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Recruiting day full of hope, trepidation

Jerry DiPaola
| Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, 10:57 p.m.
Gateway's Montae Nicholson recovers a fumble during the first half Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, at Gateway.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Gateway's Montae Nicholson recovers a fumble during the first half Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, at Gateway.

In November, running back Chris James pledged to enroll at Pitt, insisting no amount of coercion from jilted suitors would change his mind.

Annoyingly, his phone kept ringing.

“Arkansas asked me if I was still open, blah, blah, blah,” said James from his home in Niles, Ill. “Tennessee and Wisconsin sent me messages, seeing if I was 100 percent. I told myself, ‘Once I commit, I'm committed.' ”

That's where he stands three days before national letter of intent day, one of four four-star recruits in Pitt's 24-man Class of 2014 — maybe the gem of the group. ranks James as the No. 22 running back in the nation, but Brian Dohn, a national recruiting analyst for that service, wonders if it's accurate.

“I can't believe there are 21 running backs in the country better than him,” he said. “If you are looking for a kid that you pop on a highlight tape and say, ‘Wow,' that's James.”

Coaches at Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia will gather around their fax machines Wednesday, waiting for signed letters from at least 67 high school players representing 19 states and the District of Columbia.

Pitt's Paul Chryst, West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen and Penn State's James Franklin approach signing day with a variety of hopes and concerns.

Pitt's drama

Most of Chryst's class appears firmly in place, with only one question: In the past week, quarterback Wade Freebeck of St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has visited and welcomed into his home several Vanderbilt coaches.

Ravaged by former coach Franklin, Vanderbilt is trying to salvage its class that includes only nine players and no quarterbacks.

Freebeck verbally committed to Pitt seven months ago before leading one of the best programs in Florida to a 10-3 record.

After Freebeck visited Vanderbilt, Pitt countered by sending in assistants Joe Rudolph, Brooks Bollinger and Bobby Engram for a home visit Tuesday, according to Bob Freebeck, Wade's father. It was Bollinger's second face-to-face in a week, having been there Jan. 23 with Chryst.

Coaches from Vanderbilt, who lost a quarterback recruit to Penn State after Franklin was hired, stopped by the Freebeck house Thursday.

The next day, Freebeck arrived on Pitt's campus for his official visit. He may be at Petersen Events Center for the basketball game against Virginia on Sunday.

Freebeck declined comment for this story, but it is not unusual for a committed recruit to explore other schools on the cusp of signing day. Tyler Boyd visited Tennessee last year on the final weekend before signing with Pitt.

“Coaches will give you a guilt trip,” Dohn said, not speaking specifically about Freebeck or Pitt. “But you are the one sitting in that dorm room in October wondering if this is where you should have gone.”

Losing Freebeck would hurt Pitt's class and inflict serious damage on its depth chart. After Tom Savage exhausted his eligibility, Pitt has only two quarterbacks on scholarship — sophomore-to-be Chad Voytik and senior-to-be Trey Anderson. Pitt also has a verbal commitment from Adam Bertke, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound quarterback from Maria Stein (Ohio) High School.

Even with Freebeck, national analysts believe Pitt has an unspectacular group — ranked 36th by Rivals and 39th by Scout — that will continue to test the coaches' ability to develop talent.

James, wide receiver Adonis Jennings and WPIAL linemen Mike Grimm and Alex Bookser are four-star prospects, according to Scout limits its four-star ratings to James and Bookser.

“I give it an average or slightly above average grade,” Dohn said. “There is good depth.”

“It would have been above average with (defensive backs Montae) Nicholson and (Dravon) Henry,” Bob Lichtenfels of said.

James (5-10, 195 pounds) rushed for more than 4,000 yards as a three-year starter at Notre Dame for Boys High School. He also is a sprinter on the track team.

“I don't know if he has top-end speed,” Dohn said, “but he has great vision, tremendous feet and can change direction. He's thick, and he can be elusive.”

Pitt also is making a serious effort to rebuild its offensive line.

If Grimm, Bookser and Connor Hayes of Traverse City, Mich., sign as expected, Pitt will have successfully recruited in the past two years eight offensive linemen who are 6-4 or taller.

“Offensive line is one of the harder positions to recruit, and they did a very good job with that,” analyst Mike Farrell said.

“You can play power football in (the ACC), if you do it right, so I think that's going to be (Pitt's strategy) and I don't think that's a bad thing.”

Flippin' Franklin

Franklin, who has enticed six prospects who had committed to Vanderbilt to follow him to Penn State, is making a late run at Gateway defensive back and Michigan State commit Nicholson, ranked the No. 1 player in Pennsylvania by Franklin and assistant coach Terry Smith, the former Gateway coach and athletic director, visited Nicholson and his family Thursday, spending two hours at the school. Nicholson declined comment for this story.

“Nothing would surprise me with James Franklin,” Farrell said. “He's coming in late and closing on a really good class. Bill O'Brien built the foundation of this class. James Franklin closing a Top 20 class with the sanctions still in place is nothing short of amazing.”

Farrell said Nicholson is torn between his commitment to Michigan State and his ties to Smith.

“Montae is a very good kid, a high-character kid,” Farrell said. “He and his mom are very close and grew up with a stick-to-our-word mentality — and then Terry Smith ends up going to Penn State.”

Franklin told the Penn State University Faculty Senate last week that he is “embarrassed” that none of the Top 10 recruits in the state have committed to the Nittany Lions.

“That just shows you we have some work to do,” he told the Senate. “That should never happen.”

Franklin suggested that will be difficult to fix in one year; but it won't stop him from trying.

“We think we have a chance to, hopefully, swing the No. 1 player in the state back in our direction this weekend,” he said.

Even after losing four-star defensive tackle Thomas Holley to Florida and three-star defensive back Troy Vincent to N.C. State since O'Brien left, Penn State's class is ranked 20th in the nation by Rivals and 21st by Scout.

WVU needs RBs

Holgorsen has 20 commitments but no running backs in a year when he seeks to replace senior Charles Sims' 1,095 rushing yards. With a class ranked only 42nd by Rivals and 47th by Scout, Holgorsen took two of his assistants last week to the Durham, N.C., home of four-star running back Donte Thomas-Williams, who has listed West Virginia as his favorite. Thomas-Williams posted several pictures of the visit on Twitter, but he also is considering Vanderbilt and may not decide until Wednesday.

Quarterback William Crest of Baltimore and Aliquippa's Henry are the only four-star prospects. Rivals ranks Crest the seventh dual-threat quarterback and Henry the 16th safety in the nation.

“Those two guys have the potential to make that offense special again,” Farrell said. “Crest is a very good fit for what they do, and Dravon Henry could play offense or defense — he's just a great athlete.”

Chris Adamski contributed to this story. Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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