Sunday, June 24, 2012
Monarchs courting big-time prospects
Old Dominion will join Tech and UVa as the Commonwealth's third FBS program in 2013, and coach Bobby Wilder is actively recruiting players from the school's famed 757 area code.
The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot | File 2009
Old Dominion University head coach Bobby Wilder says he has set the goal of becoming the No. 3 recruiting institution in Virginia.
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UVa's London: Monarchs face growing pains
Bobby Wilder's spring never used to be this hectic.
Invigorated by news in May that the Old Dominion football team will be moving up to the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2013, the Monarchs coach has been aggressive on the recruiting front.
The Football Championship Subdivision school used to wait for the state's big programs to set their agendas and targets and react accordingly. Not anymore.
As of May 31, ODU had 80 scholarship offers out, compared with 28 the previous year. That includes offers in the classes of 2013, '14 and '15. During his scouting, Wilder even popped in videotape of a rising freshman at an area high school, a new experience for him.
"Our model now is as any FBS program," he said. "I've been coaching for 25 years. This is without a doubt the most excited I have ever been about recruiting."
Old Dominion will have plenty of work to do to at the FBS level to change the recruiting dynamic of a state that long has been dominated by Virginia Tech and Virginia.
Just last year, according to Rivals, the Hokies and Cavaliers combined to snag 19 of the state's top 25 recruits, a monopoly that, outside of major conference schools who dip into the Commonwealth for the occasional recruit, will be hard to break.
The competition in the 757 area code, a hotbed for recruits and ODU's home base, is especially fierce, with nine other FBS schools within reasonable driving distance. That's not including schools such as Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas that have plucked highly rated recruits out of the area in recent years.
Not that Wilder is deterred by a challenge.
"If you're going to be a good recruiter, you have to be competitive," he said. "It has to burn you when you lose a recruit.
"You have to want to win in every situation, and that's the mindset we're trying to take as a coaching staff right now is that we have to try to recruit all the best players, regardless of how many BCS offers they have. We have got to go after every player that we see as a scholarship player."
The process might be slow-going. The Monarchs have had five recruiting classes since the program was established in 2007. Only three players in that time have been evaluated by Rivals as having a three-star ranking out of five, typically the minimum rating of recruits at higher-level BCS schools.
Virginia Tech and Virginia have inherent advantages. Both have established recruiting bases around the state for many years, and both can woo prospects with 60,000-plus seat stadiums, first-class facilities and the idea of playing in the ACC.
But Wilder has some things going for him, too. By moving up, he'll go from having 63 full scholarships to the 85 allowed in the FBS.
Competing at the higher level, even in a non-Bowl Championship Series league such as the Conference USA, will help ODU erase the notion that it isn't playing big-time college football.
Competition for playing time at the FBS level is tough. For kids who could get buried on rosters as third- or fourth-stringers at a Virginia Tech or Virginia, the opportunity to actually get on the field and contribute could be appealing.
"I think that what they will probably do early on is take some of the kids who may have been recruited from some D-I programs, figuring that they might not be starters, but they might be second-line guys," said Darnell Moore, head coach at Bayside High. "They might take some of those guys early.
"Of course, kids will see an opportunity to play early. And it won't be long before they get a top kid here and there."
Wilder plans to hammer home the local angle. He said that more than 75 percent of his roster is from Virginia, with 50 percent living in the 757 area. Of the top 30 recruits in the state in 2012, 11 were from the Tidewater/Hampton Roads area, according to Rivals.
"I think some of these 757 kids are going to say, 'I want to play within 20 minutes of where we live,'" Wilder said. "I want my family to be able to travel and come see me play - my aunts, uncles, grandmothers. I want to be able to go home to church on Sunday and have Sunday dinner. I want to be close to my family."
Larry Blakeney knows what Wilder is going through. The longtime coach has been at Troy since 1991, guiding the Trojans from Division II to I-AA in 1992-93, then I-AA (now FCS) to I-A (now FBS) in 2001-02.
He's since won five Sun Belt titles and gone to five bowl games, all while competing in a football-crazy state with recruiting heavyweights Alabama and Auburn.
"I think you automatically upgrade a little bit," he said about moving up a level. "Of course, until you get competitive, it's still difficult."
Blakeney acknowledged that there are top-flight players he'll never lure to Troy. The big conference schools scoop them up quickly.
Still, he said, "They can only sign so many."
"We probably have to gamble a little bit more on guys' ability or maybe even gamble a little bit on his academics and try not to gamble too much on character, but even in that regard, sometimes you'll take a guy and give him a chance to prove himself."
But it's an uphill climb. Since moving to the FBS, Troy has never ranked higher than 57th nationally in Rivals' recruiting rankings, coming in at 93rd or lower in each of the past three years out of 120 teams.
As a result, Blakeney often targets under-the-radar players. It's how he plucked a couple of future NFL stars from Auburn's back yard in the early 2000s.
Osi Umenyiora was a British-born, 16-year-old high school senior who had come to Auburn with his parents via Nigeria. A defensive lineman, he signed with Troy and, after a redshirt year, eventually blossomed into a pass rushing force. He's since made two Pro Bowls with the New York Giants.
DeMarcus Ware was a 6-foot-4, 196-pound receiver/outside linebacker when he signed at Troy, where he developed into a 255-pounder who was named the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year his senior season. He's now a six-time Pro Bowler for the Dallas Cowboys.
"They slipped through the cracks," Blakeney said.
Just how Old Dominion's jump to the FBS will affect recruiting within the state remains to be seen.
There's skepticism among recruiting coordinators that Virginia has enough football talent to support three FBS programs (or, in the future, possibly five, since Liberty has declared its intention to eventually move up a level, and there are rumblings that James Madison might do likewise).
But Virginia produced 52 FBS signees in 2012 and 56 in 2011, according to Rivals, ranking 12th among the states. Those numbers are comparable with North Carolina, which has five FBS schools (North Carolina, N.C. State, Wake Forest, Duke and East Carolina).
In fact, every state ahead of Virginia on the list now has at least three FBS schools within its borders.
The Monarchs are bound to have an impact in some way on the recruiting trail, however.
J.C. Shurburtt, a national recruiting director for 247 Sports, thinks ODU moving up a level will affect East Carolina more than the Virginia schools because the Monarchs and Pirates will be on an equal footing in the Conference USA.
As for Virginia Tech and Virginia, the timing of their offers to prospective athletes might have to change.
"When you're the big, established I-A program in the state, you can kind of wait on kids," Shurburtt said. "And if it's a choice of going I-AA or going to Virginia or Virginia Tech, you can wait right up until the end and say, 'OK, here's your scholarship. We had room for you. C'mon, let's switch and come be a Hokie or come be a 'Hoo.'
"I think that when you're dealing with another program that's technically at your level, it's a little bit different."
The Hokies and Cavaliers have a successful track record with preferred walk-ons, giving borderline or developmental prospects a chance to earn a scholarship after a few years. ODU could offer those athletes a full ride from the outset.
Wilder has polled several FBS coaches, some of whom have made the transition from FCS, and they all have the same advice: Be aggressive; don't take a back seat to anyone.
"I made a statement when I was hired in February of 2007. I said our goal was to be No. 3 in Virginia in recruiting," Wilder said. "But we have to have the mindset, if we're going to compete and we're going to win, particularly the way we've won our first three years, we've got to try to compete with Tech and UVa for that No. 1 spot in Virginia."