EVERETT, Mass. -- It all started with a chance encounter.
Last month, at the Walter Camp Award dinner in New Haven, Conn., 1985 Outland Trophy winner Mike Ruth bumped into some folks from the University of Wisconsin coaching staff. The Badgers just happened to be looking for some cornerbacks to sharpen up their 2013 recruiting class.
Ruth, the Boston College legend and New England Patriots veteran, just happens to coach the defensive line at powerhouse Everett High. And the Tide just happen to be churning out Division 1-caliber defensive backs at an accelerated clip over the last half-decade, from Isaac Johnson to Manny Asprilla to brothers Jim and Rodman Noel.
At the advice of Ruth, the Badgers' new secondary coach Bill Busch took a look at the film of senior Jakarrie Washington. His first thoughts? "Wow," he recalled Wednesday by phone.
By his own merit, Washington is no slouch locally. The 5-foot-10, 170-pounder earned a spot on ESPN Boston's annual All-State Team after totaling 1,136 yards of offense and 24 touchdowns, and leading the Crimson Tide to their third straight MIAA Super Bowl title and third straight finish as a unanimous No. 1 in every major media poll. Considered one of New England's fastest players, Washington went to just two camps over the offseason, running sub-4.5 times at one-day summer camps at both UMass and Boston College.
Still, Washington had no other offers from Division 1 FBS schools before Busch picked up the phone. There were no stars next to his name, not even a profile, in ESPNU's expansive recruiting database. Nationally, he was off the grid. So when Busch reached out, Washington admitted, "I was really surprised."
But some two weeks later, on the morning of Jan. 24, Busch landed in Everett High's library after some due diligence. He offered a scholarship, to come to Madison as a cornerback. Washington accepted immediately, without hesitation.
"Me, I just never doubt myself and just did my best, I was just ready to move to the next level," Washington said. "I already knew about the Wisconsin tradition, the jump that they do at the end of the third quarter with the fans. They're a great academic school. So, knowing all that, I just committed right on the spot."
Washington faxed over his National Letter of Intent to Madison on Wednesday, and made it official in an afternoon ceremony in the same library where he got the offer two weeks ago. He was joined by his secondary-mate Jalen Felix, who signed with junior college Eastern Arizona; along with New England's top overall prospect, Notre Dame-bound offensive tackle John Montelus.
One couldn't help but notice the stark contrast. Montelus, an ornery road grader at 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds, is one of the highest-profile recruits to come out of the Bay State in recent years, drawing comparisons locally to Somerville native Gosder Cherilus of the Detroit Lions. Montelus had four offers from BCS schools before he turned 16.
Even after he picked Notre Dame over Florida last April, he still received calls from coaches wondering if he'd change his mind, from figures such as Ohio State linebackers coach Mike Vrabel.
"I got a call from Coach Vrabel a month ago, saying 'Are you sure you want to go to Notre Dame? Are you sure you don't want to take a last trip to Ohio State?'," Montelus said. "And I was like yeah, I'm all set, but if I change my mind I'll give him a call. I knew Notre Dame was the right place though."
One couldn't help but notice, too, it wasn't like this around here too long ago.
Washington's commitment to the Badgers had many taken aback nationally, and it's the latest in a line of surprise commitments locally. Late this past December, former record-setting Barnstable quarterback D.J. Crook accepted a midyear walk-on spot at Penn State after trading a few emails and film with the Nittany Lions' quarterbacks coach.
Last summer, UMass plucked Terrel Correia, a 6 -7, 275-pound tight end out of the island of Nantucket -- a remote, isolated region of the state known for its tony summer getaway status. Correia, who will move to the offensive line, told ESPNBoston.com at the time he hadn't found any interest outside of some brief contact with Boston College and "literally a 10-minute phone call" with Division 1 FCS Sacred Heart.
"A man of his size with his athleticism is very rare," UMass head coach Charley Molnar said Wednesday of Correia, who also earned ESPN Boston All-State honors last fall. "You have to go far and wide to find a dozen, or even a handful of guys like him."
Before Correia's committment, UConn plucked defensive lineman Brendan Battles-Santos out of equally remote Nauset Regional High School, tucked away in the upper tip of Cape Cod -- so remote, it is believed to be the only high school on the East Coast located inside a national park (the Cape Cod National Seashore).
Before him, Miami getting a surprise commitment from Andrew Tallman, a 6 -5, 265-pound blocking tight end who suddenly drew the eye of several high-majors after running sprint hurdles for his spring track team at Boston College High.
Heck, consider that the league Everett competes in, the Greater Boston League, currently has three alumni on NFL rosters -- yet not one of them played for the Tide, which has won the last 18 league titles. Seahawks tackle Breno Giacomini (Malden), Cowboys guard Mackenzy Bernardeau (Waltham), and the aforementioned Cherilus were mostly unheralded coming out of high school.
And so on, and so forth.
Make no mistake, there are high-profile recruits. Montelus and Xaverian's Maurice Hurst (Michigan) both held offers from more than 10 BCS schools before their commitments; the same case held true a year ago for Catholic Memorial's Armani Reeves and Cam Williams, who both signed with Ohio State. But after the top two or three prospects in Massachusetts, the talent is perceived to drop off significantly.
There was a time when it wasn't like this. During the heyday of Brockton High under the legendary Armond Colombo, the Boxers finished in the Top 25 of USA Today's national poll four times in the 1980s. Sending multiple players yearly to Division 1 was the norm, producing superstars such as Greg McMurtry, Darnell Campbell, Rudy Harris, Jay McGillis and Mark Hartsell. But it hasn't been like this in quite a while.
Long-time Everett coach John DiBiaso compares today's recruiting landscape to fishing -- if you're going, you want to go to the pond that's stocked.
"I just feel like coaches go to places like Florida or Texas, California, because there's so many Division 1 prospects that they feel like they'll get one of them," DiBiaso said. "Rather than come here, where they think there's a dozen, maybe two dozen, and have to fight over those scraps. I'm coming over here to recruit 12 kids and I might not get one of them, whereas I go down to Florida and might miss out on A, but I might get A-1 or A-2.
"They look at it like that. They're playing the odds, and the odds are they're more likely to land somebody down there, where there's more. And unfortunately, we lose out on that. There's some really good players that don't get recruited because the schools don't come through."
Montelus played in the prestigious U.S. Army All-American Bowl this past Jan. 5, in the Alamodome, the first Massachusetts player to appear in the game in four years. After tussling with the top national talent in practices for a week in Texas, Montelus feels the talent locally can compete.
"Trust me, I was down at the Army Bowl, and I was pancaking some guys in practice who were from down south," he said. "Whatever they tell you, it's overrated. If you push yourself, and you think you're better than them, you'll do great.
"This whole down south thing, this whole California thing, it's overrated. It's all talk, trust me. If you're dedicated, you'll do good anywhere you go. Kids down south can get lazy."
The Nebraska native Busch has been almost everywhere in his recruiting travels, from the isles of Western Samoa to the boroughs of New York City. But he had never visited Boston before his trip to that Everett library two weeks ago. He came away impressed.
"I know this, I sure as heck would love to come back -- I'm sure impressed," he said. "There are kids in the city that are tough as heck. I love their toughness, I love the coaches [at Everett]. They're extremely well-coached, well-disciplined, everything they do is dialed in. It's got a little bit of a workmanlike mentality type of aura to it, that's what jumps out to me."
In Washington, Busch sees a player with elite speed, but also remarkable first-step explosion and vexing ball instincts. His change of direction, his ability to accelerate quickly from a stand-still, and his natural nose for the ball impressed Busch.
"Bottom line, the encouraging thing was he's an extremely talented football player," Busch said. "The next thing was his competitive spirit is off the charts, and then his toughness ... you need all three [qualities] to be a great player, sometimes you can get away with 2 1/2 and be really good, but he had all three of those."
UMass made the jump to major Division 1 football a year ago, and with in-state recruits sharply in focus, Molnar believes the players around here are worth the time.
"I think that the talent in the Boston area as good as any major city in America," Molnar said. "When you get outside the Boston suburbs, and the population gets lighter, by sheer numbers there's not as many prospects. But I'm very impressed with the coaching in the state and the athletes that the state of Massachusetts turns out."
There's optimism that exposure to the region will continue to increase. Local legends like Richard Rodgers and Jordan Johnson have found the spotlight at Cal and BYU, respectively. UConn has risen steadily as a Big East power over the last decade with a steady dose of Bay State products such as Jordan Todman and Yawin Smallwood.
Couple that with newcomer UMass' foray in the FBS ring, and its hopes to build a walk-on tradition alongside its scholarship athletes. Add the hiring of Steve Addazio as head coach at BC, with a new staff that includes defensive coordinator Don Brown, a Spencer native who has a keen insight into the local scene from his previous stops at Northeastern, UMass and UConn.
"Ten years ago it was BC, UConn and Syracuse," DiBiaso said. "That was about it. [It was] very hard to get a guy from down south or the West Coast to come up here."
Now? DiBiaso spreads his arms to demonstrate the number of college football contacts currently in his phone. Virginia is a regular to the area, as is Maryland.
"I wish I had my phone with me, but my phone has a list of about this many college guys now," he said. "Coaches all the way from Washington State, Texas Tech, Wisconsin, all the way down to Springfield, Mt. Ida, Curry, St. [Anselm]. So, [we're] developing a rapport not only with coaches in New England now. It's starting to branch out.
"People are coming through now because they see we're producing quality kids. Not only good students, but good athletes. I think the area is under-recruited, but I can see it changing, and it's changing in a positive direction."