UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — His tie color was a different shade. Otherwise, everything Larry Johnson Sr. did on a visit last month with Good Counsel High School coach Bob Milloy was the same.
Johnson wore his customary black suit over a white button-up — always “dressed to the hilt” — and talked about football, recruits and any other friendly topic that arose.
He would come to as many high schools in Maryland as he could every year regardless of talent level, making connections for Penn State. Or, on this recent trip, in his red tie, for Ohio State.
“He had a presence about him,” Milloy said.
“They lost a good man there.”
Johnson is considered just slightly under royalty in the Mid-Atlantic, and his departure from Penn State to Ohio State is one of several factors influencing recruiting there.
With Johnson, Ohio State can increase its foothold. The Maryland Terrapins, asleep for decades (other than Ralph Friedgen’s tenure), is joining the Big Ten, and Southern schools such as Alabama and Florida State have been more active because of the presence of blue-chip prospects the past two years.
As much as James Franklin’s “Dominate the State” motto has resonated with Penn State fans, and as much as he and his staff stress national recruiting (last week they were in California and Arizona), the Mid-Atlantic beckons as an important battleground 100 miles south of University Park.
“Penn State has the resources and the tradition,” said Michael Clark, a recruiting analyst for Scout.com who covers the Mid-Atlantic.
“The time for them to really make a move is now.”
The Virginia/Maryland/Washington area is not Texas, Florida or California, but the region usually produces around 75 major-conference recruits, a crop that has been particularly strong in recent years.
Virginia has two of the top five players in the country, according to Rivals.com’s rankings, and Maryland and Washington each have one in the top 20.
Of Rivals’ top 250 players, 16 are from the Maryland, Washington and Virginia area.
By comparison, Pennsylvania has four — fewer than Maryland’s six and Virginia’s eight.
Not only did Johnson have strong ties to the area, so did former Penn State linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden.
Seemingly every year their ability to recruit the Mid-Atlantic was reinforced. Last year, Penn State had 17 players from Maryland, Virginia or Washington.
Many of them, such as Christian Hackenberg, Zach Zwinak, Malcolm Willis and Adrian Amos, were among Penn State’s best.
Chasz Wright, an early enrollee this semester, said Johnson was a major influence in getting him to Penn State. The Nittany Lions had stopped recruiting him after a stint in prep school, but his familiarity with Johnson from the past couple of years helped smooth the recruiting process.
“There were several kids who every time they talked about Penn State it was because they were mentioning Larry Johnson and the relationship they had with him,” Clark said. “He really had a knack for identifying with kids.”
Ohio State last year had only one player on its roster from Virginia, Maryland or Washington. Another, from Virginia, has committed to Ohio State as part of its 2014 recruiting class.
While Johnson could help Ohio State establish itself in the East, Maryland poses a more immediate threat.
Scott Kennedy, national recruiting analyst for Scout, said now that realignment is official, beating Maryland for top recruits will be tougher for Penn State given Maryland’s Big Ten status.
Rutgers, also joining the Big Ten this fall, reportedly will hire Friedgen as an offensive coordinator, enhancing its Mid-Atlantic ties, as well.
Penn State, though, has its new coach. It has Franklin, who spent several years as a Maryland assistant and has cultivated ties with appearances in the area — for instance, speaking at Good Counsel’s summer football camps in the past. His Vanderbilt team included three players his staff recruited from Virginia and one from Maryland.
Milloy has coached in Maryland for 44 years. He said the old-time connections or new conference affiliations might not be as important as outsiders believe, considering the decision always comes down to the opinion of a player and his parents.
“How much it really matters I don’t know,” Milloy said. “Because once we introduce them to the parents … then it gets down to who is the best car salesman.”
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.