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Thursday, February 6, 2014
Leftover Signing Day news and notes

By Brendan C. Hall

Some leftover notes from yesterday's annual National Letter of Intent signing day:


DIGGING FOR DIAMONDS

Massachusetts’ two Division 1 FBS programs have approached in-state talent in two different methods.

On one hand there is Boston College, residing in a power conference and coached by the energetic Steve Addazio, who vowed to “build a fence” around Massachusetts and has stuck by it, signing an unheard-of seven Bay State prospects to his 2014 recruiting class yesterday.

On the other hand there is UMass, looking to get off the canvas after a forgettable start to its foray into college football’s highest divisions, with just two wins in its first two years of membership in the Mid-American Conference. The Minutemen fired Charley Molnar as head coach the day after Christmas and reached back to offensive-minded Mark Whipple, who coached the Minutemen to their most successful era from 1998-2003, including a 1-AA National Championship in his first season.

Of the top 10 in-state recruits ranked by ESPNU, six are signed with the Eagles. The other four are split between the Big Ten (St. John’s Prep RB Johnathan Thomas – Penn State; Everett safety Lubern Figaro – Wisconsin) and Division 1 FCS programs (Central Catholic RB/S D’Andre Drummond-Mayrie – New Hampshire; Springfield Central QB Cody Williams – Monmouth).

It’s easy to see why BC is such an attractive school. The Eagles have prestige, producing both Heisman winners and Pro Bowlers, and a long-standing reputation as a fertile farm for offensive linemen –- all points that Addazio revitalized in his first season, as the Eagles went 8-5 and returned to bowl season.

Out of necessity, that has forced UMass to get creative. Their most notable in-state signee, Leominster safety Jarell Addo, is a two-star prospect ranked No. 12 in the state, who had only one other D1 offer – Colgate, from the FCS ranks – before committing to the Minutemen last summer.

A two-year varsity starter, Addo delivered some of the most brutal hits seen across the Bay State this fall to earn ESPN Boston All-State honors, but he is not a polished product. His reported 42-inch vertical leap, though, provides an intangible that coaches are willing to work with.

“He reminds a little bit of Shannon James,” Whipple said, referring to the Minutemen’s all-time interceptions leader. “He’s explosive, he’s physical, he’s rangy, he’s got good instincts, and it just seems like he has really good character.”

Same for Dexter offensive lineman Dan DiNicola, the Minutemen’s other in-state signee from the high school ranks. The 6-foot-5, 280-pound DiNicola, a Walpole resident, had just one other offer – transitional FBS program Old Dominion before pledging the Minutemen.

“Obviously you don’t need to stretch him, he’s a big guy that has athletic ability,” Whipple said. “He’s a guy we’d like to redshirt certainly, but he’s a guy that’s certainly got huge upside.”

With the state’s top prospects often looking elsewhere for college, UMass has had to dig deeper in hopes of unearthing a hidden gem. One thing it does have going for them in this regard is its long history of successful walk-ons.

Whipple’s first tenure saw walk-ons Kole Ayi and James Ihedigbo go on to earn NFL roster spots (and in Ihedigbo’s case, a Super Bowl ring), but in more recent years they can point to success stories like Joe Colton and Shadrach Abrokwah, who made immediate impacts as scholarship-less true freshmen. Tight end Rob Blanchflower, a Leominster native who walked on to the program out of St. John’s High in 2009, has just been invited to Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine.

With an affordable in-state rate (Estimated total tuition, room and board for 2013-14: $23,198), this is not a tactic not lost on Whipple as he begins his second reign in Amherst.

Coaches are not allowed to comment on walk-ons until they have arrived on campus, but so far at least three in-state prospects have confirmed they will be heading to UMass as a preferred walk-on: Doherty wide receiver Alfred Adarkwah, Brockton lineman Joe Previte, and Wahconah Regional tight end Jordan Fiske (the latter two did post-graduate seasons last fall at prep school). More are likely on the way.

“You try to see what’s inside of them, both mentally and [physically], how much heart and desire they’ve got,” Whipple said of his approach to walk-ons. “There’s a lot of [undrafted] free agents that go to the Pro Bowl. Not getting the last scholarship, sometimes that gives a guy a chip on his shoulder.”

BANNER YEAR FOR CMASS

Last year’s big winner on Signing Day was the Cape & Islands region, which saw a number of players pledge up with Division 1 schools (Nantucket’s Terrel Correia, Barnstable’s Nick Peabody, Nauset’s Dakota Girard, Nathan and Dylan Holmes) and several more accept preferred walk-on invites (Barnstable’s Andrew Ellis, Dennis-Yarmouth’s Joe Tyo, Mashpee’s Jordan Keli’inui and Zak Orcutt).

This year, that honor may fall upon the often-overlooked Central Mass. region, which by its standards experienced an aberration in 2013-14. Counting Doherty products Isaac Yiadom (Boston College) and Noah Robinson (Memphis) -– who are both spring enrollees, with Robinson coming off a post-graduate season at Atlanta Sports Academy –- Central Mass. players accounted for nearly one-third of the amount of FBS signees from the Bay State in this year’s recruiting class.

Linebacker Tom Rodrick became the first player in Leicester High’s program to go FBS when he signed with UConn, while Addo signed with UMass. At the FCS level, Leominster’s Neil O’Connor signed with New Hampshire, giving the Wildcats two state Gatorade Players of the Year for their recruiting class, while Shrewsbury linebacker Emmanuel Jalbert signed with Rhode Island.

And this region might still not be done yet. Adarkwah, a lanky boundary threat who was flammable in the red zone during the Doherty’s Division 4 state title run (9 catches for 7 TDs in 5 games), told ESPNBoston.com yesterday afternoon he plans on heading to UMass as a preferred walk-on. And apparently there is another well-kept secret at Wachusett Regional, where 6-foot-6 tight end Jon Lucier is picking up late life on the recruiting radar. UMass, Rhode Island and New Hampshire have all offer preferred walk-on spots to Lucier, who also has interest from Merrimack and Assumption.

The Mountaineers were snakebitten lastfall, losing their quarterback for the season in the first quarter of the first game, and Lucier’s receiving numbers dipped as a result. But he is an intriguing prospect for his frame, which has yet to fill out, and his ability at both in-line and stalk blocking.

“What I think a lot of the coaches are looking at with him is where he is three years from now. I think he has great work ethic,” Mountaineers head coach Mike Dubzinski said. “He has some natural strength, he’s been in the weight room a lot. Unfortunately, just due to still getting taller, he hasn’t put on the weight that some kids who stop growing in the 10th grade might.”

Lucier might be the only college prospect in the country who goes between working summers loading bales of hay at a farm down the street in his hometown of Jefferson, to singing backup for Kenny Rogers at his Holiday concert last December at Mohegan Sun (Lucier is Vice President of the Wachusett Singers Group).

“There’s a lot of stacking and throwing heavy hay barrels that weight at least 40 pounds,” Lucier said of his summer gig. “So yeah, there’s definitely some strength development and work ethic I’ve taken out of that job.”

DISREGARD THE RANKINGS

While prefacing that he has "nothing disparaging to say" about recruiting services, new UConn coach Bob Diaco nonetheless had some interesting remarks when asked about his recruiting class' rank at his press conference yesterday. The Huskies' recruiting class, which locally includes Rodrick, did not rank in the Top 75 of ESPN's rankings; Rivals.com had UConn 111th out of 125 teams, while Scout.com ranked them 119th and last in the AAC.

"There are some guys that really have a handle on how to evaluate players and some guy who don't," Diaco said. "There are some guys that are just trying to make a buck. There are some services that if you, as a recruit, engage the service, then your rating goes up. So if you're a recruit that doesn't engage the service then your rating doesn't go up. So it has very little to do with your prowess on the field and a whole lot to do with your wanting to be part of the recruiting world in some instances. If that's the case and that's prevalent, which it is, then how are they credible in any way?

"What we have is our needs. You can be a four-star recruit, and let's say you're a cornerback. If we don't need a cornerback, then you don't have value to UConn. The value is in what our needs are, not in what somebody else says is a high commodity. For example, someone might say why don't you want caviar, it's very expensive, it's very fancy. I don't like it, I put it in my mouth and it doesn't taste good. So I'm going to have a cheeseburger. By that rationale, we put virtually no thought into who has what stars, who we should recruit based on that information you hear about."