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ODU expects to land its biggest and best class
ODU expects to land its biggest and best class

Bobby Wilder was in his office at 6 the morning after Old Dominion lost in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, preparing for a series of meetings - and two months of recruiting hell.

He met with his players, saying goodbye to nearly a dozen seniors. He then met individually with coaches, including one he had fired. He called it "a heartbreaking day."

At 2 p.m., Chris Crouch, ODU's director of football operations, drove him home. His wife met him at the door, with bags packed for a week. By 3:30 p.m., he was on a flight to San Francisco and a week that would take him to California, Texas, Iowa and Kansas.

Thus began a two-month odyssey for Wilder and his staff that culminates today when ODU expects to sign the biggest and best recruiting class in its short football history.

ODU hopes to sign 22 high school and junior college players today, national signing day. They would join the seven junior college and four high school players who enrolled in January.

Generally, NCAA rules limit schools to signing 25 recruits in any given year. Because ODU is transitioning to the Football Bowl Subdivision, it could sign as many as 41 in this class.

"This is the best recruiting class, by far, from top to bottom, I've been associated with in 25 years of coaching," Wilder said. "But it has yet to be determined whether they will be successful in Conference USA.

"It's an unusual year. This is not the norm. You're talking about 33 new players in our program. That's a big number."

While FCS schools are limited to 63 scholarship players, ODU can have up to 85 as an FBS school.

To find more players capable of playing in Conference USA, ODU expanded its recruiting horizon beyond the areas it has typically mined: Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland.

ODU expects to sign the program's first two Floridians today. Coaches also went to Texas and garnered a commitment from quarterback Shane McCarley, named the Metro Player of the Year by the Houston Touchdown Club. In all, the Monarchs have commitments from five Texans, and a sixth - Dallas receiver Keshawn Henderson - could come today.

ODU had success in the Northeast - six players from New Jersey and four from New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., committed.

ODU's location just 35 minutes from the Oceanfront has helped.

"When you mention Virginia Beach to a kid from the Northeast, that gets his attention," Wilder said.

ODU entered its first FBS recruiting year with significant handicaps. Because the school announced in May it was moving to C-USA, Wilder and his staff were forced to change course in midstream. Coaches ceased recruiting dozens of FCS-level players and set their sights higher.

ODU is handicapped by the fact that it is recruiting FBS players with FCS facilities. Foreman Field seats 20,068 and the school isn't sure how to expand the stadium. The L.R. Hill football complex is state of the art for the FCS, but doesn't compare with facilities in the ACC and Big East.

ODU is also ineligible for postseason play next season, and coaches used that to recruit against ODU, Wilder said.

In recent weeks, four recruits de-committed and cast their lots with Cincinnati, Temple, Syracuse and UNC Charlotte.

"During the last couple of weeks, we got beat for some recruits who made it clear that they like another school because they have better facilities," Wilder said. "That's not a complaint; it's reality. I know it's going to get better, but it's going to take time."

ODU also appears to have won some key recruiting victories. McCarley, for example, spurned a late offer from Houston. Junior college running back Cam Boyd rejected offers from Memphis and Middle Tennessee.

"We didn't lose anyone because we were outworked," Wilder said.

Yet, all of the travel, phone calls to high school coaches, time spent evaluating tape and late-night phone calls to recruits weighed on Wilder and his staff.

"I had to ask myself and the staff almost every day, how much more can we do?" Wilder said.

Wilder received a huge helping hand in recent weeks from Stephen Ballard, the Virginia Beach developer for whom S.B. Ballard Stadium at Foreman Field is named.

Ballard offered the use of his private plan for up to 25 hours of flight time, with this charge, according to Wilder: "Go get us a defense."

From Jan. 21 through Feb. 1, Wilder flew from Florida to New York, stopping in North Carolina and South Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey.

"I saw results in the eyes of recruits when I told them that I'd flown by private jet just to see them," Wilder said. "Nothing says big-time football like a private jet.

On Jan. 31, Wilder flew "Ballard Air" - as the logo on the side of the plane reads - from Trenton, N.J., to Greensboro, N.C., back to Norfolk and then to New York City, all in 10 hours.

"That's not possible flying commercial. I wouldn't even try it," Wilder said.

"We probably have the largest Division I recruiting class in the country. I'm not getting to all of these prospects without the use of a private plane."

It's difficult to say how ODU's recruiting class stacks up. Some recruiting services don't yet recognize ODU as an FBS program. Rivals.com, the premiere online recruiting site, doesn't list ODU in its FBS rankings.

But ESPN's ratings of recruits would indicate ODU has done well. It has 12 players ranked as three- or two-star recruits.

Of the teams that will be in Conference USA when ODU joins in 2014, only Marshall also has 12.

"They have gone under the radar, but I really like this ODU class so far," Bob Lichtenfels, who works for 247 Sports, posted on Twitter this week. "They are going to be an issue in Conference USA in a very short period of time."

ODU has far to go catch the power schools. Of Virginia Tech's 22 recruits, 11 are four-star recruits and 11 are three-stars. ODU has yet to beat the Hokies, Virginia or North Carolina for a recruit.

But that day is coming, Wilder said.

"The reality is that we got beat on some kids and we'll continue to get beat on some kids based on who we're trying to compete with," he said. "But we're not trying to take a back seat to anyone. We're going after the very best kids that we can."

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