When Darrell Givens and Malcolm Willis of Charles County gave verbal commitments to play football for Penn State, they knew they would have much work ahead of them.
The first assignment of the two Lackey seniors: get on their cell phones and try to lure some potential teammates to join them in Happy Valley.
"I talked to [Good Counsel's] Jelani [Jenkins] once, and he sounded real interested, but he told me he wasn't ready to make a decision quite yet," Givens said. "I called [Dunbar's] Tavon [Austin]; he didn't pick up, but me and Malcolm are trying to call him again. There are a lot of guys on our radar that we're trying to lock up as Penn State commits right now."
Maryland has been fertile recruiting ground for the Nittany Lions. They've received oral commitments from six Maryland football players for the class of 2009. Along with Givens, ranked as a four-star defensive back by recruitment sites Rivals.com and Scout.com, and Willis, ranked as a three-star safety by the two sites, Penn State has gotten commitments from Eleanor Roosevelt defensive backs Stephon Morris and Derrick Thomas, Oxon Hill wide receiver Brandon Felder, and Gaithersburg defensive end Sean Stanley, ranked as a four-star recruit by the two online scouting outfits.
Penn State has won most of the recruiting battles against the University of Maryland this year. Of the Nittany Lions' six Maryland commitments, Felder, Givens, Stanley and Thomas also held offers from Maryland.
"What Maryland needs to do is refocus their efforts in-state," said Mike Farrell, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "Everyone needs to step up their efforts. Penn State has won, has a very tremendous fan base and great facilities. Maryland has been up and down, has a good fan base and doesn't have the same facilities. They have to work harder to keep kids in-state and to get them away from Penn State."
Thus far, Maryland has seven in-state commitments. Of the seven, only Forestville defensive end DeOnte Arnett - a four-star recruit on Rivals.com and Scout.com - was offered by Penn State.
The Terps and the Nittany Lions are among dozens of college programs fighting to land commitments from Good Counsel's Jenkins and Dunbar's Austin, who are considered the two best high school players in the state. Jenkins is a five-star linebacker recruit and ranked No. 1 at his position on Rivals.com; he is also a five-star recruit and ranked No. 2 at his position on Scout.com. Austin is a four-star running back/wide receiver who is ranked No. 11 at his position on Rivals.com and is a five-star recruit and ranked No. 6 at his position on Scout.com.
Both players have said they won't choose a school until their senior season starts.
The main reason Penn State has had such success in Maryland is defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr., who coached at McDonough for 19 years. His approach, along with his contacts, have enabled him to swoop up recruits below the Pennsylvania line.
"Kids really relate to him, high school coaches like him a lot and kids look at him like a father figure," said Bob Lichtenfels, a regional manager for Scout.com. "He still has some great in-roads in Maryland, probably some better than the coaching staff at Maryland."
Johnson's positive, straight-forward approach, also has resonated with high school coaches.
"He doesn't put down other schools, doesn't discuss other schools; he just talks about what Penn State has to offer and their plans for the kids," said Eleanor Roosevelt coach Tom Green. "He basically talks to them about the positives of Penn State, and that's it."
Penn State set a precedent for recruiting success in Maryland. In 2005, Penn State got Eleanor Roosevelt's Derrick Williams, who at the time was the No. 1 recruit in the country. Now a starting wide receiver and senior captain, Williams has helped sell the Penn State program to Maryland players as well as anyone. His efforts started a recruiting pipeline.
"Derrick was a very influential player," said Sheldon Shealer, an editor of MDVarsity.com. "He turned around and started selling Penn State to some of his teammates and future college players and prospects. He became sort of the poster child for PG County athletes going to Penn State."
In 2006, the Nittany Lions had what was perceived an excellent class, signing standout Maryland recruits in McDonough's A.J. Wallace, Mount Hebron's Aaron Maybin, Suitland's Navarro Bowman, Forestville's Antonio Logan-El, Gwynn Park's Phillip Taylor and Quince Orchard's Bani Gbadyu. That class has not performed as expected. Bowman, Logan-El and Taylor are no longer with the team, and the others have not played up to their potential.
This year's crop of recruits may lack star power, but it could end up being more valuable.
"These guys aren't as highly ranked as 2006, but I think they'll work out better," said Farrell of Rivals.com. "These kids have high-character levels; they're solid kids on and off the field. I think they'll pan out better and actually hurt Maryland more."
Maryland can still have a successful recruiting class if they can land Jenkins and Austin. Getting one or both would be a huge coup for the Terps.
"You look at those two kids, they're game-changers," Lichtenfels said. "For Maryland, obviously for perception sake, if you lose the top two players in your state, that's tough. That might be a death blow. I'm not saying Maryland won't get one or both, but it'll be a battle."
It's an effort that Maryland desperately must win, recruiting analysts said. It's one thing for recruits to decide on another school, but when so much in-state talent goes to one particular rival, it can reflect poorly on a program.
"I talked to players like Stephon Morris and Derrick Thomas, and they both felt the same way I did when it came to the University of Maryland," Givens said. "None of us were really high on them, that's why we chose Penn State.
"For them to be an out-of-state school, though, and get six people from Maryland, that's kind of ridiculous."