By JOSH SULLIVAN
Look up and down the Wildcats roster and you’ll find a group of players who went unnoticed by big-name programs. Andy Vailas. Harold Spears. The FCS has been known to draw diamonds in the rough like Joe Flacco, Jared Allen and most notably Jerry Rice, who all were passed by before having successful NFL careers. But UNH head coach Sean McDonnell doesn’t just get lucky with guys like the No. 1 receiver in the country, R.J. Harris. According to his coaching staff, there’s a specific formula to that.
“We do our homework better than anyone else on character,” assistant coach Brian Barbato said. “You can miss on athletes here and there, but by bringing in high-character kids, you’re going to develop them the right way. You don’t have to worry about off-the-field problems and those kids have the culture of overachieving.”
Overachieving is what McDonnell’s guys do best. Harris, Spears and Vailas are all gearing up to try and sign with professional teams, something that was unfeasible coming out of high school.
“You think about overachievers and you think of [the movie] ‘Rudy,’” Barbato said. “A scout team player who works his balls off on scout team and never really gets a chance. But R.J. Harris is an overachiever. Harold Spears is an overachiever. Ricky Santos is the ultimate overachiever.”
Harris was overlooked because a lot of coaches questioned his straight-ahead speed. Programs were looking for a guy with a 4.5 and below 40-yard-dash time, and coming out of high school, that was something he lacked. Spears was a newcomer to football having grown up on the basketball court, and not a lot of programs knew about him. But when offensive coordinator went down to Pennsylvania to meet him, he was immediately drawn to him because of the way he played basketball.
“He was playing above the rim, he was talking [trash], and we saw that confidence and asked ourselves ‘alright how can we get him to be this confident on the football field,” Barbato said.
“We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into,” recruiting coordinator Michael Ferzoco said. “And we’d be lying to you if we said we did.”
Going forward, those intangibles that set Spears, Harris and Vailas apart coming into college will benefit them the same way as they try to translate their game to the professional level. No job will be too big for any one player.
“They’re going to play with a chip on their shoulder, they’ve always got something to prove,” Barbato said. “If you have a role, you need to do that as well as you can. RJ kept coming in saying ‘let me return kicks let me return kicks.’ Now he’s heading into a situation where his livelihood might be as a special teams guy, or maybe that separates him from the pack.”
“R.J. is one of the best blocking wide receivers in the country,” Ferzoco said. “A lot of superstar athletes aren’t as willing to work on that.”
Barbato attributes this work ethic to McDonnell’s coaching style. Though it might appear to the average fan that a coach is only good for Xs and Os, the best ones focus on creating a good atmosphere for the player. He even went as far as to compare McDonnell’s loyalty to the program to that of Duke basketball’s Mike Krzyzewski.
“There’s times where guys get sick and can’t get home for spring break,” he said. “Coach Mac and Jenny [McDonnell’s wife] are checking in on them the whole way.”
Ever noticed how many multi-sport athletes become key standouts for the Wildcats? Running back Jimmy Owens played football and ran track in high school. Tight end Harold Spears was going to walk-on to the Villanova basketball team had he not committed to UNH. Cornerback Casey DeAndrade was one of the best pitchers in southeastern Massachusetts his senior year of high school. Harris played basketball, Dalton Crossan and Vailas lacrosse, and the list goes on and on. That’s not an accident.
“Those are the kids that it’s worth to take the risk on, because they’ll put on weight and they won’t lose speed or explosion,” Barbato said. Barbato himself played under McDonnell for the Wildcats, playing all five offensive line positions before graduating in 2004.
“I remember when I was being recruited I was a 235-pound offensive lineman from Exeter, New Hampshire. The knock on me was ‘could I get big enough?’”
Barbato’s father is 300 pounds, and he has an uncle who he described as “gigundous”. Between the potential for size and the athleticism that came from the three-sport athlete, Coach McDonnell decided to take the risk.
Not every 6-foot-3, 300 pound prospect is worth it. Barbato said he’s driven three hours out of his way to watch a game and find out the player is actually only 5-foot-3.
“For every 10 kids you go out of your way to see, you get one or two you want to pursue,” he said.
According to Ferzoco, watching game film is the difference maker for a lot of incoming players. Just about anyone can look good on a highlight real, but game tape shows how a receiver reacts the play after he drops a key pass or misses a block.
“We can’t win every kid, but we fight for the good ones,” Barbato said. ”Yeah we’re getting a new stadium, but we aren’t bringing that up first. It’s a damn building. Don’t go to school because of a damn building. What’s your graduation rate? Do the coaches actually care about the players? Do the players care for the coaches?”
Follow Sully on Twitter at @JSully27.