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May 1, 2012
While playing linebacker at The Woodlands (Texas) High, Garrett Hope often wondered about the possibility of continuing his football career at a Big 12 school.
How could he have guessed a couple of years ago that he could reach that goal by leaving for the East Coast?
Hope didn't receive much interest from Big 12 schools in Texas or neighboring states, but he did get an offer from West Virginia, which is moving from the Big East to the Big 12 this fall. Hope jumped on the opportunity and became one of five Texas high schools to sign with the Mountaineers this year.
"It's always been my dream to play in the Big 12," Hope told WVSports.com after committing.
West Virginia's five Texas signees in 2012 exceeded its combined total from the previous nine years. West Virginia didn't sign a single player directly from a Texas school between 2003 and 2009.
The move to the Big 12 is the most obvious reason for the shift. Now that West Virginia will be playing a few games in the states of Texas and Oklahoma each year, moving all the way to Morgantown for four years doesn't seem like such a daunting proposition to a recruit from the Southwest.
But that isn't necessarily the biggest reason.
Texas high school coaches said West Virginia's new emphasis on the state coincided with Holgorsen's arrival. Holgorsen worked as an offensive coordinator at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State before coming to West Virginia.
"They're making a big effort with Coach Holgorsen," Katy High coach Gary Joseph said. "He coached at Tech. He coached at Houston. It's not like he doesn't know the area. They're trying to make more inroads here."
And what was it like before Holgorsen got there?
"I really had very little to any contact with them," Joseph said.
Joseph's school produced wide receiver Jordan Thompson, a 2012 early enrollee who caught eight passes for 66 yards and a touchdown in West Virginia's spring game. Other Texas recruits to sign with West Virginia this year included Hope, Houston Kinkaid quarterback Ford Childress, Garland High kicker Josh Lambert and Wylie High defensive end Noble Nwachukwu. Childress, an early enrollee, was arrested on a DUI charge April 19 and didn't play in West Virginia's spring game.
That class reflects a renewed effort to expand West Virginia's recruiting base.
West Virginia needs creativity in its recruiting approach because its home state doesn't produce many top prospects. Only five percent of the Mountaineers' recruits over the last five years have come from West Virginia. Wyoming and in-state rival Marshall are the only FBS programs to sign a smaller percentage of in-state prospects during that stretch.
Traditionally, West Virginia has compensated by relying heavily on nearby states Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland as well as establishing a pipeline to Florida. The reigning Orange Bowl champions haven't changed that strategy. In fact, West Virginia's focus on Florida was more apparent than ever this year.
But population shifts away from Rust Belt and toward the Sun Belt have made the Mountaineers look more to the South. Now that West Virginia's in the Big 12, Texas is a natural possibility.
"We're going to still recruit where we've been recruiting, which is the surrounding states of West Virginia and Florida," Holgorsen said. "I think we took 12 out of Florida this year. But we will get into Texas.''
Holgorsen's staff is equipped to do that. Nearly all of them have coached in the state of Texas or at other schools in the Southwest.
"They know which schools [in Texas] to go to, the questions to ask," Wylie coach Bill Howard said. "It's a big plus. I'd hate to come to Texas and start recruiting and not have a clue as to which schools you want to go to, which programs you want to go to, which schools keep up. There's a variation in the quality of the schools in Texas. If I went to West Virginia and was recruiting, I wouldn't be able to tell you anything. Having that background is huge.''
West Virginia offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson and defensive line coach Erik Slaughter previously worked as assistants at Stephen F. Austin, an FCS program in Nacogdoches, Texas. Slaughter also is a former Texas high school coach who spent a year as the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M-Commerce.
Cornerbacks coach Daron Roberts is a former University of Texas student body president who also happens to own a Harvard law degree. Offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh worked at Texas Tech from 2000-06. Co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson is a former Texas and Oklahoma high school coach who spent eight seasons on Tulsa's staff. Defensive coordinator Joe DeForest and running backs coach Robert Gillespie also have Big 12 connections from working alongside Holgorsen at Oklahoma State.
The Texas connections start at the top, as West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck played five years for the NFL's Houston Oilers and went to law school at the University of Texas. Holgorsen noted that Luck wanted to see West Virginia get more active in Texas.
"They've got ties here," said Pearland High coach Tony Heath, whose school produced current West Virginia running back Dustin Garrison. "When you have ties, you have relationships. A lot of coaches here know those guys, know what they do and know what their work ethic is. They feel comfortable in sending kids - if they're going out of state - to that area.''
Of course, getting Texas kids to go out of state isn't easy.
The 2013 class includes 25 Texans who are ranked among the nation's top 200 players. Eighteen of them already have verbally committed, and only two of those 18 players chose out-of-state schools: Cypress Ranch running back Keith Ford opted for Oklahoma and Wichita Falls rider quarterback J.T. Barrett picked Ohio State.
This isn't an unusual development. Sixteen of the top 19 Texas prospects in the Class of 2012 signed with schools in their home state. Then again, this also isn't necessarily a problem for West Virginia, a school that often hits the jackpot with sleeper prospects.
West Virginia likes to capitalize on the fact that Texas schools like to fill up most of their recruiting classes early. Texas A&M already has picked up 15 commitments for the Class of 2013, while Texas has 13 commitments. West Virginia's only two 2013 commitments thus far are from Hermitage (Pa.) Hickory running back DeShawn Coleman and Bloomfield (N.J.) offensive tackle Marcell Lazard.
"Spring recruiting obviously is pretty important in Texas," Holgorsen said. "You look at juniors and you evaluate them in the spring. I don't know what the exact percentage is, but I'd guess about 75-80 percent of recruiting is done based on juniors. Our philosophy is to give kids the opportunity to have great senior years and then evaluate them based on what their senior year is.''
That's how West Virginia got Garrison, who led the Mountaineers in rushing as a true freshman last season. Garrison is listed as 5-foot-9 and 166 pounds. The lack of size and some nagging injuries in his junior season made him a low-profile recruit.
By the time Garrison rushed for 2,842 yards and 46 touchdowns to lead Pearland to a state title his senior year, many schools didn't have any room for him. West Virginia happily signed the two-star recruit, who rushed for 742 yards last season.
"Everybody had recruited their running backs already, and he didn't have the measurables to be an early-offer guy," Holgorsen said. "But based on his production his senior year, it was a no-brainer for me to recruit that kid."
Thompson has a similar story.
The 5-7 receiver didn't put up big numbers his junior year because he played on a team that featured current Illinois running back Donovonn Young and 2013 Rivals250 prospect Adam Taylor in the backfield. After Young left for college and Taylor tore his anterior cruciate ligament early last season, Katy had to throw the ball more often.
Thompson responded by catching 78 passes for 1,171 yards and 15 touchdowns his senior year. The two-star recruit signed with West Virginia and already is off to a fast start based on his spring performance.
West Virginia likely won't be beating out Texas or Texas A&M for in-state recruits anytime soon, but the Mountaineers can still utilize their Lone State State connections to find under-the-radar prospects in this state who can help them contend for Big 12 titles.
So while many of the in-state powers continue to stockpile verbal commitments from the most heralded recruits in Texas, Holgorsen and his assistants will study film of seniors across the state and determine which of them merit late offers.
Maybe they'll find the next Dustin Garrison.