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February 23, 2012
The drama that surrounded Scottsdale (Ariz.) Chaparral wide receiver Davonte Neal's college announcement Tuesday produced a bizarre story with an all-too-familiar ending.
Once again, an Arizona school failed to land one of the state's best prospects as Neal signed with Notre Dame.
Arizona and Arizona State combined to sign just four of the state's top 15 prospects in the class of 2012. And to think, that's an improvement over 2011, when none of the state's top six recruits chose to stay home, with four of those six players opting for Pac-12 rivals instead.
The new staffs at both schools realize they won't contend for a conference title unless they do a better job of keeping the state's best prospects - and both Arizona's Rich Rodriguez and Arizona State's Todd Graham pledged to do so when they were hired.
But will they?
Tempe (Ariz.) Corona Del Sol coach Tom Joseph is taking a wait-and-see attitude.
Joseph has coached high school football in Arizona for most of the last 30 years. He coached the state's top 2012 prospect in five-star offensive tackle Andrus Peat, who signed with Stanford and didn't have an Arizona school among his finalists.
Whenever a new coach arrives at Arizona or Arizona State, Joseph hears the same big talk about how those schools will do a better job of recruiting local talent. Now he wants to see someone deliver on that promise.
"We've been hearing that a long time, with every staff that's come in," Joseph said. "I haven't seen a lot of change. Hopefully they will. You always hope that they do. At the beginning it's always lip service, but we're hoping.''
Some of the state's top junior players have noticed a change.
"I feel like they're reaching out more than in past years," said Chandler (Ariz.) Hamilton cornerback Cole Luke, a 2013 Rivals250 prospect with offers from both programs. "They're putting in more effort. They come out to your school. They talk to you, sit you down and have a conversation about the whole process.''
The state's No. 1 prospect for 2013, Lakeside (Ariz.) Blue Ridge linebacker Chans Cox, has noticed a difference, too - especially at Arizona State.
"They've made a big change already," he said. "They've gotten a lot of in-state guys already wanting to commit to ASU. I'm really looking forward to the future to see what they bring.''
Arizona State's efforts paid off earlier this month when the Sun Devils signed Scottsdale (Ariz.) Saguaro all-purpose athlete D.J. Foster, the state's second-ranked 2012 recruit.
Arizona State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Norvell said it's all part of the plan Graham has put in at the school.
"We want these kids to know it's not going to be easy to leave the state," Norvell said. "We definitely want to put up a fight for every in-state player that we feel can help us win football games.''
They'll be competing with Rodriguez, who finished as the runner-up for Neal.
"We've got to blanket the state of Arizona," he said at his Signing Day press conference. "If there are a dozen players in this state that we can win a Pac-12 championship with, we're going to recruit them and go after them and they'll have to tell us no.''
Arizona's top high school players weren't always in such a hurry to leave the state.
As recently as 2006, five of the top six prospects in Arizona signed with the two in-state programs. The turning point came in 2007, when seven of Arizona's top eight prospects signed with out-of-state schools. Arizona products who signed with out-of-state schools that year included eventual first-round draft picks Cameron Jordan (California) and Prince Amukamara (Nebraska).
Getting Arizona's best recruits to stay home has been a struggle ever since.
Why? For starters, Arizona and Arizona State certainly haven't produced the types of results on the field that would impress most of the state's top prospects.
"Both programs had [below] .500 teams," Chandler High coach Shaun Aguano said of Arizona and Arizona State. "I think other schools with their win-loss records are attracting more kids."
Indeed, Stanford and Oregon have made quite an impression on Arizona prospects by reaching BCS games each of the last two seasons.
Hamilton safety Reggie Daniels, the eighth-ranked 2012 prospect in Arizona, signed with Oregon this month. Oregon also signed two of Arizona's top five 2011 recruits: Chaparral offensive tackle Andre Yruretagoyena and Hamilton offensive tackle Tyler Johnstone.
USC traditionally has done a good job of recruiting Arizona's best high school football players. Now other Pac-12 teams also are successfully raiding the Grand Canyon State.
The other school of thought is that Arizona and Arizona State haven't recruited the state's top prospects hard enough.
"I think in the past, staffs have come in and recruiting in Arizona has not been a priority," Joseph said. "They either go to California or Texas and try to get their recruiting done in those areas, then they try to get a few Arizona kids just to appease everybody.''
The new staffs at Arizona and Arizona State are out to change that perception.
"They have to see you're willing to invest the time and the energy in recruiting this state," Norvell said. "Everybody comes in and talks about wanting to keep players in state, but you've got to show people. You've got to build relationships. You've got to put the time in. You've got to put the effort in. They need to see a difference. They need to see there is a new thought process of us recruiting in-state players, and obviously the excitement level of seeing that definitely is going to help us quite a bit.
"We're definitely getting out to the schools. The first day I was here, I was on the road at local schools. We had to show these coaches it's not about driving all over the country. It's about starting to foster these relationships and getting these kids here on campus.''
Arizona is a unique state to recruit.
For one thing, much of the top talent often is concentrated in a handful of programs. The state's top nine prospects in 2012 came from only five schools: Corona Del Sol, Scottsdale Saguaro, Chaparral, Chandler and Hamilton.
This also is a state where quality outweighs quantity.
"There are usually about 10 really talented kids in the state, and then there's a significant dropoff," said Adam Gorney, the West recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "But those 10 kids are pretty much nationally recruited."
The lack of depth in the Arizona high school ranks makes it all the more imperative that the Sun Devils and Wildcats land those top guys. The new staffs at both programs insist they're making an effort, and they're bringing in some notable names to help out.
And both schools added former Arizona high school football coaches to their staffs.
Arizona State's new director of football operations is John Sanders, who was fired by Scottsdale Saguaro despite posting a 62-7 record that included a state championship last year. Sanders, the former high school coach of Foster, had been criticized for resting several starters during Saguaro's regular-season finale against rival Chaparral.
Arizona's assistant director of football operations is Charlie Ragle, who went 63-7 at Chaparral and led the Firebirds to their third consecutive state championship last year. Although the Wildcats didn't sign Neal, their 2012 class still includes Chaparral defensive end Dylan Cozens and linebacker Cody Ippolito.
Neither school has a single 2013 verbal commitment from an Arizona player just yet, but many prep coaches are noticing a change. Both staffs have been visiting the state's high schools more regularly. They also are recruiting with more tenacity and aren't simply backing off when they hear a recruit plans to go elsewhere.
"I think the proof's going to be in what they do next year more than anything else," Hamilton coach Steve Belles said, "but they're definitely pounding the pavement in terms of making themselves noticed.''
They're beginning to win over the state's top high school coaches.
Only time will tell whether that carries over to the players.
(David Fox of Rivals.com contributed to this report).