Matt Freed, Post-Gazette illustrationLeading the receiving revolution in Western Pennsylvania high school football. Front row; Jon Ditto, Gateway, Nick Sukay, Greensburg Central Catholic, Tim Cortazzo, Penn Trafford. Back row; Derek Moye, Rochester, Toney Clemons, Valley, Fitzgerald Bobo, Duquesne, Dom DeCicco, Thomas Jefferson.
These are changing times in Western Pennsylvania. Nowadays, when college coaches come looking for some of the top high school football talent in the area, they see a "show of hands?"
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Western Pennsylvania has a large senior crop of receivers who are being recruited by Division I colleges. It's making many scratch their head, trying to figure out why WPIAL football has, all of a sudden, started to "catch on."
"I've been saying to people that I don't remember a time with this many top-notch Division I receivers," said Pitt assistant coach Greg Gattuso.
Gattuso would know. He played in the WPIAL at Seton-LaSalle (1980 graduate) and coached at Seton-LaSalle in the late '80s and early '90s. Part of his job at Pitt now is to recruit some areas of the WPIAL.
This area has always been known for producing great quarterbacks. A number of standout linebackers have come through the WPIAL. And the league has produced talented offensive linemen and defensive backs at various times, and a good running back here and there.
But receiver? Most years, the talent pool barely comes up to the knees. Consider: The class of 2003 had one receiver sign with a Division I college. The class of '02 had three and the class of '01 three.
Go back 20 years and the dearth of receivers is still evident. In the class of 1986, the only receiver to sign with a Division I school was Ambridge's Joel Delai (Memphis State).
But this year, the WPIAL talent pool is eight or nine deep. A few of the top prospects play other offensive positions as well as receiver, and a few might end up at a different position other than receiver in college.
But for the most part, they are known as good hands people.
And some of the receivers are not just your "pretty good" prospects, either. One scouting service, rivals.com, ranks three WPIAL receivers among the top 25 in the country. They are Greensburg Central Catholic's Nick Sukay (No. 11), Valley's Toney Clemons (20) and Gateway's Jon Ditto (23). Clemons is ranked as high as No. 10 in the country by scout.com.
"I think this state has always been known for teams that run the ball," Clemons said. "Our class in this area is changing that reputation."
Gattuso said: "I've even talked to some guys who have been around for a while and they don't remember having this many receivers. It's definitely an unusual time."
Who are they?
Two of the top WPIAL receivers already have made verbal commitments to Penn State. They are Ditto (6 feet 4, 221 pounds) and Sukay (6-2, 200). It's not totally certain whether Sukay will play receiver at Penn State, and Ditto could end up as an H-back or tight end.
Penn State also is one of three finalists for Rochester's Derek Moye (6-5, 185). The others are Pitt and Boston College. Moye also plays running back at Rochester, but all colleges are recruiting him as a receiver.
Clemons (6-2, 190) is a receiver all the way. He and Moye also are track and field standouts. But unlike Moye, Clemons has not narrowed his list of colleges. Pitt, West Virginia and Michigan are among the schools that have offered him scholarships.
Thomas Jefferson's Dom DeCicco (6-3, 205) has played receiver in the past for the Jaguars, but this season he will play mostly quarterback, and some at receiver. DeCicco made a verbal commitment to Pitt in June, turning down offers from Arizona State, Georgia Tech and Indiana, among others. It's not certain if he will play receiver or defensive back for Pitt, but he has made a mark at receiver. Last year, he averaged more than 20 yards a catch.
Penn-Trafford's Cortazzo (6-1, 185) and Duquesne's Fitzgerald Bobo (6-5, 205) are two other receivers who have Division I scholarship offers. Cortazzo has offers from Akron and Temple, while Bobo is being courted by Temple.
Also, North Hills slotback Mike Rainey-Wiles has a couple offers from Mid-American Conference schools. Jared Williams (5-9, 180) of Perry, a City League school, committed to Pitt this spring but changed his mind and opened up his recruiting. Other Division I schools are interested.
And you can throw Erie Strong Vincent's Maurice Williams (6-0, 185) into the mix of Division I receiver prospects from Western Pennsylvania. He plays quarterback at Strong Vincent, a District 10 school, but colleges want him as a receiver. Super Prep ranks him the No. 12 receiver in the country and Pitt, Penn State West Virginia and Michigan State are his finalists.
Why the rise?
The upswing in Western Pennsylvania receiver talent actually started last year when a half dozen players from the WPIAL signed with Division I colleges.
Some believe the better receiving talent might be only a cyclical thing. Others believe it's simply a sign of the times.
"Everything filters down from the colleges and pros and you know coaches are all copycats," said Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who has recruited Western Pennsylvania for decades. "Teams are throwing the ball more, spreading out offenses and more receivers are developing.
"But things go in cycles. Watch defenses start figuring out how to defend the spread offenses and you'll probably see people go back to the 'I' formation."
Bradley also feels offseason workouts at Western Pennsylvania high schools have something to do with the increase in receiver talent.
"There are so many more 7-on-7 passing leagues, and kids are throwing the ball more than ever before," Bradley said. "It's like summer basketball leagues. So everyone becomes proficient at throwing and catching the ball."
Gattuso said: "The only thing I can think of that makes sense out of this is Western Pennsylvania high schools have been a little slower in embracing the passing game. Now, they are and receivers are developing.
"Plus, I think now teams aren't just putting their best athletes at tailback. They're not afraid to put a great athlete at receiver."
Clemons is a good example. He used to play running back until he got to junior high. "There wasn't a spot for me at running back because the coaches said I was too tall. They said I had all the makings for a receiver. I didn't mind the switch. Receiver is more of a game-breaking position."
In a strange way, glamour might also be a reason for the upswing in receiver talent. Young athletes don't seem to mind playing the position because they get to touch the ball.
"Playing wideout now has kind of become the 'in' thing to do," Bradley said. "At a lot of places, it's not like the old days of high school football when all receivers did was block and run in plays from the sideline. Now, they're an integral part of the offense."
And a big part of Western Pennsylvania's talent pool.
Mike White can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1975.