By Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Arie Kouandjio squeezed his 6-foot-6, 310-pound frame into the middle seat for a cross-country flight at the beginning of summer. The DeMatha offensive lineman had a scholarship offer from the University of California, and he figured he'd make the trip on his own, not part of any official recruiting visit.
"I wanted to see how things on the West Coast would be," Kouandjio said.
The people at Cal weren't necessarily expecting him that June day, but he had long been on their radar as one of the top players from an area that has established itself as a football recruiting hotbed in recent years.
Colleges from every corner of the nation are scouring schools inside and around the Beltway, looking for potential players. The talent level in the area has improved, and the number of coaches with connections to the Washington area has grown. The result is that the District and its suburbs are producing more college football players than ever. Last year, more than 120 high school seniors from the area accepted college football scholarships from schools in 21 states.
"Guys who maybe recruited this area at one time or another have made a contact or relationship and feel it's worth the effort to come into D.C.," DeMatha Coach Bill McGregor said. "Another thing is people realize it is a transient area. There are so many people not from the D.C. area who live here and work here now. Because of that, the kids will go away from home."
Kouandjio, for instance, had no hesitation about going online and making his own travel arrangements. Everything seemed perfectly normal for the 17-year-old who received his first college scholarship offer, from Maryland, shortly after last season ended.
"I was just trying to see as many places as I can," Kouandjio said, noting several other West Coast schools have since offered scholarships.
"The volume of people in that little geographic area, the amount of people [in the Washington area], it's amazing," said New Mexico Coach Mike Locksley, one of the people given credit for helping local athletes become better known during his stops as an assistant coach. "It's one-stop shopping. Fly into BWI or National and drive an hour, and you can hit 50 schools easily. It's an area that is continuing to grow and will continue to grow in terms of being a major player in division I football."Paving the Way for Recruiters
A 1987 graduate of Ballou in Southeast Washington, Locksley believed many of his classmates had the ability to succeed at higher levels of college football if given the chance. Throughout his career -- including assistant coaching stops at Maryland, Florida and Illinois -- he has made a point of hitting inner-city areas searching for players.
An assistant at Maryland from 1997 to 2002, Locksley was well-regarded by many high school coaches for his recruiting ability. And when he went to perennial title contender Florida, he kept that affinity for the Washington area, wooing future NFL first-round pick Derrick Harvey of Eleanor Roosevelt to play for the Gators.
Locksley then moved with Coach Ron Zook to the University of Illinois, where he continued to recruit area players. The Illini have 10 Washington area products on this season's roster, including Dunbar alum Arrelious Benn, a wide receiver who could be a top draft pick next spring.
Many coaches believe the success of local players at Penn State and Illinois has prompted other Big Ten programs to place more of an emphasis on recruiting area players. Local coaches noted Minnesota and Iowa in particular have had more of a presence recently.
While Locksley is entering his first season at New Mexico -- he signed five locals to letters-of-intent last February -- Locksley's previous employers continue to mine for players around the Beltway.
Zook apparently felt so strongly about the need to recruit here that when Locksley left, he attempted to hire Penn State assistant Larry Johnson. A former high school coach in the area, Johnson has been at Penn State since 1996 and generally is given credit for helping the Nittany Lions nab dozens of Washington area standouts, including two-time All-Met Derrick Williams of Eleanor Roosevelt, widely regarded as the nation's top recruit in the 2005 freshman class.
"He kind of set the whole thing off," said Minnesota Vikings assistant coach Chris White, who spent the previous nine seasons recruiting the Washington area for Syracuse, which has 13 locals on its current roster. "Everyone started to come in and notice the speed. There is raw talent there, athletes at all positions. From there, schools said, 'We need to look in this area.' Instead of spot recruiting, it was, 'We need to send somebody down there in May and go through all the schools.' "
Johnson is not alone on Penn State's staff in his knowledge of the region. Penn State linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden was Maryland's head coach from 1997 to 2000. And quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Virginia for three years.
A search of coaching staffs from colleges in the six Bowl Championship Series conferences shows more than two-thirds have coaches with ties to the Washington area.
Some were raised here, such as Nebraska defensive ends coach John Papuchis, a Quince Orchard and Virginia Tech graduate who helped the Cornhuskers land Quince Orchard All-Met defensive end Jason Ankrah this past year.
Some went to college here, such as Minnesota linebackers coach John Butler, a 1995 graduate of Catholic.
Some coached here previously, such as Illinois defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, who coached from 2002 to '05 at Howard and landed the job with the Illini in January.
Pittsburgh wide receivers coach Bryan Bossard was at Maryland from 2005 to '07, but now has helped the Panthers position themselves locally. Kansas State defensive coordinator Chris Cosh, a Bishop McNamara alum, spent the previous three seasons in the same position at Maryland.
Kouandjio has been recruited by Cal offensive line coach Steve Marshall, who worked at Virginia Tech from 1987 to 1992, when DeMatha offensive coordinator Chris Baucia played for the Hokies.
Others recruited the area for one school and have continued to mine talent here despite changing programs. Miami assistant Aubrey Hill, who once recruited the Washington area as a Duke assistant, recently secured a commitment from Dunbar linebacker Javarie Johnson. Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi helped recruit several players to Cincinnati on the advice of a former college classmate, Kennedy Coach Randolph Warren.Connecting the Dots
McGregor, entering his 28th season as head coach at the Hyattsville school, knows every advantage counts when colleges try to forge a connection with a recruit.
"Michigan has offered five of my guys," McGregor said. "Michigan has always come through, but in all my years at DeMatha they've never offered five, maybe one. But Coach [Rich] Rodriguez is from West Virginia. [Assistant] Jeff Casteel used to be at Shepherd. Go look at the schools coming through that normally don't come through and somewhere there is a tie."
For instance, Oregon -- another school without a local on its current roster -- was among the final choices for St. John's (D.C.) All-Met offensive lineman Peter White last winter. Ducks offensive line coach Steve Greatwood was an assistant at Maryland in 1997, where one of his players was current St. John's assistant Pat Ward.
"He's good friends with Pat, Coach Ward's favorite line coach of all time," St. John's Coach Joe Patterson said. "That's why Oregon was one of the final ones for Pete."
Such connections exist throughout college football. For instance, division I-AA Prairie View A&M, 50 miles outside of Houston, has seven locals on its roster this season playing for Coach Henry Frazier, a Fairmont Heights and Bowie State alum.
"It's such a heavily populated area, and there is only one I-A school and three [I-AA] schools and one Division II school and maybe Catholic," said Frazier, who was Bowie State's coach for five seasons before going to Prairie View. "They can't get all those kids. Therefore, if you're a smart recruiter, you're going to go to that area."
Local high school coaches believe the number of college prospects has risen for many reasons. More top athletes are playing football instead of basketball. Coaches and parents have embraced the notion of attending camps and combines to be exposed to the recruiting process. They also are more familiar with what a recruit needs to do in the classroom, meaning fewer players are failing to meet the NCAA's minimum academic requirements.
Many players enjoy the variety of opportunities. While some have their hearts set on staying close to home -- DeMatha defensive back Kyrrel Latimer, for instance, said he always wanted to go to Virginia and didn't really consider other scholarship offers -- most say distance is not a strong factor when making their college choices.
"I'm going to go wherever I have the best possibility to succeed," Kouandjio said, a sentiment that is widely repeated.
Sometime in the near future, Kouandjio plans to start taking official campus visits, recruiting trips that are paid for by colleges. He said he definitely plans to go back to Cal and to Alabama. Aside from Maryland, none of his other top eight choices are within a five-hour drive from home.
Some of his teammates also are looking to go far from home for college. Running back Marcus Coker has committed to Iowa after also considering Minnesota and Wake Forest. Defensive back Michael Coley described himself as "open-minded" and holds offers from Cal, New Mexico and Kansas State in addition to Maryland, Virginia Tech and others.
"You're going to see more and more kids [earning scholarships] in the Washington area, there is more of an emphasis on football," McGregor said. "For years and years, D.C. was known as a basketball area. Now, it's both. We have great basketball but also great football."