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At February’s signing day press conference, Youngstown State football coach Eric Wolford bragged that he was the first coach to offer a scholarship to Austintown Fitch lineman Billy Price.
Unfortunately for Wolford, he wasn’t the last. That honor belonged to some guy named Urban Meyer, which is the college football equivalent of getting asked out by Kate Upton.
“I like a lot of guys,” Wolford said. “Unfortunately, sometimes I can’t get them.”
When Jim Tressel won his first national title in 1991, 39 of the 90 players on the roster were from Mahoning or Trumbull County. This year’s YSU roster has just 15 players from those counties. Of those, just seven inked with the Penguins on signing day.
Some of the decline is a result from population loss — Youngstown had five public schools with football teams back then, compared to one now — and some is a result of YSU’s program decline since Tressel left.
But an overlooked reason is the Internet, as websites like ScoutingOhio.com make it easier for Big Ten and Mid-American Conference coaches to find players — and harder for YSU to hide them.
“I feel for [Wolford] there,” said Canfield native Mark Porter, who founded ScoutingOhio.com. “Youngstown gets picked over.”
YSU had no chance of signing Price, obviously, but it’s become increasingly difficult for the Penguins to compete with Mid-American Conference schools for top recruits. The MAC boasts better competition, more exposure (particularly with weeknight games on ESPN) and more NFL players.
“If a kid gets a Bowling Green offer and a YSU offer, nine times out of 10, he’s going to Bowling Green,” Porter said. “It might even be 10 out of 10.
“YSU has a tough time getting those prospects away from schools.”
That’s why players like Poland’s Luke Wollet and Colin Reardon and Canfield’s Jordan Italiano are playing 40 minutes away for tradition-deficient Kent State instead of down the road for tradition-laden YSU. And it’s why so many YSU fans want the Penguins to join the MAC.
As WFMJ sports director Dana Balash likes to say, “No kid ever says on signing day, ‘It’s been my lifelong dream to play FCS football.’”
Wolford has already picked up three verbal commitments from Ohio for its 2014 class — Navarre Fairless quarterback Hunter Wells, St. Clairsville CB/WR/RB Jaylon Brown and Lakewood St. Edward RB/LB D.J. Thomas — but there’s no guarantee those three will sign.
Porter equates their verbal commitments to sending up fireworks to MAC programs, which often target YSU recruits late in the process when their own targets sign elsewhere.
(Wolford was so worried about this one year that he asked Porter to remove YSU’s offers/commitments from his website just before signing day.)
This isn’t as much of a problem in North Dakota, where North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl visits each of the state’s 94 football-playing high schools each year — Ohio has 715, by the way — and can pretty much sign whomever he wants, even if some players hail from schools that only play seven-man football.
“You might say, ‘Yeah, who cares about that football?’” Porter said. “But it’s your football. No one else is recruiting those schools, If there’s a diamond in the rough and you don’t tell anybody, you’ll get him.
“YSU is in a whole different boat.”
That’s why Wolford has increasingly looked elsewhere to find players, even if it meant signing the same number of players from South Carolina (two) as the Mahoning Valley in February.
“I don’t get caught up in necessarily where a guy is from,” said Wolford, a Brookfield native. “It’s easy to fly into Tampa. But it’s hard to Brandenton. It’s hard to get South Fort Myers. It’s hard to get to Apopka.
“It’s hard to get to spots off the beaten path. But that’s where you have to find players.”
Joe Scalzo covers YSU football for The Vindicator. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @JoeScalzo1.