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Big East programs don't need invitation to backyard bash
The advantages of having a Florida team in the league are clear to those who already recruited here.
By GREG AUMAN
Published July 20, 2005
NEWPORT, R.I. - Jim Leavitt knows the door swings both ways.
Just as the South Florida coach is thrilled about his team's arrival in the Big East, the Bulls' new conference rivals are happy to have another avenue into perhaps the nation's most fertile recruiting grounds.
"I think we bring them all down to us. Recruiting-wise, that's one reason they wanted to keep a presence in Florida," Leavitt said at the league's preseason media gathering. "Let's face it - who's on the field? If you're not going to play anybody in Florida, that's really going to hurt your recruiting. No visibility."
The Big East knows this, and is already investing heavily in Floridians. Of the 24 players representing their schools in Newport, seven were from Florida, three more than any other state. So while the Bulls may be far removed geographically from their Big East rivals, USF will actually be far closer to home for many opposing players.
Consider Jahmile Addae, a senior safety from Valrico who earned first-team All-Big East honors last year for West Virginia. When the Mountaineers visit USF in October, it won't just be the Bulls playing a homecoming game.
"If I knew that before I got to West Virginia, it definitely would have made my decision a lot easier," the Riverview graduate said of the chance to play close to his family. "It's a great thing that a lot of teams will use to their advantage. Any time you get to come home and play in front of your home crowd, it gets any athlete riled up. It's an honor."
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, a former Miami assistant, recruits the state heavily and will have 26 players from Florida on his roster this fall. Schiano and his staff conducted four one-day camps in Florida with more than 600 players last month, including one in Tampa.
"It's a good thing for us for two reasons," Schiano said. "It's a great opportunity to evaluate student-athletes in Florida, and it's a way to say thanks to those communities. It's a huge effort on our university's part, on our staff's part. But we have (26) kids on our roster from south Florida, and that's a high concentration when it's 1,500 miles away."
Leavitt said he has no problem with Schiano holding camps in the Bulls' backyard but said Rutgers risks losing talented players from its own home turf.
"More power to him," said Leavitt, whose staff recruited in New Jersey last season. "We did that at Kansas State. We don't have to do it at South Florida, because they come to our camps. To me, what does it say to people in New Jersey, when he's going down there and doing all these things? Is it a good move? It might be."
Schiano isn't the only Big East coach with south Florida ties. New Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt has a strong presence there after coaching the Miami Dolphins, though he has focused his early recruiting efforts in Pennsylvania, with 12 commitments for 2006 already in hand.
"We're going to continue to recruit south Florida ... but the nucleus of our team needs to be from the state of Pennsylvania," Wannstedt said. "There's been too many good football players playing for other teams."
USF has had success while recruiting almost exclusively in its home state - only five of its top 88 players are from outside Florida. Schiano argues that the state has enough talent to keep plenty of programs across the country well-stocked.
"In Florida, there are so many football players that are scholarship kids, you go up against everybody," he said. "Beauty's in the eye of the beholder, so it varies who you're up against. This gives us the opportunity to tell the kids we recruit that every other year, you can play a game in your home state."
Former Chamberlain star Greg Lee made the most of that opportunity last year, catching three touchdown passes in Pittsburgh's 43-14 win at Raymond James Stadium.
"When I was being recruited by Pittsburgh and found out they'd be playing there my sophomore year, I was very excited," Lee said. "That's something that helped me in my choice of picking a school."
Addae was on USF's campus this weekend, watching his brother Jahleel, a sophomore running back at Riverview who was participating in the Bulls' Sling and Shoot team camp. Just as the Bulls are beginning to recruit him, his brother is doing the same thing.
"I'm going to make sure, if I have anything to do with it, he knows where he's going," Addae said.
To continue to pull players out of Florida, northeastern schools have to beat out the state's football options first. Schiano ran into another obstacle during his camps last month: Mother Nature.