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Virginia Exodus: A One-time Mystery?

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Doug Doughty
Roanoke (Va.) Times

February 21, 2006

There have been many times in their football histories when Virginia and Virginia Tech have had problems convincing the top players in Virginia to stay at home.

Most people had figured those days had ended.

As recently as 2005, the Cavaliers and Hokies combined to sign 19 of the top 25 players in Virginia, as rated by the Roanoke Times. That marked the third time in four years that 19 of the Top 25 had gone to one or the other of Virginia's two Division I-A teams. In the fourth year (2004), when Tech and UVa signed 16 of 25, they got 14 of the top 16.

Rival coaches were saying, "Why bother?"

The success of the two Virginia-based programs wasn't just with the so-called regional recruits, who usually fill positions 10-25 on the list. In 2005, all five of the state's top five prospects signed with in-state schools, four with Tech and one with UVa.

"The norm is, it's very difficult to recruit your state," Maryland assistant coach Tom Brattan said. "It's very challenging to recruit there."

Some fluctuation was to be expected, but nobody could have predicted what happened this year, when none of the top five stayed in-state, and Tech and UVa combined to sign only 10 of the top 25.

What coaches and analysts are trying to determine is whether they are seeing the beginning of a trend.

"I think it's an aberration," said Brattan, once the head coach at Highland Springs High outside Richmond. "I think it's going to be back to normal next year."

Brattan signed the state's top-rated defensive lineman, Brian Whitmore (listed as a linebacker on signing day) from Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake, once considered a Virginia Tech haven. But the Terps had come close on Smith quarterback Greg Boone the previous year, and Brattan had established a presence at the school.

Besides, Maryland has a history of signing one or two players per year from Virginia. If a prospect lives in northern Virginia, he's much closer to College Park than to Blacksburg. Kids such as Whitmore are looking at more than a five-hour drive to Virginia Tech, not that that's stopped many Tidewater area prospects in the past.

Top 25 players also signed this year with North Carolina, West Virginia and Tennessee -- three more states that adjoin Virginia -- but the biggest surprise was the number of players who were recruited intersectionally. Players from Virginia signed with Florida (Percy Harvin), Southern Cal (Vidal Hazelton), Florida State (Damon McDaniel), Michigan (Brandon Minor), Miami (Dedrick Epps), Oklahoma (Brandon Caleb) and Alabama (Alex Stadler).

The bottom line: Schools came into Virginia that hadn't been seen in the Mid-Atlantic region for years.

Virginia Tech assistant Jim Cavanaugh, who has been recruiting the state for more than a quarter-century, traces much of the attention to the presence of Harvin, a wide receiver from Landstown High in Virginia Beach who was rated the No. 1 prospect in the country by various services.

"When the top player in the country is from your state, it exposes a lot of other players," Cavanaugh said. "Something about this state that people are starting to realize is, you can get around pretty quickly."

Most of the population is centered in the eastern part of the state, with the talent-rich Norfolk and Hampton areas separated by only a tunnel. Richmond is two hours up the road, at the most, while northern Virginia's sprawl begins shortly past the Richmond suburbs.

That situation has existed for years, however. A case-by-case examination makes it hard to find a common thread.

The player some people rated ahead of Harvin by year's end, Hazelton, qualified as a Virginian in most evaluations because, while he played on the post-graduate team at Hargrave Military Academy, he was an undergraduate academically. Hazelton previously had gone to high school in Staten Island, N.Y., and that's where he continues to make his home.

You can't really blame the Virginia schools for failing to keep a non-Virginian "in-state," although Hazelton took an official visit to Tech and expressed some initial interest in Virginia, where a cousin had played. Hazelton eventually ruled out the Cavaliers because of his uncertainty over their quarterback situation.

In a year when a disproportionate number of the state's top prospects were wide receivers, that may have hurt the Cavaliers with others, such as Harvin, McDaniel, Caleb and Chris Bell. Virginia Tech, on the other hand, had a fleet of talented young receivers.

"If you're a national recruit, you're not going to worry about the other players at your position," said Chris Beatty, who coached Harvin and McDaniel at Landstown. "I read (about receiver overload) on the internet, but I don't think there's much to it."

The only one of the receivers who took a serious look at Virginia was Bell, who said he was favoring the Cavaliers before visiting Penn State.

As Brattan and his Maryland coaching colleagues know only too well, one of the major themes in recruiting this year was the return to prominence of Penn State. For years, the school's name was magical in Virginia. More recently, while Tech and UVa were cleaning up, the Nittany Lions weren't a factor.

"They had a great year," said Brattan, whose Terps watched seven of the top nine players in Maryland sign with PSU. "One, they were third in the country. Two, two of their better players were freshmen. If you're a kid, you're saying, ‘Wow, they're playing freshmen.' Three, they had a big senior class, so all those kids are leaving. You're saying, ‘They play freshmen and all these seniors have left. I've got a great chance to play early.' Those things added up."

Running back Evan Royster from Westfield High didn't have the Nittany Lions high on his list before the season. But he ended up taking a January visit and eventually picked the Nittany Lions over Nebraska and Oklahoma. He followed a path chosen by his older brother, Brandon, rated the No. 1 player in Virginia in 1999 before signing with Stanford, where his career was cut short by injury.

"I don't think he regretted it for a day," the younger Royster said. "He was more happy there than he would have been anywhere else. I don't know how much of an influence that was on me, though. I've just always felt a desire to get out of Virginia."

Brandon Royster had picked Stanford over Tech and Virginia. His younger brother kept Tech on his list until January and continued to have some contact with Virginia, but he did not visit either school.

"I don't think they have much of a tradition yet," Royster said. "They're still making a name for themselves."

When a recruit makes a statement like that, there's no accounting for his decision. Virginia Tech has been far more successful than Penn State, Oklahoma or Nebraska in recent years, and its game-day environment is considered among the best in the country. If Royster had chosen to attend the UVa-FSU game in Charlottesville, he would have found nothing lacking.

"Youngsters looked up and they saw glamour," West Virginia assistant Bill Stewart said. "They saw, ‘Oooh, Oklahoma. Oooh, Florida. Oooh, Michigan. Oooh, Florida State.' Those guys never should have left the borders of Virginia or the schools that traditionally recruit Virginia.

"These boys get blinded by the glitter. It's like, ‘I'm going to sign with the biggest-name school that there is.' It's like, ‘I'm going to out-do this guy,' or ‘I'm going to out-do the next guy.' All of a sudden, the state universities aren't good enough."

It can become a game of one-upsmanship.

"That's exactly right, and I think that's wrong," said Stewart, who spent three years equidistant from Charlottesville and Blacksburg when he was the head coach at VMI. "People forget their roots. I blame people who say ‘wow' and go for the wrong reasons.

"Look at Justin London from Roanoke. He went to UCLA, he played, he had a good career and I'm happy for him. But did he have any identity out there? Who gets to see him play? If I was a parent of a student-athlete, I'd be asking, ‘Do you know what you're doing?'"

It long has been speculated that the growing fan bases at Virginia and Virginia Tech can put so much pressure on a player to go to their school that some recruits view the selection of an out-of-state team as a compromise.

"I don't think most kids understand the depth of the recruiting, from the standpoint of there being fans and boosters and people on the internet all over the place," said current Highland Springs coach Greg Burton, whose Jarrell Miller picked North Carolina over Tech and UVa. "I don't mean the kids are shallow, but people may be reading too much into this."

Beatty, now an assistant at Hampton, said he would not have had any problem with Harvin or McDaniel going to an in-state school. He's had other players sign with Tech or UVa.

"I don't try to push my kids one way or the other," Beatty said, "but those (in-state coaches) are the guys you see year-in and year-out. I wanted the state schools to do well. The other schools, you see them only now and then. I don't think it was a matter of Percy and Damon not having a liking for the state school. I don't think it had anything to do with the in-state schools, other than the weather."

From the beginning of the recruiting process, Beatty was telling people that Harvin had a fondness for Florida, Florida State and Miami, "and I think anybody else was playing from behind," he said.

Much has been made of a transition at Virginia, where four assistant coaches resigned in early December, three to take Division I head coaching jobs, but many of the recruiting decisions had been made by that point. It was the same case at Virginia Tech, which received a raft of bad publicity when quarterback Marcus Vick stomped a Louisville player in the Gator Bowl and subsequently was dismissed from the team.

There is no evidence that either Tech or UVa lost an in-state player who wasn't already committed to -- or leaning toward -- an out-of-state school in early December. More than likely, it was a thought process that began last summer or earlier.

"Have I seen some decisions I would shake my head at?" said Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring, a former recruiting coordinator. "I'd have to say yes, unequivocally. It had nothing to do with the better program or who played in more bowls, who had a higher winning percentage, or the quality of the academics or the longevity of the coaching staff.

"There was a mindset -- and it just so happened it was in the same year and the same school -- that getting away was important. And you couldn't shake it."