Keeping tally of Virginia Tech’s 2018 recruits was a busy endeavor last weekend, with the Hokies adding four commitments and losing one from Thursday through Sunday.
You don’t need to be a geography major to see a trend that’s developed this year, with all 12 of Tech’s current commitments in the 2018 class being from outside of Virginia’s borders. That’ll change eventually. The Hokies have enough in-state targets remaining to eventually get on the board in that regard, even if the in-state/out-of-state balance will likely be as lopsided in the latter’s favor as much as it has been in the last 30 years.
That out-of-state push has gone in all directions, with the Hokies landing commitments in the north from Chicago and Pennsylvania, as well as the usual forays into the D.C./Maryland area and usually fertile Florida.
But one of Tech’s biggest pushes this year has been into North Carolina. And, at least since Frank Beamer started as coach in 1987, the Hokies are succeeding in the Tar Heel state as much as they ever have.
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Virginia Tech’s 2018 class includes commitments from three North Carolinians—defensive tackle Joe Kane, receiver Tre Turner and, just last Thursday, cornerback D.J. Crossen—with a handful of targets remaining, from some long shots (five-star defensive end K.J. Henry) to 50-50 propositions (linebacker Dax Hollifield) to good bets (OLB/ATH Alan Tisdale).
Counting last year, that’s seven North Carolina players Virginia Tech has either signed or gotten commitments from in coach Justin Fuente’s first two full recruiting classes. Last year’s crop included quarterback Hendon Hooker, athlete Caleb Farley, tight end Drake DeIuliis and defensive end Zion Debose.
That’s reaching historic levels in North Carolina, the scope of which requires a little history lesson.
In the first 16 years of Beamer’s time at Virginia Tech, from 1987-2002, the Hokies didn’t sign a single player from North Carolina. They were a Big East team for most of that run, and northern recruiting made geographical sense, given their conference.
But the move to the ACC accelerated a southern shift. A couple of North Carolina signees slipped into the 2003 class, though defensive back Michael Hinton came through Hargrave, which Tech routinely recruited directly. Quarterback Cory Holt also went to Hargrave, but not before the Hokies signed him originally out of high school Lexington, North Carolina.
Holt, receiver Justin Harper (another signee directly from Hargrave) and running back George Bell, North Carolina’s No. 5-ranked recruit at the time and to date still the highest-ranked prospect the Hokies have snagged from the Tar Heel state since the turn of the century, signed and joined Tech in 2004. Cornerback Stephan Virgil followed suit in 2005 before the Hokies really made a push.
From 2006-08, Tech signed 12 players from North Carolina, its peak being ‘08 when offensive linemen Nick Becton and Michael Via, receiver Jarrett Boykin and safety Eddie Whitley were part of five players from the state to come to Blacksburg.
Things cooled off there after that, with Tech plucking only defensive back James Hopper (2009), defensive end Justin Taylor (2010), receiver Kevin Asante (2011), running back Chris Mangus and linebacker Dahman McKinnon (2012) and linebacker Jamieon Moss and receiver Carlis Parker (2013) in subsequent years. None made much of an impact.
After being shut out in North Carolina in 2014, Tech returned in 2015 with gusto, landing defensive back mainstays Mook Reynolds and Adonis Alexander, in addition to defensive end Houshun Gaines. The 2016 class produced receiver-turned-safety Divine Deablo and defensive end Jimmie Taylor before Fuente and Co. upped the North Carolina trend in 2017.
The quantity from North Carolina is one thing, but the quality of players Tech is pulling, at least according to the recruiting rankings, is also trending upward.
While the North Carolina contingent from 2008 was Tech’s peak in the state, the highest-ranked players, per Rivals, that year were Becton (10th in NC), Via (12th) and defensive back Lorenzo Williams (14th). Showing the volatility of recruiting rankings, Whitley (20th) and Boykin (26th) ended up having the longest and most productive Virginia Tech careers of the bunch.
Although it’s safe to say Reynolds (14th) and Alexander (36th) have out-performed their rankings, Tech’s recent signees and commitments have been the most touted players from North Carolina since Bell and Holt. Turner is the seventh-ranked player in the state this year, while Hooker (8th), Farley (10th) and DeIuliis (11th) were all top-15 last year. Early returns on Hooker and Farley after standout performances at the spring game are extremely positive.
The big question is: why the big push into North Carolina lately? Here are some theories.
1. It’s been just as fertile of a recruiting ground as Virginia lately.
Recently, North Carolina has been Virginia’s recruiting doppelganger. This study by SB Nation shows that blue-chip recruits — considered four- or five-star players in this exercise — in North Carolina are right about in line with those from Virginia.
From 2013-17, Virginia had 57 such prospects, eighth-most nationally. North Carolina had 51, ninth-most nationally.
In 2016, North Carolina put 83 football players in Division I colleges, while Virginia had 58., according to the USA Today. (The fact that North Carolina has seven Division I schools and Virginia, as of 2016, only three, no doubt factored into that disparity, but the Tar Heel state is producing plenty of D-I talent nonetheless.)
Given recruiting’s geographical basis, with schools faring better close to home, creating a pipeline into areas like Greensboro, Winston-Salem or Charlotte, which are actually closer to Blacksburg than traditional hubs like the 757 and D.C., makes sense.
2. That’s where the talent is this year.
Even on a good football year, North Carolina’s going to be considered a basketball state. Schools like Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest and even N.C. State would all rather have success on the hardwood as opposed to the gridiron. In fact, East Carolina and Appalachian State might be the only football-first schools in the state.
Traditionally, North Carolina has been the closest to Virginia Tech in terms of recruiting prowess. But the Tar Heels remain under the cloud of an NCAA investigation that seemingly will never end.
And while there remains much doubt about whether the hammer will ever actually fall on North Carolina — it’s not Cleveland State, after all, nor is it clear if the NCAA has total jurisdiction with regards to university-wide academic fraud — the uncertainty surrounding what might happen can often be just as damaging.
It’s early, but 247 Sports’ composite team rankings have Virginia Tech’s class ranked 18th nationally in 2018 and North Carolina’s 44th. Already, Tech has beaten out UNC for a pair of North Carolina recruits — Turner (among a number of schools in contention) and Crossen (in a head-to-head battle as finalists).
UNC currently has three commitments ranked 11th or higher in the state. Tech has two in the top 18. That’s not necessarily out-recruiting the Tar Heels in their home state, but sticking that close in foreign territory is an accomplishment in and of itself.
Plus, given the competition that Tech’s facing now in D.C. and the 757, with Big Ten teams like Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State humming again and dipping south for recruiting purposes, in addition to regulars like Florida State and Alabama, branching out to other regions isn’t the worst strategy for the Hokies.
That’s not even mentioning the Hokies’ increased visibility in the state lately. Tech’s most dominant performance of 2016 was a 34-3 drubbing of North Carolina when a hurricane was bearing down on Chapel Hill. The game almost certainly seen by the most people was the Hokies’ come-from-behind win against Arkansas at the Belk Bowl in Charlotte. Not a bad advertisement for the program in what’s an increasingly fertile recruiting territory.
Beyond that, while Fuente has stated that Virginia Tech will still first and foremost service Virginia in recruiting, as an outsider he’s perhaps not as beholden to the commonwealth as someone like Beamer, who was Virginia-raised.
This year’s class has shown the coaching staff’s willingness to move beyond the state’s borders to levels the Hokies haven’t seen in decades, if ever. North Carolina, with its proximity and talent level, has been a natural area for expansion.