Recruiting without borders

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Washington State’s Peyton Pelluer runs through drills with his fellow linebackers during a workout this summer. Pelluer, who played high school football at Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash., is one of just 24 players on the Cougars’ roster from the state of Washington — and only five of them are starters.

PULLMAN - In trying to persuade young football players to come to rural, cozy Pullman, Washington State football recruiters are still reciting many of the same selling points they've been reciting for decades: a family atmosphere, a safe environment, strong academic support.

But now they're more likely to do this reciting in California or elsewhere than in Washington.

Coming off three straight bowl bids and continually expanding their recruiting footprint under seventh-year coach Mike Leach, the Cougars this season have only 24 Washingtonians on their roster, down 13 from last year and probably one of their lowest totals ever. Of the 24, only five are starters.

During their 2002 Rose Bowl season, by contrast, they had 70 in-state players. Since then, they've endured some extremely lean times, hired a high-profile coach and recast many of their methods, on and off the field.

The trend will be evident when spectators scan the rosters for an intrastate duel Saturday (5 p.m., Pac-12 Networks) at Martin Stadium. The Cougars' FCS opponent, Eastern Washington, has 82 in-state players.

The Cougs have long scoured California for recruits, especially at the skill positions. "We like to say that the heart and soul of this football team is from the state of Washington," then-coach Mike Price said two decades ago. "But the arms and legs are from California."

Now there are more of those arms and legs. When Leach was hired late in 2011, he wanted to establish a recruiting base where he could collect as many commitments as possible before signing day in February 2012. He chose Southern California, and made a decent haul there. Since then, he has only increased his focus on that area, as well as other parts of the state. This year's roster includes 42 players from Cali.

At the same time, he has revisited some of the regions that served him well during his decade at Texas Tech.

"The success we've had the last few years, the national exposure, has kind of caused us to branch out a little bit," said WSU football chief of staff Dave Emerick, a longtime Leach aide who oversees his recruiting. "The last few years we've gotten more into Florida, we've gone back into Texas a little bit. Then if a kid reaches out and is interested in us, from basically any part of the United States, we'll reciprocate the interest and work on forming a relationship."

In the process of branching out, Leach has de-emphasized in-state recruiting. Previous coaches briefly went in a similar direction. Jim Walden's 1981 roster included only 36 Washingtonians. Price's 1993 club had just 29. But more often the figure has been in the 50s or higher.

Essentially, Leach has decided to pursue, say, a 3- to 4-star prospect from California rather than a possibly lower-rated athlete from the Evergreen State. As for the highly regarded Washington prospects, many of them are doing what they've often done. They're staying on the west side of the Cascades and joining the Huskies rather than crossing the state and playing at isolated Wazzu. The University of Washington roster this year includes 51 in-state players.

"We try to recruit the state as best we can," Emerick said, "and we offer a bunch of kids from the state. A lot of times the west-side kids that we go against the Huskies for - it's tough, because the Huskies are right there. A lot of them grew up being Husky fans. So that's been a little bit of a challenge, going head-to-head against them. But we've had success with guys who are kind of underrecruited for whatever reason - the Cole Madisons, the Andre Dillards. There's a bunch of guys from the state that just took a little longer to develop that we've had success with.

"Obviously, with some of the positions, we can be more national," he said, alluding to Leach's Air Raid offense. "Receivers obviously want to come here. Quarterbacks obviously want to come here."

Mike Walker, a former WSU assistant coach who worked for both Price and Bill Doba, said Leach probably uses a sales pitch similar to that of his predecessors. But he's got more to sell - such as the plush football-operations building whose advent coincided with Leach's hiring.

"Shoot, we didn't have the facilities they have now," Walker said. "It's totally different. It makes it a little bit easier to get a kid from California or Arizona or wherever."

It isn't just players who are traveling longer distances to get to Pullman. When Walker was coaching here, he was one of several WSU alumni on the coaching staff. Now there's none. Also, none of Leach's assistants is originally from Washington. Of the 27 primary members of his overall staff, only three are from the state.

Oregon, another school without a vast talent pool in its backyard, has also expanded its footprint over the years. The Ducks have only 20 in-state players this season. But every other Pac-12 school exceeds Oregon and WSU in that category. Oregon State has 28 in-state players, Stanford 29, Utah 38, Arizona State and Colorado 45 each, Arizona 53, USC 62, California 74 and UCLA 77.

It's easy to look at all these numbers and theorize. As the Cougars have lowered their profile in the Washington recruiting scene, the Huskies' on-field product has taken one of its periodic upturns, all the way to the College Football Playoff in 2016. On the FCS level, Eastern Washington continues to prosper. Between them, the Huskies and Eagles are 6-0 over the Cougars the past five years.

Are these schools capitalizing a bit on Washington State's diverted attention?

"I don't think it makes a huge difference with UW, because they recruit pretty nationally as well," Emerick said. "But, yeah, Eastern probably benefits from us expanding our search a little bit."

Jay Dumas, a WSU receiver in the 1990s who now coaches that position for Eastern Washington, agrees the Eagles might be benefiting to some degree. But he points out the complicated metrics of recruiting.

"Boise State, the University of Washington, the Pac-12 - everyone is (recruiting) in the state of Washington," Dumas said. "Just because Washington State isn't recruiting the state as heavily as they used to does not necessarily mean that we're not in a dogfight for players in the state.

"It certainly doesn't make our job easier in terms of the in-state recruiting. But there are some guys that we can continue to recruit because WSU doesn't. I think that's where we're at in 2018. It's little bit different. I think it's good for both schools."

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Grummert may be contacted at daleg@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2290.

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