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Gorman: WPIAL recruits send message to Pitt

| Friday, Dec. 20, 2013, 10:39 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Aliquippa's Dravon Henry carries against South Fayette during the WPIAL Class AA championship game at Heinz Field on Nov. 23, 2013.

Pitt football recruiting has come to this: When a WPIAL star has a news conference to announce his college choice, Panthers fans automatically believe it's to say he's going away to school.

After watching Aliquippa cornerback Dravon Henry pick West Virginia last week, the past two days have done nothing to alleviate that fear.

On Thursday, Pitt lost Gateway safety Montae Nicholson to Michigan State. On Friday, the Panthers lost Washington tailback Shai McKenzie to Virginia Tech.

“I think, perceptually, it's not good,” Rivals.com national recruiting director Mike Farrell said. “It's not like the kids are doing it on national television, but it sends a message that they can't keep the kids home. I think they've done a pretty good job keeping kids home for the most part, but those definitely sting. People have the right to freak out.”

Nothing leads to message-board meltdowns for Pitt fans like WPIAL stars bypassing the hometown school.

They blame athletic director Steve Pederson for firing Dave Wannstedt, for hiring and then firing Mike Haywood and for hiring Todd Graham.

They blame Pitt coach Paul Chryst's passive persona and defensive coordinator Matt House for a defense to match.

And, of course, they blame WPIAL players, first for turning their backs on Pitt, then for criticizing the Panthers.

Everyone is fair game. Yet the one who suffers the most damage is Chryst, trying to build a program while digging out of the mess he inherited.

“This was really a year for him to put that brand on it, to say, ‘I'm a really good recruiter.' His reputation has taken a blow the last two days,” Farrell said. “The jury is still out.

“I think the perception is that his staff doesn't get the job done, and I don't think that's fair. Having watched the way he approaches recruiting, I like the way he goes about it.

“It's not the Wisconsin way, where they'd say, ‘You either want to come here, or you don't.' It's also not the Wanny way, which is, ‘I used to play here,' and get kids to come for all the wrong reasons.”

It's also not the Walt Harris way, where he could recruit skill players but not linemen.

Chryst has landed highly regarded WPIAL linemen in Adam Bisnowaty (Fox Chapel) and Dorian Johnson (Belle Vernon), with commitments from Bethel Park's Michael Grimm and, on Wednesday, Mt. Lebanon's Alex Bookser.

That's called building a foundation up front, the way Pitt did in its heyday with Jimbo Covert, Bill Fralic, Russ Grimm and Jim Sweeney.

Farrell and Metro Index scouting director Joe Butler are high on Bookser, a 6-foot-6, 295-pounder who chose Pitt over Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, Penn State and Southern Cal.

Butler believes Bookser's future is on the defensive line and says he has “Aaron Smith type of potential.”

Butler also calls Elizabeth Forward athlete JaQuan Davidson, who committed to Pitt in October, “a better prospect than Nicholson.”

Pitt has a commitment from four-star tailback Chris James of Niles (Ill.) Notre Dame. That made McKenzie, coming off a torn ACL, a luxury.

So what's the problem?

“The two best guys in Western Pennsylvania,” Farrell said, “are Dravon Henry and (Thomas Jefferson linebacker) Chase Winovich.”

Both are from pipeline programs. Neither picked Pitt.

That's not just bad for perception but also reality. Pitt must own its backyard every year.

Many of Pitt's best players of the past decade, from Tyler Palko and Darrelle Revis to Scott McKillop and Dorin Dickerson to Jon Baldwin and Aaron Donald, are Western Pennsylvania products.

So it has to sting when Henry said Pitt didn't feel like home the way West Virginia did and McKenzie questioned the Panthers' “loyalty.”

Chryst has cultivated relationships with WPIAL coaches, but he can't rely on them to convince prospects to pick Pitt. He needs to become a better closer or hire a dynamic recruiter to do it for him.

Western Pennsylvania stars have spoken about their feelings on the direction Pitt's program is headed.

Maybe they are wrong, but I wouldn't want to wait for a news conference to find out.

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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