The State of the Program, Part 6: Recruiting
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 4/14/04
Recruiting is a complex science and a vast, comprehensive subject, but we'll try to deal with it as best we can. You run a risk when you paint the subject of recruiting with broad strokes, but nevertheless, there are some all-encompassing themes that we can highlight so you better understand how the Hokies go about signing the next-generation football players, and what it means for Virginia Tech football.
I don�t think anyone on the outside of a program can truly comprehend everything that goes into recruiting. Recruiting is affected by coaches, budgets, recruiting areas, the profile of the school, conference affiliation, and most important, the whims and wishes of 17 and 18 year old kids. Throw in a mega-thick NCAA rule book, and recruiting becomes a second job for a college coaching staff, outside of game-planning and player development.
First, we'll discuss VT's general recruiting philosophy, including recruiting territories, and then we'll touch upon a number of recruiting-related topics. We'll also talk about the factors that limit Virginia Tech in recruiting, and we'll try to give you a picture of where VT fits in the recruiting landscape.
If you have followed VT recruiting, then you've heard Coach Beamer's recruiting philosophy a zillion times. He has said that the Hokies will recruit in-state kids first and foremost, and fill in the gaps with out of state kids from the region and from Florida. He feels that VT can compete at the highest levels by recruiting those areas.
But Florida is being phased out. More on that later.
The coaching staff relies heavily on the opinions and inputs of the coaches in the high schools that VT recruits. A key component of the strategy is to send the same coaches into the same recruiting areas year after year, so those coaches become familiar not just with the high school coaches in their designated areas, but with the up and coming players in those areas. Recruiting is all about relationships, and relationships are all about trusting the high school coaches' evaluations of their own players, and getting them to identify up and coming prospects for recruiting.
One example is Phoebus High School in Hampton. Jim Cavanaugh recruits Phoebus for VT and has for years. Bill Dee has been the head coach at Phoebus for years. Cavanaugh recruited and signed Nathaniel Adibi in 1999, and in 2003, he recruited and signed his brother Xavier. This was made easier because Cavanaugh knew Coach Dee and knew the Adibi family, and trust has been built up over the years. Same with the Lewis brothers, Kevin (1999) and Jonathan (2002) and their high school, Varina in Richmond.
And this year, of course, Cavanaugh is recruiting standout Phoebus running back Elan Lewis. Cavanaugh has known Lewis for years, because Lewis has seen him around Phoebus, and Cavanaugh knows of Lewis because he's been watching Phoebus games for years.
(Of course, everybody knows about Elan Lewis, because he's a great running back, but Cav was probably one of the first recruiters to be aware of him, due to his familiarity with the Phoebus program.)
The stable, consistent coaching staff at VT allows Tech to recruit the same high schools with the same coaches year after year. Given that most high school coaches are the same year after year, relationships are developed, instead of someone new going into any given high school each year for VT.
In recent years, the Hokie coaching staff has recruited most of their players from Virginia (of course), Florida, Maryland, Washington D.C., Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and New Jersey. In pulling up the signees from the last four years as listed by the TSL Recruiting database, I get the following info:
But please note that there are some inconsistencies in the home state listings in our database. For the most part, signees from FUMA and Hargrave Military are listed as being from the state of Virginia, though there are exceptions (Justin Harper, for example, wasn't recruited by the Hokies until he was at Hargrave, but his home state is listed as NC).
I haven't made an effort to iron out those inconsistencies, because I'm not doing a statistical study. I'm just listing where the signees from the last four years have come from, to point out that VT obviously hits the state of Virginia hard, and hits the FUMA and Hargrave academies hard, which also pumps up the number of players listed as being from Virginia.
Beyond that, VT spreads it around a little in the mid-Atlantic region (NC, DC, MD, SC, PA) and Florida. There are some exceptions, like Will Hunt from Arkansas, Andrew Fleck from Oklahoma, Joey Razzano from Ohio, and a handful of kids from California (DT Jimmy Williams, James Griffin, and Jordan Trott), but you can see where VT's concentration lies.
Who recruits what areas? Frank Beamer has given the best recruiters on his staff -- Bryan Stinespring, Jim Cavanaugh, Charley Wiles, and Kevin Rogers -- the hottest recruiting areas, which for the Hokies consist of eastern Virginia, central Virginia, Florida, New Jersey, and the military academies. In a nutshell, here's where each of those coaches have recruited in recent years:
Beyond that, the other coaches recruit areas that generally produce less talent, or areas in which VT does not intently focus their recruiting: Billy Hite recruits DeMatha and Southwest Virginia; Bud Foster recruits areas of Northern Virginia; Danny Pearman recruits North Carolina and parts of Pennsylvania; Lorenzo Ward recruits parts of Northern Virginia, Washington D.C. and Atlanta; and Tony Ball recruits parts of Maryland and has signed players from D.C.
Note that the areas given above are not all-inclusive; some of the coaches have additional recruiting areas, as well. Also note that the areas listed above are historical -- things are changing with VT's entry into the ACC (see below).
The big news, as rumored on the message boards and reported in the latest issue of hokiesports the newspaper, is that VT is going to pretty much pull out of Florida, just "spot recruiting" the sunshine state from this point on.
VT has recruited some good players from Florida since 1990: Jermaine Holmes, Dwayne Thomas, Torrian Gray, Ike Charlton, Anthony Midget, Larry Green, Loren Johnson, Nathaniel Williams, Sean Sullivan, Phillip Summers, Wayne Ward, Dan Wilkinson, Terrell Parham, Cols Colas, Garnell Wilds, Eric Green, Jimmy Miller, and David Clowney.
But the list of flameouts or non-contributors signed from Florida since 1990 is just as long. Hold on to your hat for a long list of names you may not even remember, in chronological order: Jason Boyer, Leroy Charlton, Jon Bishock, Danny Dunbar, Lenarick Thomas, Willie Wilkins, Joe Whitten, Stan Brown, Jeff Dumbaugh, Corey Storr, Derrius Monroe, Derek Piniella, Thenus Franklin, T.J. Jackson, Ryan Angelo, Chris Buie, Demetrius Hodges, Antoine Rutherford, and Michael Brown.
Note that neither list includes players from Florida who attended the military academies, and Tripp Carroll is not included on that list, either, since VT got involved with him when he lived in NC, though he later spent his senior year in Florida.
If you're counting, that's 18 players since 1990 who have made positive contributions to the VT program (and it's early to list Clowney as a plus), and it's 19 who never made a positive contribution.
So like recruiting in general, Florida has been a 50/50 proposition for VT. But in recent years, recruiting Florida has gotten to be problematic. In the last four years, the Hokies have only recruited four players from Florida who didn't go through Hargrave or FUMA before coming to VT: Antoine Rutherford (2002), Demetrius Hodges (2002), Mike Brown (2003), and David Clowney (2003).
Clowney is the only one still on the team. Hodges never qualified, Rutherford was kicked off the team for discharging a pellet gun on campus (according to sources), and Brown was dismissed recently for run-ins with the coaches.
In addition to a very poor player retention rate for the last four years, VT has had two well-publicized cases of Florida kids decommitting in the last two years: QB Courtney Denson (2003) and DE Mike Mangold (2004).
The VT coaches are reaching the point where they have simply had it with the state of Florida. The recruiting competition there is stiff, the kids have had behavioral problems at VT, they've burned VT with decommits, and out of all the states VT has historically recruited, Florida is the farthest away and requires greater commitments of time and money.
If you look at the players the Hokies have signed from Florida since 1990, they haven't had a solid contributor since Eric Green and Jimmy Miller were signed in the 2000 class. Once Green and Miller are gone after the 2004 season, David Clowney and Chris Ceasar will be the only native Floridians on the entire Hokie roster that VT signed directly out of high school. Clowney shows promise, but Ceasar, who was recently moved from wide receiver to cornerback, may never rise above the bottom of the depth chart. (Note that Ceasar isn't listed as a contributor or a flameout in the lists above, because frankly, I don't know what the kid's going to do with his VT career.)
In short, Florida has become little more than a recruiting headache to Virginia Tech, so they're cutting their losses and moving out. From now on, they'll "spot recruit" players who have a genuine interest in VT, and with whom the coaches have some special personal connection, be it with the player's coaching staff or family.
If VT is leaving Florida, where are they going? North Carolina, South Carolina, and Atlanta, as detailed in the latest "hokiesports.com the newspaper" (Vol. 21, No. 29, April 12, 2004).
VT has generally stayed out of North Carolina, but in the last few years, they have had great success landing some players they really wanted: Tripp Carroll, Cory Holt, and George Bell. With VT's entry into the ACC, it makes sense to hit the state of North Carolina hard, since the Hokies will be receiving more press coverage in the state, it's a relatively short trip for coaches and players, and Tech will be able to pitch to recruits that their families can see them play at Virginia Tech and on the road in the ACC.
North Carolina also produces a competitive number of signees, about the same as the state of Virginia. In their yearly "Letter of Intent" issues, SuperPrep magazine has a list of "Destinations" for players from each state, and from 2001-2003, they listed 104 players from North Carolina and 101 from Virginia. It's not completely clear what the "Destinations" section means -- is it players who signed with D1-A programs? Who were recruited by D1-A programs? -- but it is clear that the talent from North Carolina is comparable to the talent from Virginia.
The problem is competition. There are five Division 1-A programs in the state of North Carolina, though three of them -- Wake Forest, Duke, and East Carolina -- are not as formidable recruiting competition as the other two, UNC and NC State. VT has typically used the competition excuse for not recruiting NC very hard, but that is changing.
Danny Pearman used to recruit the entire state of NC for the Hokies, but now Tech is going to concentrate on the state with three coaches, two of whom are among VT's best recruiters: Pearman (western NC), Jim Cavanaugh (central NC), and Charley Wiles (eastern NC).
Look out, North Carolina, the Hokies are coming.
Tech will also recruit South Carolina harder. It used to be Rickey Bustle's area, because he was an SC native. Pearman will recruit the upper part of the state, and Wiles will recruit the lower part of the state. Also, Lorenzo Ward has always wanted to recruit Georgia for the Hokies, and he'll get his wish, concentrating on Atlanta.
It will be interesting to see VT's success in SC and Atlanta, because once you get down there, you're getting into SEC territory, where the recruiting gets fierce and nasty. TSL recruiting analyst Chris Horne notes, "When you get down below North Carolina, into South Carolina and Georgia, it's really SEC country. [Non-SEC] fans can kids themselves and see their school's name on a list, but when it comes down to it, the players are going to sign with an SEC school that's close by."
There will be exceptions, as always. We'll see how it goes.
Tony Ball and Billy Hite will split Maryland, and Kevin Rogers will now have the entire state of New Jersey, which he previously shared with Jim Cavanaugh, to himself. All other recruiting territories are mostly unchanged.
Speaking of Rogers, in talking to coaches and players the last couple of years, Chris Horne has gotten a lot of positive feedback on Rogers, more than any other VT recruiting coach. "I've talked to a couple of coaches who have just raved about what kind of character he is," Horne says. "Bergen Catholic [Oradell, NJ] coach Fred Stengel called him 'a straight-up guy.' [2004 QB target] Jordan Steffy was very complimentary of Rogers. It seems like he's just got a good reputation, in New Jersey especially."
To sum it up, Florida and Pennsylvania are out. North Carolina, South Carolina and Atlanta are in. Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey are holding steady.
Ah, money enters the picture. Money always enters the picture.
At some point, we're going to discuss whether or not VT should recruit nationally, and that's where money starts to enter the picture. Because if you recruit a player in, say Texas, it requires someone to fly down there, probably more than once, and that's a different ball-game monetarily than having Cavanaugh drive a rental car to Richmond for a day.
I think there are two issues with regards to recruiting budgets: (1.) does the budget limit your ability to recruit? and (2) what are the recruiting budgets of the schools you're competing against?
Having a bigger recruiting budget doesn't ensure success against a guy with a smaller budget, but it is one piece of the puzzle. How does VT's recruiting budget stack up to the budgets of the other schools in the ACC? To find that answer, we went to old reliable, the Chronicle of Higher Education.
There are some limits to the Chronicle's info. Number one, it's from the 2001-02 school year, so it's a couple years old, and number two, they list a school's entire male athlete recruiting budget, not just the football budget. That means that if someone outspends VT two-to-one in the Chronicle's data, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're outspending VT football recruiting two-to-one. UVa, for example, probably has a much larger men's soccer recruiting budget than VT does, and whereas the Hoos have a men's lacrosse recruiting budget, VT doesn't even have a men's lacrosse team.
So acknowledging the fact that the following figures aren't strictly football recruiting budgets, you can nevertheless see what VT is up against with regards to the ACC.
Those figures speak for themselves, and it's another piece of evidence showing how far VT lags behind the future 12-team ACC in many budgetary and revenue items.
We see that the Hokies have a much smaller recruiting budget for male athletics than every other school in the future 12-team ACC, and that probably equates to a smaller football recruiting budget. The question is, does the Hokies' budget drive their recruiting efforts and territories, or vice-versa?
The answer to that is not clear, but I'm guessing that it's the latter: because VT uses a limited, regional, low-key approach, the recruiting budget doesn't need to be big. After all, Frank Beamer had Jim Weaver over a barrel in November of 2000, and Beams could have gotten whatever he wanted at that point in time, including another $100k for the recruiting budget.
But just because VT doesn't feed their recruits lobster tails all weekend long on official visits, and just because VT doesn't fly in planes full of recruits from Texas and California doesn't mean a good recruiting budget wouldn�t come in handy. One thing a strong recruiting budget allows you, for example, is the ability to use the university jet for quick recruiting trips. Fly out of Blacksburg, visit the recruit, fly back into Blacksburg, boom, you're done.
VT used this to their advantage in recruiting Vince Hall, visiting him via the university jet twice in the last month of his recruitment, once on January 12th, 2003, and again on January 27th, 2003. On the January 12th visit, Bryan Stinespring, Bud Foster, Charley Wiles, Jim Cavanaugh, and Lorenzo Ward visited Hall at school, showing up en masse to make Hall feel the love. 15 days later, all five coaches did it again. Those two visits really swayed Hall, who was wavering and thinking hard about going to North Carolina.
If you have to try to pull off those visits with rental cars or commercial flights, it's a big drain of time, money, or both. As with all things, money buys us time and makes things easier, and recruiting budgets are no exception.
Since Virginia Tech made a splash on the national scene with Michael Vick, Corey Moore, and their run to the national championship game, a question has arisen from time to time: why isn't Virginia Tech cashing in on that national name they made for themselves? Why do they continue to recruit mostly the state of Virginia, and a little bit regionally, instead of casting a national net and targeting higher-rated players?
The answer is in Coach Beamer's recruiting philosophy, clearly outlined above. That recruiting philosophy does not include a national recruiting strategy.
The bigger question is, should VT recruit nationally?
After typing that question, I literally slept on it, because I wasn't sure how to answer it. My instinct is to answer yes, that VT should recruit nationally, but at the same time, I recognize that recruiting becomes a whole different ballgame when you shift focus like that.
The best way for VT to recruit nationally would be to continue to target a lot of in-state kids, but to also go after some of the higher-rated kids around the country who express genuine interest in VT. And hit those kids hard. Do a lot of work on them.
The problem is that time and resources are limited, so any attention you focus on, say, an offensive lineman from Texas is time that you're taking away from recruiting kids closer to home, kids who are your bread and butter. And if coach Bill Dee at Phoebus has an OL that he thinks is good, and you instead sign Billy-Bob Cowboyhat from Lubbock, Texas, who is rated as the #2 lineman in the country by SuperPrep, then Bill Dee starts to get a little irritated. Like everything in recruiting, it's a juggling act.
Recruiting nationally increases costs, because you can't drive to Lubbock. Another risk in recruiting nationally is that you can work your butt off to land a kid from Michigan, only to have him sign with a Big Ten program in the end, particularly Michigan or Michigan State, like you might expect. It's a tough sell, because as proud as Hokie fans are about VT, Virginia Tech is not Notre Dame, USC, Oklahoma, or Miami. Those programs can recruit nationally; VT will not have nearly as much success, and the success they would have would come from very hard work, which as noted above would decrease the amount of attention they could pay to the in-state kids.
If you want to see a couple of case studies of universities that are regional in nature attempting to go national with recruiting, just watch Virginia and N.C. State. UVa, because of their academic reputation, can argue that they've always had a "national" reach to some extent, but they're not Notre Dame or Miami when it comes to national recruiting. Under Al Groh, though, they have definitely taken a more national approach to recruiting, signing players from Pennsylvania, Texas, New Jersey, Delaware, New York, Ohio, Illinois, California and elsewhere in the last three years.
N.C. State hits Florida pretty hard, because of coach Chuck Amato, a former FSU assistant, and his ties in the state. So I'm not sure you can truly call NCSU's recruiting "national," although they did target players from Illinois, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Alabama, New Jersey, and even Canada just this past year.
What N.C. State and Virginia are finding is that when you go outside your region and go head to head with the big boys, it's a hit or miss proposition. UVa landed two very good recruiting classes in Al Groh's first two years, ranked #12 in 2002 and #20 in 2003 by Rivals.com, but they slipped to #40 this year after losing out on a lot of great recruits late in the ball game, many to bigger-name schools.
Amato has had some success, too. Rivals ranked his 2003 recruiting class an extremely impressive 7th, when it included 12 signees from Florida and three from Pennsylvania, and only seven from North Carolina. But NCSU's classes were only ranked 34th in 2001 and 28th in 2004.
Virginia and NCSU have very different recruiting styles than VT. Groh and his assistants deluge recruits with hand-written letters in an effort to make them feel appreciated, and it works with a lot of kids, but that's not VT's style. At N.C. State, Amato is very flamboyant, having sung to recruits in the past, and having showed up at signing day press conferences on a Harley, or popping a bottle of faux champagne. Can you picture Frank Beamer doing that?
So while I think VT could benefit from a more national recruiting focus, I recognize that it would require a big change in style for VT recruiting, and it's just not going to happen. It would also have to be done efficiently, and figuring out which kids have genuine interest in VT and which don't, and applying your resources and time smartly, would be difficult.
I'm over seven pages into this, and there are vast areas of recruiting that I haven't even touched on, but it's time to wrap it up with some closing comments on the topics I have managed to cover.
First of all, you will not see a change from the current coaching staff in basic recruiting philosophy. It's in-state first, regional second, and relationships and a low-key approach will take precedence over bombarding recruits with letters, singing to them, or making up target lists based on Rivals.com star ratings.
The coaching staff has shown the ability to make tweaks and adjustments, though, deciding to bail out of Florida, which has run almost dry for VT in the last few years. I think the move to focus more on North Carolina is smart, since the state produces about the same number of prospects as Virginia.
I think the Hokie coaches were caught a little off-guard by Al Groh's energetic staff when they took over a few years ago, but they have responded and ratcheted up the battle the last couple of years.
Frank Beamer thinks VT can compete at the highest level with players recruited mainly from Virginia. I disagree. The state is good, but only about 40 players a year sign Division 1-A offers, and with Virginia providing stiff competition for those players, it's almost impossible to assemble a team that can regularly compete for the ACC championship or a national championship. Schools located in talent-rich areas like Florida, Texas, and California will have better luck competing with high concentrations of in-state kids.
Just look at the major football programs in the Virginia-North Carolina-Maryland region. From time to time, each one, be it VT, UVa, Maryland, UNC, or N.C. State, has made a splash, but any one of them is not consistently competing at the highest levels. The talent in the region, coupled with the competition in recruiting, prevents that.
For universities located in states that don't pump out a hundred prospects a year, it helps to have a national name, so your reach can extend beyond your home state borders, like Notre Dame. Even if VT does have good national reach, we're not going to find out with the current staff how Tech could do targeting more kids from more far-off places.
The times when VT has been able to compete at the highest levels, most notably 1995-96 and 1999-2000, have been when a lightly-regarded recruit like Corey Moore or Jim Druckenmiller has proven to be a phenomenal player, or a once-in-a-lifetime guy like Michael Vick has come along. But for the most part, an approach that concentrates on Virginia kids supplemented with players from the region will yield up-and-down results. Time has proven that.
I'm not saying that VT should go national -- I don't know if it would help or hurt VT to extend their reach. But we won't find that out until possibly the next coach comes on board and cranks things up another notch, like Groh did at Virginia.
With their current recruiting approach, I think VT will continue to land classes ranked anywhere from 20 to 50 by services like Rivals.com (the 2002 class was ranked 45th by Rivals, 2003 was ranked 27th, and 2004 was ranked 41st). As long as that's the case, I don't think you can realistically expect VT to be an ACC championship contender year-in and year-out. Occasionally, yes, but not every season.
In our seventh and final part of the state of the program series, we'll examine the fans: what they expect of the team, what is expected of them, how those things have changed over time, and what it means.
The State of the
Program, Part 5: Discipline, Attitude, and Leadership - 1/29/04