Hafley Hits New Jersey Hard

Sure, Pitt assistant head coach and chief WPIAL recruiter Greg Gattuso might have secured more signees to the Panthers' 2009 recruiting class, but first-year secondary coach Jeff Hafley had New Jersey covered like never before.

At least not for more than two decades. Hafley, who was not eligible to recruit the two previous years as a graduate assistant at Pittsburgh, spent the last year tearing through The Garden State like he owned it. The Panthers signed five recruits from New Jersey high schools on LOI Day, and Hafley's fingerprints were on each one.

"We wanted to emphasize New Jersey a little more this year, and Jeff Hafley did a great job getting recruits from there,'' Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "I'm going to speak at some clinics to continue to try to get the word out about Pitt football, and that's Big East country, too. So, it makes sense for us to hit that area hard.''

When Wannstedt reorganized Pitt's recruiting efforts following the 2007 season, he basically had to because the Panthers had a handful of new coaches on board, Hafley was the logical choice for the New Jersey beat.

"I grew up in New Jersey and played high school football in New Jersey, and I got to know a lot of coaches during that time,'' Hafley said. "Also, while I was at the University of Albany in New York, I recruited in New Jersey for 3-4 years. So, I made some contacts there as well, but when I came here I was off the road for two years.

"I still kept in contact with my friends and the coaches I knew, but it basically was new again for me this past year. And when I had time in the spring, I basically hit the road and went from school to school to get my name back out there and to make Pitt a stronger presence in New Jersey.

"That was my goal going in, to lay down the foundation for what was to come,'' Hafley added, "and the reception Coach Wannstedt and I received was overwhelming. They welcomed us with open arms, and I got in the mix with a lot of good football players. It worked out very well for us this year, but the best is yet to come, I believe, because it's still new for me in the area.''

Hafley's five New Jersey recruits, the most Pitt has signed in one class since the 1980s, included defensive end Bernardo Nunez from Hoboken High School; cornerback Jason Hendricks from Hudson Catholic Regional HS in Jersey City, tailback Raymond Graham from Elizabeth HS, safety Kevin Adams from St. Joseph Regional HS in Montvale and tailback Dion Lewis from Blair Academy in Blairstown. Lewis already is enrolled at Pitt this semester.

Hafley also was in the running to sign defensive tackle and Nunez teammate Isaac Holmes from Hoboken, tight end Malcolm Bush from Hackensack HS and safety Josh Evans from Irvington HS. Holmes and Bush decided to stay home and play for Rutgers, while Evans signed with Florida. But Pitt was a finalist with all three until the last day.

"Everybody knows Pitt football and Coach Wannstedt from the NFL,'' Hafley said. "And the history of Pitt football in that area with Ironhead Heyward, Gerald Hayes, Tony Siragusa, guys like that made it easy. Now, we're getting back in there, and the coaches were very receptive.

"David Walker did a very good job before me, but he had all of New York and parts of Pennsylvania, along with New Jersey. And you can't just dabble in recruiting in New Jersey. But David laid some groundwork, and I tried to pick it up from there. I believe I've done that, but there's more work to do.

"Rutgers has done a nice job keeping the New Jersey kids in state,'' Hafley added, "but it's been my job to go in there and get them to come to Pittsburgh. They know we're very passionate about football in this area, and a lot of those kids want to be part of it.''

Hafley noted that it's not difficult to sell Pitt, especially with former NFL coach Wannstedt as the head coach. Also, the Panthers have a high-profile basketball program that players can watch quite often on television, and the football program was ranked throughout last season on its way to a bowl game.

"New Jersey is similar to Pittsburgh in their dedication to football, and I can relate to them there because it's where I grew up,'' Hafley said. "So, it's not difficult for me to have a conversation with anyone in New Jersey.

"They take a lot of pride in their area, and I do, too. But I tell them it's similar in Pittsburgh, and I can get them to trust me. After you get that, recruiting them is pretty easy. And there's no question that I'm excited about what we have to offer recruits, and New Jersey kids will be a big help to us in the future.''

Pitt has stayed primarily in Pennsylvania with its 2010 offers so far, but the Panthers have told 6-foot-2, 192-pound wideout Shakim Phillips from DePaul Catholic High School in Wayne, N.J. that he has a scholarship available if he wants to commit.

And it's a safe bet that once Hafley gets back out there pounding the pavement, more offers will follow.

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