PITTSBURGH – Don’t be surprised if one day very soon you are approached by a Pitt football fan, who puffs out his chest, opens his mouth and proclaims in a loud and proud voice: Pitt 2, Penn State 0
No, he’s not predicting the score when the former Eastern rivals meet in 2016 for the first time in 16 years.
He’s talking about recruiting. That’s what the score currently reads after Penn State coach James Franklin, speaking at his introductory news conference in early January, challenged other schools to a competition where the spoils are the best high school players in Pennsylvania.
Franklin wants to dominate the state, but Pitt secured verbal commitments in January from two WPIAL juniors – offensive lineman Alex Paulina of Canon-McMillan and tight end Nick Bowers of Kittanning.
As Pitt coach Paul Chryst said, with much less bravado than Franklin: “I would like to dominate, too.”
No one is predicting long, fruitful college careers for Paulina or Bowers, who still have much to prove in their senior seasons. But they represent Chryst’s attempt to stay true to the region’s roots while broadening his recruiting base to include states such as Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, Florida, Michigan and Virginia.
Whether he’s preparing for signing day 2015, or the one that comes up next week, Chryst has a job where the work is never done.
His roster makeover of a team that hasn’t finished more than one game over .500 since 2010 will continue Feb. 5. That’s when he plans/hopes to receive official letters of intent from 24 high school seniors. Throw in the 27 players signed last year – minus quarterback Tra Chapman, who was dismissed after serving three days in jail for assault – and 50 of Pitt’s 85 scholarship players (almost 60 percent) will have been recruited exclusively by his Chryst and his staff.
But what about the current crop of recruits? Is it good enough?
By all accounts, most of the players appear coachable, mature and willing. But do they – as some critics wonder – possess the athletic skills that set them apart from others?
Can they develop into a team that will contend for an ACC championship before too long?
Chryst believes in his players. He also stands by his coaching/recruiting methods, contending he is on the right path while understanding that the finish line always is changing.
“We are building relationships based on trust and confidence, but I definitely don’t feel like we have arrived,” he said. “All relationships are like that. You are constantly trying to build them and build on them.”
He said recruiting is all about finding the right fit, not trying to squeeze a player into a system where he doesn’t belong. He tried that two years ago with record-setting running back Rushel Shell, who didn’t work hard enough off the field to suit Chryst and his coaches. Shell is now at West Virginia.
Chryst also noted that declarations about domination are not his style.
“That’s where I’m not really exciting to a lot of people, because I’m not going to say that stuff,” Chryst said.
2014 Class Looks Solid
Pitt’s 2014 class isn’t spectacular, but it isn’t bad, either.
There are four four-star prospects, 15 three-stars and five two-stars, according to the Rivals.com rankings. A total of 10 states are represented, four where ACC schools are located.
The best player is probably 5-10, 195-pound running back Chris James of Niles, Ill., who rushed for more than 4,000 yards as a three-year starter at Notre Dame for Boys High School. Scout.com lists him as the nation’s 22nd-best running back, but some analysts aren’t afraid to rank him higher. He also is a sprinter on the Notre Dame track team.
The other four-stars are wide receiver Adonis Jennings of Timber Creek High in Sicklerville, N.J., and two big linemen from Western Pennsylvania high schools – Alex Bookser of Mt. Lebanon and Mike Grimm of Bethel Park. Bookser also could play on the defensive line.
Along with Connor Hayes of Traverse City, Mich., and five players who signed last year, Pitt will have brought in eight offensive linemen who stand 6-4 or taller in its two most recent recruiting classes.
The offensive line and running game form the backbone of Chryst’s teams and his recruiting philosophy. But he also needs playmakers.
That’s where Jennings might be an eventual complement to sophomore-to-be wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who was named third-team All-ACC as a freshman.
ESPN.com recruiting analyst Jared Shanker said getting Jennings, who also had offers from Arkansas and Iowa, soothes some of the disappointment felt by Pitt fans when WPIAL stars Dravon Henry, Montae Nicholson, Shai McKenzie and J.J. Consentino committed elsewhere.
“He’s a big, physical receiver (6-3, 190) who can get the ball in the middle and do a lot of things,” Shanker said. “He brings a possession component to the offense.”
Jennings said he believes he fits well in the Pitt offense.
“I’m going to come in ready to compete,” he said. “That’s all it comes down to.”
Jennings is rated the 141st-best prospect – 17th-best wide receiver – on the ESPN 300 national list. He also is ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 9 senior in New Jersey, third wide receiver in the state and 38th in the nation.
Timber Creek coach Rob Hinson said Jennings, who also attracted offers from Clemson, Virginia Tech and Arizona, has attended and dominated many of the top camps in the nation. Jennings set a Timber Creek record for receiving yards last season (1,434) in New Jersey’s second-largest classification.
“He is a very explosive wide receiver,” Hinson said. “He is physical, polished. He has a lot to learn, but on the high school level, he’s pretty much unguardable. When he gets one-on-one matchups, he can dominate.”
Overall, Pitt’s class is ranked in the lower part of the upper half of the ACC (seventh among 14 schools, according to Rivals.com). Better than three of its Coastal Division rivals – Virginia, Georgia Tech and Duke – but still far behind defending national champion Florida State, Miami, Clemson, North Carolina and Virginia Tech.
2-0 is nothing more than a modest beginning.