Maryland-Rutgers Goes Beyond Win-Loss Column
He picked Maryland, but it didn't stop Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, who convinced Oquendo to take an official visit to RU after he had made his pledge.
"Thirty minutes from home. The Big East is getting better," Schiano told him. "And you're definitely going to play as soon as you get here."
Still, though, it was Rutgers -- a program mired in the lowest ranks of college football, its only bowl appearance coming nine years before Oquendo was even born. Oquendo summed up the state of the Rutgers program, circa 2004: "I don't even think you could call it a state."
How quickly things have changed.
Rutgers is the No. 10 team in the country. There's a ‘state' of the Rutgers program now, just as there's a state gorged with football talent that Schiano is trying to solidify on the recruiting trail: New Jersey. The Garden State seems to harvest a new crop of highly sought talent every year.
One of Rutgers' primary competitors for that talent is Maryland, which visits Rutgers Saturday, bringing with it the prizes of Jersey recruiting battles past. It's a game that has implications beyond the win-loss column, rippling down to the high schools from which both competitors will search for future football stars, undoubtedly crossing paths all along the way.
2001: A Jersey Odyssey
Through the 1990s, the two programs mirrored each other: Maryland had 38 wins in the decade and Rutgers had 37, both paltry averages of less than four wins a year. Both programs failed to consistently land the top players out of New Jersey. For Maryland, it wasn't even a focus.
That surprised Ralph Friedgen, who was shocked at how few Jersey kids there were on the roster when he took over as Maryland's head coach in 2001. For as long as he could remember in his time at Maryland—as a player in the 60s and an assistant coach in the mid-80s—there had been plenty of New Jersey Terps.
"Maryland didn't have a big presence in New Jersey for whatever reason, I don't know why," said defensive line coach Dave Sollazzo, a native of Harrison, N.Y., located just outside New Jersey, who came with Friedgen to Maryland in 2001.
"That was our priority when we came back here because there's good football in New Jersey and there's a lot of good football players and they take it very seriously there."
At the same time, Schiano, a New Jersey native, took the helm at Rutgers. He had been the defensive coordinator at Miami the previous two years, and took with him up north his Florida connections. He loaded his early Rutgers teams with players from the Sunshine State —not a bad strategy, considering the unmatched abundance of talent there.
There's still a strong Florida presence on his team—19 players this year—but Schiano is focusing more on recruiting what he dubbed the "State of Rutgers," which, he says encompasses the entire state of New Jersey, along with New York and some of Pennsylvania. It has a radius of about a 4-to-5-hour drive with Piscataway at the center. He's localized RU's recruiting, and it's paid major dividends.
"I think it's a program that kids really want to stay home now for," said Piscataway High head coach Dan Higgins, who is in his 17th year at the school and has players at both Rutgers and Maryland.
"You get a sense that right now there's a lot of pride in the state. You don't have to go too far to see a Rutgers magnet or a Rutgers flag. And every newspaper on the front page every single day is Rutgers football articles. Right now I think you're getting a real, real exposure to the Rutgers program and it's a big time program," Higgins said.
Maryland has made major inroads in the state as well since Friedgen's arrival. This season, Maryland has 15 New Jersey players on the roster, including two starters (Oquendo and defensive tackle Carlos Feliciano), four more players listed at No. 2 on the depth chart at their respective positions (running back Lance Ball, offensive lineman Phil Costa, wide receiver Isaiah Williams and linebacker Rick Costa) and one who figured to be on the two-deep before he suffered a season-ending knee injury (linebacker Alex Wujciak).
"[Maryland has] established themselves in New Jersey, but to me right now, New Jersey seems like Rutgers' domain," Higgins said. "It seems like they have a stronger blanket on New Jersey. But as far as out of state schools, Maryland does very well here."
It's becoming harder, though, for Maryland to take who it wants in the state. It was never necessarily easy—"Everybody's in there [recruiting]," Friedgen said—but with Rutgers' success the last two years, staying home is becoming an attractive option for Jersey kids.
Take, for example, Rashad White, a senior running back at Teaneck High, who committed to Rutgers over offers from Maryland and several other big-name schools. White's friend and mentor of sorts, Teaneck alum Lance Ball, didn't have the option of staying home and playing for a contender when he was being recruited.
"If they were winning a little bit more," Ball told The Bergen Record Thursday, "I probably would have gone to Rutgers."
That option was available to White and the rest of the top players in the state.
"I guess people around the tri-state [area] and in New Jersey, they're starting to realize that if you stay home they have a lot of talent and can beat a lot of schools," White said. "I think that's what a lot of kids are starting to look at and starting to do."
"It's tough for us because obviously they're playing very well now," Sollazzo said. "And it used to not be that way but now [Schiano's] made my job a lot harder."
‘In the eye of the beholder'
White was recruited heavily by both schools. Rutgers offered him after a seven-on-seven camp the summer before his sophomore year, and Maryland wasn't far behind. It wasn't a difficult decision to recruit him—White has rushed for nearly 4,000 yards since his sophomore year, relying mostly on the sort of blazing speed that makes college recruiters drool.
There have been several ‘can't-miss' Jersey recruits that both schools have pursued heavily in recent years, such as Oquendo, Ball, Wujciak, Maryland freshman wide receiver Tony Logan and Rutgers' freshman offensive lineman Anthony Davis, to name a few. But there have also been those in the state that only attracted attention from only one of the schools.
"Some of those guys [who went to Maryland] we wanted and we offered scholarships to and recruited hard and some we didn't," Schiano said. "Everybody sees guys differently."
One such player is Isaiah Williams, a Montclair, N.J., native who was never recruited heavily by Rutgers, but was one of Maryland's headline wide receiver commits in 2005.
The same goes for the three Maryland natives on Rutgers' roster—walk-on quarterback Andrew DePaola (Hereford), safety Joe Lefeged (Northwest) and fullback Jourdan Brooks (Seneca Valley). None was recruited by Maryland.
"I read the article about what Greg said and he's absolutely right," Sollazzo said. "Beauty's in the eye of the beholder."
The ‘Goombah' and the Jersey connection
The New Jersey football player is a different breed, they say. The coaches, too, are unique. They have a blue-collar, no-nonsense, straight-to-the-point rashness about them that few people can relate to, Friedgen said.
One such person is Sollazzo, who lives just across the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey. He's been described as ‘leather-lunged,' and even during a relaxed interview his voice resonates throughout the room. If he's not screaming, he's not on the football field. He is the New Jersey football persona.
"I think Sollazzo is the perfect guy to recruit up there," Friedgen said. "I think he fits in very, very well. He's a Goombah and everybody likes him."
Sollazzo is Maryland's recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach. His main recruiting area is eastern New York and northern New Jersey, the terrain for which Friedgen was responsible as a Maryland assistant in the mid-80s.
When Sollazzo first walked through the high school doors in northern Jersey that Friedgen walked through nearly 20 years ago, the long-time coaches made the connection and asked about Friedgen. The impression the two have made there has had a huge impact on Maryland's ability to pluck talent.
"[Sollazzo] knows how to talk about things that exist here," Higgins said. "They have a rapport. There's no doubt that he's a Jersey guy and he can speak about Jersey football and he knows about Jersey football. It definitely helps. It's a one-hundred percent guarantee that it helps."
"I know the area and I know the climate, so to speak, and so I really enjoy recruiting up there," Sollazzo said.
The Jersey connection is something Rutgers has as well. Schiano made a point of building his staff with coaches who grew up in the state and can recruit there. Five assistant coaches on the Rutgers staff are from New Jersey.
Tolls, gas and a ticket
Why is recruiting in New Jersey so important to Maryland and Rutgers? Well, the obvious answer for both would be there are good football players there. And for Rutgers, it's the home state; In the recruiting war, you must protect your borders. But what about Maryland?
There's the aforementioned connection Friedgen and Sollazzo share with the area, but it also as much to do with the preferences of kids in New Jersey as it does with Maryland's preferences.
Almost all points in New Jersey are no more than a four-hour drive to Maryland, depending on traffic. The distance is perfect: players can get away from home, and their parents can see them play without devoting a whole weekend and spending hundreds of dollars on travel.
"I think we're always going to do very well in New Jersey because of the proximity to Maryland and [because] the kids like getting away from home a little bit," Sollazzo said.
"It's a tremendous commute," Friedgen said. "People can come down and see their kid play and go back in the same day and don't have to spend money for a hotel room or flight. It's just the tolls and the gas and a ticket to get in."
It's the same principle that Schiano is aiming for with his "State of Rutgers" campaign. Neither Maryland nor Rutgers are national recruiting powers, so the next best thing is to create a drivable perimeter around each school's campus and lock that down. Schiano is returning the favor by beginning to focus on —being careful not to say "annex," especially during the week of the game -- Maryland as an extension of his recruiting radius.
"There's a large population base in the Baltimore and Washington area," Schiano said. "We're a logical choice--a short trip up 95."
Oquendo will finally make his return home Saturday. He will return to Rutgers Stadium, the place where he watched his uncle, a wide receiver for Rutgers in the 90s, play for a program going nowhere. He returns to the place where Schiano pitched him a vision that seemed so far-fetched. It was just Rutgers, college football's perennial punch line.
Never did Oquendo foresee where the school in Piscataway is today, a top-10 team favored over Maryland by nearly 20 points. Had that been the case when he was in high school, his choice may have been different.
The outcome of Saturday's game could will affect many of the recruits watching in person and on television. Though White said it might not matter for some players, the game has major implications for others.
"I got to say this Saturday will be a big game for the recruiting class," he said. "Whoever wins it will make a big statement for the whole tri-state area."
Sollazzo said it depends on the kid—some are swayed by results, some make decisions based on where they feel comfortable. Whatever the case, though, he doesn't deny the importance of leaving a lasting impression in North Jersey.
"Obviously [a win] helps, there's no doubt about that," he said. "Anytime you can have bragging rights it's going to help."
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