TAMPA — When Skip Holtz took over as USF's football coach last year, he talked about identifying a "home area" comprised of the 100 high schools closest to campus, a talent-rich nucleus for the Bulls' recruiting efforts in Hillsborough and its surrounding counties.
That imaginary circle around USF won't have a large presence in the recruiting class Holtz will sign Wednesday, with just two players from Tampa and none from Pinellas County among the 19 players committed to join in 2011.
"I'd love to build a wall," Holtz said last week as he worked on his first full recruiting class as USF's coach; he was hired two weeks before national signing day last year. "We're building relationships right now. It's not going to be twitch your nose and here they come. If people feel like they need to leave to get something, it's hard to keep them here. We're going to have to build the product on the field as well."
Perhaps the highest rated recruit in USF's class is Jefferson receiver Andre Davis, rated a four-star recruit by Scout.com and as one of the state's top 100 prospects by Rivals.com. Shortly after Davis committed last week, the Bulls got a pledge from another Tampa receiver, Robinson's Ruben Gonzalez. On Wednesday, Holtz made the short drive to visit Armwood standout Josh Grady, who is considering USF and will announce his choice Wednesday.
"The hard part of recruiting is you can't take them all," said Holtz, who landed speedy Terrence Mitchell from Hillsborough High this time last year, luring him out of a commitment to Florida State. "There's a lot of people in Hillsborough County we offered, and they decided to go to another school. Some people say, 'I want to get away from home.' Sometimes, it's greener pastures, but I also know I have a big stack of transfer (request) papers sitting on my desk."
Grady, like Davis and Gonzalez, could be another Tampa-area star who stays home, much like Mitchell and Hillsborough's Lindsey Lamar. Grady played quarterback and is also being recruited as a safety.
"If I went there, my friends and all my family could see me play at every home game," said Grady, who will visit Vanderbilt this weekend and is also considering Wake Forest. "I'm not going to have to fly on a plane to get home. I'm familiar with the Tampa area, so it's not much of a transition. USF definitely has a family atmosphere, and wherever I go, I want college to feel like a home away from home."
There were 11 scholarship players from Hillsborough County on USF's 2010 team, the same number as five years ago, when the Bulls entered the Big East. The Pinellas presence has dropped from eight scholarship players in 2005 to four last season — safety Jerrell Young, defensive end Julius Forte (Boca Ciega), linebacker Armando Sanchez (Northeast) and safety JaQuez Jenkins (Lakewood).
Clearwater Central Catholic coach John Davis, whose son, Jay, was recruited by Holtz when he was at South Carolina, said Pinellas County's overall talent level is down this year, but he likes that he has still seen his USF recruiter, quarterbacks coach Peter Vaas, on his campus more than once.
"The coaches I consider really good recruiters know everybody in the area," Davis said. "Not all the schools do that. I've seen one Florida State guy in the last three, four years. (USF director of player personnel and former recruiting coordinator) Carl Franks came by the school every year, if only to stop in and talk with us, to stay in touch. I'm certainly pleased to see that."
This class has been about filling needs for Holtz, so the geography is all over the Southeast — four commitments from Orlando, three from Georgia — and with only a few scholarships remaining, Holtz spent time this week visiting local schools with some of the area's top junior prospects.
Holtz set a goal last spring of getting an assistant coach on every high school campus in the state, whether they had a potential recruit to see or not, and he said with time and continued success, USF will benefit from the relationships being built.
"It's about going into schools and taking a cup of coffee, getting to know our home area," he said. "We'll have coaches say, 'We don't really have anyone for you this year,' and what I say to them is, 'I know that one day you will.' "
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.