CHARLOTTE — Inviting a boss to spend several hours in the rain on a windy winter day isn’t generally the best plan for earning brownie points with the person responsible for signing the checks.
But that’s precisely what N.C. State football coach Dave Doeren did early in his tenure in Raleigh because, well, he needed someone to sign a check.
Looking back, Doeren remembers watching his players shiver as they went through an offseason workout with Athletics Director Debbie Yow standing on the sideline, her umbrella turned inside-out in the driving rain.
Knowing his boss was looking on, Doeren had players finish with a little fun — sliding on their bellies — to make light of the situation before he approached Yow.
“I said, ‘Now you understand why we need an indoor (facility),’” Doeren said last week. “How are we supposed to get faster, stronger, change direction, and what if I had a recruit here today?
“She said, ‘We’ve got to go see the CFO and get this thing moved up.’ ... To her credit, we went over there and Charlie (Leffler) listened to what we said.”
That rainy day is one of the most important victories of Doeren’s career, as the Close-King Indoor Practice Facility was fast-tracked to open in the summer of 2015. The facility, which was privately funded at a cost of $14 million, has given the Wolfpack a boost both on the field and on the recruiting trail, where State is dominating in-state ACC programs in having secured commitments from 13 of the state’s top 50 players in the class of 2019.
A way to close the gap
Close-King didn’t turn the tide overnight for State, but rather, helped tie everything together as the Wolfpack looks to take the next step as a program.
Doeren believes that elite high school players want three things when evaluating college choices.
“They want to win, they want to go to the NFL, and they want to be somewhere they can have a life after football,” he said. “Having that facility helps us develop them into NFL players. Right now, it’s hitting; all these guys wanting to stay home. Why? We just had the most players drafted in the NFL. Why? Because we can develop players. Why? Because we have a facility to develop players. It’s impossible; we wouldn’t be where we’re at right now without that building; there’s no way.”
Momentum started building last year on the recruiting trail with a class that 247 Sports ranked 25th nationally. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack was 6-1 before two games that drew a national spotlight at Notre Dame and against Clemson, and State ultimately finished 9-4 with a victory in the Sun Bowl.
Perhaps most importantly, recruits saw Bradley Chubb chosen fifth in the NFL Draft followed by six more State players.
Put that all together, and State is seeing the fruit of its labor.
“It’s a combination of things,” said 247 Sports recruiting analyst Michael Clark. “Look at last year, they finished in the top 25 and you follow that up with a top-25 recruiting class … nine-win season, just kind of a perfect storm.”
That storm is blowing through, just like the gusts that nearly took down Yow’s umbrella that day, with five of the state’s top 20 prospects having committed to State since June 13.
‘They want in-state kids’
East Forsyth safety Khalid Martin, ranked No. 18 in the state, is the most recent to join the bunch, announcing his decision July 10 to play at State over Appalachian State, Virginia, Virginia Tech and West Virginia.
From the start of Martin’s recruitment, East Forsyth coach Todd Willert felt a new emphasis from the State staff on keeping top talent at home.
“They’ve set up a thing where they want in-state kids,” Willert said. “That’s one of their main focuses. From some of their coaches, they get tired of our top players getting out of state and going to play in the SEC or other schools.
“It’s something N.C. State hadn’t really done before, and they made a push and they’ve made the North Carolina high school head coaches feel important.”
Willert, who coached the West team in the N.C. Coaches Association East-West All-Star football game, said State’s emergence was a hot topic among coaches in Greensboro for the annual coaching clinic.
“(State’s) coaches stay in contact with me, which they don’t have to do,” Willert said. “It wasn’t always about Khalid; they asked me about other things. … If I had a football question, I called them and they answered me. Sometimes, Division I coaches only want to talk to certain coaches when you have a kid they want.”
Wolfpack nickels coach Aaron Henry is responsible for recruiting in the Triad, having built a strong reputation since joining the State staff in January 2017. A former defensive back at Wisconsin, Henry played for Doeren and became known for his fiery pregame speeches last season.
“I can’t say enough about him, and I think their mentality about how to recruit has changed in the fact that they show kids they just want them to be successful,” Willert said. “It ain’t just about football; it’s more family-oriented. They made Khalid’s mom and dad feel good.”
Whether it’s football or life, the recruiting analyst Clark said, the State coaches are selling the right culture.
“Big-time recruits want honesty,” he said. “They want to know where they stand, they don’t want to be promised anything. When you’re getting recruited and you’re a four- or five-star guy, everybody is telling how great you are, more times than not. State is selling competition. That’s something that appeals to guys.”
Recruiting and rivals
In the hyper-partisan Triangle, one program’s recruiting success could be another team’s failure with little in-between.
With Carolina currently 11th in the ACC recruiting rankings, some fans are concerned with State’s success, despite the Tar Heels finishing with the most highly ranked recruiting classes among in-state schools for the past 10 years.
Clark said Carolina hasn’t dropped the ball on the recruiting trail; it’s just the nature of the game after a 3-9 season.
“They just had a rough season last year and State has done a really, really good job in this recruiting cycle and the last recruiting cycle,” he said.
One high school coach, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, echoed sentiments expressed by others in the Triad in discussing concerns about the Tar Heels’ presence in the state.
“It’s been tough, from a lot of the coaches I’ve talked to,” he said. “Nobody has really seen North Carolina in their schools; they’re not banging the doors down. They’re not really coming after our in-state kids like in the past years and past head coaches. At one time, that was the football school in our state and when you went to coaching clinics, that’s where you went.”
In addition, Carolina lost top recruiter Gunter Brewer, who was responsible for recruiting the Charlotte area, to the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Brewer is such a cool coach, a cool recruiter,” Carolina receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams said. “That’s kind of what made me consider Carolina in the first place, and when I came up, that was icing on the cake.
“He was a great coach, and we replaced him with a great coach, but we’re going to miss Coach Brewer and the energy he brought and the vibes he brought to the locker room and the person he is.”
Carolina coach Larry Fedora pointed to the years-long NCAA investigation that hung over the school as one reason that the Tar Heels have looked out of state more, with just 38 in-state players on the roster in comparison to State’s 61.
Despite the need to look elsewhere, he said, that hasn’t changed the importance of recruiting at home.
“We still have to be successful in the state of North Carolina because there are so many good players in the state of North Carolina,” Fedora said. “In the first four or five years I was here, it was much more difficult in the state of North Carolina because of what was hanging over our head at that time. I anticipate that improving as we go. ... It really was difficult, for whatever reason. Those guys got to see negative stuff (reported by journalists) every day; guys from out of state didn’t, so it was less of a problem for them than it was for the guys in-state. ”
Page coach Jared Rolfes pushed back on the assertion that Carolina isn’t as focused on players at home.
“Their staff does a really good job,” he said. “(Offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic) is an excellent recruiter for our area; he’s recruited several of our guys I’ve worked with. ... I’ve got a lot of respect for coach Kap, in particular, and the staff as a whole.”
Next: Keep the best in N.C.
Regardless of whether State is facing much in-state resistance, it appears it’s the Wolfpack’s turn on top. Whether that’s a one-season run or the start of a successful recruiting run such as Carolina’s remains to be seen. Time is another important element in recruiting. Doeren will have more of it, thanks to a contract extension he signed in December.
“That’s what we’ve been grinding to get to and that doesn’t happen overnight because the coaches in this state didn’t know me when I got here,” he said. “I had to prove myself to them. I had to build relationships, I had to coach some of their players and treat them right and take care of them, and that happens over time.”
With the right amount of time, Willert says, State has all of the ingredients to begin building something special and keep some of those top-ranked players — often headed for Clemson or the SEC — at home.
“If they keep getting better, which (State) is going to, in a couple years (the story) will be four- and five-star guys,” he said. “I can go be on national TV, playing for national championships and playing in my own state. The product, the fields and the facilities are great there at N.C. State. Realistically, some of these in-state schools are going to start pulling four- and five-star players.”