerry DiPaola
Published: Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014, 7:09 p.m.
Football recruiting changed two weeks ago when Penn State hired James Franklin as its coach. He stood at a podium and declared that Penn State wants to dominate Pennsylvania.
In Pittsburgh, Paul Chryst didn't need a news conference to utter the same sentiment. With his understated demeanor, he said, “I would like to dominate, too.”
The battle for the best players in the state and WPIAL won't be left to just these men and their staffs. Coaches at West Virginia, Michigan, Ohio State and others across the country want to stake their claim.
It may be five or 10 years to determine a winner, but the storylines make it an interesting dynamic to follow.
Franklin will confront competition from myriad sources.
Pitt's membership in the ACC will increase those schools' presence in Pennsylvania, which already had been infiltrated by the Big Ten. Michigan has signed as many of the WPIAL's top recruits as West Virginia over the past five years.
Pitt has landed more of the area's top high school players over the past five years than Penn State and West Virginia. Of the 72 WPIAL players on Rivals.com's state rankings since 2010, Pitt signed or has received verbal commitments from 21 compared to seven for Penn State and five for West Virginia.
But that hasn't stopped West Virginia assistant coach Tony Gibson. It's his job to recruit the region.
West Virginia has commitments this year from three WPIAL players, including one of the best in Aliquippa defensive back Dravon Henry.
“We have to treat (Western Pennsylvania) like home,” Gibson said.
Former Penn State coach Bill O'Brien signed one WPIAL player in his two recruiting classes, and only Mt. Lebanon receiver Troy Apke has committed this year.
Franklin moved to reverse that trend when he arrived from Vanderbilt and hired former Gateway coach Terry Smith as his cornerbacks coach and defensive recruiting coordinator.
Franklin also brought along Oakmont's Bob Shoop to be his defensive coordinator.
Smith could be the WPIAL connection Penn State has lacked since former defensive coordinator and interim head coach Tom Bradley left after the 2011 season.
“Terry is an excellent coach, but the one thing he has going for him is kids really like him,” said Joe Butler of Metro Index Scouting in Mt. Lebanon. “He really associates well with the high school guys.”
“My role is to secure Pittsburgh,” Smith said. “Any top talent in Western Pennsylvania, I've got to get it.”
Gibson likes to recruit Western Pennsylvania, calling its players and fans “our kind of people.”
“Blue-collar, hard-working,” Gibson said, citing similarities among those who work in the coal mines of his state and the steel mills of the neighbors to the north.
Yet, just as the mills do not manufacture as much steel, the WPIAL is failing to produce many high-end recruits.
Pitt freshman offensive lineman Dorian Johnson of Belle Vernon is the only WPIAL player to be awarded Rivals.com's highest ranking (five stars) over the past five years.
Franklin is proud of the Western Pennsylvania ties on his staff, including defensive line coach Sean Spencer, a Clarion graduate, and co-defensive coordinator Brent Pry, who is from Altoona.
“Having guys that have strong ties not only to the state of Pennsylvania but this region as well (is so important),” Franklin said. “I feel like we've done that.”
Franklin will announce his first recruiting class on letter-of-intent day Feb. 5 at a campus rally that will include the band, cheerleaders and free admission for students.
For years, former coach Joe Paterno refused to release recruits' names on signing day.
Pitt will have a quieter event on signing day for boosters.
Where have they gone?
The shrinking pool of top prospects can be traced, partially, to specialization. Fearing injury, some athletes don't believe football is worth the risk.
“Some choose wrestling and basketball,” said Bob Lichtenfels, director of football operations for the scouting service Preps.com and an observer of local high school talent for the past 15 years.
It has been since 2008, with Jeannette's Terrelle Pryor at Ohio State and Aliquippa's Jon Baldwin at Pitt, that WPIAL five-star recruits have lived up to expectations.
Gateway's Dorian Bell and Corey Brown were five-star recruits who went to Ohio State in 2009, but Bell ended up at Duquesne and Brown never rose above a reserve defensive back for the Buckeyes.
Even four-star prospects in the WPIAL are tough to find.
There are six this year — equalling 2010 as the most since '06 — but the average number of four-star recruits is 4.1 over the past five years.
“It got hot for a while, but it has fallen off,” Lichtenfels said.
That's why judgmental Pitt fans angrily took to message boards when Chryst received commitments from only two — offensive linemen Mike Grimm of Bethel Park and Alex Bookser of Mt. Lebanon — of the WPIAL's top six.
The others — Henry, Gateway's Montae Nicholson, Central Catholic's J.J. Cosentino and Washington's Shai McKenzie — said they will sign with West Virginia, Michigan State, Florida State and Virginia Tech, respectively.
“When you are recruiting, you have to find the fit,” Chryst said. “Just because it's important to you doesn't mean it's important to them.”
Chryst said he believes he is on the right path but understands the finish line always is changing.
“We are building relationships based on trust and confidence, but I definitely don't feel like we have arrived,” he said. “All relationships are like that. You are constantly trying to build them and build on them.”
He also noted that declarations about domination are not his style.
“That's where I'm not really exciting to a lot of people because I'm not going to say that stuff,” Chryst said.
“You are not going to take local kids just because they are local kids,” Lichtenfels said. “Your bottom-line goal is to win. You want to get the players who will help you win.”
Pitt's 24-man Class of 2014 is comprised of 15 out-of-state players, including quarterbacks from Florida and Ohio and two four-stars: a needed wide receiver, Adonis Jennings of Sicklerville, N.J.; and 212-pound running back Chris James of Niles, Ill.
“Absolutely, for us, (recruiting local players) is important, but you need to go and widen out,” Chryst said.
Pitt has offered scholarships to 74 prospects from the Class of 2015, and 70 are from outside the WPIAL.
Chryst spent time in Florida last week, concentrating on those players but also getting photographed with 2014 quarterback prospect Wade Freebeck and having the picture tweeted and retweeted.
“The (local) pie is being cut in smaller pieces,” Butler said. “(Out-of-state schools) are coming here. You might as well go where they are.”
Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.
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