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March 28, 2012

Battle for the 757: Cavs gain on Hokies

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After growing up in Virginia and coaching in the state for nearly two decades, Virginia's Mike London understands one major task involved in making the Cavaliers ACC title contenders.

Win the battle of 757.

The 757 area code covers the southeastern section of Virginia that includes such cities as Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk and Virginia Beach. That stretch makes up one of the nation's top recruiting hotbeds outside the talent-rich states of Florida, California and Texas.

Over the years, the 757 area has produced the likes of Bruce Smith and Michael Vick. Both those guys played for Virginia Tech, which built itself into one of the nation's most consistent winners by continually finding All-America talent in the Tidewater area.

"Tech built its program with kids from this area," Chesapeake Oscar Smith High School coach Richard Morgan said.

Virginia wants to do the same thing.

As soon as he took over as Virginia's head coach in December 2009, London preached the importance of recruiting the entire state and particularly the towns in that 757 area code.

"Ever since he's been an assistant football coach [at Virginia] and a head coach at Richmond, he's made that area a priority because he knows that area is very fertile," Virginia recruiting coordinator Jeff Hanson said. "That was a huge priority when he came in.''

London's efforts are paying off.

The Cavaliers' 2012 recruiting class included the state's top prospect: Virginia Beach (Va.) Ocean Lakes defensive end Eli Harold. Virginia also landed the state's No. 4 recruit in Norfolk Christian linebacker Kwontie Moore, one of four players from his school to sign with the Cavaliers.

Virginia Tech still had the higher-ranked class. The Hokies ranked 22nd nationally, while Virginia was 27th. But the Cavaliers actually signed 10 players from the 757 area code, whereas Virginia Tech only signed four.

That represents a major change from former Virginia coach Al Groh's approach. Groh, a former New York Jets head coach and longtime NFL assistant, didn't focus on in-state recruits nearly as much.

"[Groh's] first recruiting class was outstanding," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said. "Then he started to focus on the area he knew, which was up north. He did very well in New Jersey, New York and started hitting Pennsylvania. But that allowed Virginia Tech to dominate the state. And when you allow that to occur, it's hard to get it back.''

Virginia Tech has made that particularly tough.

Over the last five years, 68.6 percent of Virginia Tech's recruits have come from the state of Virginia or the District of Columbia. No FBS program outside of Texas, California or Florida has signed a higher percentage of in-state recruits during that stretch.

Just within the last decade, former 757 recruits to earn All-America honors with the Hokies include linebacker Xavier Adibi (Hampton Phoebus), cornerback DeAngelo Hall (Chesapeake Deep Creek), defensive end Darryl Tapp (Chesapeake Deep Creek) and cornerback Jimmy Williams (Hampton Bethel).

According to Virginia Beach Bayside coach Darnell Moore, a recruit from the 757 area five years ago would be four times more likely to pick Virginia Tech over Virginia if he received an offer from both schools. Now Moore believes it's more of a toss-up.

Virginia's 2012 class included 10 players from the 757 area code, including two of the state's top four prospects in Eli Harold and Kwontie Moore. Here's a look at Virginia's 757 contingent.
Jamall BrownWRHampton Two-star
Anthony CooperWRVirginia Beach BaysideThree-star
Kyle DockinsTEVirginia Beach LandstownTwo-star
Mark HallLBVirginia Beach Green RunThree-star
Eli HaroldDEVirginia Beach Ocean LakesFour-star (No. 50)
Kwontie MooreLBNorfolk Christian Four-star (No. 91)
Mario NixonWRNorfolk ChristianThree-star
Wilfred WaheeATHNorfolk Christian Three-star
Divante WalkerRB Virginia Beach SalemTwo-star
Courtnye WynnDENorfolk ChristianThree-star
"You can easily see things have changed," Moore said. "Just look at this past year and the kids who committed to Virginia out of the Tidewater area. ... They made some big inroads since Coach London has taken over. They've really put forth their best effort to forge relationships with all the coaches in the area regardless of whether they have recruits that particular year."

London's local ties have helped.

After graduating from Hampton Bethel, London played defensive back at the University of Richmond, a Virginia school just outside the 757 area. He worked as an assistant at Virginia and led Richmond to an FCS title as the head coach at his alma mater before moving to his current position.

London has a unique background and an outgoing personality that have allowed him to bond with area recruits.

"He just pulled me in," said Harold, the nation's No. 50 overall 2012 recruit. "He reeled me right on in. When we talked, he's a very unique guy. He's a man's man. He's a great guy. He's a man of integrity. He's a humble man. He's so extraordinary."

Harold lost his mother to pancreatic cancer last year. London is a former police officer who once had a gun pointed at him. More recently, London donated bone marrow to a daughter who was diagnosed with Fanconi anemia, a rare inherited blood disorder.

"We talked about his past, my past, what he's been through and what I've been through," Harold said. "We just connected."

London isn't the only person on Virginia's staff with area connections.

Virginia cornerbacks coach and assistant recruiting coordinator Chip West is a Hampton native. Hanson has nearly four decades of coaching experience - mostly in the state of Virginia - and can talk about the time back in the late 1970s that he nearly got a recruit from Williamsburg Lafayette to sign with Richmond. The prospect happened to be Lawrence Taylor.

"We were very, very close," Hanson recalled. "We would have gotten him if [North] Carolina hadn't come in and offered him. He'd come for an official visit. We'd been in his home. It was a deal where really nobody else in the state of Virginia had offered him but us."

Virginia and Virginia Tech now continue to search for the next great player to come out of the 757 area.

Only this year is a little different in that regard. For one thing, many of the top Virginia prospects in the Class of 2013 come from elsewhere in the state. Of the seven Virginia recruits in the Rivals100, Virginia Beach Bayside running back Taquan Mizzell is the only player from a 757 school. Mizzell indicated he grew up a Virginia Tech fan but enjoyed a recent Junior Day visit to Virginia.

Moreover, the top 2013 Virginia prospects seem much more open to leaving the state. Stanford already has verbal commitments from two of the top four prospects in Virginia: Ashburn Stone Bridge quarterback Ryan Burns and Richmond Woodberry Forest linebacker Doug Randolph.

The state's No. 1 recruit is Woodbridge C.D. Hylton linebacker E.J. Levenberry Jr., who seems to favor Florida State and Michigan. The state's No. 3 prospect is Richmond Heritage running back Derrick Green, who also has shown interest in plenty of out-of-state schools. The good news for Virginia and Virginia Tech is that Farrell said the state is as deep as it's been in a decade.

"If you're letting the Levenberrys and Derrick Greens of the world leave - and you already know Burns and Randolph and some of the other guys are leaning out of state as well - it's going to be extra important to keep other kids in state," Farrell said.

But if those top kids from elsewhere in the state are leaving home, that makes it all the more imperative that the Virginia schools keep coming back to Newport News, Virginia Beach, Hampton and the other 757 towns.

Virginia Tech's been doing that successfully for years. Now the Hokies have a little more competition.

"It just felt like this area wasn't a priority [for Virginia] in the past under the old regime," Hampton Phoebus coach Stan Sexton said. "Now it seems to be a priority. I know Tech has made it a priority over the years and has made themselves a perennial top-10, top-15 team every year. And I think UVA now under Coach London is doing the same formula now."

Steve Megargee is the national college columnist for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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