It’s a place filled with sturdy linemen, instinctive linebackers, surprisingly swift skill players and quarterbacks who might eventually play in the NFL.
When Bill O’Brien received the tricky job as Joe Paterno’s replacement at Penn State, establishing strong recruiting ties in football-rich western Pennsylvania ranked high on his to-do list.
Through the spring evaluation period, which ended last Thursday, O’Brien and his staff are waiting for their work to yield results. Penn State’s eight-member 2013 recruiting class includes no WPIAL prospects. The current class follows two disappointing western Pennsylvania showings.
South Allegheny tight end Jesse James represents Penn State’s only 2012 signee from western Pennsylvania. James was recruited by Paterno’s staff and had already enrolled at Penn State when O’Brien accepted the job. The 2011 recruiting class included no WPIAL prospects.
Pennsylvania is a vast state with dozens of Division I recruits. But O’Brien said during an alumni stop in Pittsburgh last month that the Nittany Lions must become a major factor in western Pennsylvania, which counts Mike Ditka, Dan Marino, Curtis Martin and Johnny Unitas among its past greats.
“The high school football is really good and the coaching is really good,” O’Brien said. “It has to be the right fit for the program. It has to fill a need. But western Pennsylvania is just a fantastic place for high school football and we have to do a good job of finding some Penn State players here.”
NCAA rules prohibited O’Brien from visiting high schools during the recent evaluation period, but his assistants made frequent stops in the area.
“I think it’s vital that everyone sees these guys around here,” said North Allegheny coach Art Walker Jr., who has met with Penn State defensive coordinator Ted Roof and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher. “A lot of kids around here who are good enough to get full scholarships don’t want to have to travel far to play. They want an excuse to stay close to home.”
Penn State hasn’t hit a western Pennsylvania jackpot since 2010 when it signed five WPIAL prospects, including lineman Miles Dieffenbach, quarterback Paul Jones and linebacker Mike Hull. Linemen Adam Gress, Mike Farrell and Luke Graham and linebacker Mike Yancich are other current Nittany Lions from WPIAL high schools.
Linebackers Sean Lee and Paul Posluszny, linemen Stefen Wisniewski and A.Q. Shipley and cornerback Justin King are recent Penn State standouts from WPIAL high schools. All five players are on NFL rosters.
Recruiting analysts said losing defensive coordinator Tom Bradley might hurt Penn State in western Pennsylvania. Bradley, a Johnstown native, handled the bulk of Penn State’s WPIAL recruiting efforts.
“He did a great job for them,” Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said.
“It was probably the same for us as it was for the rest of western Pennsylvania,” Walker said. “We were used to Tom Bradley. That’s who we talked to and that’s who would visit us.”
Veteran recruiters Ron Vanderlinden, one of two holdovers from Paterno’s final staff, and Mac McWhorter, who formerly coached at Texas, are involved in western Pennsylvania, O’Brien said. Penn State assigned assistants to specific parts of Pennsylvania, but O’Brien views recruiting western Pennsylvania as a group effort.
Farrell said that the volume of interaction between O’Brien and high school coaches has aided Penn State.
“He’s so heavily involved,” Farrell said. “He can’t go on the road yet, but there has been so much interaction with Bill O’Brien that it has been insane. That’s what Penn State needs and interaction with the head coach is something that Penn State has been missing the last five or six years.”
O’Brien isn’t the only new head coach cultivating relationships in western Pennsylvania.
Pitt hired former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst last December. The hiring ended a tumultuous period that included Dave Wannstedt’s firing, Mike Haywood’s legal problems and Todd Graham’s sudden departure to Arizona State.
Chryst and his staff, which includes former Penn State wide receiver Bobby Engram, are stabilizing Pitt’s recruiting efforts.
“You can see a difference with the way Chryst is doing things at Pitt,” said Walker, who was invited to Pitt’s football complex shortly after Chryst’s hiring. “You get a sense they want to develop relationships here and develop consistency.”
To further complicate matters for Penn State, West Virginia (Dana Holgorsen), Ohio State (Urban Meyer) and Michigan (Brady Hoke) are led by vibrant coaches in their first or second seasons.
“It’s not just Pitt and Penn State with new coaches,” said Scout.com recruiting analyst Bob Lichtenfels, who lives in western Pennsylvania. “Ohio State has a new coach and there are relatively new coaches at Michigan, Notre Dame and West Virginia. Everybody recruits that area and everybody is on equal footing right now. With Penn State, Tom Bradley was synonymous with western Pennsylvania. But even with that, they didn’t recruit this area as heavily the last five to eight years.
“The other thing you also have to consider is that some high school coaches are loyal to certain schools. With some coaches, you will never see their kids go to Penn State. With some coaches, you will never see their kids go to Pitt. But you can tell these new guys are trying to build their own ties.”
The recruiters are competing for the same prize — some of the state’s top players.
Rivals has attached star ratings to 31 Pennsylvania juniors. Sixteen attend WPIAL schools, including Central Valley wide receiver Robert Foster, North Allegheny lineman Patrick Kugler, Clairton wide receiver Tyler Boyd and Belle Vernon lineman Dorian Johnson, four of the state’s seven four-star prospects, according to Rivals.
Kugler has orally committed to Michigan while Rivals’ Farrell said Foster, Boyd and Johnson are interested in Penn State and Pitt. Boyd and Johnson are also interested in West Virginia, which recently received an oral commitment from Monessen dual-threat quarterback Chavas Rawlins.
Lichtenfels said there are 5 to 10 WPIAL prospects who can play in any conference. He said conference shifts — West Virginia joins the Big 12 this season and Pitt could enter the ACC as early as 2013 — might further alter the western Pennsylvania recruiting scene.
“With Pitt going to the ACC, they might start looking at their board differently,” Lichtenfels said. “They might start going after more kids in Ohio, Florida and Georgia than before. Penn State is going after a lot more kids in Virginia. Schools are recruiting different areas than they did in the past.”
Population losses also have changed western Pennsylvania recruiting. Farrell said the area isn’t as deep as other football hotbeds.
“The talent is down there,” he said. “I get hammered about this all the time from people in Pittsburgh who think the WPIAL is up there with Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas Fort- Worth or Houston. Last year was down and this year there isn’t really good depth in western Pennsylvania, especially when you have Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan stealing kids away. It’s cyclical. It’s not going to be that way forever.”
Regardless of the year, Walker, who has led North Allegheny and Pittsburgh Central Catholic to PIAA Class AAAA titles, said neglecting western Pennsylvania would be a mistake.
“Talent is there,” he said. “It changes from one year to the next. There might be fewer linemen than in the past but there might be more skill players. Pitt and Penn State can never layoff western Pennsylvania whether it’s a down year or a strong year. There will always be competition for recruits in western Pennsylvania, and there will always be national guys coming through here.”
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy