- Erik McKinney, ESPN Staff Writer
So often when a new coaching staff takes over at a school, one of the first changes comes on the recruiting trail and centers on locking up the local talent.
In the case of Rich Rodriguez and Todd Graham, who took over at Arizona and Arizona State, respectively, late in the 2011 season, the goal was fairly simple. The state of Arizona was producing more and more top-end talent, but nearly none of it was staying home.
In the 2011 class -- the one immediately preceding Rodriguez and Graham landing their new gigs -- none of the top five Arizona recruits stayed in state, and three signed with rival Pac-12 programs. In the 2012 class, Graham made his first big statement by keeping D.J. Foster home, but the Sun Devils and Wildcats combined to sign just two of the top 10 in-state recruits.
The 2013 Arizona recruits seemed to remain fairly skeptical at the top, as just one of the state’s top five and three of its top 10 recruits stayed home. But it was notable how much attention they gave the in-state programs, as Priest Willis, Tyler Bruggman and Jalen Ortiz -- the top three recruits -- all gave Arizona State a long look.
After both programs posted eight-win seasons in 2012, it appears the local recruiting pitch is catching on and making an impact, as Arizona prospects in the 2014 and 2015 classes are taking note.
Arizona got on the board first, with a commitment from ESPN 300 athlete Cameron Denson (Tucson, Ariz./Salpointe Catholic) in January, while Arizona State responded with ESPN 300 cornerback Tyler Whiley (Scottsdale, Ariz./Chaparral), who committed in late July.
Whiley, originally from New York by way of Georgia, arrived in Arizona for seventh grade. He doesn’t have the same history with the schools as some of the other in-state recruits, but he can see a recent shift with the new staff of the Sun Devils.
“They’re on the rise and a rebuilding program,” Whiley said. “They started winning a lot more and you can tell they are more disciplined on the field.”
Whiley’s high school teammate, tight end Trevor Wood, had a similar thought about the rival school. Wood grew up going to Arizona games, as his family had season tickets. His older brother is an offensive lineman for the Wildcats, so while it wasn’t shocking when he committed to Arizona in late July, Rodriguez still had some work to do.
“Growing up, it was 100 percent that I was going to Arizona,” Wood said. “But once I got schools coming in and offering, I thought I might need to set that aside and decide what was best for me.”
Offers from Alabama, Oregon and UCLA made things very interesting, although his eventual decision helped prove how much of an impact Rodriguez is making at Arizona.
“I believe in what they’re doing down there,” Wood said of the Wildcats. “I feel like it’s going up from here on out. I definitely feel a huge difference with how it is now. Walking into the coaches’ offices and seeing them, they are more players’ coaches and I definitely like that a lot.”
It’s trickling down into the 2015 class as well, according to 2015 ESPN 300 prospects Kamron Johnson and Emanuel Gant (Tempe, Ariz./Tempe). Both attend school down the street from Arizona State, so they are far more familiar with the Sun Devils, but both have received significant interest from the two in-state programs thus far.
“They’re both making a concentrated effort to keep kids here,” Tempe head coach Brian Walker said, adding that between taking over the program in 2009 and Graham’s hiring in 2011, Arizona State coaches visited the campus one time. “As soon as Graham and his staff came over, he made an effort to be here. They’ve invited the kids to camp and have an open-door policy. They’re definitely doing the right things and that’s why they’re able to keep some kids in state.”
Four Arizona prospects are in the 2015 ESPN 300 and it won’t be surprising to see more of the state’s top prospects listen intently to the two programs.
“Comparing them with the rest of the Pac-12, I definitely think ASU and U of A have come up a lot,” Johnson said. “When I watched college football, they weren’t really doing as well. I think it goes back to their facilities and how they’re trying to rebuild their programs, which has boosted them up a lot. So nothing’s wrong with staying in state now. Their programs are becoming great programs.”
Both programs are doing well with their second chance at several recruits as well, as the top recruits in 2011 and 2012 have transferred back home -- Christian Westerman to Arizona State and Davonte Neal to Arizona.
And as things ramp up on the recruiting trail between the two schools, it will make falls that much more interesting on high school fields in the state. Already, Whiley and Wood -- good friends off the field -- have found another level in their on-field performances.
“We talk about it a lot,” Whiley said of becoming rivals next season. “We go against each other in practice and it gets a little more aggressive than usual. After a play I might throw up a fork ‘em sign, but we’re having fun with it.”