Upon taking over a fledgling West Virginia State program a year ago, coach Jon Anderson said from the outset that one of his main priorities in beginning a turnaround was recruiting well in his own backyard.
So far, so good.
As practice heats up with the start of the season looming, six freshmen hailing from the area dot the Yellow Jackets roster, including several of the Kanawha Valley’s best prep players from a year ago.
George Washington products Jon Alexander (quarterback), Draven Riffe (running back)and Zach Malone (linebacker) are joined by Sissonville’s Nathan Miller (linebacker) and the Chapmanville duo of Brady Cox (tight end) and Tyler Brewster (offensive line), all trying to help engineer a big turnaround in Institute.
“It’s been nice playing with guys I already know, usually you come to college not knowing anybody,” Malone said.
Not only do they know each other, but local fans will know their names as well — just another advantage of local recruiting.
“We had an introduction press conference and we made a statement toward recruiting that we wanted the best and brightest from our own backyard,” Anderson said. “We feel really good about it. It was a priority for us. Their athletic achievements and ability speaks for itself. They’ve bought in and they see what we’re building here and heard and saw the vision we have.”
In Alexander, Riffe, and Malone, State is getting the bulk of what drove the Patriots to the second round of the Class AAA playoffs last season as Riffe rushed for 1,699 yards and 21 touchdowns on 215 carries and Alexander threw for 1,043 yards and 15 touchdowns and added 129 yards and three more scores on the ground.
Throw in Malone, who led GW in tackles, and Cox, who hauled in 48 passes for 746 yards and eight touchdowns for the Tigers, and it’s easy to see that Anderson’s vision is taking shape already.
“All of them have a ton of individual potential,” Anderson said. “Like any true freshman we have, they’re swimming to adapt to the speed of the college game and the college playbook. But when it clicks, I see flashes of potential in all of them.”
All of them likely had other options coming out of high school, including Malone, who was also offered by Glenville State, Concord, Fairmont State and Alderson-Broaddus. But each of them decided to stay close to home despite the program’s recent struggles, in which the Yellow Jackets have gone 6-46 over the past five years and 0-11 last year in Anderson’s first campaign.
Malone said that helping to turn around the Jackets is a goal he and his fellow freshmen are pursuing.
“It’s close to home and I like the coaching staff,” Malone said. “They’re really good guys. Coach Anderson was my recruiting coach and position coach and I respect what he’s trying to do here — I’m ready to be a part of something special.”
How special does Malone think this class can eventually be?
“I’m hoping undefeated,” Malone said.
If that goal is to be reached eventually, the first steps of that journey have to be taken now and Anderson is confident his team is doing just that.
“It’s still a progress with a team this young,” Anderson said. “In Year Two with schemes, our guys that were here last spring are building upon that, they’re more comfortable and they’re playing more naturally and not having to think of every movement. I think that’s been good, along with the full offseason — we’ve gotten stronger, faster, and developed nicely over summer and spring. I’m seeing a more explosive team and that’s something that we lacked last year, was the ability to be explosive. That’s something I’m most excited to see translated onto the field because that will produce points and big plays on defense for us.”
State opens at home against Lock Haven at 1 p.m. on Sept. 6.
Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @RPritt on Twitter.