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Gorman: Before signing day, focus shifts to juniors

| Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Thirty minutes before tipoff of the Pitt-Syracuse basketball game, the Panthers' football program had a major moment.

The Oakland Zoo gave a standing ovation to 35 football prospects as they walked into Petersen Events Center.

What made it major?

They were there for Pitt's junior day, as the Panthers played host to the top prospects in the Class of 2014.

“That was a good first impression,” said Washington tailback Shai McKenzie, who was attending his first college basketball game. “We didn't think they kept up with high schoolers, but they were calling out our names, saying, ‘Come to Pitt!' ”

Mind you, this was five days before signing day for the Class of 2013.

Pitt coach Paul Chryst was aware that there could be concerns the Panthers had turned their attention toward the juniors before signing senior recruits.

McKenzie said Chryst addressed the players and their families in a meeting, telling them that their visit was important because the underclassmen represent the future of college football.

“It is rare. There's a couple schools that have them, but the quickest you hear is the first Saturday after signing day,” said 247 Sports analyst Bob Lichtenfels.

“The recruiting process has become so accelerated that the seniors are almost an afterthought. The majority have already chosen their college, so coaches are turning their attention to underclassmen.”

And not just the juniors.

McKenzie, who has 15 scholarship offers, watched Pitt's 65-55 victory over No. 6 Syracuse while sitting with Aliquippa juniors Dravon Henry, Jaleel Fields and Terry Swanson and Central Valley's Jordan Whitehead, who's only a sophomore.

“You could technically still be having kids in for visits this weekend, while having juniors in,” Lichtenfels said. ‘There's really not much you can do after this weekend because of the quiet period, so it's really smart. It gives you a jump start on the next class.”

Schools have little choice but to stay in step or lose out on the top prospects. Elite WPIAL juniors already have double-digit offer counts.

“The way it used to be, signing day was like Christmas morning,” Lichtenfels said. “You'd wake up and see who Pitt, Penn State, West Virginia signed. It was like a holiday. Now, it's done before anyone signs. It's not meaningful anymore.

“People don't even care about these seniors. It's like, ‘Who's the best in 2014?' ”

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