Gorman: Is past a predictor of future success?
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The reason college football fans love signing day is that no one ever loses.
Sure, your favorite team might miss out on a top target. But until that prospect signed a national letter of intent, he was never really yours.
So signing day is a celebration of the future. Recruiting is the lifeblood of any major-college program, and the addition of prospects brings the promise of better days ahead.
Perhaps the best predictor of the future for Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia's Class of 2013 is to examine whether they can replicate top classes of their recent past.
A look beyond the national rankings and star system shows that the Panthers, Nittany Lions and Mountaineers signed classes that resemble some of their most successful.
Pitt is celebrating Clairton star Tyler Boyd picking the Panthers after taking late visits to West Virginia and Tennessee.
Paul Chryst's first full recruiting class at Pitt is reminiscent of Dave Wannstedt's in 2006. Dorin Dickerson, like Boyd, was the headliner, a U.S. Army All-American converting from running back to receiver.
Where Boyd is the playmaker the Panthers so desperately need at receiver, the key to Pitt's class could be its haul on the offensive line.
The '06 class formed the core of Pitt's line, with junior college transfer Jeff Otah and John Malecki, Jason Pinkston and Joe Thomas.
That's where Pitt needs the most pressing help, and the Panthers got a five-star tackle in Dorian Johnson out of Belle Vernon, as well as Jaryd Jones-Smith of Philadelphia, Aaron Reese of Chambersburg, Ohio's Carson Baker and New York's Alex Officer. They average 6-foot-5, 291 pounds.
“One of the things we wanted to do this year, we felt like we wanted to get bigger. And the only way to get bigger is to recruit bigger,” Chryst said. “I think we were able to accomplish that.”
The hidden gem in the '06 class was a raw, two-star defensive end from Florida, Greg Romeus. The Panthers might have another diamond in the rough in Clairton's Titus Howard, a 6-foot-4 cornerback who brings unique size, skill and hitting ability to the position.
If Boyd can develop into a college All-American like Dickerson and the linemen pan out, Pitt could challenge for the Atlantic Coast Conference title the way those players helped the Panthers contend in the Big East.
Where Pitt added 27 players, including four early enrollees, Penn State signed only 17. It's the Lions' smallest recruiting class since 2008.
Yet, Bill O'Brien's first recruiting class is nothing short of amazing, considering the circumstances.
O'Brien can point to his outgoing players from that '08 class as inspiration for his incoming recruits.
Of the 14 players signed that year, nine became starters. And redshirt seniors Mike Mauti and Mike Zordich provided the backbone leadership that kept the Lions competitive this past fall after the school was devastated by NCAA sanctions last summer.
In quarterback Christian Hackenberg and tight end Adam Brenneman, Penn State signed not only two of the nation's top prospects at their positions but also high-character recruits who didn't bail when the four-year bowl ban was announced.
When Hackenberg took his official visit to Penn State in December, Mauti essentially passed him the torch, telling the five-star recruit to finish what the seniors started, that his class needed to carry the Lions through the remainder of the sanctions.
“We found guys that came from good families that were smart guys that we think are tough guys that we know are going to come here and go to class and be good in the community, and time will tell how good they end up being,” O'Brien said.
Although O'Brien had several blue chips back out following the sanctions, most notably Johnson (Pitt) and Philadelphia receiver Will Fuller (Notre Dame), those who stuck with the Lions could leave an indelible mark.
“I'm not going to tell you that sanctions didn't play a factor in some of the guys that we set out to recruit, but all I'm concerned about is the guys that are here,” O'Brien said. “What we talk about as a staff all the time is we're not about collecting talent, we're about building a team.”
Penn State has to be incredibly selective in signing players. O'Brien has little margin for error because of the scholarship reductions.
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen took a different tact, signing seven junior-college players among the 25 players from 15 states.
That formula worked for Rich Rodriguez in 2002, when the Mountaineers criss-crossed the country to sign Chris Henry, Adam Jones, Jay Henry, Mike Lorello and Dan Mozes, who became the foundation for the best turnaround in Big East history.
“There's a change in college football,” Holgorsen said. “A lot of junior-college players are being recruited. We went after a bunch. You have to identify guys that you have a need for.”
West Virginia might have missed on Boyd, but relentless recruiter Tony Gibson made up for it by swiping junior college stars in receiver Mario Alford and outside linebacker Brandon Golson of Georgia Military College away from Arizona.
The Mountaineers also added Army All-American receiver Shelton Gibson, who could team with Alford to alleviate the loss of 1,000-yard receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
West Virginia will soon see whether the quick-fix route is a sound solution, the same way Pitt and Penn State will learn if theirs are championship-caliber classes.
“I don't know how this is going to play out,” Chryst said, “but they have four to five years to write that story.”
If they can rewrite history, even better. On this signing day, in their own way, all three schools were winners.
Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.
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