Penn State's Lure Is Not A Good Sign for Maryland

By Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 1, 2006

The commitments came steadily through the fall, then into winter. One top area high school football player after another, it seemed, had said Maryland was one of his "finalists" . . . only to choose Penn State.

Mount Hebron defensive end Aaron Maybin was the first to commit, and four others from the area followed. Each of them is considered a top prospect, and each said he thought about signing with Maryland. But each will make an official commitment to play for Penn State during college football's signing period for high school seniors, which begins today. In all, Penn State is expected to receive commitments from eight of the region's top players, including six All-Mets. By contrast, Maryland, which has made a point of recruiting heavily in this area and had high interest in many of those same players, is expected to ink two All-Mets.

One person involved in the recruiting process attributed the exodus of top area players to Penn State to a "perfect storm" of decisions and events in recent months. The factors at work included:

· The work of Penn State assistant coach Larry Johnson, who recruits the area for the Nittany Lions and has strong local ties after having coached McDonough High in Charles County to three state titles in the 1980s and '90s.

· The decision by Nittany Lions coaches to play underclassmen last fall, which amplified the impact of Penn State's signing of Eleanor Roosevelt's Derrick Williams, considered by some the nation's top recruit last year.

· A change in the coaching staff and local recruiting coordinators at Maryland.

· The resurgence of the Nittany Lions program coupled with the Terrapins' struggles the past two seasons.

"You have to be somewhat concerned that the players considered the top ones in the Washington area have chosen to go elsewhere," said Lackey Coach Scott Chadwick, who saw Johnson at work up close when Chargers All-Met offensive lineman J.B. Walton -- who was considering Maryland -- committed to Penn State last month.

The case of Forestville lineman Antonio Logan-El gained special attention in Maryland circles. The 6-foot-6, 300-pounder gave the Terrapins an oral commitment before his sophomore season in 2003, but backed off that stance before this season. When he chose Penn State last week in a televised announcement at the ESPN Zone in Baltimore, several Terrapins fans in attendance booed heartily; one heckler screamed "traitor."

But after the television lights were turned off and the announcement was made, Logan-El felt a tap on the back of his shoulder. He turned and saw the familiar smile and crisp suit of Johnson, a coach he had become well acquainted with during the past year.

"Last May, [Johnson] told all these young guys that [Penn State] was going to play these young guys and then they do it," Forestville Coach Charles Harley said. "So now they think it's going to be them. And some of them are bandwagon hoppers. Almost like [the University of Michigan basketball team's] Fab Five -- once a couple jumped on, the rest said, 'I want to be a part of that.' I don't think I've ever seen anything like that before."

Penn State went 11-1 last season and finished with a No. 3 ranking by the Associated Press after a victory over Florida State in the Orange Bowl. Maryland has gone 5-6 in each of the last two seasons. A Maryland athletic department spokesman said Coach Ralph Friedgen and his assistants would not comment for this story.

Maryland's recruiting class is generally well regarded, and All-Met honors and rankings by recruiting services are no guarantee of on-field success. And although Maryland did not fare well head-to-head in Washington area recruiting with Penn State, the Terrapins have high hopes for an incoming class that includes quarterback Jeremy Ricker of Harrisburg, Pa., and running back Da'rel Scott of Philadelphia. Among the Terrapins' local recruits are Good Counsel tight end Drew Gloster and two players from Gwynn Park, linebacker Adrian Moten and wide receiver Quintin McCree.

"Everything has a cycle," said Gwynn Park Coach Danny Hayes, who had a player -- 6-5, 370-pound lineman Phillip Taylor -- choose Penn State over Maryland. "Maryland at one time was pretty big. It's nothing on any of them."

The Nittany Lions have had success recruiting around Washington over the years, but never quite like this. A big reason, coaches and players said, was their resurgence on the field. Johnson, who has retained his strong ties to the area, has had an enormous impact as well.

"No question I'm playing with an advantage, because I do have a lot of great friends and coaches I have relationships with and [who] know what I stand for," said Johnson, who was unable to discuss specific players because NCAA rules prohibit college coaches from talking about recruits until they have signed a letter-of-intent. "I've been a high school coach and college coach. I haven't changed who I am. The trust is there.

"Everything goes in cycles. Records play a part into it, no question about that. It just so happened this year we had a great year. Winning draws attention. And this was a really rich area this year for great recruits. And there is a snowball effect."

At the same time, after such a strong start in Friedgen's first three seasons, Maryland struggled to its second consecutive losing record. At least one high school coach thinks that Maryland altered its recruiting philosophy after three consecutive 10-win seasons, which has hurt the Terrapins.

"The guys they used to take were guys who needed to be developed, like E.J. Henderson and [Steve] Suter," said Dunbar Coach Craig Jefferies, who has sent players to Maryland and Penn State. "Those were the guys that Maryland used to recruit and get and that attracted the other guys. Now, they're trying to hit home runs and they're popping out."

Also working against Maryland was the fact that James Franklin, the recruiter responsible for Prince George's County and the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference -- home to five of Penn State's local recruits -- left for a job in the NFL after the 2004 season, at a time when college recruiting was heating up for the class of 2006.

"You had built a relationship with someone, just like you are engaged and about to get married and she says she doesn't want to get married and she leaves," Logan-El said. "That did hurt Maryland quite a bit."

The problems Franklin's departure created for Maryland were compounded by the fact that, area coaches and players said, his replacement was much less visible. NCAA rules permit a head coach to visit each recruit one time but allow assistants to visit once per week.

At Suitland High, home of 2004 All-Met linebacker Navorro Bowman, Coach Nick Lynch said Friedgen and assistant Bryan Bossard, hired to replace Franklin, came by the school just once. Bowman eventually chose Penn State over Maryland.

"After Franklin, I don't know if it was the same type of open communication," Lynch said. "I just think [Maryland struggled] with the transition, them losing Franklin and a new person recruiting this area. I think Bossard became familiar, but maybe he was trying to juggle things. . . . I didn't see anybody."

Johnson, meantime, was a "pretty consistent" visitor each week, Lynch said.

Lynch and others also said the success of Williams played a role in Washington area players choosing to go to Penn State. The fact that Penn State followed through on what Johnson told recruits -- that Williams would be used and the team would win -- also was significant, Harley said.

Quince Orchard linebacker Bani Gbadyu -- who had made an initial oral commitment to Louisiana State but reopened his recruiting process in recent months -- said that Maryland was not on his list because the Terrapins last summer wanted him to come to a camp and try playing safety, believing he was too small to play linebacker. Taylor, who had narrowed his choices to Maryland and Penn State, said the Nittany Lions' success this season played a role in his choice; he said he made his decision after tiring of Maryland's coaches speaking negatively of Penn State.

"It's going to be just like high school again," Logan-El said. "Getting a chance to play with your friends."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company