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Sitting Ringside

Blessing or curse?


Covering college recruiting can be both a blessing and a curse, as it gives you a glimpse into the future of a football program but nothing as clear as a crystal ball.

I’ve been thinking about my past recruiting coverage since the NFL Draft April 26-27, and how the careers of certain prep prospects didn’t turn out as once envisioned.

Take Joe Flacco:

The former Pitt quarterback was considered a recruiting afterthought, a big kid with a strong arm who was signed mostly to give the Panthers depth and bridge the gap between Tyler Palko and Anthony Morelli.

Pitt coach Walt Harris was blessed to have his choice of a handful of potential NFL quarterbacks in the early 2000s. Harris passed on Seton-La Salle’s Bruce Gradkowski, who went to Toledo, so that Pitt could lure WPIAL stars in West Allegheny’s Palko and Steel Valley’s Luke Getsy in the following class — a tactic that worked.

Soon after Dave Wannstedt replaced Harris in December 2004, Flacco transferred to Delaware and became the only one of the aforementioned group to be a first-day draft choice, a first-rounder (No. 18 overall) by the Baltimore Ravens.

Gradkowski went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the sixth round in 2006. Palko started three years at Pitt, wasn’t drafted but signed with the New Orleans Saints. Getsy transferred to Akron, wasn’t drafted and was cut by the San Francisco 49ers. Morelli wasn’t drafted and has signed as a free agent with the Arizona Cardinals.

When you count Perry Traditional Academy’s Rod Rutherford not being drafted after two years as a starter at Pitt — he spent time with the Steelers and Carolina Panthers — it makes you wonder.

Harris had a reputation as a quarterback guru, yet none of his starters at the position were selected in the NFL Draft. All of his quarterbacks, however, developed into good Division I players under his tutelage. And his first priority was to win games, not develop NFL QBs.

Harris obviously had an eye for talent, as some of his quarterbacks (Pete Gonzalez, Matt Lytle, Rutherford and Palko) spent time in the NFL. And Harris certainly saw something in Flacco, who was lightly recruited — he chose Pitt over Rutgers — but ended up being a first-round pick.

* The NFL Draft also reminded me of how big of a setback the loss to Miami in 2003 was for the Pitt football program. Not only did it cost the Panthers the Big East Conference championship and a BCS bowl berth worth $12 million, but they also missed on many major recruits.

Although much of the focus at the time was on WPIAL stars like Morelli and Andrew Johnson, imagine the receiving corps Pitt could have put together.

Ted Ginn Jr., who went to Ohio State, was the ninth player selected in 2007, by the Miami Dolphins. Dwayne Jarrett, who went to Southern Cal, was a second-round pick (No. 45) of the Carolina Panthers last year.

Fred Davis, who played receiver but moved to tight end at USC, was a second-rounder (No. 48) by the Washington Redskins this year. Adrian Arrington, of Michigan, was a seventh-round pick by the New Orleans Saints.

&#149 If Pitt had won that Miami game, perhaps Harris could have gained some job security, a couple of those receivers would have picked the Panthers and Morelli wouldn’t have bailed for Penn State.

I covered Morelli’s recruitment more closely than anyone in the country, and knew that his family always had an eye on the Nittany Lions.

His father, Greg, liked Penn State’s depth-chart situation and its invitation of early playing time. Zack Mills had one season of eligibility remaining, and there was no heir apparent (Michael Robinson had spent more time at receiver and running back than quarterback).

With an intention of playing early instead of taking the time to work on his weaknesses (pocket presence and reading defenses), Morelli wasted his freshman season on a few snaps and his sophomore year as Robinson’s backup.

Who knows how Morelli would have developed under Harris at Pitt? Apparently, the complexity of learning Harris’ vertical passing scheme gave Morelli the impression that he would sit behind Palko for three years.

What made little sense was how Morelli and his father spent four seasons bashing Neil Gordon’s play-calling at Penn Hills, then picked Penn State because its offense and verbiage was similar to that of his high school.

When his college career was over, Morelli had to overcome the same questions about his pocket presence and ability to read defenses. He was a two-year starter at Penn State who wished he had another season of eligibility left.

Wonder if he still thinks he made the right choice?

&#149 When Morelli didn’t get drafted, it reminded me of this story I wrote about him at the Elite 11 Quarterback Camp the summer before his senior season.

Morelli had the strongest arm at the camp, but came away realizing that he had a lot to learn. He wasn’t the only quarterback at that camp who didn’t live up to expectations.

John David Booty was widely regarded as the nation’s top quarterback, but he graduated early to attend USC and was a fifth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings.

Compared to some of the other campers, Booty and Morelli are success stories.

Drew Weatherford (Florida State) and Nate Longshore (Cal) have been starters who have battled either inconsistency or injury throughout their careers. Chase Patton has been a career at Missouri.

Kirby Freeman battled Kyle Wright for the starting job at Miami — both were disappointments — and then transferred to Baylor after his junior season.

Rhett Bomar started as a redshirt freshman at Oklahoma, but was dismissed after violating NCAA rules and now plays at Sam Houston State.

Bobby Reid started at Oklahoma State but lost his job to injuries and ineffectiveness. He transferred to Texas Southern, a Division I-AA school that went 0-11 last fall.

Brian Hildebrand signed with Oregon State, transferred to a junior college and then walked-on at Nebraska before ultimately leaving the Cornhuskers.

Two others switched positions: A.J. Bryant went to Georgia, where he became a receiver, while Cornelius Ingram went to Florida, where he was moved to tight end.

Perhaps the most interesting story to come out of that camp was Matt Tuiasosopo, who shined at the Elite 11. Drafted in the third round by the Seattle Mariners, he now plays third base for their Triple-A affiliate in Tacoma.

&#149 For that matter, I checked to see who joined Palko at the Elite 11 camp in 2001. Among his fellow campers were future No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell of Louisiana State; Steelers’ fifth-rounder Dennis Dixon of Oregon; Chris Leak, who led Florida to a BCS national championship; Robert Lane of Ole Miss, Blake Mitchell of South Carolina and T.C. Ostrander of Stanford.

Several others were flameouts: Michael Affleck went to Arizona State, then transferred to Dixie College and Utah State; Tommy Grady went to Oklahoma, then transferred to Utah; and Justin Midgett went to Florida, then transferred to Eastern Illinois.

Clayton Richard signed with Michigan, but was selected by the Chicago White Sox in the eighth round in 2005. The 6-foot-5 left-hander now pitches for the Double-A Birmingham Barons.



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