Devin Vandyke, who will be a senior at South County Secondary School in 2011-12, recently made a verbal commitment to accept a football scholarship from Virginia Tech. This story details the two-year recruiting process.
If you were putting a college football team together based on personality, you’d want Devin Vandyke on your squad. He’s friendly, handsome and well-spoken. Put him on the podium for an interview after a big win, and he’d have alumni scrambling for their checkbooks to send in a donation to the booster club. But everyone knows that football games can be far from friendly, so you need guys who can actually play well. And it helps that Vandyke can play.
Based on his efforts at linebacker during the 2010 season for the Stallions, and his performance at various recruiting camps last summer, he became one of the most sought-after defensive players in Virginia. While he settled on Virginia Tech in early July, he received, among others, scholarship offers from Maryland, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Kentucky, and West Virginia. By late June he had narrowed his finalists to Virginia Tech, Kentucky and Wake Forest.
As a result, he was a popular guy on the South County campus at the end of the 2011 school year. Not just with his classmates, but with college football coaches who came to Lorton to meet former coach Pete Bendorf and shake hands with Vandyke. It must have felt like the junior linebacker was running for office with all the handshakes he gave out in May.
That’s because NCAA rules prohibit extended off-campus, in-person conversations with junior recruits at that time of the year. But, ironically, it’s that time of the year when those recruits are making serious decisions about which school they might attend after high school.
“Every day or every other day,” said Vandyke, whose brother Ronny will attend Virginia Tech this year on a football scholarship, “a coach would be here to see me. They can’t talk to you, so it’s just a hand-shake. (It ranges from) the smallest schools to the biggest schools -- I saw from Temple to Michigan State.”
And while Vandyke received letters – some hand-written, some typed, some crafted to look like one-off letters and some that actually were personalized – he was also a modern football recruit in the sense that schools utilized Facebook, more than anything else, to make their interest known to Vandyke. He had hundreds of pages of direct messages from recruiters across the country saved in his account even after he had made his decision to attend Virginia Tech.
But the recruiting of Vandyke was not a no-brainer. Even though he, as his brother said, “delivers a blow each time he makes a tackle,” Devin Vandyke, at 6-1 and 200 lbs., isn’t especially big for a linebacker.
“He may not have the height and weight, but when it’s time to play football he’s ready. It was hard for coaches to pull that trigger and give him the offer. It was a little different with him than me,” Ronny Vandyke said.
Even though 6-3 Ronny was already established as a starter at safety on South County’s team in 2009, Devin was not assured a starting position as a sophomore; he was seen as a little small.
“I thought maybe it would be a little easier for me (because of Ronny), but not at all,” Vandyke said on a late-June morning just after the team’s conditioning practice had them overturning tractor tires and pulling weighted sleds. “I got out there for my sophomore year, and they told me I was on J.V. and I might be able to get Varsity special teams, if I was lucky.”
First Varsity Game
But fate intervened, and Vandyke got his shot, unfortunately for the Vandyke family, after Ronny injured his shoulder early in the year. The elder Vandyke was out for the season, so Devin was moved up to Varsity. Playing time wasn’t guaranteed even then, but another Stallion player injured his shoulder, so Vandyke finally got a chance to play in the third game of the season against Annandale.
“And I led the team in tackles, with 12” he said. While South County missed an extra point and lost to the Atoms, 7-6, “our defense was outstanding that game.”
Vandyke remembered thinking at the time that he showed the coaches he could “keep up with the big boys, hold my ground.”
While he didn’t play full-time the remainder of the season, and missed the final four games with Swine Flu, Vandyke established himself as a cornerstone of the Stallions’ defense for 11th grade and his upcoming senior year. But because of the flu, Vandyke didn’t have a lot of plays to put on a YouTube highlight tape, so he knew the summer of 2010 would be important, because he’d attend football camps on college campuses and show coaches his skills in person. The end goal was a scholarship offer, which still didn’t come.
“I did good, but I guess not good enough for them to pull the trigger,” Vandyke said. “So going into last season, I worked hard. So I had 101 tackles in 10 games and six pass break-ups, four forced fumbles, two of them for a recovery and one for a touchdown.”
Maryland Makes a Play
It was finally enough to make coaches take notice. The University of Maryland’s new head coach, Randy Edsall, was the first to make an offer.
“I was there for a junior day,” which included meeting some coaches and watching a basketball game in February, Vandyke said. “[Edsall] pulled me into his office. We talked about Maryland, he told me how much he liked my highlight tape, and he asked his coaches ‘are we allowed t offer him?’ They said, ‘yes’ and my stomach dropped like I was on a roller coaster, because I didn’t think I would be getting [an offer] anytime soon.
“That was big for me … I guess it was just eye-opening. I didn’t think I would be good enough to play at that level, but somebody else thought I was. Maryland is a BCS school, they could play in the national championship if they go undefeated.”
So that began the domino effect of schools learning about Maryland’s offer to Vandyke, and making an offer of their own. By then, Ronny had already decided on Virginia Tech, so the Hokies knew they had a good shot at getting the little brother.
“If Virginia Tech or Virginia offers, the other one does, too, especially an in-state kid,” Bendorf said. “If the kid goes on to have a great career and dominate, especially when the two schools play, you have to answer to the alumni.”
Tech Wins Postage Battle
The scholarship offers come in faster than in the past, said Bendorf, who began his head-coaching career at Oakton in 1992. He explained that as recently as 10 years ago, recruiters would visit schools and talk to coaches to find out who the prospects were. They would take their time, evaluate players, and most of the scholarship offers would come after a player had finished his last season of high school football. Now, because of how easily players and recruiters are connecting at camps and online, sophomores are getting scholarship offers, and they’re coming through Facebook instead of on expensive stationery.
But, when Vandyke opened up a briefcase in which he had been saving all his recruiting letters and dumped the paper out onto a table in the South County football office, it was clear Virginia Tech had spent the most on postage. Perhaps that made an impact on the thoughtful Vandyke.
Letters came often, from recruiting coordinators/coaches such as Jim Cavanaugh, Kevin Sherman and Bud Foster. They came from sports nutrionists who worked with the football team and academic advisers. Some letters had unique content, others were boilerplate. But the message they sent was strong: “We would love to have you in Blacksburg.”
Virginia Tech does not allow coaches to comment on recruited players who have not officially signed a letter of intent regarding their college choice. Right now, Vandyke has made a non-binding verbal commitment.
But Vandyke provided some recruiting letters to Patch.com, and the following is an excerpt from one note from Sherman, the wide receivers’ coach:
“… Just wanted to drop you a note to say that the Hokies need a dynamic linebacker like you to help us continue to win ACC championships and got to great bowl games. … We hope to see you in Blacksburg again soon. … We hope you join the Hokie Nation soon because we need you to come in and make a difference with your brother. Make it happen at Virginia Tech.”
Another letter, dated June 6, 2011, from Cavanaugh, offered Vandyke good luck in preparing for his senior season of high school football. “You will remember everything about your senior season, I promise you,” Cavanaugh wrote in cursive, adding “Make sure you tell Ronny I said hello.”
Making a Choice
Vandyke said he enjoyed the experience of visiting Kentucky and Wake Forest, and getting to know those teams and coaches. But in the end, it came down to feeling the most comfortable at Virginia Tech.
“I just felt like it was somewhere for me to feel at home. That was the big thing,” he said.
While playing with his brother will be nice, Vandyke said, Ronny didn’t have much to do with his decision.
“He almost had nothing to do with it. It helps out that he’s going to be there, but I wouldn’t say he’s the reason why. It’s definitely not the case.”
One thing Bendorf said he stressed to his top recruits, the Vandyke brothers and 2010-grad Andre Simmons who is at Vanderbilt, is that they should stick to their word after making a decision, and let each school know his choice via a phone call.
“It’s tough letting a school know you won’t be coming there, especially if you did like them,” he said. “At the same time, it’s relieving, because you’re going somewhere you’d like to go as well.
Some of them said ‘thank you for calling,’ some asked ‘why?’, some said ‘if you have second thoughts, give me a call.’ You get different reactions from different schools.”
In the end, the attention was flattering, said Vandyke. But now that he’s made his choice, he’s looking forward to focusing on his upcoming season and enjoying the rest of his summer.
“I don’t have to worry about which official visits to take or which weekend I might be gone,” he said. “Of course it would be fun, but now I can just worry about taking my team to the next level, helping them out as much as I can.”
He’s looking forward to seeing the team improve upon its 4-6 record from last year. The Stallions have some good returning players, he said, and also will have to mesh with new head coach Gerry Pannoni, after Bendorf announced he was stepping down in June to pursue an administrative job at Westfield High School.
“This is a big season for us and I feel like we can go far if we put our minds to it and put in the hard work,” Vandyke said.