Williams Field (Gilbert, Ariz.) defensive back Noa Pola-Gates, who played in two high school All-American games in January, was ready to commit to Arizona State before Nebraska coach Scott Frost made an in-home visit.
“I was headed to Arizona State after I decided not to go to Alabama,” said Pola-Gates, one of The Arizona Republic‘s eight finalists for Football Player of the Year. “But then I was challenged to step out of my comfort zone by Coach Frost.
“It really made me think deeper.”
That comfort zone was staying home and, as Pola-Gates put it, dealing with “my own personal distractions.” Pola-Gates wanted to get out of Arizona and spread his wings.
“But don’t get me wrong,” he said. “ASU is going to be a powerhouse and I’m excited for the program. They’re about to do big things.”
When he announced on CBS Sports Network on Jan. 19 during the Polynesian Bowl that he would sign with Nebraska on Wednesday, it broke the hearts of college football fans in Arizona.
He was another big-time recruit who got away.
With new coaches at the two in-state Pac-12 schools — Herm Edwards at ASU and Kevin Sumlin at Arizona — coming in last year, the struggle continues to keep the kids with the most stars from leaving the state.
There’s a history of them, dating well before the Edwards and Sumlin eras, even before the Todd Graham (ASU) and Rich Rodriguez (UA) eras, of big-time players getting away.
- Desert Vista (Phoenix) defensive end/outside linebacker Devon Kennard to USC, before starting his NFL career.
- Agua Fria (Avondale) defensive end Everson Griffen to USC, before the NFL.
- Apollo (Glendale) defensive back Prince Amukamara to Nebraska, before the NFL.
- South Mountain (Phoenix) wide receiver Kenny Cheatham to Nebraska.
- South Mountain defensive back Terry Fair to Tennessee, before the NFL.
And more recently, when Graham and Rodriguez were in charge of the major programs in Arizona:
- Desert Mountain (Scottsdale) wide receiver/tight end Marks Andrews to Oklahoma, before the NFL.
- Saguaro (Scottsdale) wide receiver Christian Kirk to Texas A&M, before the NFL.
- Centennial (Peoria) safety Zach Hoffpauir to Stanford.
- Corona del Sol (Tempe) offensive lineman Andrus Peat to Stanford, before the NFL.
Edwards and Sumlin have now had a year to recruit Arizona.
Before Wednesday’s National Signing Day, ASU and UA got many recruits on Dec. 19 during the early period. Now ASU will have four in-state recruits — Corona del Sol wide receiver Ricky Pearsall Jr., Basha (Chandler) offensive lineman Roman DeWys, Tolleson wide receiver Andre Johnson, Saguaro linebacker Connor Soelle — and UA will have two — Marana offensive lineman Jordan Morgan and Desert Vista punter Kyle Ostendorp.
The last of the state’s top-tier 2019 recruits — Chandler defensive tackle Matthew Pola-Mao and Gilbert Perry tight end Kyle Patterson — will announce their college commitments during ceremonies at their schools on Wednesday morning. Neither are expected to announce either ASU or UA.
Pac-12 California has already sewn up six Arizona players in its 2019 recruiting class They are: Desert Vista defensive lineman Brett Johnson, Higley (Gilbert) quarterback Spencer Brasch, Chandler running back DeCarlos Brooks, Liberty (Peoria) linebacker Ryan Puskas, Liberty defensive end Braxten Croteau and Perry (Gilbert) offensive lineman Brayden Rohme.
“Both (Edwards and Sumlin) have had a full year to recruit kids,” Higley coach Eddy Zubey said. “Both said they want to win the state. For having 50-plus Division I kids in the state of Arizona, and getting that few, that’s not good. They all had a full year to be here and do that. Both schools need to get on people early.”
Zubey said that his stud defensive lineman, Ty Robinson, was offered by ASU in June heading into his senior year. That was his fourth offer. Nebraska, Zubey said, offered before that.
Robinson, 6-foot-6, 285 pounds, who played in the High School All-American Bowl in San Antonio, signed on Dec. 19 with Nebraska, after he had Nebraska’s entire coaching staff, led by Frost, take an in-home visit to him on the last day college coaches could do that before the earlier signing period.
“I played at ASU and was a graduate assistant at ASU,” Zubey said. “I was with them from 2001-04. I sent kids to ASU. Their starting tackle (Quinn Bailey) is from here (Higley).
“When I’m telling people I got a guy, ASU is the first people I call. I’m not blowing smoke. I’m not trying to sell something that isn’t legit.”
It’s not all on the ASU and UA coaches not doing enough to secure those top players.
ASU has struck gold in recent years with in-state talent, from running back/receiver D.J. Foster (Saguaro) and wide receiver N’Keal Harry (Chandler) to defensive back Chase Lucas (Chandler) and kicker Brandon Ruiz (Williams Field).
But the state can’t keep them all.
Some players just want to get out of the state to see what the world is like away from family and friends.
“They’re tired of playing in 110 degrees,” Zubey said. “It takes a toll.”
Pinnacle (Phoenix) coach Dana Zupke’s last two quarterbacks (Brian Lewerke, Michigan State and Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma) signed with major colleges. He has another now, junior J.D. Johnson, who committed to Michigan, before ASU had even offered.
Ohio State got a commitment from Scottsdale Chaparral quarterback Jack Miller before his junior season last summer.
UA recently got a commitment from Gilbert junior QB Will Plummer.
“I think that there are a few reasons why recruits leave the state,” Zupke said. “First of all, most everyone in Arizona is from somewhere else, or at least has ties to somewhere else.
“I think this, along with the in-state programs not being iconic like a Notre Dame or Ohio State largely explains why. I also think there’s a sentiment from many that there’s not a big enough effort to recruit the state. I don’t know if that’s fair or not, but it is what it is.”