Paul Grattan thought he’d had a pretty good junior season of high school football, in a pretty good area for high school football, at Mount Lebanon outside Pittsburgh.
“I didn’t have any offers going into the summer. I had one offer, from St. Francis,’’ Grattan said Wednesday morning, after Villanova’s practice.
That Grattan was wearing a Villanova practice uniform gives you a hint of how things worked out. But the process still got a little head-scratching for him.
“A lot of coaches were like, ‘Why don’t you have any offers?’ ‘’ he said.
The natural response might be, “Why don’t you make me an offer?”
“Yeah, some of them were scared,’’ Grattan said. “We’re not going to offer if you don’t have any others.”
How it played out: Grattan went to Duquesne’s camp and thought he played really well with some college coaches watching. Then, he went to the Pitt camp, and he played better, with more coaches watching. Several Mid-American Conference schools ended up offering scholarships.
“Villanova saw me there,’’ Grattan said. “They liked me there.”
That’s not usually the end of the story. Bringing someone to your own camp takes a lot of guesswork out of it, Villanova head coach Mark Ferrante said.
“When you give a young man an instruction of what to do in a camp, you can see how he handles that coaching,’’ Ferrante said. “Sometimes you’re watching a game film, he might be creaming a guy with a block if he’s a lineman, but it might not be the right assignment. He might be doing the wrong thing, but he’s doing it well.”
Villanova will open its season Saturday at Colgate. The Wildcats actually will open the entire college football season, the first game of the season, at any level.
As things get started, it’s interesting to see how Villanova’s veterans got there. Grattan is now a third-year starter, after redshirting as a freshman. Recruiting coordinator Dave Riede was the one who saw Grattan at Pitt’s camp and recommended him to Ferrante, then the offensive line coach. Riede also encouraged Grattan to come to a one-day camp on campus. On their way to a family vacation in Ocean City, Md., the Grattans detoured to the Main Line.
“This camp ended," Grattan said, "and Coach Riede came up to me and said, “You just won a quarter of a million dollars.’ ‘’ So, scholarship offered.
In addition to an evaluation, just showing up at a camp shows there is mutual interest, Riede said, adding that with the new football complex, the coaches believe they have facilities they can sell. Maybe they didn’t talk about beautiful facilities quite as much when they had jerry-rigged space underneath the bleachers?
“You’re not lying,’’ Riede said. “We can show it now and compete with the JMUs [James Madison] and Delawares of the league.’’
That camp evaluation can go beyond an X or an O. Ferrante can remember seeing an offensive lineman from Rancocas Valley High show up at camp some years ago.
“He kept trying to get as many reps as he could, one-on-one, whereas some guys hold back at the end of the line and wait their turn, or hide,’’ Ferrante said. “I liked what he was doing. He wasn’t being a jerk about it. He was just quietly working his way back in. We film everything at camp. That’s part of the evaluation.”
That line cutter, Ben Ijalana, turned out to be a four-year starter at Villanova, and now is an offensive tackle for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Not that the coaches nail it every time.
“We’ve passed on guys who ended up being really good players, but didn’t fit our style,’’ Ferrante said. “The thing we talk about in our office all the time — don’t worry about the guys you’re not getting, worry about the ones you are getting.”
When you take someone who can’t cut it, that’s a bigger miss, a wasted slot. It’s not like a rave from a high school coach is enough.
“The thing with that, he might be the best player [that coach] ever had,’’ Ferrante said. “You’ve got to trust your evaluation, your instincts. You could put a player on film, have a recruiter from every CAA [Colonial Athletic Association] school watch that player on film, and you could have 12 different opinions on what that player has.”
Justin Covington, now a captain ready to be a featured back as a junior, had pulled his hamstring at the end of spring track season and had told Villanova and others he couldn’t get to their camp. Maybe that helped Villanova, since the Wildcats coaches already thought they wanted him. He was also considering offers from Navy and Yale. He remembers a conversation on Villanova’s campus with former head coach Andy Talley, who asked when he might make a decision.
“Right now,’’ Covington told him. “I committed that day. I didn’t even tell my mom.”
Linebacker Forrest Rhyne, from Waynesboro, had offers from Villanova’s league rivals but also Army, Navy, and some other Football Bowl Subdivision schools, a level up. He accepted an invitation to Villanova’s camp, but the Wildcats coaches figured out a way to let him know how much they wanted him. An assistant pulled him aside, asked him to run around a bit to confirm what they’d seen on film and at other camps. After about 15 minutes, they took him into Talley’s office and offered a scholarship.
Some players are so talented that coaches don’t need to see them in person to make an offer, Riede said. But most times, they do. Quarterbacks, almost always, Ferrante said. Watching them throw for a few hours is crucial.
In Grattan’s case, where offers were slow in coming, “we kind of messed up,’’ Riede said, referring to his profession in general. “If the kid doesn’t have offers, you’re not rushing to make something, because you’re thinking, ‘Maybe there’s something that we’re not seeing that everyone else is seeing.’ And it works the other way: ‘Well, this kid has 15 offers. Let’s just offer him.’ What if he’s really not good enough? So coaches get paranoid with that stuff.”
Riede knew one or two of the Pitt coaches well enough to check in about why they weren’t offering Grattan. No red flags, just maybe an inch or two short of what they were looking for. (Grattan is listed at 6-foot-4, plenty tall enough to play center and guard, as he has for Villanova the last two seasons.)
Now, Riede figures, Pitt coaches might look back and say they could have taken Grattan. Or, maybe not, Maybe they’re happy with who they got in that recruiting class.
In his case, the slow lane turned out to be the right one, especially with a detour on a family vacation. Depending on the coin toss, Grattan might be in on the first block of the season. He’s moved to the front of the line.